We interrupt your regularly-scheduled broadcast to bring you more of your regularly-scheduled broadcast, only slightly different.
I had an urgent message on VillainNet. With recent events being what they are, I was all too happy to have something suddenly require my complete attention. Shit’s just been too weird, even for me.
It was a rush from Ouroboros. The villain who’d managed to take over and run a city in the United States before the country started shooting itself still maintained his position as one of the villains who adjudicates disputes that require intervention. I am considered the ultimate intervention. If I’m getting called in, they expect someone to die. I have shown leniency before, but I know what they call on me for.
On Valentine’s Day, the civilian wife of a villain had been kidnapped. Cordial fancies himself a gentleman thief in a costume, but he’s yet to pull a heist outside of Kansas City. He’s not big time by any means. The guy can shrink anything he can hold up between his hands, which would be great for a thief. It’s just not the best power for violent confrontations. That’s part of why he came to us.
His wife is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy in regards to nuclear weapons, specializing in studying the effects of nuclear weapons on disabling countries and as existential threats to civilization. I suspect she looks at more than just “What happens if you hit all the cities with one?” I imagine you could engineer quite the crisis just by setting a couple off in the right states and allow the nuclear fallout to ruin prime farmland. It’s come up as a possible way to deal with enemies.
Speaking of enemies, the wife called her husband in the middle of being abducted and was able to tell him who had done the deed. Asset Protection International, a private security company with ridiculous yellow uniforms. It was obviously their guys she mentioned. When Cordial got home, he even found her discarded phone, left behind with photos of the yellow bellies, but also images going back two weeks of them in various locations around Kansas City. Cordial took the info to VillainNet, who uncovered even more things.
API had steadily been closing out its contracts. The yellowbellies were being seen less and less guarding celebrities, looking after valuables and compounds of the rich and famous, or working with U.S. Soldiers around the world. Then, they lost a major contract with the Department of Energy and got fined by the government. Something big went missing and nobody talked about what it was. After that, API built a plant in North Dakota and announced they were going into the ammunition business. The owner, Chris King, had himself a friggin’ castle built outside the same town and has had a small army of yellow bellies guarding it.
Ouroboros and the others are betting on nukes. Me too. This guy’s got a scheme of some sort going on and that got the judges involved. The lines between super and civilian can get blurred at times. Give a martial artist a mask and let him fight crime, you could consider him a superhero. Have your own mercenary company, build a castle in the middle of nowhere, and stock up on weapons of mass destruction? Yeah, you might just be a supervillain. And VillainNet would have been more than happy to go to town on a civilian, but it’s a different story if the conflict’s between villains. Complicating matters is that Chris King has nothing to do with VillainNet to help settle the dispute. They sent an envoy to meet with him and invite Mr. King into the fold. They lost contact with the envoy six hours before they sent me the message. At the four hour mark, he was officially overdue. Two hours prior to my involvement, they sat down to deliberate and settled on me. Fifteen minutes after I got the message, I left a note putting Qiang in charge until I get back and threw my armor on.
It was the wee hours of the morning when the Psycho Flyer flew in high over North Dakota. It was just me, the pilot, and a small squad of my guys in power armor in case I needed backup. I had a little info on what the outside of the castle looked like, but nobody had gone inside. It got turned into a villain vs. villain matter too quickly for that. It’s possible Cordial’s wife, April, isn’t even in there. But she almost certainly is. If not, someone important is, likely King himself. If I can’t find her, I can find him and convince him to turn her over to us.
The target was the castle in the middle of North Dakota. Once you slap down a castle in the middle of nowhere, subtlety is an afterthought. I opened the deployment trapdoor in the bottom of the Psycho Flyer and hopped out, parachute on my back. As heavy as my armor is these days, I had to pack one hell of a chute. When I pulled the cord, it started deploying, and it just kept on going, slowly revealing ever more of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. I don’t know if it ever really stopped before I landed and it draped over the entirety of the castle’s courtyard. Guards on the walls and down on ground level were yelling, trying to figure out what was going on. I lost the element of surprise, but I gained fond memories of guards crawling under parachute, trying to find their way to freedom.
I followed one of them into the castle proper. The thick wooden door unlocked using a blue-colored keycard. He opened it and I stepped in behind him. He realized something was up and turned on my, but I shoved his head in the door and slammed the wood against his neck until the door closed. I grabbed his keycard before I left his body jammed there in the door way, telling the corpse, “Don’t mind me cutting ahead here.”
The side rooms had a blue stripe on the card readers. One swipe opened them, and let me check. There was a reading room with paperback novels and magazines stacked up. There was a game room, with bean bag chairs, TVs, and video game consoles set up. There was a bunk room with a lot of corpses in it after I tossed in a handful of chicken grenades, which set off an alarm to inform the corpses there was danger about. And there was the dining hall, where a bunch of other corpses had overturned tables to use as barricades. The .50 cal rifle was a surprise. When he took a shot at me, I ducked beside the door and hid the cloak. I also dropped the drone hidden under my cape and strafed it just under the roof of the doorway. The .50 cal rang out again, followed by a lot of smaller bangs. The drone made it to the other side safely. I pulled out an explosive throwing knife, primed it, and tossed it into the chaos caused by the anti-tank rifle’s magazine being overheated by the drone’s laser.
The drone folded up under my cloak again and we continued on, but the bottom level looked to be low-level stuff. I didn’t find April or King in the bathrooms, though it would have made my job easier if that was the case. Even the stairs required a keycard; the entrance to the second floor had a card reader with a blue stripe on it. Instead, the doors up there had purple stripes and the blue card couldn’t open them. They didn’t even have the decency to label the rooms, possibly for security purposes. There were five rooms on the second level. I peeled off a glove and set to work. The first room I opened was a coed bathroom. The second turned out to be the maintenance closet.
The next one was an arboretum, which I thought was about as useless to me as the maintenance closet until I heard someone call out. “Who’s there?” It was a man’s voice, but I figured not a guard.
“I’m looking for April,” I called out.
“I knew it!” said a woman, who ran out of the bushes. She matched her picture, with her distinctive auburn curls hanging over the standard face humans have. Dimples, eyelashes, eyeballs. Everyone seems to like having a face. She wore a set of coveralls, though, and nobody could have liked being stuck in those ugly things. “I knew my husband would arrange a rescue.”
“Score one for the supervillain,” said a middle-aged man with a slight paunch as he followed her out.
A third person came out rolling his eyes. Taller, older, and with a prominent hook nose. “Shut up, Greg. You didn’t believe her.” They were dressed the same as April.
Oh, this is gonna be neat. “He said you didn’t know.”
She let out a quick laugh. “Of course I know. I didn’t know he had connections though. I thought he’d come for me.”
“Well, dance around naked for him, he’ll come for you all you want, but we’ll settle that after the rescue,” I told her.
“No!” said the guy with the really noticeable hook nose. I think he’s been in a few fist fights. If not fights, then one-sided beatdowns. “We have to stop King’s evil plan!”
I looked to April, “I’m only here for you, ya know.”
She shook her head. “He’s right. He has to be stopped. He’s going to kill millions.”
“I don’t care, as long as they’re not my millions,” I paused. “What kind of millions?”
Greg, the one who had been told to shut up, disobeyed orders and cleared his throat. “He’s going to activate three EMP devices in the upper atmosphere.”
April nodded, “Decades ago, the DOD tested the effect of nuclear devices in the upper atmosphere and found out they widen the area of the electromagnetic effect. He’s going to cause chaos and death. He wants people to die off from the collapse of the digital age to try and halt the spread of climate change.”
“Ok, I’m in,” I said. Something like this was going to mess things up for my people. More importantly, it would hurt me, too. “Where do we need to go?”
“The third floor,” the taller fellow said. “That’s where they’re being calibrated. I know where the stairs are, but we’ll need a keycard.”
“I got a better idea. Where’s an exterior wall?”
They pointed to the rear of the arboretum. I sent a message. The Psycho Flyer blasted a hole in that wall, and a hole in the wall higher up. I headed for the rubble. They followed, coughing their way through smoke. One of my soldiers hopped down onto our level with the cable in hand. Another slid down after him. One stood guard while the other helped the captives onto the cable.Outside, a few shots rang off the outside of the Psycho Flyer. Side guns turned to fire down on the culprit without jeopardizing the rescue.
I jumped to the next floor. It took a little angling, but I landed on a ledge outside the hole we’d made. A yellow-clad guard looked out at me. I grabbed him and tossed him off to the side, where he wouldn’t disturb the people climbing the cable.
It looked like pretty much the entire third floor was taken up by a large lab. Yellow-clad guards stood around while people in coveralls worked, either on a section of what I recognized as a missile, or on the EMPs sitting on wheeled carts off by themselves.
Two of the guards stepped forward while the others gave them space. One pulled out a sword with an edge that glowed bright yellow. The other undid his yellow top, revealing a pair of turbines through his chest. This guy had turbines instead of lungs and they spun up, blowing a computer monitor at me. I swatted it away as the guy with the sword jumped with his foot landing between turbine guy’s chest turbines. He kicked off, the turbines ramping up to blow him at me. I thought for a moment, then ducked.
Sword guy dropped his sword right in front of me, the blade dimming to look like normal metal. Sword guy himself tried to grab the wall I’d come through, but instead was blow off into the night sky, headed for the ground.
“That blows,” I said, pointing back to him with a thumb.
Turbine guy tried sucking again. I pulled out a rubber chicken, tore the head off, and let it get sucked up into the guy’s chest. It actually jammed one of the turbines briefly, before it exploded and sent everyone else running for the door. I didn’t care about them so much. I had to go ahead and completely wreck the EMPs. Since I was out of rubber chickens and the exploding knives weren’t quite going to do it, I picked one up and beat the other two into scrap metal using it.
“You aren’t going to ruin my plans!” yelled a voice over the intercom.
“Get fucked,” I told him. “You can have all the plans you want, just not ones where you hit me with EMPs.”
This guy clearly misjudged me and my intentions. “You think you’re saving the world? Humanity must be culled. And by humanity, I mean everyone not in North America or Europe. All the other parts of the world have to drastically reduce their development and population or we will suffer.”
“Imagine if you spent as much time and money on improving things in ways that don’t involve murder. I mean, I get it. The shortest distance between two points involves shoving your hand through someone’s chest. But you’re targeting my people,” I said.
“You’ll regret this, whoever you are. The whole world will regret this!” he said.
I gave the room the finger as I walked out to where the Flyer’s line dangled for me. By then, even the slowest of the captives had made it inside the aircraft, quickly followed by my soldiers. I gave one last pithy remark to the room before swinging out into the night, my part to save the planet done. “I’m Captain Planet, and the only one around here who gets to fuck Gaia is me.” I jumped out and caught the cable, holding myself there long enough to get a look at the wrecked castle and all the people struggling to find themselves out from under my parachute in the courtyard. Off in the distance, I saw a sports car, some old Aston Martin, come racing up the lone road to the castle. Someone else to investigate or mess with whatever’s going on. None of my business.
I was only here for a love story, after all. Like all good love stories, it involved a shitload of murder. Nothing warms the heart more than tearing out someone else’s.
I’d cue the spinning newspaper headlines, but a supervillain kidnapping a superhero isn’t that big of news. And who reads newspapers anymore? Ricca’s moved to an all-digital format for the news. For those who prefer a hands-on approach, a digital ghost copy serves just as well. So, aside from the heroes at the Master Academy, there weren’t really too many people giving a shit about my love life or capture of Venus.
That’s probably a condition you share with the rest of this world, dear reader. Hey, trust me, I feel stupid too. I got played, in the seat of my own power.
I held off on visiting Venus until I had answers. It’s a good reason. It has nothing to do with any confusing feelings that I might have left over which, once again, nobody wants to hear about.
Answers came thanks to Pagan. The Intel chief was enthusiastic about understanding the events of the past couple few weeks. The weak point turned out to be a foursome of spies in particular.
Pagan had the footage for me and everything. Yeah, cameras saw what happened, but nobody watches all the cameras. I can’t, that’s for sure. An AI might manage it, but I’m the last person who should be programming a brand new mind. On the day in question, Medusa visited a tailor. One of the better ones, too. The man in the playing card shirt walked along casually behind her as if he wasn’t a superhero.
Medusa went into the building. The guy did too, briefly. He came out a couple minutes later, texting away, looking like he was feeling his pulse. He must have had the same type of transceiver we removed from Venus. We gassed her one night long enough to have it extracted from her neck. It’s got the range for a city, but what made it so clever and undetectable is how it’s built. With no pressure applied, no power reaches the transceiver. The battery can only power it up to send and receive messages when someone presses on it. It keeps me from detecting it unless it’s actually in use, and they have very simple programming meant to try and keep them communicating only to one another.
Venus appeared soon afterward, as did their larger friend who resembles a minotaur. Both were being tailed by agents. Here’s where the mistake happens, and it’s a big one. The first team of spies spot the second team of spies when they’re stopped watching the heroes talk outside. After an argument, video shows the spies and the spies who are spying on the spies got into an argument. The argument turnd into a fight, spy versus spy. This attracted the attention of the heroes who beat the snot out of them, stole all their clothes except for underwear, tied them up, and tossed them in a dumpster. Then they used cable ties they happen to keep on them to tie the dumpster closed.
After that, the heroes had time to go into the tailors. When they left, Venus had taken Medusa’s place and costume. The minotaur carried out a lumpy black garment bag like you’d use to hold a costume or suit. The spies didn’t see it because, again, they were beat up, tied up, and laying in a dumpster. Unfortunately, my spies are competent enough to free themselves upon waking up from a beatdown. They untied themselves and sawed through the cable tie on the dumpster lid before they could end up added to the biochar.
Biochar is part of our waste management here. We turn a lot of our waste and food trash into this stuff called biochar. Really good for plants and stuff. The cult that grows so much of our food loves it, along with anyone else growing stuff around. We’ve got shitloads of the stuff going to Mu, and we’re trying to open up the Americna market. The only people who want the stuff over there are people obsessed with organics who keep wanting the really crappy stuff made from only wood.
The reason for the big fancy explanation is that the heroes almost accidentally arranged to turn my spies into a nutritional soil additive. It would have been better all the way around. When we didn’t hear back from the spies, Pagan would have known something was up and we might have uncovered the whole mess. Even the spies would probably be better off.
See, it wasn’t great that they let themselves get caught and beat up, or that they had their squabble between spies. The real issue is that none of them informed anybody about it. They agreed to keep it among themselves. Pagan is at least as unhappy as I am. He didn’t give me all the details, but he requested a large number of medical nanomachines. When I asked what he had in mind, he graced me with a lovely explanation,“I trained in the Japanese branch. The Yakuza know how to make amends.”
“Going to make an example of them?” I asked. “I’d very much like if they are not an issue in the future, but it’s crucial that nobody repeat their mistake. I care more about getting the job done than embarrassment. I’m more merciful toward the latter than I am the former.”
“That is completely understood, Empress. I think you would enjoy what I will do. Four rounds of bidding. The loser is the one who bids the fewest fingers. If they fail to provide all the fingers they bid, or all are provided and someone has less than the others, that person loses the round and is punished. The winner of a round gets to sit and watch. The punishment of the final round is truly final.”
“Aren’t you worried everyone will just bid all their fingers each round?” I asked.
He laughed. “I doubt everyone will manage to part with all that they bid. And if they do, it will be a memorable experience for them.”
“You’re an evil bastard,” I told him. “Keep up the great work.”
I mean, I may be slightly toned down as an Empress, but there’s really no moral way to lead a country. I have responsibilities and I don’t like it when people fuck with them.
Which leads me to my own interrogation. I sat there, across the table from Venus, glaring at her. She smiled at me. “It looks delicious,” she said.
Citra, sitting next to me, spooned an extra helping of the broccoli and mushrooms onto her noodles and turned to address Venus, “It is wonderful to have you join us for this formal dinner prepared by my wife, but I am afraid I do not know if we have met.”
“We have,” Venus said, folding up her napkin into her own lap. She’d been provided a dress for the occasion. “I was impersonating Medusa, but I helped you with the gifts. I’m known to Gecko and everyone else as Venus.”
Citra smiled wide. “You’re the hero my wife is in love with!”
So fucking glad I sent everyone else out of the palace for this confrontation right about then.
Venus looked at me, then laughed at my expression. I can only imagine what such a glare looks like with a bright red blush going on. “No, I’m not,” I said slowly.
“This is wonderful,” Citra said, taking my hand. “Are you two going to stay together?”
“We’re not together,” I told her. “She was lying to me and playing with my trust.”
Like I wasn’t even fucking there, Citra continued, “I want to thank you for your advice with the First Lady of Peru. It was the perfect gift. I think we will have a trade agreement soon.”
“What’s all this trade agreement and gift stuff?” I asked.
Citra turned to finally address me instead of the elephant in the room. “I have the Foreign Director keep me aware of the birthdays of wives of other heads of states. I send them gifts you can only get from the island. Venus helped.”
I closed my eyes and rested my head on my elbow. “Dear, you can’t go letting my nemesis handle the duties you took on you as my consort and wife.”
I heard her lean closer as she teased me. “Oh? You had no problem with her taking on those duties then.”
“Dear, I’m trying intimidate my nemesis,” I told my wife, opening my eyes to look into the foolish grin of the troll I apparently married.
“The Empress Gecko does not wear glitter on her lips to intimidate people,” she responded.
“Wrong!” I said, looking to Venus, who was getting dinner and a show. “I’ve killed people set to Celine Dion. I can wear glitter makeup if I want to!” I totally can. I can leave my friends behind. ‘Cause my friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine.
Venus coughed away from the table, and took a moment looking down to gather her thoughts. “I’m glad that worked out, Citra. Gecko, relax. You know I know you’ve had a crush on me for years, and you know I’m happy to help.”
Citra held her hands up, palms together like she’d clapped. I held up a hand, “Don’t expect any more help. Venus is the enemy.”
Citra, having gained some sort deathwish, continued her defiance of me. “Last week she was your snugglebunny, this week she’s the enemy. Next week, she will be a part of our family and you will call her snugglebunny again.”
I pointed a finger at Citra. “That’s enough.” I pointed with another hand at Venus, who was looking down into her own lap, hair falling over her face so I couldn’t see her reactions. “She’s not part of our family. She hates me. I kill people. I killed her boyfriend, twice. I annoyed her, stalked her like a creep. The only reason she hasn’t killed me is because her morals are worth more to her than my life. If I wasn’t some stupid villain for her to pity and throw in jail, she wouldn’t even look at me. I’ll never be good enough for her!” I blinked, thinking back over the last part of that and explaining, “In her eyes.”
I looked between the two women. Citra bowed her head, hiding her feelings behind the neutral expression she’d long since mastered. Venus looked down still for whatever reason. I didn’t know what she was thinking. And, fuck it, at that point I just didn’t care. Even just being here, as herself, she was kicking my ass. I stood up and stormed out, plate in hand because I was hungry and wanted something to do with my mouth right then.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far down the hall before growled and smashed the plate and its contents onto the floor. How DARE?! And then to come up and hug me from behind, to nuzzle into the hair at the back of my neck. Well, check out the ovaries on the former maid-turned-Imperial consort, daring to come up behind me and cuddle after that shit in there. After a deep breath, I took her hand and squeezed it for comfort, trying to explain. “You might think it’s cute, but it isn’t. Venus doesn’t like me at all. This is just toying with me. Tempting me with ideas like she does, because she’s happy to put up with her nightmare if it means saving someone. That’s all I am. She’s my weakness, because I love her, and I’m just another random person. I just wanted to get rid of the obsession. Great Jupiter’s sphincter piercing, woman, after what you pulled in there, I’m glad she’s probably escaped and got halfway across the island by now.”
I went ramrod straight when the woman holding me spoke, because it wasn’t Citra’s voice. “I’m not going anywhere yet, snugglebunny,” Venus said, holding me tight to her.
“Fuck you,” I responded.
“That’s no way to talk about your new partner,” she told me.
“Stop it,” I said. “Why are you saying this?”
“Because you need someone to be the angel on your shoulder,” she said.
“I should lock you back up,” I told her.
It was her turn to squeeze my hand. “I think I can get out, and you know I can beat you up. Being here, I’ve seen how much you changed.”
I scoffed, still not turning around. “You want to do this for yourself. Feel good about setting some other lost soul on the ‘right’ path.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the vacation and other benefits, but I want to do this for you. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal, but if I am, I can lift you up here with me. I couldn’t do that as Venus, but I think I can as Medusa.”
“You’re just a hero with a plan,” I said, turning around in her arms, my fingers tracing over her soft skin.
“If I wanted to run, you think I would have run to you?” she asked, gracing me with a sheepish smile. “What do you say? Medusa and Gecko, partners in crime?”
Medusa’s come a long way. I gave her a couple of daily quizzes on Venus and some of the events on this world, even if she didn’t realize it. We had a lot of time to talk. We talked over dinner, while walking, and while watching Qiang play with some friends she made. They’re having a hell of a time on the obstacle course.
I paused for a bit, just looking at Medusa. Then I put my head on her shoulder. “Hey. I wish I’d spent more of this time learning about you. I’m just… planning shit. I get caught up in things, and it feels like I’ve nothing but exposite all over your pretty little face.”
Medusa nuzzled her cheek against the top of my head. “Oh no, I love hearing how obsessed you are with Venus. It never gets old.”
I shut up and watched Qiang hang by her legs from the monkey bars, swinging back and forth. It felt nice like that. You know how hard it is for things to feel nice that don’t involve hurting someone?
It was Medusa that broke the silence between us. Plenty of non-silence with kids around, what with their bodies’ natural cocaine production keeping them active and loud. Medusa said, “It’s good that we can find peace like this.” She must have felt my body tense a little at that. “You don’t like peace?”
“It’s always only temporary,” I said.
She patted me on the cheek. “Just shut up and enjoy it.”
“Noooo,” I whined. “I can’t enjoy things. I’m too much of a bitch.”
“A little bitch or a big bitch?” Medusa asked, forcing a grin out of me.
I sighed in contentment. “The kind of bitch who hates someone for giving me hope.”
“Here we go again,” she said. “You’re sitting here with me. We’re fine. This is peace. You can have peace with me. You have to have some hope from that.”
“I guess,” I said.
“When I first came to the Master Academy, I saw people with powers and costumes. It was amazing. I thought there was no way I could measure up. I found out that they weren’t better just because they had power and saved people. A lot are messed up. I know some shitbag heroes because that’s who they are and I know some who make bad choices. Like dating a supervillain.” She took my hand.
I squeezed it back. Her skin still feels so soft, despite the layers of bulletproof nanoweave added inside her skin. More than that, I could feel the engagement ring. I had to make the whole lie look good, and I guess Medusa approves. “Then you became a villain yourself in the coup. Now, someone gets to say superheroes make a mistake if they date you. Even if you wanted to change, you couldn’t. Too much punishment over any past mistake. Can’t even get away from it by going to a whole new world.”
“You did,” was her laconic answer to our little conversation.
From there, things got significantly lighter. Turns out they have The Orville over there, too. Or she’s caught up on our version of it. It made good filler, if nothing worth going into depth about here. Nor was our night out worth going into all the detail. Especially when those details involve me looking up at the stars and trying to compare Medusa to a distant ball of flaming gas and sound smooth while doing so. My understanding of English doesn’t extend to the notion of poetry. Then again, I consistently mess up haiku, so I’m incapable of being poetic in multiple cultures.
And there was talking, about movies, podcasts, books. She heard someone claim there’s a universe where time moves backwards. I suggested we invade it to get Game Of Thrones spoilers. We could make a fortune off them, but more importantly, we’d get to see the Cleganes go at it. Despite all the early difficulty, it was easy to talk to her. And I like her.
The next day, though. Ugh.
I was having a spar with Medusa. I didn’t even plan one, but she insisted. Me, I thought we were ready. I just had to figure out where they all were. The nanites showed nobody in the housing I’d so generously dumped them in. I was frowning to myself and calling up the spies I had on them when I walked into the gym area and took a kick to the face from Medusa.
“Fucking hell,” I said, holding up a pair of hands to my face.
“Oh, I thought you’d block it!” Medusa said, grimacing.
I waved her off and tried to keep the blood from dripping too much. “It’s fine. Just let me get under the shower and get some of this loose blood out. I’ll be fine after that.”
So while I shoved my head under some water to get the nanites to close off a wound, I finally got through to the spies in a conference call. “Where the hell are the superheroes?”
“They are still present at the villa,” Intelligence Chief Pagan answered.
“Why can’t I feel any nanites in any of them?” I asked.
“That is revealing,” said another voice. “There was a temporary power outage the other night.”
“EMP,” Pagan commented.
“So they fried the nanites within themselves,” I said.
“That explains the excessive purchases of prepackaged foods and water,” said the other voice on the line.
“Venus is there, right? We have a count on every single one of them?” I asked.
“It is a large group and they stay spread out,” said the other voice.
“Empress, give me five minutes and I will confirm for you their locations,” Pagan said
“Thank you, Pagan. I’ll be expecting it.” I hung up, my nose good as new, and dried off my hair. I could use the time waiting on them to hit my girlfriend. It’d be fun!
I walked out there, giddy at the thought. Not about the hitting, not entirely. Just about the thought of Medusa as my girlfriend. She was even supposed to marry me.
“You want a free hit?” she offered as I stepped out.
I raised my hands. “Now, now, I don’t know why we might have to res-” I hit her in the ear.
She stumbled back, holding her ear. “Ah! Crap, that hurts! Ow.” She took a minute to recover from my vicious ear bashing, then got into a defensive stance.
It was close, but I ended up tossing her on her back, smiling down at her with sweat already building up. I straddled her and pinned her arms down, upper arms ready to smack her. She winked up at me. I looked down at her then, wondering at the plan I had to force this wonderful woman to try and be Venus. I shook my head, stood, and helped her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I sighed. “Just thinking how much I’d miss you if we do this. Getting second thoughts.”
“We should really sit down and talk,” she said.
I got a call earlier than expected, though. “Hold up on that. I gotta take this. Important call.” It was a direct call from my Intel guys in Empyreal City. I told them to get me on the line if they saw anyone entering or exiting the portal. I sat on the mat to take the call. They’ve sent me updates about the pace of the lab cleanup over there, and what they saw of Taskforce Manticore’s activity on this side of the portal. Some of their actions showed up in the news as the otherworldly law enforcement acted as vigilantes. Villains who tried to probe the portal grounds were particularly prone to getting an crossbow bolt in a sensitive body part.
“Empress, heroes from the Master Academy have arrived with a prisoner. They are handing over one of their own. Venus.”
I don’t know about y’all, but those words caused a series of strange reactions. Anger, for example. Rage. I detected a hint of fury as well. Cold blood and ears with a heartbeat. “What kind of manpower do you have available?” I asked.
“Eight agents with small arms and bulletproof vests. We are not an assault team. The Manticores outnumber us, and there are five hero besides.”
I closed my eyes to get a better feel for things. Satellite imaging confirmed that some sort of meeting was taking place, but I couldn’t get a good look at the person they were carrying in some sort of secured sleeping bag. I had a Dudebot in the city. I sent a notice to the Intel guys that they were going to come up at least one person short in their survey of the heroes. And I was going to want answers.
A kick leveled me just as I attempted to activate the Dudebot, coincidentally reminding me that there was someone present who had a lot to answer for. I blinked and looked up, checking to see if I needed to roll. Who I thought had been Medusa stood there, fingers pressed to her neck. “I’ll be fine.” She met my eyes as I stood, continuing. “Just go.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.
Too late? I laughed in spite of everything. “The first thing you did when I walked in was hit me.”
“I’ve been waiting to get back at you for that tattoo you gave me,” she said.
“How long?” I repeated the question. “You were the one I had enhanced, but…?” I left it hanging in the air, looking her over. She had no active nanites in her system as well. It’d… how… she’s played me magnificently. This beautiful hero I’d spent so much time with and grown comfortable with, and the whole time it was just a game.
“We captured my doppelganger when she went to get a costume,” she said. “I’m-” she stepped toward me, hands up, but stopped when I moved back away from her. “I’m sorry.”
I scrambled everyone: Security officers, Intel agents, the Riccan military. I did it while looking into her eyes. “Nothing personal, eh? Gecko’s obsessed. Gecko’s creepy. Just use it. Makes sense. Good job, Venus. Fantastic job tricking me.” I gave her a thumbs-up.
“You were going to replace me and dump me in another universe,” she said.
I laughed. “I was doing it to finally be rid of you. You think I like you living in my head rent-free?” I pointed to said noggin with a finger gun. Instead I had to watch as Medusa was carried through the portal. What made it worse was knowing I didn’t actually care about her. “You were the turning point again. I didn’t get along with Medusa until you took her place. I actually thought you cared.”
Curiously, she wasn’t in a stance. She stood there wide open. I snarled and launched myself at her, throwing a punch. She redirected it to the side with strength I gave her and shifted her body to avoid a follow-up from my lower left. I aimed my left knee at her belly. She locked her leg with mine and shifted around to stand next to me, then elbowed me in the stomach. I hopped to keep standing and grab onto her. My upper left grabbed her hair. She growled and stomped her and my legs down to the mat and ducked, pushing her back against me. She lifted me up on her shoulders. I tried to roll off when she threw herself back in my direction but I landed on my side with all of her weight on top of me.
We separated and I spun as I came up, throwing a kick at her head. Instead of waiting to get my feet under me, I used my four arms to push off and throw myself at her. I straddled her again and punched her in the face. The second punch sounded like it broke her nose. Still, she slid her legs up between my pairs of arms. She grabbed my upper arms and pulled them across one at a time, using the momentum from pulling my left across to the right side of my body to roll me over and come up on top. I tried to kick up with my legs to catch her neck but she leaned in close. I winced preemptively for the headbutt, but she stopped short. “Does this mean you’re calling off the wedding?”
“What?” I asked. As fight stopping moments go, it’s better than “Martha!” I growled up at her. “You were throwing our sparring sessions, too.”
She smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and told her, “I’m going to kill your friends.”
Her smile turned into a grimace of effort as she held me down. “I know you’re hurting right now. I’m sorry. I had to stop you. We were supposed to meet up and fight our way out together. Now they’re screaming in my ear wondering where I am. If I let you go to tell them I’m not coming, will you be cool?”
“I think we’ve established I can’t trust you,” I told her.
“Fine,” Venus said. She let go of my arms got up off me. She held her arms up, backing away. I took to my feet again and got into a stance. She pressed a finger to her neck. “Go, team. Leave me.”
I checked to see what the score was. There were heroes all over the place. This wasn’t an organized retreat. They were spread out. I saw one group near the power plant. Another had gotten close to the Institute of Science. But, wait a minute… I switched between cameras in both places. Heroes were in two places at once. As I watched, I saw a power-suited Riccan soldier grab one of them, Ball Boy. He slid a sword into the kid under his ribs. Instead of blood, playing cards fell out.
I pulled back to the room where Venus finished telling them, “No. I made a deal. I surrender and you go free.”
She looked to me. “Why?” I asked.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. Venus held her free hand out to me.
“How do you know I won’t destroy their plane out of here?” I asked.
“They aren’t taking a plane,” Venus said. “You already lost. I’m trusting that you don’t want revenge, but you have me if you do. I hurt you. I lied to you. I messed with feelings you try to hide and I truly am sorry. I owe you this.”
It’s so easy to believe her.
I reached out and… took her hand. In my head, I passed along new order: disengage. See to the wounded and any destruction caused by the conflict. Begin the disaster relief protocols. Also, Pagan’s number one priority was to debrief the people I had on the heroes and find out what went wrong. I don’t wanna have to put spies on the spies I have on my spies, but I’ll do it.
Venus squeezed my hand, which made me wonder how much she was playing me again. My thumb wandered over her hand as I tried to figure her out and came across a metal band on her ring finger. I turned her hand around. She still wore the showy, shiny engagement ring I’d first presented to Medusa.
“You’ll be held in our highest-security prison,” I told her, keeping my face calm because I was a mess of emotions at this time. I hated her. I had some very un-hate-like feelings toward her. She hurt me and deceived me in a huge way. She gave me hope. She’d defeated me, twice. If I wanted to, I could kill everyone she cares about. “I’ll make sure you’re comfortable.”
I looked back down at her hand again before adding, “We’re going to have to talk about a lot of confusing shit, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” she told me. “But today, nobody dies. I’m ending this the way that’s best for everyone and relying on your mercy.”
Ever the hero.
Venus keeps leaving me notes. Not even good ones, detailing her never-ending love for me and admiration for my ability to give her lady boners.
Why do I do that when it’s just you and I, dear reader?
Let’s just get into it.
I was on my throne, taking a holographic call from the Institute of Science with an update on a few projects. Dr. Creeper was excited to tell me that the Ferrari prototype flying car… was a dud. “They stuck alien anti-grav on it. There are four modules that replace the wheels. It vas a complete hack job of a graft. You can move it, slowly, but it fails if you attempt to travel too fast.”
“Interesting…” I murmured, calling up news about the theft. Ferrari had put out a press release about the theft by Riccan criminals. They assured their investors that despite the cyborg Empress of Ricca stealing their car for its advanced design, they would easily be able to recreate it the design. They even admitted they had more features to add and were happy to be able to create a version that fixed bugs present in the first one. Rather than tanking, Ferrari’s stock shot way the hell up. People took it as a good sign that someone known for futuristic dimension bombs and nanomachines felt he need to have Ferrari’s special car all to myself.
I had to laugh. Audacious bastards. No wonder it wasn’t already locked up inside Ferrari’s company fortress and no wonder an insider wanted to help us steal it. The car wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny on its own for very long. Their public demo showed it off a little, but now I’ve taken it. Even if I tell the world it was a shoddy melding of alien and human tech, a lot of the world distrusts me.
If I find out who it was behind that little closed email account, I’ll have to take them out for a drink and steal their bank account for not letting me in on it.
After reflecting on the whole plot, I asked Creeper. “Is anyone eager to look into alien anti-gravity tech? We may as well see what we can get out of it while we have it.”
Creeper nodded. “Gralz has expressed an interest in one of the modules. He believes he can make it vork properly with his designs.”
“That’s the guy working on the Arachnoid armor,” I said, channeling the world famous superhero Captain Obvious.
“Yes, Empress. It is serendipitous you mention that. He believes he can fit it in the Arachnoid armor.”
“Ooh. Kinky,” I said. I shifted around on my thrown so I was lounging with my legs on one arm and my back bent over the other. “A flying spider person.”
“Vhen I asked about his idea, he told me the device could be used to negate gravity for the armor. The Arachnoid armor could jump long distances, climb walls effortlessly, and cling upside down to ceilings.”
It sounded cool as morgue sex. Hmm. Extra limbs and the ability to leap? It’s almost like they’re trying to make a Psycho Spider instead. “Any other projects that’ll get in the way of?”
Creeper shook his head. “I see no reason the others can’t be studied separately.”
I gave him a thumbs-up. “Awesome. Make it so.”
He hung up and Medusa slinked out of the shadows. She knows how to work a short, tight, red dress. Or, more accurately, she knows I respond well to her in those dresses. Hell, she’s not immune to them either. She stepped up to me, high heels loud on the floor of the Directorate Building. “You look so imposing on your throne.”
I shrugged and slumped forward, playing with a portion of my hair sticking out from my headdress. “Hail to the Empress, baby.”
She walked up and leaned over to kiss me on my forehead. “Gecko, baby, are we getting rid of all those heroes camping out?”
I waved it off dismissively. “I have people slowly preparing the wedding festivities. When I think you’re ready, though, we’ll find some way to get to her specifically. Maybe I should invite her for a private sparring session? Could annoy her into a dinner… either way, it’ll work out. I assure you. The only thing left in question is whether you’ll be ready.” Truth is, I already had the perfect cover.
Medusa laid a finger where she kissed me, then walked her fingers down my face and neck to grab the collar of my dress and haul me up. “My dear, my fiance, my lovely bride to be… I have a favor I think you’ll love to grant.”
Pegging? “What would that be, my partner in crime?”
She moved to sit on my throne, but I shifted so that she sat on my lap instead. I wrapped my hands around her gently, the fingers of my lower arms digging into the material of her dress and her lovely abs. My upper hands ran along her neck and eased her head back. She was close in my arms, neck and belly exposed. “Mmm,” I told her. “You may sit on my lap, not on my throne.”
She… relaxed against me. I felt her body wiggle, cuddling back against me. I know I’m considered pretty much the world’s biggest psychopath. Plus, that little bit where I only broke her out of prison to kidnap her for her involuntary aid in dealing with my own nemesis by forcing her to pretend to be Venus. The sex, the flirting, the clothing… I figured she was trying to get on my good side. Use a relationship with me to her own benefit. That’s a really big part of so many relationships in the past, and I don’t just mean the ones involving sex.
Speaking of sex and Medusa, the way she acted in my arms suggested either some submissive stuff going on or- no, probably nothing legit as far as feelings. I need to cut that shit out. She’s not my dream Venus. Venus isn’t my dream Venus. There really is no scenario where Venus and I are anything more than a fantasy. Hell, that’s a big part of why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I toss her ass in another dimension’s prison, I don’t have to worry about these feelings or short-sighted obsession with her further.
Besides, with hindsight on my side, Medusa was just cynically using me by the way she flattered me and pressed against me. She finally spoke, “You have strong arms. It’s because you’ve had them enhanced.”
“Mhm,” I said. I even like the way she smells. Some kind of perfume I can’t describe because I lack the vocabulary to express myself with regard to smells. Ugh, there’s a bad sign: talking about how a crush smells. That’s not as bad as using discarded skin flakes to form an alter, but I won’t pretend it isn’t a step on that path.
Having lived in the United States so long, I am aware we’re approaching Valentine’s Day. The fact that I’m spending the lead-up to it pining over a woman who hates me irks me. Irks, I say!
I didn’t have time at that point to think about the woman I have varied and strange feelings for. I was too busy nuzzling and caressing someone who looks exactly like her, who proceeded to ask, “Do you think I could be given more strength as well? Is there a secret to it?”
“No,” I whispered in her ear. “It’s all a matter of the right increases to the makeup of your muscles, bones, and ligaments.”
“What about bulletproof skin?” she asked. Fuck, I’m romantically lonely. I know I have friends and all, and a wife, but there’s a difference between all of them and this kind of passion and intimacy. To feel wanted in this way. That’s why it’s important for me to remember that she’s a villain, and she’s just using me. Fantasies can be so very wonderful indeed, but not if you believe in them
I sighed and leaned back, settling my arms on my belly while she turned to look at me. “Sure. I’ll send an order to the Institute. You can head on over and they’ll get you whipped into shape.” And I did send the message over, along with an additional bit of code to absolutely be given to the nanomachines used for the surgery.
Having gotten what she wanted, she left. I should have had a cold shower or my hot wife. Instead, I headed to a club.
It was dark. The bar area was dimly lit by yellow light, but the dance floor was in more of an indigo that avoided being blue enough for embarrassment. There were glow rods, and multicolored lights shone down on occasion. Shadowed booths held tables where the only light seen came from the ends of cigarettes or from beneath heavy lampshades that gave off dark red or green.
I took control of the place as I walked in, a gold-colored mask over my face and my lower arms hidden in adaptive camo gloves that mimicked the invisibility of my armor. The music had a sort of Asian-goth vibe to it, but when that song ended, one of my choosing came on. I danced slowly by myself on the floor, eyes closed, with the voice of Nostalghia and the notes of her song “Coronation” taking up the full attention of my ears.
It wasn’t a long song, but I realized I had other senses butting in. Like feeling my nanomachines. I set up a machine at the water treatment plant to distribute nanites into the water for everyone’s health. Ricca’s one of the few places you can replace a lost limb with a dip in a swimming pool. With the exception of the disease the entire Earth has that enables special collars to neutralize superpowers, we have one of the lowest rates of disease on the planet. And I could feel those little machines still in so many people. I think I even subconsciously moved many of them away from me. It left a little opening that someone stepped into.
I opened my eyes and stopped dancing, looking at a teen in front of me whose face didn’t seem familiar. My HUD matched him to the gold-skinned hero I’d fought at Master Academy when breaking out Medusa. Just a costume, it seems.
“I know it’s you,” he said.
I held out my hand. “Care to dance?”
“No,” he said. With a flash of light that almost killed the club’s mood, his civilian clothes and normal skin were replaced with his costume that covered his skin in that gold I remembered. Frustratingly, the dark light didn’t show too well how the eyes worked, turning red like that. “What the hell?” he asked suddenly as he reached out and took my hand.
The song ended and I threw on another one as the nanites inside the hero gave me a dance partner over his objections. As someone who has been known to kill people over not being paid according to my agreement, I disliked the singer, but I had to admit “I just wanna be, wanna bewitch you in the moonlight,” to my captive partner.
“What are you doing? Stop this!” he pleaded.
I rolled my eyes. “You’re straining my hospitality. Don’t fight it. Just dance.”
He had enough control still to turn his head and look to someone. I spun us around to get a look. The guy in a Hawaiian shirt with card queens, kings, and jacks all over it looked at me, twirling a card between his fingers. Beside him stood… ha! Ball Boy. That’s right, he came along on this adventure too.
I smiled at them as everyone on the dance floor began to move around myself and the teen I had commandeered. I can be a little bit of a showoff at times. It’s not like the heroes could hurt me. Ball Boy and the other one were just as infested as this fellow, who I let run back to them when the song ended. I left control over the music to the DJ and helped myself to an upstairs VIP balcony table, musing on whether or not to have more fun with the ensorceled heroes. My mind wandered once again to Venus, though. As it did so, I reached out.
If only it was so easy to just plumb their brains with the little machines. They weren’t all back at the villas, and the nanites could only do so much to identify anyone. But they’d have to come back to rest at some point. In the end, I don’t even need an excuse to get her away from her friends. I just never bothered telling Medusa about the full capabilities of the nanites. All I really need is to find Venus and walk her right up to me for replacement.
I have already won.
Just because I have an assload of heroes on my island, eyeing my ass, doesn’t mean I’m going to play nice.
It helps that there are all kinds of celebrations going on. I try to do outreach, but I am woefully ignorant about all the holidays over here. They’re gearing up for another big celebration, and one of my Directors I kept around has been running around trying to get things ready for the Lunar New Year, which is especially a big deal among the Chinese population of Ricca. With the Year Of The Pig on the way, they’re organizing a massive parade, with some “God Of Fortune” character, dancers, pop girl groups, and dragons. Between my temporary erasure from the timeline, spending time with my family after my return, and all the kidnapping in the United States, it’s hard to keep track of it all. It’s a good thing I pay people to handle some of it for me.
It’s been a good way to keep the heroes’ attention away from me specifically, though I’m sure they’re trying to spy on me. I know, because my spies spying on them told me so, as confirmed by the spies spying on my spies. That one with all the Hawaiian shirts leads me to suspect at least some of the heroes are taking their visit as seriously as it deserves. If I aided that by quietly directing a visiting C-pop girl group to stay in that area and rehearse there, well, it’s on their end to stay vigilant. I’m not doing the heroes’ job for them.
It has been more difficult keeping Medusa away from them. I didn’t set her up in the palace with me and the rest of the family. Maybe it’s because I don’t like her. I think it’s about time I built for guests what my current home was to me: luxurious guest housing. Until then, she’s staying at a safehouse. It’s harder to keep a constant eye on her that way. That means sticking some undercover Security personnel on her. It also meant getting a call from my Security guys that they had moved in and stopped Medusa from beating the crap out of my Director of the Interior.
I was disappointed, so very disappointed, in the Director. I don’t know what he was doing recruiting dancers at a strip club. That’s his business and it’ll probably be a hell of a parade. With him, I just expected better than to get tangled up with someone who appears to be one of the world’s foremost superheroes that his Empress is apparently going to marry. Almost makes me regret how good our medical care is that he won’t even get a scar to remember that decision by.
I’m fine with the Security officers, though. They got a bonus.
But then there’s Medusa. Hungover, horny, frustratingly beautiful Medusa who can’t even beat up a couple of guys in power armor at the same time. She just refuses to be what I want her to be. I have to wonder if it’s me. Am I holding her to too high a standard? Is it somehow wrong to force someone to be their good doppelganger in violation of a lifetime of instinct? Is my obsession with Venus blinding me to the true, but different, potential of her evil double from another dimension?
Nah. The problem’s obviously not me. The problem’s never me. I should have Max up my dosage of whatever he gives me for the PTSD and the other stuff just for considering it.
When she woke up on my couch, her beautiful face drooling all over the cushion, I greeted her with some breakfast spring rolls: scrambled eggs and sausage rolled up in paper-thin lumpia wrapper and fried until light brown on both sides.
She jerked awake from her snores and pulled a pillow over her head. “Oof,” she said before I shoved a roll in her mouth. She sat up then and tried to hit me with the pillow while reaching for the breakfast roll. I pushed the pillow and her hand aside and pulled her into my lap to continue feeding her breakfast while strokin her hair.
She tried to say something around the food in her mouth. I couldn’t make it out over all the muffled noises, so instead I leaned down and whispered, “There, there. Eat up.”
She humored me for one roll before sitting up and backing away from me, then jumping up from the drool she just got on herself. I snorted. “Aren’t bodily liquids the best?”
She wiped at her pants. “What was that?”
“Drool. Don’t worry, it’s yours,” I told her.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better… gimme another of those,” she held out her hand for a roll, so I provided.
“I think you and I haven’t gotten on very well,” I told her.
She didn’t bother to swallow before answering, “You think? You have a hard-on for me, but you’re dumping me in some apartment. When you do want me around, it’s to try and teach me to be Venus. Oh, and your cops beat me up when I tried to have fun.”
Ok, so there’s a chance the problem might have something to do with me, too.
“I think I’m still getting the hang of leadership,” I told her.
She pointed her half-eaten breakfast roll at me, “I don’t want leadership.”
I leaned back and pondered. Medusa sat herself across my lap, helping herself to another roll and my attention in the process. I looked into her eyes, raising an eyebrow as she ate. “You’re too controlled,” she said at last.
I tried not to laugh hard enough for everyone on the island to hear. But, being a wise dictator, I was at least willing to hear her out. When I calmed down, and she’d finished her current roll, she leaned close, chest pressed to mine, and asked, “What would you do if you didn’t have that stick up your ass?”
A couple hours later, I was the middle spoon between Citra and Medusa and reaching over Medusa for the plate of breakfast rolls on the nightstand. Medusa turned to me with a smile. “Mmm, got anything else in mind?”
“Actually…” I said, taking a bite. “Why don’t we go steal something together?”
Citra actually helped us pick out the target. It was fun just shopping around. Targets ranged from tourist traps (such as the Great Wall of China, Maine), to the culturally and historically significant (the cuneiform tablet of the world’s oldest beer recipe), money (the Lost Bitcoin Exchange) and the technologically significant (a prototype anti-gravity car developed by Ferrari).
That last one intrigued me. The latest I or my guys know is that, outside of a few mad scientists with unreliable designs who don’t keep blueprints for fear of others replicating it, are still way behind figuring out anti-gravity. By now, there’s plenty of leftover alien technology after all the invasions, but understanding is a huge limit to recreating it. Imagine if people in the Middle Ages acquired an atomic bomb: they could probably figure out how to use it, possibly even without killing themselves, but could they ever make a new one? Did they even know how to think in order to study it? Could they safely dismantle it? Even if they understood it, what about the tools and processes needed to recreate the materials involved?
Medusa’s desire spoke to a more base one. “Fuck me, I want a flying car!”
I sent her off to a costume tailor in the city to get dressed for success while I researched how best to nab this lovely new aeromobile.
Ferrari finished a public demonstration couple of weeks ago, meaning we’d missed the most dramatic time to grab it. Amazingly, when I reached out to Intel Chief Pagan, he had some a useful message to pass on to me. Someone within Ferrari had reached out to Ricca through our Vatican City consulate offering to provide pass codes and radio frequencies to defeat security at the big demonstration, as well as an unassuming email address to contact to confirm our participation. He had no reason to believe it would interest me more than anything else, and we aren’t prioritizing “stealing cool shit” as a country, so I hadn’t been told.
Even though the demo had come and gone, I sent the address a message. “Give me a location and the car disappears.”
The recipient got back to me within the hour, pointing me to Malta International Airport, the only airport on the Isle of Malta. It surprised me, though. Fort St. Ferrari looms over the city of Birgu on the island. It serves as the fortified repository of Ferrari’s most important research, prototypes, and trade secrets. Plus, the on-site test track features some bitchin’ views for photo ops.
It was a little disappointing that we weren’t just busting in there to take it, but Medusa’s maybe not up to that just yet. I didn’t let her know. Upon her return with a garment bag, I instead swept her up into a cuddle and a kiss. “Good news,” I told her upon breaking the kiss. “No need to spend all day hunting it down. I know exactly where we strike. Plenty of time for more fun…”
She winked. “Maybe later. I’m fucking hungry.”
I guess she’d worked up an appetite. And then some gas. Despite that, she was more than happy to hang out with my daughter when Qiang got in from school. With Medusa looking just like Venus, my kid seemed to get on just fine thinking a teacher from her friend’s school had taken a liking to me.
So it was that the day of the Lunar New Year arrived, and yet we were zipping off through the sky at the inhumanly early hour of 10 AM, Riccan Standard Time. That’s the island’s name for that time zone and any others can go to hell.
The Psycho Flyer came in low and camouflaged, dropping Medusa and I off just outside the airport. We hopped the out fence easily enough and approached tight to a hangar. “They must have been letting someone have a private test,” I guessed as we waited. We’d gotten there early, but only by about ten minutes. One reliable thing about pretty much any other air travel in the world besides my Flyers is that airplanes are late all the time but never early.
We stayed there, Medusa enjoying the weather and myself enjoying Medusa’s outfit. It looked remarkably like Venus’s, but with a different grouping of colors. Instead of the white, gold, and pink of Venus, Medusa wore black, silver, and amber. Venus had swapped to a powered and armored exoskeleton in those same colors some time back, but this outfit looked like pants and a jacket with armored plates in the fabric. Venus’s mask covered her face and even her nose; Medusa’s did all that with wild swirls at the top where all three colors repeated in stripes like the warning coloration of some snakes.
Our anonymous turncoat had provided the details of the plane flying in our experimental flying car. I smiled under my armor and pulled open the door of the little plane, then turned and held out a hand for Medusa. “I’m going to need you to trust me a bit.”
Medusa looked between myself in this small prop craft and the cargo plane coming in for a landing. She hesitated long enough that I began pumping the chorus from the song Umbrella out of my suit’s speakers. With Rihanna assuring her, “Said I’ll always be your friend, took an oath that I’ma stick it out ’til the end,” Medusa blushed, smiled, and took my hand. I pulled her in, busted into the dash, and started that baby up without the key.
The target plane had landed by then, going right by us. It began to taxi around in the direction of a semi truck with a bare trailer on the back. The black horse of the Ferrari logo reared up from the door of the truck. We passed in front of it, my bottom left hand taking the wheel so the top left could give them the bird. Have I mentioned I’m petty? I feel that might have come up once or twice.
Medusa reached over and grabbed my forearm as we headed right for the plane. Seeing us, the pilot tried to turn. We headed right for that low-sitting belly, turning to meet it. Just before impact, I grabbed Medusa and put myself between her and the oncoming collision.
The propeller on our own vehicle made a pretty good attempt at stabbing me in the back, the traitorous son of a gun. Quantifying the pain is also kinda tough. There was the propeller, the engine, the wall of the cargo plane. It all blended together, but Medusa took it much better than I did.
That’s probably why she was so quick to stand up and catch her breath. My 360 display told me there were other people around, most of them down as well. A half dozen, but I still doubted Medusa’s ability. My lungs told me to slow the fuck down and pull them up out of prostate. I tried sitting up and quickly slammed myself back to the floor. My back had decided to clock out early. So, knowing I was going to hate myself, I activated the spinal transceiver meant to keep me going in the event of paralysis.
Nobody could hear me yell when I forced myself to stand, but they might have seen me free a syringe from my belt and free a glove to quickly push the nanomachines and saline into my body. I shaved a glove back on and turned to see someone in coveralls falling. Medusa stomped on the foot of a man in security business casual: trousers, dress shoes, button-up shirt, tie, and holster capable of carrying a holster. She grabbed the gun, dodged a punch, dropped the magazine, ejected the round in the chamber, and beat him in the eye with it. He raised his hands to shield his sensitive, jelly-filled light sensors and she rewarded that caution with a spinning kick that knocked him to the ground.
Another guy in coveralls jumped her from behind. She flipped him over her, then grabbed his head and put him in a hold until he passed out. If anyone else around us was capable of fighting, they didn’t bother trying. I grunted to myself with every step toward the rear of the plane. Medusa ran on ahead, either into a separate room or just around a bunch of wrecked metal caused by our unique boarding action.
I walked after. Step after step, grunt after grunt. One guy in khakis and a polo shirt grabbed a big monkey wrench. Maybe he thought he was sneaky. I turned and caught his arm in midswing. I gave him a few slams into the wall, floor, and ceiling before tugging the tool out of the other tool’s hands and jamming it into his neck. It didn’t take many turns to unscrew his head, but by then I heard the sound of a car engine cranking. I pushed myself through the pain to reach the bay proper and found Medusa behind the wheel of a sleek crimson Ferrari with a low body and four glowing rounded stands in place of wheels.
“Checkit out!” Medusa called, “It makes engine noises still!”
I hobbled over, raised the passenger door that opened up, and settled myself into the front seat. Medusa reached across and patted my arm. With a wink, she flipped a switch and the car rose into the air. Spinning the wheel brought us around to face the rear of the plane and what had once been a functional door. She pushed up on the wheel, moving the steering column forward and bursting out through the door. It dented the hood a bit, too. “That’ll buff out,” she said.
“That’s ok,” I assured her. “I like big buffs and I cannot lie. Now get us home. The only pigs I want to see are the ones in the parade celebrating the Year of the Pig.”
“Oink, oink!” she said, punching the accelerator. The car shuddered and hung in the air.
I opened a channel to the Psycho Flyer. “Hey guys? We need a tow. I think I know why they needed the plane.” I pulled my helmet off then and freed my hair. In front of us, the Psycho Flyer decloaked and began to ease back around us. “Just one thing left to steal.”
She turned toward me. “What’s that?”
For all my teasing, I didn’t think Venus would show. I know, I know, I’m trying to piss her off. Anyone can see it, and she’s used to it. As much as I insult her intelligence for keeping me alive, she really isn’t so brainless. Medusa didn’t consider it. I think, like me, she’s been too willing to take their honor and principal for idiocy. Medusa’s a disappointment like that. And Venus might have outdone her.
I was playing with Qiang in her new playset that’s totally not an obstacle course and starter lair. She might someday realize she can use it as such, but it’s a fun thing for her to enjoy until then. I should really just let her be a kid and let me be a parent, but I don’t think I know how. I got a call in, which almost caused me to drop the water guns I was shooting at my girl while I crossed the monkey bars. Extra arms means extra awesome, but being Empress means I gotta hang in there sometimes.
“This Empress Gecko,” I said.
“This is the Customs Authority, Empress. We have an unusual arrival we felt we should alert you about?”
“If I tell you I’m spending time with my daughter, does it become any less urgent?” I asked.
“Your new fiance just arrived with a lot of superheroes,” said the voice on the other side of the line.
I instantly tapped into the cameras around the airport. They were all standing around the tarmac, a group of twenty or so teen or adult supers.
“Empress, would you like us to deny entry to the superheroes?” asked the Customs Authoritarian on the other end of the line.
“No… they can come through, but there’ll have to be a thorough inspection before they enter,” I smiled, thinking of some of our protocols.
“Going through every piece of luggage?” asked the Customs agent.
“Full body scans?”
“Tearing up their plane looking for smuggled contraband.”
After a moment, he whispered the final part with his own glee at the thought of enacting this protocol. “Cavity searches?”
I was going to confirm the order, but I heard a scuffle on the other side, then Venus grabbed the phone. “You are not going to stick any gloves inside any of our bodies, Gecko!”
“Relax, Boopsie. I was going to have other people do that for me. I don’t know what you could be bringing to my little island. You know how violent you heroes get, constantly blowing stuff up and fighting people in the streets.”
“We fight crime,” she said.
“You’re on my island now. I decide what’s crime. But I’m still checking the luggage and the plane. If you remember, I’ve already had one group sneak a deadly infection and power dampening collars onto this island. Collars like I know you yourself now have. Unless you seek to have the full force of the Ricca’s law enforcement used against you, you will comply.”
“Fine, but only if you agree not to steal our stuff,” she said.
I scoffed over the phone. “First you show up unannounced, now you demand VIP treatment without even bribing us? So inconsiderate. I can hardly believe I’m going to marry you.”
I hung up on her, but kept an eye out, bringing up some of the Security guys. They already had pretty good armor in their uniforms, but I had them assemble in riot gear. That included grenade launchers and the “thunder tower” spikes. Cool shit. Stand them up on the ground and they form an electrical arc between them to cut people off from going a certain direction. Some of the crowd control grenades do something similar for a second in a smaller area. That’s less about containment and more about stunning folks. My favorite part is the shield. It’s normally attached to the rear of the torso armor, but can be deployed with a release that swings it overhead on the end of an arm. The Security people retain full use of their hands and get a shield rated for small arms fire short of anything that can crack a safe.
My power-armored infantry were on standby in case they were needed. The heroes better hope it doesn’t come down to that.
After making those arrangements, I hugged Qiang and told her I needed to go see to some more business involving her old school. She hopped up and down. “I wanna come! Is it Kayla? I wanna see Kayla again.”
“No, sweetie, Kayla’s not with them. She’s probably back in Empyreal City.”
She calmed down then, her face falling. “Oh.”
“Still want to come with me, or do you want to play on your own?” I asked.
“I think I want to paint,” she said.
I patted her on the head. “Paint away then, dearheart. I’ll tell them you said ‘hi’.” She blew me a kiss as she ran into the palace. I dislike her affinity for the heroes, but at least I know she’s capable of stealing hearts.
I didn’t bother with armor and the outfit I was in was a more functional form of regal dress with some sturdy leggings, so perfectly suited to keep anyone from catching a peek when I jumped on one of the personal use rockets outside the palace. It shot me through the air, hair and sleeves streaming behind me. Minutes later, I stepped into the airport with my Security officers flanking me.
Venus and her bunch didn’t look amused. She tapped her foot, arms akimbo. “You’re late.”
“I took a rocket here, how can I be late?” I asked, shaking my hair out.
“We saw. You took too long after landing it. What do you have planned?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “You always assume the worst about me. If you must know what took so long, I was parallel parking.” I paid no mind to the shaking helmets of some of the Security personnel on either side of me as they tried not to laugh.
“A rocket?” asked a guy in a Hawaiian shirt with playing card designs on it and a lei around his neck. My HUD reminded me he was called Wildcard.
Smiling, I dangled a key fob in one hand and raised it while pressing a button. My guys lost it at the beep from the parking lot, and even some of the heroes joined in. The tension was just gone at that point.
“Why are you here?” I asked Venus.
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re getting married to my double. Don’t I get an invitation?”
“As if this involves you?” I asked. “And twenty of your closest friends.”
“What better way to show we’re no threat than to house the wedding party?” she asked. “Come on, I enjoy a good wedding. I missed your first one, and no way am I going to let you marry my evil twin sister without keeping an eye on her.”
Lady boner activated. The image of Venus watching me and her evil twin sister wasn’t the reason why, though it followed closely on the heels.
“Fine,” I said, pointing at her. “I’ll tell you exactly where you can stick these masked crusaders!”
A half hour later, I walked into the middle of the housing division used by the supervillains when we met and established VillainNet. They remained temporary housing for villains passing through or waiting out heat, but most were empty. “Here. Here’s where you can stick them.”
Venus and the others looked around, not really objecting. “You surprise me still,” she said. “I thought you were going to show us to the resident proctologist.”
“As careful as I am, I’d never pull a plan like that out of my ass,” I responded. I turned to her in particular as all her friends spread out. “I could kick y’all out at any time, you know.”
She smiled. “Yeah, but then you’d be publicly expelling your fiance and her friends from the island. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I’m guessing that’s not what you want to get out.” She winked. “I know better than to think your weird stalker harassment doesn’t happen on its own. You’re up to something that you’re using me to cover for. To answer your question back at the airport, that’s why this involves me.”
Clever woman. She’s right that I’m up to something and that it involves her. I wonder if she knows how much it involves her, because that could better explain why she pulled this stunt. “I prefer not to think of myself as your harassing stalker,” I said, feigning that I was wounded.
“You can prefer whatever you want,” Venus said, the tone of her voice making a lie out of the smile on her face. “Mind if I have a word with my doppelganger?”
I patted her on the head. “She’s busy, I’m afraid. Spa day and beauty treatments. Have to get ready for the big day.”
“Right. I’ll be here then, with all my friends who know exactly where I am at all times,” she said, walking off to join the others in picking out a house.
I, on the other three hands, headed over to the Institute of Science and double parked my rocket. I skipped in, humming to myself, finding the turn of events interesting and advantageous. I was still skipping when the doctors showed me to Medusa’s recovery room where she was testing out her new form.
I bounded in the door. “Guess what?!”
Medusa was starring down at her six pack. “Oh my god, my abs!”
“That’s not what,” I said. “I thought you’d be more interested in the powers, anyway.”
“I am, they’re awesome, but have you seen my fucking abs?” she pointed down to them. In addition to treatment to transform her into a homo machina the same as Venus has been made, the doctors used the nanomachines to get rid of revealing scars and to bring Medusa’s fat and musculature to match with Venus. “What’s your good news?” she asked.
“We don’t have to plan an actual wedding for one thing,” I said. Which was great. Citra’s been a bit cold about that lately. I guess that’s how you describe it when your wife finds out you pretended to ask another woman to marry you so she comes back from college to slap you upside the face. On the plus side, she’s enjoying her economics course and is thinking of trying out for the debate team.
“Good,” Medusa said, about the scrapped wedding instead of my wife troubles. She dropped her shirt and picked up a cell phone, letting her newfound abilities merge her nervous system with it. The screen flashed as she tried messing around with it.
“Yeah,” I followed up with. “Because Venus and a shitload of heroes are here to attend it.”
Medusa frowned and tried to set the phone down. She waved her hand a bit to get it free. “That sounds like we have to fake it for them, doesn’t it?”
I took her hand and tugged gently, easing the phone away from Medusa without hurting her. “No. We just have to swap you and Venus while she’s here. We toss her in a Flyer, drop her off with your Taskforce Manticore buddies, and find some excuse for you and the other heroes to leave the island. This way, we don’t have to hunt her down for the switch while tricking people into thinking your here.”
She nodded. “Fine, whatever. Just as long as the one who reads minds isn’t here.”
I thought back to it. “Huh, yeah it is odd Psychsaur wasn’t here, but that doesn’t matter now.” I poked Medusa in the head. She squinted and pushed my finger away. “Your new powers make you tougher to read that way,” I explained.
She walked up to me, wrapping her arms around my neck. “Show me what I can do, sugarmomma. I feel great. Come on, let’s go tear something up together.”
Sploo- aww who am I kidding? She’s still no Venus.
Medusa hit the mat with a grunt that betrayed the pain I’d inflicted on her. Worthless, at least as is. Pathetic, even. I didn’t say as much. Instead, I stared down at her and rocked back and forth on my bare feet, swinging my arms. I didn’t feel the need to put my feelings on her performance into words.
She stood back up, hand on her lower back. She nodded. “You cheated.”
I cocked my head to the side. “How so?”
“You hit me with a coffee mug,” she said, pointing down to shattered pieces on the mat.
I looked down, then back up at her. “Yeah, guess that makes sense.”
“That’s how you’re going to play it?” she asked, walking over to the side of the mat. Those tight workout clothes looked good on her, but I couldn’t see her as Venus anymore. The hair’s a little different, she has a little more fat on her, and there are some sexy scars on that skin. But she fights nothing like Venus and she’s not keeping up with me. It’s a little odd. Like someone’s pretending to be someone I know well and I’m getting hit with the uncanny valley just watching her do things like chug a bit of water.
She turned and spat it in my face while I thinking. Better. I wiped the water away in time to catch a foot to the rear of my left knee that sent me down. She grabbed my head and yanked my head back into something that clocked me pretty hard. She tried to do it again, but I grabbed her hand and lurched forward, throwing her overhead and slamming her to the mat in front of me. I rolled and grabbed her leg. She kicked me in the face, but that didn’t matter so much when I threw her by her leg at the padded wall. She crumpled in a groaning mess at the base of the wall and didn’t rush to come at me anymore.
“It’ll be fine in a bit. Let that water work on you. How about we call this one for now?” I asked.
She nodded and took her time. I helped her up and over to her water bottle. Good, fresh Riccan water. She doesn’t know that means my little robotic friends are helping her out. So I sat with her, glancing around.
The Directorate had various extra rooms added to their building that hadn’t quite been filled in. There are some things you can put in with a purpose-built gym that helps, but I figured this would be good for personal sparring and anything like that. I have plenty to teach Qiang still, and it can’t hurt for her to take lessons from instructors in there. I’m not an expert in everything. I’ll even set her up with marksmanship training eventually.
“There’s a shower attached to this if you’d prefer, otherwise I thought we might get something to eat,” I offered.
“I saw it when I came in, thanks,” she said with that petty, condescending tone. She scoffed when I joined her but did nothing to stop me getting a shower beyond asking, “I’m surprised you need a shower after not breaking a sweat.”
“I’m learning about you. I have plans for you,” I told her.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to be a part of whatever you’re planning. I got things I would rather do instead.”
I considered that as I washed my hair. I like having my whims followed, my actions feared, my capacity for violence respected. I hold no authority over Medusa in her eyes by simple virtue of her still not entirely understanding who she’s dealing with and not liking it. I suppose it’s not surprising. Kidnapping someone and forcing them to do my bidding is a concept that goes over badly with most people.
“What do you want?” I asked. I shivered at the way this almost-Venus looked me over, but this didn’t turn into the hottest new video on PornHub.
She crossed her arms. “I want to stay out of jail and live free. I want cash, fast cars, and men. I don’t want to be a pawn in what you’re planning. You didn’t break me out to be your sparring partner.”
I gave her a thin smile. “True. We’ll discuss it more over lunch. I’m interested in learning more about your situation and filling you in on my hopes and dreams.”
“I don’t listen to anyone’s dreams unless I’m fucking them,” she said. She grinned, then shrugged her head. “I am hungry. Anyone here do good General Tso’s chicken?”
We ate at a nicer, two-story restaurant that uses the second floor as a VIP section, with balconies for more intimacy in dining. It used to be a favorite of the Riccan military and was slowly becoming one again as more ships were being commissioned or recommissioned. Some of those who went pirate after the fall of Ricca had felt a sudden upsurge in loyalty for various reasons. Other ships had been scuttled by captains who suffered from an excess of loyalty toward their old Emperor. The Deep Ones had done a magnificent job helping raise those. So we had passed a collection of petty officers on our way to the second story, each pettier than the last. I could have taken the private VIP entrance, but I like to be seen out and about on the island. It helps remind people that things have changed.
Medusa found something she figured she could eat while I enjoyed some duck with some delicious chiles. My tolerance for peppers had increased rapidly being in a place where they were a more widespread part of the cuisine. It was hard to spot someone eating from the street right outside the restaurant, but I still got a view that let me glimpse kids running around a small courtyard a street over, playing soccer.
“This world is so weird. I’ve read the news and so much of this place is in chaos and civil war, like a dark version of my world” she said, interrupting the sounds of our eating. “On my world, Ricca is a terrible place. They help villains out, but you wouldn’t want to visit. Rumor is they kidnap supers and sell them as slaves to petty dictators. My friend, Moonraker, says they sell women to North Korea for their eugenics program. The Kims want superpowered kids.” She shuddered.
“No Kims here anymore,” I waved a hand off into the air regardless of if I was facing the Korean peninsula. “The previous Emperor got a bit greedy. No eugenics program here and I’m not a fan of slavery.”
“You have something you want me to do for you, though,” She said, maneuvering a piece of chicken into her mouth with chopsticks as she finished speaking.
I nodded. “I want you to take Venus’s place. That’s this Earth’s version of you.”
Medusa swallowed her chicken and spoke. “You should have done it when we were over there. Toss her in my cell.”
“Didn’t fit with what I wanted to do,” I said. I paused for a sip of my drink. “Didn’t know if you were willing. Didn’t know if you were able. You aren’t.”
“I don’t want to do it anyway,” she said. We spent a minute not talking as we continued eating until she broke the silence again. “What do you mean I’m not able?”
I smiled over at her. “The thing that set Venus apart at first was her ability to match me. We’ve traded wins and losses. We’ve pushed each other. You just aren’t there.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t kill you,” Medusa said.
“Ha!” I said. “I very nearly drove her to it, but the heroes kept to the code that time.”
“Code?” Medusa asked.
“Not officially, as far as I know. Just my phrasing this time for them not killing villains. There’s the occasional slip-up or accident. If Venus wanted me dead, I’d be dead. Other way around, too.”
“The heroes don’t kill people here?” Medusa asked. “Fucking score!” she pumped her arm.
“Yeah, most supers don’t try to kill each other here. The exceptions tend to be a pretty big deal. Like me. World’s best assassin, and I can kill with a smile.” I smiled at her for emphasis. She laughed at that.
After she calmed down and had some more to drink, she shook her head. “My luck. So, this world’s Medusa, was she raised by that god awful Master Academy, too?”
“She still works for them. You were at one of their campuses.” Off in my head, I received a new update from the U.S. Branch of the Intelligence Service informing me they had released some Treasury agents from our service in exchange for plates, ink, and access to material. I’m surprised they hadn’t been using our nanites for counterfeiting, but I guess we stretched how much we used the things enough as-is. Still, now we have a press of our own that can print off reams of one of the most widely-circulated currencies on Earth. It’ll help street-level operations quite a bit.
Medusa’s laughter was winding down as I finished everything. She wiped the tears from her eyes with her napkin and explained. “Of all the differences where everything seems to be flipped around completely, Oligarch’s still a good guy trying to get everyone to play nice. And he succeeded with a bunch of heroes who don’t kill.”
I shook my head and explained. “It’s a general thing not to kill. Heroes don’t do it, villains don’t do it because that risks the heroes doing it. And Oligarch’s a supervillain. Or he was. He’s dead now. Over here, the Master Academy’s run by a guy called Mender.”
Medusa beamed with pride as she told me, “On my Earth, Oligarch tried to take in troubled, superpowered youths to help us become the masters of our own destinies. Victor Mender knew an opportunity when he saw it. He crippled Oligarch and took control with a loyal coterie of students. Master Academy became about teaching us to be the masters over the limitations of humanity…” She looked down at her own hand. “I was an orphan Oligarch showed mercy to and I killed his best student in the coup. The world knew us as a private school for orphans and troubled teens. The underworld knew us as their training academy, until someone helped Oligarch escape his room. The government unleashed Taskforce Manticore and scattered us.”
I pondered her story. “You know anyone who uses guns to shoot crossbow bolts?”
She turned toward me. “You have your own version of Taskforce Manticore?”
I shook my head. “Nope. I ran across some of them looking for you and the others.” She sat up, but I gestured for her to stay seated. “Don’t worry. They were off in Empyreal City, by the portal. They’re the only reason I knew you existed to look into freeing you. And they’re why I think you and I can work together. Because they’re looking for a bunch of y’all, including you. And my nemesis is a person who looks like you.”
At least she has Venus’s intellect. Her eyes lit up with understanding. “Yeah. You deliver her to them and get them off my back. I love it. Why didn’t you do it already?”
“Master Academy would rescue her, even if they had to go through the portal and kick a lot of ass. I need them fooled, too.”
“They care that much?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yep… Venus would do it for them. So we need to replace her, too. But if you don’t like the idea of your double being hauled off in your place while you gloat and take over her identity, I guess that’s up to you. You’re not nearly as good a fighter as her anyway…” That’s called bait, dear readers.
And she took it. “I’ll do it, but now that she knows you have me, do you think she’ll come after me herself? A smart hero would try to avoid the mix-up.”
“True, but there are ways to make a smart hero act significantly less smart. Lets get your hair dyed and I’ll show you how.”
The pictures hit the newspapers a couple days later. Myself and Medusa, now without highlights in her hair, photographed together doing a things like dancing, cuddling, and laughing. The front page shot was me on one knee in front of her with a box in one hand. Headline: “Venus says yes!”
As I was looking up some information to better answer a question from reader Laz in the comments section of Malicious Mercy 1, I realized we hit an anniversary. I don’t really do things for those all special, so I’m afraid I don’t have any kind of bonus or surprise reveal or anything.
But the first post of the story was on January 27th, 2013, six years ago today. Six years of uninterrupted Gecko shenanigans, twice a week, clocking in more than a million words. No hiatuses, no missed updates, but a little bit of generous leeway from readers putting up with some that have been late by a few hours at most.
Now if only I could make myself advertise or monetize, we might be able to afford the Psycho Gecko Memorial Pyramid someday. Can’t be that expensive to buy land in the Valley Of The Kings, but I bet they have a hell of a Homeowner’s Association.
Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with me and helping me improve so much.
“What exactly am I looking at here?” I asked, because it looked… let’s go with interesting.
“What does it look like to you?” asked the scientist, Dr. Gralz. He stood next to a holographic display that showed what seemed to be a powered exoskeleton in the shape of a spider’s body but headless. It had a human next to it for scale and if the person was scrunched up in a ball, they wouldn’t entirely fit inside the front section of the spider. However, the rear section was smaller than that. In theory, it could scrunch into most places that could accommodate tall people.
“Is it a drone or some form of automaton?” I asked. I leaned back on my throne and accepted a Bloody Maria. Think Bloody Mary, but with tequila and peppers.
Gralz reached up and dragged the human model on top of the mechanical spider. The holographic human’s legs came up like he sat in a chair, then slid into a space on the top, fitting close into it. “We have many areas of research we are looking into. This grew out of an idea. We wanted to find and harness the abilities of magically-sensitive individuals. Why not give them extra spells, extra hands, extra equipment to traverse the world in ways baseline humans can’t? Unfortunately, the size of the unit requires the controller have your homo machina abilities and that precludes magical abilities.”
“So damn glad people actually read the stuff I put in the databases,” I said.
“I won’t push homo sapiens beyond their limits by refusing to do the reading,” Dr. Gralz said.
“That looks a bit tight,” I said, nodding to the person fitting into the top of the exoskeleton.
The doctor pushed a button on his wristband and the image of the human appeared separate again. The display zoomed in on the human and textboxes appeared discussing amputation of limbs at the elbows and knees. “I have an idea on that.”
It wasn’t a bad one in this age of medical miracles and cybernetic excitement. “Is it just a variation on power armor?”
Dr. Gralz shook his head. “I believe that a significant alteration of form will open arachnoid soldiers to radically new tactics and strategies. Function follows form. Evolution often provides structures that the organism finds new uses for beyond what other animals could conceive on their own. We can imagine.” He pounded his fist into one hand. “Arachnoid soldiers swarming from every direction. Pulling enemies into trapdoors. Fighting multiple enemies with the aid of extra eyes and arms. This isn’t power armor that reinforces the human form and tactics. This is power armor to expand humanity’s fighting capability beyond two arms, two legs, and two eyes.”
He certainly has ambition. Whether he’s good for any more than that is something to be determined. “Ok. Proceed, but volunteers only. It’s better for morale and for your lives if you don’t hand the experimental new power armor exoskeleton over to someone unwilling to be hurt like this. In fact, check with the hospitals. See if anyone’s had injuries to aid the process but hasn’t yet been healed. If this is a clear advantage, I’d also like to see if we get more than just the one version. Ricca has enough one-off, animal-themed supers.”
He smiled and nodded until I then asked if they’d considered purely biological alterations like more limbs of flesh. He grimaced. “Nobody involved in the project liked the idea of human-arachnid hybrids. The projections were… hideous. We have prospective volunteers already and that is a nonstarter.”
I shrugged. “I guess. Plus, a bit easier to make cybernetic limbs look lifelike than hide a second pair of arms.” I folded my lower pair across my belly, then smiled at a notification on my HUD. My infiltrator had been dropped off in Empyreal City. “I’ll give you a call about it later. I like where this is headed, but I’m afraid I have an important call I have to take.”
I really was interested in it. I don’t like the spider design, but it’s a step in the direction I hope to accomplish. I had posters made for government buildings and everything. One half has a stereotypical figure in a ski mask and striped shirt holding a lollipop next to a baby carriage with the words “Why be evil…” overhead. The other half has the same masked person turned giant and attacking an orphanage using a giant lollipop to bash the roof in. It asks, “…When you can be really fucking evil?”
I like to think it’s a statement on society’s complacency and lack of creativity. In the context of society, I feel it highlights absurdism over nihilism. Where nihilism may embrace wasting away and going through the motion, the absurdist outlook is that the meaninglessness of life provides you an opportunity to make your own meaning and destroy an orphanage if need be.
I used my imagination as well and had built a new model of Dudebot specifically for infiltration of the Master Academy. Customs agents looked the other way and I got it shipped no problem to one of the fronts used to keep an eye on Master Academy. I didn’t even wait for the agents inside to open the box. I activated the newer, smaller Dudebot and punched my way out.
“It’s a kid!” one of the agents yelled.
“That’s Empress kid,” I said through the Dudebot’s face. I’d taken a good look before I ever sent it off. I tried to make this kid look as generic and plain as possible. It was a robot in the form of a 9 year old boy.
“Do you need help getting in, Empress?” asked one of the agents.
I shook the Little Dudester’s head. “I think I’ll be fine blending in. Do you have those clothes I requested?”
The agents bowed and handed me a bag.
“And the extraction team?” I asked.
“Ready,” answered the more senior agent. “May fortune favor you.”
If this went well enough to stay quiet, I’d walk right out of there with Medusa. If we had to make a hot exit, I have a Psycho Flyer deployed with a few soldiers ready to lay down cover fire and haul me out of there.
At least as far as infiltration, fortune did favor me, giving me no problems walking onto campus as the sky turned to dusk. I skidded on an icy walkway toward a scorched main door, but nobody seemed to recognize me as a stranger. Probably more on the lookout for adult strangers instead. I guess they had a fight here recently. The vague smokey smell in the foyer backed that up.
Man, I really need to stop coming here. Of all the places in the world I could be committing crimes, I keep going here. Is it sad yet? It feels sad.
From personal experience, I knew exactly how to find my way to the door to the prison hidden under Master Academy’s warm wooden furnishings. The extend-o-matic legs on the Lil Dudester lifted me up high enough to check the panel on the wall. Handprint recognition, retinal scan, and a microphone. I raised the pointer finger of the Lil Dudester. The eyes on the Duderino Jr. went cross-eyed as I targeted opposite sides of the panel and walked eye lasers along until I’d opened it up. The 360-degree cameras didn’t show anybody the wiser, and the little bit of smoke didn’t trigger any fire alarms.
I began playing around and popped out a cable from my robotic infiltrator’s wrist to plug into a circuit board and begin a little persuasion. It was the best I could do without the abilities of my real body, but I managed to fool it into resetting. The door next to me unlocked with a click and I opened up the sneaky tin can’s mouth to spit a bit of glue onto it. I thought it’d be a good surprise if I was caught and cornered, just hock an adhesive loogie into their face. But the setback of the microphone forced me to improvise. If they were smart enough to set up voice recognition, they should have been smart enough to add personalized passcodes. Mimicking handprints, fingerprints, eyeprints, and voiceprints are much easier than trying to recall some special word or phrase for a person. But all security can be broken or bypassed in some way, which is why security is more of a continuous process.
It wouldn’t take much to give away the tampering with the panel, which screws up some of what I wanted to do. I rushed down, checking out some of the other changes they’d made. It had been much more Spartan in my time down here, but they’d added milquetoast paintings on the wall like a doctor’s office. There was one next to each doorway, in fact. Curious, I stepped up beside one examined it. Ah, a digital display. I tapped on it and the painting was replaced by a screen showing the interior of the cell on one side and touch screen buttons on the other like “open/close,” “lights,” “intercom,” “temperature,” “humidity,” “fire,” “medical,” and ‘sedation.”
That cell held one of the others from the cards, a lowly four of clubs wrapped in black gauze like a ninja-mummy. Neat idea, might have to use that as an alias. King Hotep Hazashi. Tutankamehameha. Wait, that second one’s Polynesian.
Moving on, I kept checking, even running across some domestic villains being held in this unaccountable prison. They had the power collars on. Great. Master Academy went from helping me hunt down the people responsible for infecting everyone with a way to shut off our powers, to using the collars that make it happen.
I really oughta come back here and give them a break sometime, but this trip had a specific goal in mind. Finally, I found her. Medusa didn’t have a collar to get in the way of the push-ups she was in the middle of when I hit the intercom button. “Hey there. Ready to get out of this joint?”
“Stop messing with me, fascist,” she responded.
I snorted. “That’s offensive. I’ll have you know I run a representative democracy. As the Empress, I get the sole deciding vote. It’s a really efficient system. The trains run on time.”
And the elevated tracks serve as beautiful hanging gardens. Some people who live near near them even use them to grow supplemental food somehow. They’re doing amazing things with hydroponics these days.
“Who are you?” she asked, looking at the door.
“I am the terror that wedgies people in the night. I am Gecko. I run a country that doesn’t hand over criminals and if you want out of here, we’d better get going now.”
I went ahead and opened the door for her. When she poked her head out, all she saw was a kid standing alone in a corridor with a smile on his face. I held out the Lil Dude’s hand “Come play with me.”
“Fuck that shit!” she said and ran out, punching me it in the face. She pulled her hand back, cussing. “What the hell?”
“I’m working through a robotic body, dear Medusa. If you’re quite done wasting time, I have a change of clothes here.”
She wasn’t so shy about tossing the simple uniform they’d given her and getting redressed right in front of me, showing off a body not quite as fit as Venus’s but close enough to fool people. Hopefully they won’t think much of the highlights in her hair.
“These are a perfect fit,” she said. “What are you, Good Medusa’s stalker?”
“She’s called Venus here.” Medusa laughed at that. I shrugged the robot’s shoulders. “I know, marketin decision or something. Come have the new Venus action figure with karate chop action and ridable dinosaur.”
“Does she have a dinosaur?” Medusa asked.
She looked like she was fully dressed, so I started moving back along the corridor we came from. “Not really hers, but there’s Thesaurus and Veloci-raptor. And Veloci-raptor’s evil cybernetic nemesis, VelocityRaptor, but he’s not a dinsoaur. And even if he beats Veloci-raptor, he’ll never quite be free of him, carrying his rivalry forever in his name.”
He’s in the middle of another attempt on Veloci-raptor’s life, too. He got permission to run off and do his own thing with some big game poachers in Africa, trying to lure out some deadlier game. Even if he loses, it means some poachers end up dead or in jail. That’s the good thing about using scumbags for henchmen.
“Nice blurb, but I’m not reading the novel,” Medusa said.
We exited onto the ground floor unnoticed and I took her hand like a normal kid might. Unlike Venus, Medusa hadn’t been given the treatment to turn her into a homo machina like myself. “Just act natural,” I said.
“Where I’m from, natural in a place like this means being willing to gut stab another orphan at the first sign of weakness,” she said.
I hummed along as I lead her to the door.
Then someone called out “Venus?” Off in the distance, Psychsaur, of all fucking people, approached just as we were turning into the foyer. I pulled Medusa along into it pushed her toward the door while I stood right around the corner and signaled the extraction team. When Psychsaur rounded the corner, she got a splash of adhesive across the eyes. The glue set quickly, blinding her until its removal. Medusa grabbed a chair and went to swing it overhead at the psychic, reptilian humanoid, but staggered and dropped it. She clutched at her head for a moment, then gasped.
“Christ that hurt. She screamed in my head!” Medusa leaned on the chair for stability.
I grabbed her hand again. “We need to go, now.”
“That didn’t hurt you?” she asked.
I pointed to the Dudebot’s head. “No brain, no pain.”
We burst out the door and skidded over the walkway’s ice. I did my best to keep Medusa upright but the Lil Dude’s legs flew out from underneath and I took a pratfall. Medusa laughed, then wobbled and fall to her side in a pile of snow.
I sat up and ran my eye lasers over the walkway to thaw it out. It’d be wet and would soon refreeze in this weather, but it’d be wet enough. Medusa got to her own damn feet and helped pull me up, too. “I hope you have a hovercar nearby.”
“Hovercar? Where we’re going, Medusa, we don’t need hovercars.” I told her. A gust of wind and a dull roar heralded the arrival of the Psycho Flyer. It wasn’t easy to make out against the night sky, but a cable dropped with a vest attached. “Strap in,” I ordered her.
A laser beam severed the cable. A gleam from the doorway reverted the newborn night to dusk. While we were fixated on that, a giant snow arm emerged from the powder covering the lawn and grabbed Medusa. Before I could do anything about that, a teen boy with golden skin and red hair flew right at us. I stopped him cold with a punch stronger than he likely expected, but he smirked and grabbed for me. I got a hold of his wrists and it turned into an evenly-matched arm wrestling contest. But I didn’t come to wrestle with teen boys. I came to spank them.
Ugh. This is why I don’t try to go after teen heroes.
I headbutted the golden boy, then rotated the Lil Dude’s head around in a way that’s fatal for people. A man in white and blue tops and a black top hat with holly on the band emerged from the snow near Medusa without leaving a hole. I severed the snow arm with my eye lasers. She dropped to the ground and turned, catching her opponent in the gut and following it up with an uppercut that dropped him into a snowbank. He left a hole that time.
While I was distracted, golden boy bent my arms closer to each other, then crossed over and pulled my arms fully across my drone’s chest. I brought the head back around and fired the eyes. He ducked, then his eyes glowed read as he looked right into the Dudebot’s eyes. The Dudebot’s eyes showed complete structural failure. More specifically, they were slag from a laser directed at the sensitive inner workings that don’t work so well when coherent light gives them a full-on caress. Golden boy dropped to his knee though and wiped at his eyes, giving me a opening. I didn’t make this thing’s vision dependent on eyes.
Checking the Flyer, I found it had lowered itself and more of the cable through the bottom entry hole. I turned and grabbed Medusa, then tossed her up. She didn’t quite make it it to the hole, but she made it to the cable hanging out of the hole. The soldiers hauled her up as I ordered them. “Get her out of here and to the escape point.”
A punch from Golden boy leveled me while I was distracted. He had his arm up, covering his left eye with his forearm and peeking out with his right eye through the fingers of his hand. I spat glue at his feet. It might as well have been water.
He looked up at the Flyer, though, then around until he saw the hole where his snow-manipulating friend was taking a nap.
“Damn,” he said, then began to rise into the air toward the Flyer that began to streak off.
I don’t know if he could have caught it, but I knew I wasn’t going to let him try. I grabbed his leg with one hand. The fingers of the other opened up to the sound of whirring drills that I jammed into his crotch.
You ever seen one of those gags about an opera singer hitting a loud, shrill note at just the right frequency to shatter glass? This was like that, with the guy singing a high soprano.
He was done holding back, though. He caved in the Dudebot’s head and tore off its arm. I sent a laugh through what remained of the sound system. It came out warped and distorted just before a bright flash and intense heat emanated from the Dudebot as it melted down and disposed of its secrets. Not that they’d have any trouble figuring out who was behind this anyway, but a bright light couldn’t have been that good for the guy with the hurt eyes.
I lost the feed from the Dudebot and instead checked the satellites, where Golden Boy took a good thirty seconds to recover. And as many a teen would discover, it takes more than thirty seconds to keep up with me. And I’m right back to being glad I don’t have some big rivalry going on with teenagers.
Others from Master Academy ran out to check on Golden Boy and to wave some smelling salts under Snow Man’s nose.
Venus called within the hour, by which time Medusa was already on a flight out of the country.
I took it in my room, laying on the bed and kicking my feet all excitedly. “Heya Boopsie.”
“Don’t ‘hey Boopsie’ me,” she said.
“You sound angry.”
“I don’t like jailbreaks,” she said. “What’s your angle?”
“You’ll just have to find out,” I said. “I’d love to hear how you somehow have evil versions of superheroes locked up at Master Academy. It sounds like fun, but it couldn’t have been. If it was a fun time, I know you’d have invited me.”
“What we do isn’t about fun. You’re not entitled to an invitation or to invade our home.” She took a moment, then added. “You didn’t like people wrecking it when it was your home.”
“Going for the nonexistent testicles on that one,” I told her. “If you really want to know what’s going on, I’d be more than happy to tell you over dinner in my country. You, me, no witnesses or pesky backup…”
“You and I aren’t happening! I can’t let you keep an evil version of me,” she informed me.
“Well, you know what you need to do if you want to talk or negotiate about it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep an eye on the news for when everybody sees how happy you are in your new relationship with me…”
She hung up. Mmm. As much as I do have some interesting feelings toward her, some of the teasing is specifically to get under her skin. Just a joke, ya know? But she did inconvenience me some. Now that my move is known to them, it’ll be much harder to replace Venus with her otherworldly double and ship Venus off in Medusa’s place to another dimension. Why settle for having assets inside the government when I can have a criminal version of Venus working for me inside the world of the heroes?
Why be merely evil, when I can be really fucking evil?
I got an odd report today. Something freaky happened over in Empyreal City. Someone blew up a laboratory over there. It was one of the top things trending on VillainNet, along with coverage of Hbomberguy’s stream. Donkey Kong’s for trans rights, but the Applied Energy Investigative Of Yonkers has been kinda hush-hush on what it’s been working on. Or it did, until it blew up. My Intel agents got a drone in there. They’re really good with those things, and we’ve rigged them up to look like normal civilian ones, but harder for police to shoot down and sieze.
That’s how I got close-up footage of what looked a lot like the portal in Canada that leads to my home dimension. My use of dimension-breaching technology has made my new home particularly vulnerable, it seems. Or, and this worried me quite a bit, these humans somehow found a way to replicate the ability.
They didn’t go into the breach, but the local intel office did their best to hunt down documentation or even fleeing personnel from AEIOY. Pagan’s a smart guy, and he realized it would be something I’d like to know about. A good example of that is the initiative he took forming a private contracting company to help with the cleanup and rebuilding of areas damaged by supers and other disastrous fighting. It’s a pretty handy business model that works all the better now that the United States government has crippled itself during my absence.
We’re doing phenomenally thanks to that. Shitload of new recruits. Plenty of low-level government officials now on the take trying to make ends meet. So much of the people meant to keep us from sneaking stuff in are either calling out sick or taking money to look the other way thanks to this that we barely even need to hide it. On top of that, we’re also keeping evidence of their indiscretions to make sure the pipelines don’t dry up when regular paychecks start coming again.
The United States is on clearance sale.
Back to the subject at hand, without Federal disaster relief, state governments, especially the stupid ones, are turning to profit-driven businesses to make up the difference. My guys got a contract to rebuild a courthouse. Now we have hidden cameras and microphones all over the place. We know the secret entrances and have backdoors past their security. Those in-roads are why my guys pounced on the contract to clean up AEIOY and raid it while nobody was sure what did or didn’t survive.
That made it even easier to get a Dudebot into the rubble to where the city police kept a small cordon around the big, wavy, glowing portal that hovered a couple of feet off the ground.
I didn’t even bother to hide it. I let the Dudebot approached. The cops called out, a couple of them raising their firearms in case I turned out to be black. When they realized who I was, they all stepped aside. “I’m getting’ paid too little for this shit,” one of them muttered as he holstered his gun.
I called down an automated quadcopter drone like the local office uses and sent it through. Bluetooth connections can get a bit iffy between dimensions. Before I could send it through, a short arrow whizzed out of the dark and exploded. It wasn’t enough to compromise the Dudebot, but it was a little more than our reinforced drones can take. It took me a moment of side thought to realize the absurdity of an arrow piercing the thing as I traced back where the arrow came from.
Moving through the wreckage was a six-person squad in grey and black, with harnesses and helmets that curved back. They held rifles with curved portions sticking out of the end of the barrel and a cord that fit into gaps running the side of the barrel. The barrel came together into one solid piece at the rear and the weird crossbow gun looked to be magazine-fed.
I suppose back in the old days I’d have killed everyone and then start asking questions, but I’m an Empress now. I’m supposed to be regal and diplomatic. I looked back to the cops, who were finishing their retreat and raising their weapons. “Relax, back there. I’m sure we can talk this out without too many deaths.” I folded the pair of arms my Dudebot has behind its back and stepped toward the newcomers. “Greetings to you, my dudes. What are thou up to this chillaxed eve?”
The squad kept their weapons trained on me before one of them held up a fist, then approached with his crossbow-rifle no longer aimed at me. “I’m Gunnery Sergeant Marshal,” he said, without a trace of irony. “We have misplaced individuals from our world,” he nodded to the portal, “We’re looking to get them back.”
Ooh, refugees from another world. The plot thickens. “What kind of individuals?”
“They’re wanted on our world and that’s all you need to know,” the crossbow-wielding Gunnery Sergeant said. “I know we’re being brusque, but it’s our job.”
“I haven’t run across any refugees from another world so far,” I said, “But I’d be more than happy to keep an eye out. Of course, I’d need to know who I’m looking for…”
He reached into a pouch on his harness and pulled out a few playing cards. They had photos of people’s faces. There were about thirteen. They didn’t all look familiar to me, but a few stood out. One looked like Paveman aka Dirtbag. Another was the fellow they called Country Outlaw but who resembled Honky Tonk Hero with a little less oil in his hair. Of greater interest to me was the Jack of Hearts, Medusa. And if y’all think I’m petty, just imagine how petty it was to name their version of Venus, “Medusa”.
I held that one up in particular. “She’s a pretty one. What’s she wanted for?”
The Gunney took it back. “Her crimes are innumerable, stranger. Any aid you could give us is appreciated.”
Fucking sploosh. An evil Venus? You could host Olympic White-Water Rafting under my dress.
I folded the Dudebot’s arms. “How do I contact you with information?”
“Toss us a message in a bottle,” he said, pointing to the portal with his weapon. “I wouldn’t recommend bricking up the portal either.” He looked past me to where some of my Riccan “cleaners” kept an eye on the situation from afar. “We never abandon the chase.”
I rolled my eyes at that back on Ricca, but it doesn’t show up any on the Dudebot’s face. I left the cleaners to continue pulling any information, but I know my home dimension wasn’t in play here. These guys spoke English.
This being Empyreal City, there were a few different areas I could check. The Rothstein’s Sports Grill had nothing. Correction, they had ten cent wings. But aside from a motley assortment of various villains and groups of henchmen, they didn’t have any of the faces on the cards there. I’d run some of them through facial recognition and found most of them to be regular people. Good upstanding citizens, that just so happen to live in a community where somebody has superpowers and likes to save the day. So, if nothing else, the cards gave me a heads-up on some superheroes I hadn’t already known about.
As always the guy to talk to was the bartender, who was now pale bunch of tendrils and fibers holding a roughly humanoid shape. “What are you having?” he asked as I stood the Dudebot there.
“Your highest-proof drink and information on weird happenings,” I said.
He pulled out a mason jar of clear liquid and poured me a shot glass. Then, cautiously, he reached up and unscrewed the light bulb above me. I hadn’t gotten around to installing smell testers, so instead I tipped it up into the false mouth and let it seep into the spit storage area of the robot’s head.
“Cthulhu almighty, I’ve never seen that before,” the bartender said.
Luckily, my Dudebot made an ATM withdrawal from this guy who hadn’t been paying attention to who was behind him when he took money out. I slid several twenties over the counter for the barkeep. “Has there been anything lately where maybe the Master Academy seemed to be doing some infighting, or Venus was caught doing anything criminal, anything like that?”
Tendril guy extended one of the ones that served as his finger to point off to a corner where a man with antlers and a green hoodie sat. “Mangrove said somethin’ about that, but it was awhile back.”
I dropped some more cash off for the bartender. “Give me what he’s having then.”
Mangrove snorted to see me. He had a little thicker fuzz on him than a human’s supposed to have, and his fingernails were thick and dark. He’s one of those Greens that’s been smoking whatever it is that’s been upgrading them from regular hippie gangsters into something a little more animalistic.
“Penny for your thoughts,” I said, pulling up a reinforced chair near him. I offered him an IPA instead of a penny to be polite, though.
“What does the robot queen of Ricca want with me?” he asked, looking me over. “And what’s that smell?”
I shrugged. “Probably the moonshine. Listen, I heard from a little birdy who serves drinks you might know something about the Master Academy superheroes, or at least Venus, dipping their toes in the our waters. Or fighting each other. Or something where someone we thought was a hero maybe got into it with other heroes.”
He nodded, causing a bit of moss on his hoodie to flap. “I saw something like that. It looked like that fine ass rival of yours and a guy with a guitar were beating up her friends from the school.” He pointed back behind him with his thumb as if to indicate the Master Academy was back there. “I didn’t get to see all of it because Paveman turned into some sorta rock monster and went apeshit.”
I pulled out some cash and pretended to wipe my helmet’s brow with it. “Anything else you could tell me?”
He leaned forward and waved me toward him with two fingers. “As a matter of fact…” I slid closer, the money brushing up against his hand. He took it and pulled it loose, then sat back and pocketed it. “That’s all. Didn’t even see how the fight went. For some reason it was all hushed up. The most I heard about it was a gas leak by that building that blew up.”
“Huh…” I said, looking through news archives. “Must be pretty hush-hush. Only leak I see around there is in November.”
He nodded again, making me wonder how much he hates low-hanging chandeliers. “That’s the one. November.”
Interesting timing. “Thank you, my good man…. moose… whatever you are now,” I said, standing up.
As neat as the whole situation was, did I really want to go out of my way to try and kidnap an imprisoned evil version of the superhero I’ve had a crush on for years? Was this really a good use of my time? Was there any good reason to hand her back over the crossbowmen?
Yes, yes, and yes, actually. I had just the idea, and it would all begin with infiltration and a jailbreak to begin my act of malicious mercy.