Facing Mot-ality 4

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“Before we go, Gecko, I want you to know something,” Mobian said after we’d finished all our farewells at the Hinge. That had mostly involved Mobian gladhanding folks, and I was going to stop him, but the guy took the gifts showered on him by some folks and dropped them off in less well-maintained parts of the station that didn’t look meant for habitation.

They didn’t know much what to make of me. I noticed that, despite all the advanced technology, nobody who wore any sort of armor went with something quite so extensive and different from their usual appearance. Perhaps they thought I was also a machine.

But finally the time came to come, and I’ll note the people throwing themselves romantically at anyone were aiming at Mobian or Cheretha, and Mobian closed the door, pushed a button on the control panel of his ship, and said that earlier sentence of his to me. I looked up from checking on the bomb. Despite the 360 display, it makes people feel they’re being listened to and it helps me focus.

Mobian stepped down from his dais to look at me, putting his hands behind his back. “I believe this trip touched a nerve with you.” He waited for a moment. When I didn’t say anything, he added, “You felt I was using you.”

“Yep,” I said. “Also, it felt like most of that was really stupid. We could have taken that thing from her at any time.”

“It wasn’t that difficult a task…” He started.

“And if something had happened to us on some pointless side errand, that’s it. Earth gets eaten until some hostile alien species shows up and blows the fuck out of it,” I checked over the cables housing wiring. Nothing lose, nothing chewed through in any way. “The security forces were handling the machines, who were mainly there looking for a kidnapped machine that was allowed to be legally treated like a slave on that station. In all likelihood, the machines would have gotten in there and broken it out anyway. All we did was save a few lives on the way to the same thing being accomplished.”

“I thought you might enjoy saving lives. Being a hero,” he said. He looked at his shoes. “You clearly view me as naive, but I know what it’s like to fight and kill. To be valued not by your worth as a person, but by your ability to end lives.” He looked up. “Do you think back there, they know you as an evil person?”

I shrugged. “They seemed scared enough.”

He smiled. “Yes, but you can be scared of a lot of things and recognize they’re not evil. Back there, now, with no other knowledge about you… you’re a hero.”

I made a mock gagging noise as I finished up and closed the D-Bomb up and stood. “Well, they’re mistaken.”

He tapped his nose with one finger. “I’m trying to make you feel good about yourself. I know you think I’m naive, but I understand you. I know I stopped here long enough to help save lives and help you. What about the breach in their security? What about the anti-AI laws? What about the income inequality? I could go back and I could destroy civilization as they know it to fix it. I would be a tyrant to them. A well-meaning tyrant, yes, but a tyrant. And if I failed!” He kissed his fingers. “An unsuccessful revolution for people’s benefit looks very much like a successful defeat of an autocrat. You know why. You know why it’s so hard to do more for people than fix all but the most immediate problems.”

“Because people are assholes,” I answered.

“Right! No. Because people are people. Short-sighted, biased, and easy to fool. Even the ones who claim to be perfectly rational, especially if you claim they’re superior for being so ‘rational’.” He made air quotes. “Tell anyone doing well about the broken system they live in and they’ll think you’re attacking them because the system works well for them. I save the day because it’s easier. And I let them think they’re moving themselves in the right direction because they’re arseholes. I could have gone to any time and place to intercept that message. Why then and there? Why with you?”

“Because you knew I’m at least not on board with that sort of treatment of people just because they’re artificial,” I said. “Kinda makes you wonder how the machines got there in the first place.”

“I am sure that is a fascinating tale, but Cheretha will have to find that one out. The Machine Collective, though, they make for interesting reading if you could see what they’ll do,” he smiled at me. “You helped. Just one incident out of many that helps the universe become a little brighter.”

I hefted the D-Bomb by its straps. “Why are you trying to be so nice to me? You think I’m an asshole, too.”

“I thought you’d like to hear it. This is an important fight you’re going into, and I thought I’d distract you from knowing you can die now,” he said, turning to walk back over to his control panel.

“Wait, what do you mean by that?” I asked. “I could die lots of times before this!”

He turned to wince at me. “You had to live in order to go back in time and make things happened. You even had to warn me not to destroy the message as I’d have been tempted to do when I found out about it from heroes of Earth. The universe wouldn’t have let you died before that.”

“I died originally,” I pointed out.

He cocked his head to the side. “Yeah, but only after the loop had happened. Right after it, in fact. Venus killed you.”

“Can we stop saying Venus killed me?” I asked. “It didn’t happen to me. Doesn’t seem like it would have happened at all.”

“Oh, she did. It was brutal. Hurt her to do it, but she got harder trying to deal with Mot. The damning thing is she couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been involved and she couldn’t have changed it if I hadn’t been involved. You tried to kill her even though she’d fatally wounded you.”

“Why don’t you describe in vivid detail how I shat myself upon dying?” I asked.

“That would be gross. She put her faith in you, and you caused everything to happen again. I think I was always going to stop that message in this iteration of the timeline and risk Earth, but you stopped that. Not it’s all solved, and you can die. Sorry I was the first to tell you, but at least now you know everything in your life was part of some plan involving universal laws of time. I hope that makes you feel less guilty.” He shrugged and shot me a wry grin.

“Bullshit,” I said. “I get you’re suggesting I can’t really be guilty because I was living up to that plan, but you’re also saying I had no choice. That every awesome thing I did, every glorious kill, every prison break, that none of those mattered just because I did one or two things that supposedly had to happen.Uh uh. I could have been a good person and done those things. I could have been the most depraved maniac on Earth. I could have killed Qiang or raped Venus. There were so many choices in my life that didn’t have to go the way they went where I could have done the same things. That ‘plan’ business is no excuse for the bad, and deserves none of the credit for how great I’ve been.”

I pointed at myself with four thumbs. “Get me back to Earth and I’ll show you how much the universe, or multiverse or time or whatver-fucking-thing, was piggybacking on me, not the other way around.”

His smile looked sad at that. “Alright. Back to Earth we go. I hope you survive longer than you did the last time you did all you needed to do for this sequence of events to occur.”

He pressed a button and an entire side of his ship went clear, showing us go from whizzing through a blue and black tunnel to the atmosphere of Earth, pushing through swirling winds to close in on a city. Below me, I saw people fighting among themselves. In front of me, I saw buildings being leveled and flattened, leaving behind a lone man standing at the end of a trail of dirt, as if the city simply had never been developed where he walked. Up in the sky, I saw a flash as a glowing orb vanished into a hole filled with blue and black.

“I hate time travel,” I muttered.

“I hope you never experience it again!” called Mobian down cheerfully. “Hold on, what’s this?”

The rear of the timecraft cleared up to show drones and a cloud of haze floating through the air toward us.

I projected a holographic wink at Mobian. “You see, Mobian, Mot isn’t dealing with the average human warrior here.”

“Didn’t Barkiel beat you up?” he asked.

“Let’s see Barkiel stop me when I bring everything to the table. But if you’d rather they not all follow your ship like they were ordered, you better let me out soon.”

The craft jerked to the side as a lightning bolt ran down the outside of a nearby skyscraper. “Good idea. We make a bright target. Can you get to him?” Mobian asked.

I nodded to him and made sure I had the D-Bomb strapped on. The door to the timecraft slid open and I ran for it. And bounced off. “That’s for being a dick!” Mobian called while I stood up.

“Go fuck yourself!” I yelled back to him before jumping out the door.

Thunder cracked and rolled. Mobian got out of there. The skyscrapers crumbled, but were good enough rods to keep me from riding the lightning. I fell until I ignited the rockets and caught onto drones flying in behind me. I’d been able to take control of them as soon as I left Mobian’s ship, which looked to be dodging and weaving between lightning blasts. Cars exploded and rioting crowds fell still. Most of the drones smacked into buildings or each other and rained down. The winds weren’t kind to them. There were simply too many nanites to be rid of them, however. The ones carrying my added weight, with the aid of my rockets, did well enough.

When I landed in the middle of the maelstrom, it was with a vast cape of nanites stretching into the sky. Mot, long-haired and bearded, but in cleaner clothes, unhinged his jaw and flesh-colored flies flew out at me. Nanites flew to intercept as a wave that captured and broke down the flesh while I made a call. “Hey, we got that unified line thing going on again?”

“What’s she mean again?” asked someone. The nanites move to the side as the flesh flies stopped.

“Good,” I said. “Mobian, can you do that translator thingy again? I want to speak to Mot.”

“I think the time for words has passed,” he said. “I’ll try to recalibrate here. I could use a lot of words you wouldn’t understand, or I could just do this!”

A beam from outside the eye of the storm shot through the sky, then bounced off a satellite dish and reflected down to split into two that hit my head and Mot’s. I looked to the supposedly insane superhuman that everyone’s spent a lot of time telling me just needs to die and waved. “Hello?”

He didn’t say anything, just began to shake. His skin turned into stone, then was pierced by bones that jutted out as spikes.

I continued on, making sure I had everything close at hand. Lasers and firearms alike were trained on Mot. The nanites were ready to close in and block any of those annoying tentacles or flies or whatever else. “For a long time, I was the one they feared. Too dangerous to trust. Governments wanted me dead, and I even got the heroes in on the act. First they wanted to kill, then I got them to kill. Now here we are. You just got out of what I’m guessing is a thousand or more years of solitary confinement. You’re probably a bit fucked up. So I’m offering you a choice here. You can stand down and I’ll take you to my land, under my protection.You can have clothes, regular food, even one of those newfangled baths those people in the boot peninsula keep saying are awesome. We’ll even give you some medicine to make the nightmares stop. How’s that sound?”

He roared and ran at me, rocky body glowing orange. I instinctively sprinted right back at him. When we closed, he swung knuckles with a solid knuckle duster bone blade on them. I dropped to my knees and skidded when I saw him going for a punch. Instead, all he got was a face full of nanites that started trying to take his eyes apart piece by piece.

I popped a pair of molecule-thin whips from my upper forearms and watched them glow red along most of their lengths. I swung them to try and capture Mot’s arms. He turned and yanked me closer by them, which is when the nasty surprises, those small chainsaw blades, shot out from under my bottom forearms and I closed them on his neck.

They weren’t very effective. Threw up a lot of sparks, but didn’t cut into his now-rocky skin. He pulled me close and growled, mouth open wide and dripping spittle. The three false eyes on my helmet lit up and unleashed a triple grouping of lasers down his throat. Mot roared in pain and pulled the whips forward to throw me into that maw.

Tsk, tsk, those darn whips and their engineering. All I had to do was give a command and they detached. Same nifty trick I have for my cape, as a matter of fact. Mot got a mouthful of razor whip instead of razor wit, and I kicked off him to land after backflipping. I opened up on his ass, literally, with the few drones who had gotten through to try and shove grenades and .50 caliber rounds up his poop chute.

“Look-!” someone yelled over the line. The sky grew bright, and suddenly I was about a mile away, hugged in the big, blue arms of Titan. Together, we laid in a combination crater and skid mark within the winds of Mot’s localized hurricane. I’d lost my sight and hearing temporarily. From the smell, it’s possible I lost all my body hair. He didn’t hit me head on, either thanks to Titan or so many taller metal things being around. Even if you’re just winged by lightning, you still know it hit you.

I tried to speak but got nothing but a cough from it. Titan stood up then and roared. He picked up someone’s empty car and threw it back the way we came. After a moment of every muscle in my body being soar, icewater hit my veins. I pulled the bomb around to check it. The fake-detonator was blinking 12:00. I popped it open to check the thing over, making sure nothing was damaged. I found cables burned through. “Guys, I’m going to need a minute to fix the D-Bomb.”

“No shit, Sherlock!” yelled someone. “I thought you were supposed to be a killer.”

“Leave him alone,” Mobian said, but not enthusiastically.

“Hey, your trip, your fucking aesops,” I stood up and stumbled over to a nearby abandoned car. I pulled the door off and set to work smashing in the dash to get some replacement wires. A second later, a brick hit me. Not such a big deal, except for the mob surrounding me that had a lot more bricks. And pipes. And, yes, someone brought tomatoes. It’s not a proper angry mob unless someone has tomatoes.

Before that crowd could run for me, they were cut down by a pair of warriors. One was a large Chinese man with a lush beard and a spear with a blade curved like a scimitar. The formal name for that one is a Guan Dao, said to have first been used by the legendary warrior Guan Yu who would be worshiped as a war god after his death.

Rumors of Guan Yu’s death weren’t true.

The other warrior cutting down those who would distract me was an African man with metal plates pierced into his body and a machete of dark iron that cut through people in such a way as to make Jason Voorhees envious.

I tried to reach out to my nanites and pull them close, but I couldn’t reach them. Whatever had hit me, maybe the mother of all lightning strikes from the way I swear I smelled burnt flesh, shorted them out. The drones too. There’s a reason talking is something best done after someone’s dead, at least according to the Evil Overlord list. This is why I shouldn’t try to be good. You give one guy a chance and he puts your tits in a bug zapper.

It felt like it took forever to swap out the damaged components with a good enough match, huddled low against the car to avoid the winds. I just had to deal with the rain. The nanites could have patched it on the go. It was ready for a test, until the car disappeared under Titan’s ass as he created another crater like he had with me. Mot ran forward, the wall of the hurricane pushing toward me. I stood my ground, something lighter people would have found difficult.

“Come on, you son of a bitch. If you think you can blow me away, then you don’t know how fat this suit makes my ass look,” I growled.

He ran at me with an incoherent yowl of rage. I dropped the D-Bomb and started running the opposite direction, waving my hands for everyone to leave. Guan Yu and the other Hare were way ahead of me. I think they started running the moment Titan pancaked an Audi. Titan was slow getting up, too. I tried giving him a hand. He started to run back toward Mot, but managed to get the incredibly subtle signal I sent by pointing past him and yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!”

I just had to hope-

I was sucked backwards into a hole in reality that closed behind me. The journey was shorter this time, taking both myself and the bellowing Mot behind me to one Earth linked to the one we came from. Even more unusual, I was pulled away in a series of blue rings and found myself crashing into a clear cube.

Alarms wailed. Automated guns like nothing on Earth swiveled around to point directly at me. Some woman spilled a coffee cup sitting up. She pressed a finger to a patch on her neck, but I didn’t pay attention. I was waiting on the second detonation. I felt nothing like it. I turned to the woman. “There’s a monster on the loose, and it’s very important you let me out of this, because that bomb’s totally not sending him anywhere either of us wants to go.”

She looked at me like I’d suggested shitting on her mother’s chest, but in a bad way. Her eyes shot down then. When she spoke, I realized I’d forgotten to speak to her in my original language. Wherever I was, I was on my home Earth, where they didn’t speak English. I still heard her as she said, “He’s still here. The trap worked.”

Then she stood up and walked around a lazy U of a desk to spit on the clear container that held me. “I would sooner scalp the hair from your body than leave you alive. Even trapped, your bomb destroyed Fort Memorial.”

“Please,” I said in my tongue, putting my hands together in pleading. “I must know: did a Dimension Bomb detonate here?”

She pounded what I’d taken for glass with her fist and stumbled back. “Yes, you bastard, at Fort Memorial! I’ll see you burn forever for what you’ve done to my love!”

I relaxed and breathed in. It sounded like they had reports of the second one going off, and Mot’s not very subtle. They’d have spotted him, which meant he was now working on quite a tan. I don’t care how strong a super is, good luck walking on the sun.

I broke out into laughter again. The weight was just gone. And it made a good excuse for experimentally banging on the container I was in. After the EMP hit, I was in less of a good mood. I turned away from the woman as if examining the container, my lower right arm charging energy. If any defense knew what I was trying, they didn’t let on. Except when I unleashed what should have been a punch that could spank a tank, the EMP again went off as I bounced off the walls. Those same transparent walls lit up briefly before the glow moved down below the cube where I couldn’t see.

“Don’t try that again,” said a man’s voice. He wore our equivalent to a General’s rank. “After all these years, you’re back in our hands. You should have stayed dead. We will bury you all the same.” He smirked past his salt and pepper mustache at me.

“I doubt that,” I told him. I flipped myself around so I was sitting, not laying in a mess on the floor. “I’ve become much more resourceful since I left.”

“I doubt that,” he said. He stepped up to the sentry’s desk and reached for a button on it.

“Mhm,” I said, just as he pushed it. The cube began to darken. Before it did completely, just in case it messed with sound, I called out, “You’ll never figure it out on your own!”

I hope they heard that. Because as happy as I am that I probably killed Mot after dumping him in the sun, what I really have as a resource right now are a bunch of people who should be grateful. Some of them might even be friends. And I do so hope these folks share the good news of my capture with them.

And at the same time, I wonder if I failed. If the bomb was too messed up, if the coordinates were reset somehow, if he actually survived being sent to the core of a damn star.

So that’s where I waited, imprisoned, over more than a week since the confrontation took place in most people’s view. Schroedinger’s Gecko. They ended up gassing me, checking to make sure I was actually out, and then cutting my helmet off to allow me to sleep. They disabled the energy sheathes as well. But at least it allowed me to eat.

Eating so I can survive.

Surviving so I can wait.

Waiting to see if my adoptive home gives a shit. And pretty sure Mot’s ass is eating hot thermonuclear fusion on a level way beyond a mere nuclear weapon. This universe isn’t big enough for TWO gods of death.

…that would have been much more badass if I wasn’t the one now imprisoned.

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Facing Mot-ality 3

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What the Machine Collective loses in toughness, they make up for in numbers. Though, for most folks on this station, they’re plenty tough enough. And it just got monotonous killing the endless robots. They all looked the same, which might be racist if they weren’t all literally the same few models ad infinitum.

I had to break it up somehow, which lead to stunts like Mobian yelling at a group of them and letting them chase him into an art gallery. He ran in and ducked behind an exhibit. When they came in looking, I waited until they got close to the sculpture. It was a marble sculpture of one of those heart-shaped aliens, but with a dignified, serene face and either an enormous wang or a stand to rest on. I picked it up and started wailing on them, smashing them to pieces.

“That was subtle,” Mobian said, stepping out from behind the display he’d hid behind.

I set the statue down. “Subtle enough to take them out.” I had to stop as my stomach rumbled.

“Yegads, I heard that from here. When’s the last time you ate?” Mobian asked.

I waved it off. “Before I put on the armor. This is a permanent seal, but someone decided we were having an adventure in space, where they don’t exactly make hamburgers.”

“I didn’t know that,” he said, patting my shoulder. “How about we go kill all of them in the food court and I’ll find something that can fit into your armor and walked along with me as I headed out of the gallery. “Can you swallow pills? It won’t help your stomach, but it’ll give you nutrients. Maybe the vapor bar, as long as you stick with the bar food vapors and none of the alcohol.”

Just before we got to the door, the statue collapsed behind us. Mobian turned and looked back at it, then turned to me. “Duct tape will do ‘er. Best we run and get that food now.”

Despite swarms of killer robots, we made good time to the nearest food area. Unfortunately, after so long without food, the smell got to me. Mobian turned to help me up, “Just a little further now…” He looked past me. “Or a little backward if you’ve got more fight in you.”

I saw ’em coming, those damn tripods and squidlegs and everything else. I closed my eyes to concentrate. I heard grunting and parking from ahead of us thanks to a crowd. Mobian ran to the side to get out of the way, leaving me standing between the giraffe alien with a force of dwarfs, and the advancing machines. I was distracted, but I didn’t need too long…

Chaos broke out among the mob of machines. They teetered around, startled and panicked, then turned and opened fire on one another. They did most of the work themselves with the aliens barely having to mop up the place. Mobian ran up to get between myself and the dwarfs, who turned toward me with disk-guns in hand once they’d dispatched of the robo-remnants. “It’s fine! She’s on our side. Gecko, that was brilliant, how long have you been able to do that?”

“Not long. Had to study their OS. Hey, who’s a lady have to butcher to get some food around here?”

“I need food for my companion here, the one who made the Machine Collective shoot itself. Food, yes please? Vapor bar, she needs it.” he asked of the giraffe and her dwarf contingent.The giraffe yipped and a dwarf came over to lead me further into the food court area. That was my best basis for comparison, as it seemed to be a sizable communal eating area with various bars and food kiosks scattered around it. They’d fortified it, though, and beings of all shapes, color, and size huddled around. Amazingly, the place STILL had a Sbarro.

They led me to one kiosk in particular that still had a couple of employees hard at work. Without a basis for comparison, I had no way to tell if they were dirty, but they did seem a bit slow and tired. I pointed to something that resembled chicken.

It should be noted that this could have meant pretty much anything in the universe. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someday discovered the universe’s first conquerors had been intelligent chickens who fell into ruin and mindless servitude to the new races that came about. Only flaw, is what do I do about the dinosaurs? That’s not a problem you just drop a meteor on and hope it goes away.

They handed me a cup with a top on it and gave me two middle fingers. I was too hungry to object though, so I just took it and looked it over; a mouthless alien with a smile in its eyes gave me the bird with each hand, so I guess the gesture has different contexts far enough out in space. I popped the lid off and took a puff of gas to the face. The filters detected a full complement of vitamins, so I let it on through. The taste was incredible. Unexpected. Fruitier than I thought it’d be. And it thickened with my saliva, so I was able to just swallow the stuff instead of clogging my lungs. A bit dry, but I’d manage.

It was enough to keep me going. “Gecko! You’ve eaten. How did it find you?” Mobian asked hurriedly on his way over with the giraffe person. It yapped at me, stopped, then looked between myself and Mobian. He smiled back, then gestured to me, then went “Oh!” He pulled out a small cube and held it between us. It shot out a light at both of our heads.

“Mobian, if I find out you’re putting anything weird in my head, I’ll shove yours up your ass,” I said to him.

“My, what a crude one is this,” said the giraffe in a feminine voice. “I am Commandrix Cheretha.” She gestured like she was running her hand up the air over her face.

“Empress Psychopomp Gecko,” I said, giving a sort of salute with closed fist over open palm that I’ve used before.

“We normally keep the Collective from attacking through a signal to our transmitter that confuses any machines who get too close. It failed to function correctly, so how can you?” she asked.

I looked between her and Mobian. “My biology is capable of integrating with computers and I make sure to have a way to connect wirelessly. I’ve had no interference like that since I got here.”

“It isn’t directed inside the station,” she said.

Mobian chimed in. “As long as they have a way to travel that bypasses the signal, there’s no easy way to stop them on the Hinge. Until now.”

Cheretha put a hand on his shoulder and turned to address him. “Silence yourself. We will remove the cause once we have disposed of the symptom.” She turned back to me to say, “We are winning, but slowly. The bulk of the Collective is in the Science district. I do not know what they are after. However, we should endeavor to keep it from them.”

“Ok, lady, I get what you want from us,” I told her. “What I’m confused about is why should I care? I’m here for one reason, and it’s really not to fight this war for you. Mobian’s excited to help, great for him, but if you examine the smallest piece of the smallest part of any particle that makes up an atom, you still won’t find me giving a fuck.”

“I have access to the message you were here for. It’s yours for whatever purpose you hold if you help. If you refuse, I will bury it deeper than your desire to mate,” she responded.

I looked to Mobian. “We could…”

He shook his head and held out his hands. “No! I believe we are here for a purpose and that includes helping out the Hinge. Besides, it should be benefit everyone to have friends far and wide.” He smiled at me.

“Right, so this was all a way to inconvenience me in some sort of minor revenge scheme,” I grumbled.

“I would never revenge myself on someone so integral to events on Earth. Disrupting the timeline is a delicate process.”

“Not that delicate or else we wouldn’t be here now,” I reminded him.

He rolled his eyes. “You should try doing anything to remove yourself from existence and see what happens.”

Cheretha stepped between us both and looked to me. “You, help.” She turned to Mobian. “And you, be quiet and take us to your ship.”

Now that I’ve cracked the Collective’s code, the return to Mobian’s timecraft took no time at all. Before too long, the machines realized to leave us be. All the better, since Cheretha’s guards didn’t come with us. “They will take the enemy from the rear.”

“The rear, my favorite place to take an enemy,” I said.

“You have no chance with her,” Mobian said as he led us into the craft and rushed up the dais. He pushed a few buttons, spun a wheel, and looked up. “We’re here.”

“Anticlimactic as usual,” Cheretha said.

I laughed as I launched myself out the door, fists raised. “Ok you metal assholes, I’m gonna tear you apart like I do the English language!”

I found more aliens huddling around in, this time in tight, white-colored clothes. I couldn’t make out what they said, but I heard someone around, singing. Cheretha stepped past me. “We are here to defend the lab. What do you have that will help, and what do you have that the Collective wants?”

One scientist said something, but another in a cleaner and fancier white jumpsuit yelled at it. It had fur over a round face with four eyes, and metal arm reached out the side of its head, rotating from holding a pair of glasses to a tablet. An argument soon broke out, but I just couldn’t concentrate on it for the singing. I walked over to a door it emanated from.

“Gecko?” asked Mobian.

“Shh, I’m trying to listen to the song,” I said. I put my hand on the door and a portion of it turned clear.

I heard Mobian say, “Nobody’s singing. Is anybody here singing? What is she hearing?”

It was a quadrupedal. At first, I imagined it had light grey skin from how smooth and organic it looked. The joints could have been mistaken for folds like you’d see in skin. It stood with hands clasped together, supporting itself on two legs like ours and a pair of thin legs curving down from its shoulders into tapered points. It had no face, which was a little different, and no sex characteristics, which made complete sense.

Cheretha stepped up next to me. “It is one of the Collective. This lab belongs to the Dark Horse Combine.”

The fancy-suited scientist, or whatever it was, blooped furiously at us. It tried to push past me, but I picked it up by the throat with one arm. “Why?”

Mobian walked up and looked in as well. “There is no consistent galactic law regarding civil rights. Many societies don’t classify them as people.”

“That is the Combine’s property by our law,” Cheretha said. “You have destroyed them as freely as the rest of us. More.”

“I’m a homicidal maniac, of course I had no problem killing stuff. Are you saying this is a slave?” I turned my face toward Cheretha.

“The Machine Collective is entirely comprised of escaped servile automatons,” Mobian informed me.

The scientist bleeped out something. Cheretha looked up at him, “He says this one is different. No known civilization has registered a machine of its design before.”

“The Dark Horse Combine,” Mobian said, tapping the side of his nose. “Say, they manufacture arms and war automatons, right?”

The scientist blubbered some more and reached for Cheretha. She moved out of his reach. “One of those.” She turned to Mobian. “You tell her what he said.”

“He said it is inevitable that artificial intelligences will inevitably turn on the biological ones. The only way to prevent this is to destroy them first.” Mobian sighed and turned to Cheretha. “You’re going to make us complicit in this.”

Cheretha raised her muzzle and looked away. “The duty of the Commandrix to the laws of her station is clear. I will not trample the law for an emergency. It is unfortunate we were too late to prevent the Collective’s progress to the laboratory.”

The furry-faced head scientist, or at least the nicest-dressed one who put up the most resistence, kicked at me and tried to beat on my arm. Cheretha turned to glare at it. “We arrived too late to save everyone among the science team.”

I turned the scientist sideways, grabbed each leg with an arm, and pulled it in half. Pea soup, or something with that color, went everywhere. I threw his upper body on the floor. His little skull-mounted helper arm tried to pull him away. I swung his lower half at the upper half, beating his head in with his own ass until he was so much mush and pea soup on the floor.

Cheretha looked down, then over to the remaining team. “Open the door.” The one who had spoken up stumbled over, holding a hand over its mouth, and tapped a bracer on its wrist. The door in front of me swung open. I stepped in as the singing stopped, looking at the siren that called me.

It wasn’t so much a language that came over the connection. It was more like feelings.

I heard it? I wasn’t machine? Yup, true.

I walked over.

I didn’t think they had a right to take it just because it was a machine. It was an amazing being as well, in design. It found my armor interesting. I was there to release it so that it and its Collective would leave in peace.

I know what y’all are thinking, dear reader. “And then they all fucked!”

No, I took its hand and lead it out, over the dead body and out to where the Machine Collective were crawling over everything. It got a bit overwhelming, there in the inner ring of the station. Looking into the sky, I saw the ground instead. Like, instead of ground and cities being stretched on the outside of a sphere, imagine if it was run along the inside of a cylinder. If I kept walking to one side, I could end up on that same part of the city I looked up at and it would still feel like I was standing on the ground. It’s a concept I’d been educated about as far as space stations went. To actually experience it was disorienting.

I looked to the siren as I let it go and tried to express that if it was ever around Earth, to look up Empress Psycho Gecko of Ricca, where I don’t enslave people just because of their race or how they look or the fact that they’re artificially-created.

I mean, sure, I kidnapped some people for lab tests, but that was just because of dumb luck and them passing through.

I think I got a maybe. The siren raised its tapered arms. I saw a room appear above the walkway. It was like everything behind it had been a wall and someone ripped it open to show the place hidden behind it. It grew taller and wider as the Collective crawled, trundled, and otherwise maneuvered around to jump through it. They were all leaving.

I walked back in to find Cheretha touching her datapad. “The Collective are leaving in peace so the attack is called off. Here is your message.” She held it out for Mobian.

“Let’s just delete this,” Mobian said, winking at her. He pressed something and my legs gave out. I couldn’t move my arms, head, anything. I crashed to the floor while Mobian asked, “Gecko? What’s wrong?”

“Don’t know. Surprised I can speak. Can’t move anything.” I felt aching and a burning feeling spread from my gut. “Was there something in that gas they gave me?”

Mobian bent down and grabbed one of my hands. He dropped it, watching it flop. “Can you feel that?”

“I can feel it, just can’t move it. It’s like I went all wobbly, and my stomach’s blowing up. Ah! Fuck, felt like someone just gave me a lobotomy,” I said. I tried to grit my teeth, but I couldn’t feel them anymore. “I don’t know if I have teeth.”

Mobian frowned, then looked down to his waist as it made a beeping sound. He held it up and pressed a button, watching streams of numbers rolling past each other. He looked down at me, then at the datapad. He began tapping on it some more. “It’s a good thing there is a temporary deletion function that can restore a file before final deletion. How do you feel… now?”

I groaned and pulled myself up into a sitting position. “What the frell was that?”

“You know what I said about removing yourself from existence?” He asked. “This message has to go through for some reason or you don’t exist.”

“What? How does my existence rely on aliens trying to kill me?” I asked.

“Is it possible you interacted with them in the past?” Mobian asked.

“If you count the time of the dinosaurs, yeah,” I said. “Other than that, the only other time was pretty well after I started existing in this universe.”

“Let’s follow this along then. They come back. They have access to time travel, so they somehow do something that helps you exist? No, that’s not right. That is what they would do if they got this message. We know that because in the other timeline, they sent me to lead you into a trap in the past, as you said. Then they fail to kill you.” He put a finger over his lips, puzzled.

“Yeah, and I took their ship, chased you and Future Venus, and you went back in time through the dimensional breach to go back in time in my universe.” I didn’t like where this was going, because it was dawning on me.

Mobian pointed the finger at his lips toward me now. “You said the aliens sent to kill you looked like rangers. What do you mean?”

“Like the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers. They weren’t exactly the same design, but the uniforms were similar, with each one wearing different colors. That’s the city where they first appeared, a little more than ten years later.”

He and I looked at each other. I sighed and looked down. “And if the Rangers didn’t exist, it’s entirely possible my life would have gone in a significantly different direction and I’d never have found my way to this universe. Was that time’s way of saying I wouldn’t even be alive today if that happened?”

He glanced at the numbers on his pager-thing, then put it back on his belt. “And Earth’s history would change. Good for you. You created the Justice Rangers.” I shuddered. He smiled at that. “And without them, you would be dead and never have found your new home.”

“Fuck me in the Alps, no wonder I had a bad mood. Time itself is going out of its way to stick it to me.” I looked up to find Cheretha and the science team standing there, eating small snacks out of bowls.

“What are you going to do about the message?” she asked.

I looked to Mobian. “I think we need to put it on hold for about thirty years. Any idea what that translates to here?” I asked, nodding her way.

“I know what to do,” he said, tapping away on the datapad. I stood up, amazed at the memory of pain that made me want to groan and the lack of any now. It was more abrupt even than healing.

“There,” Mobian said, handing the pad back to Cheretha. “Thank you.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And d’you know what?” He turned to look at me. “You were too.”

I waved him off. “Yeah, I get it. I’m great at killing. I would kill them on a sphere, I would kill them over here. I would kill Mot here or there, I would kill even a Hare. I would kill green eggs and ham. I’d rip the head off Sam I am. See you on the damn timeship so we can get to the important stuff.”

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Facing Mot-ality 2

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It’s been a frustrating game of cat and mouse. Or I suppose it’s cat and cat, but then that means one of us alleycats is gonna get screwed with a prickly dick. Part of me wasn’t exactly eager to face him. Really made me wish I hadn’t taken along some of Max’s beer when Mobian showed up to offer me a ride. Since Mobian’s little glowing orb craft was able to appear within it, it also made me hope Mot lacked any sort of temporal manipulation.

I lowered the island’s shield long enough to fly out of there instead of resort to time shenanigans, also allowing me and the Riccan military to bring drones and other equipment out. Some things don’t fit so easily through Cape Diem’s portal network. Dr. Creeper’s new Mecha Troopers, for instance. Hopefully they’ll help, but I’d rather have tanks of some sort for this encounter. Light infantry and drones are ok for raids, not so much open warfare.

Mobian managed to sync up people worldwide with a line of communication to help us coordinate. It gave the heroes and Titan’s people a chance to try and counter some of the emergencies happening: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, and a biopic of Dick Cheney. It was more than mankind could ever handle on its own. And then there was me, trying to fill Mobian in about the Three Hares and Barkiel.

“The alien, Barkiel, meant for Mot to draw those forces to the planet,” Mobian said, tapping the side of his nose in thought.

“Yeah, except they wanted me handed over to them,” I added. When Future Venus and Mobian claimed to need my help and then took me back to the time of dinosaurs, it was part of a deal they’d struck. The aliens who saved Earth from the rampaging Mot 30 years in the future wanted me as payment. “And the ones who came to collect me were the same ones from a world we raided.”

“What raid?” Mobian asked, looking up from the control panel on the raised dais.

“A team-building exercise among villains. When we finally cleared out the Institute of Science of experiments gone wrong and everything else that had been unleashed in the chaos from my disagreement with the guy, one room had a weird crystal that opened a doorway to an alien world. They had abducted some people I hired to help me and sent them back through the portal to attack us, so I returned the sentiment in kind and then closed the door. But before I left, I saw those same beings. To me, they resembled rangers.” I growled the last word. Couldn’t help it.

“Barkiel waited more than a thousand years, driven mad by hope. He implemented a plan to kill billions… when the way home was on that little island,” Mobian said. He shook his head. “The universe loves a tragedy.”

“Any chance we could just go back and take him?” I asked.

Mobian threw a switch. “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t kill me and try to fly the ship unless you want to die. It,” he flipped a toggle.” is,” another, “mine.” He spun a wheel around and turned to look at me. “History gets no rewrites on my watch.”

“Unless you want one, shouldn’t you get me to the battlefield already?” I asked.

“Trust me, you’re already there,” he said.

“I don’t feel there,” I said, looking around the ship.

Mobian pointed to the round wall of his ship. A view appeared of long rod in space that several l lights were zipping to and from. “That’s because you’re here now,” he said. “The Hinge of Shevara.”

“Any other day, I’d probably love to hear the story behind that, but shouldn’t we getting back?” I asked.

The Mobian snapped his fingers and the view rewound through a flash of light that showed us far above the eye of a hurricane in a city. Another glowing orb like the Mobian’s ship appeared then. The reversal reversed itself, showing us now quite close to the rod hinge of Che Guevara, or whatever. I noticed the line of communications to Earth had gone quiet too. “I’m here to stop that signal from getting through. You’re along for the ride.”

I threw up four hands. “Couldn’t you have done this AFTER dropping me off?”

“No!” he said. He turned and walked over to me, looking me over. “You are involved with this. You’re in the thick of it. I needed you to trace the signal.”

I holographically projected a raised eyebrow over one of the three false eyes of my helmet.

Mobian circled around me. “You don’t belong here. You’re supposed to be dead. Eliminated from the timeline. Ex-ter-” he stopped to cough. “Sorry, I’ve heard the phrase a touch too often but it came to mind.” He stopped in front of me, holding his pointers to his thumbs in my direction. “You are a direct cause of an event and not meant to be here, ergo my amazing ship was able to trace a causal-temporal link to find bring us here.”

I didn’t feel anything, but the Mobian smiled. “We’re here.”

“Nice as it is to know the universe partially revolves around me, whatever we’re here for, let’s do it quick.” I said, following him to the door. I dropped the bomb off inside the ship, hoping I wouldn’t have need to use it up before I got to its intended target. Besides, destroying space stations is much moe fun when I’m not on them. I half expected the ship to lock me inside again, but I passed through into a room with bright yellow wall panels.

“Relax, wherever you’re going, you’re already there. You don’t trust yourself?”

I didn’t hesitate a moment to answer, “No.”

“Fine. We just need to find the Communications Transit Depot. Simple enough,” he walked on into a crowd of aliens of all shapes and sizes. Hearts, stars, mushrooms, clovers and blue moons. Those aren’t lucky charms, those are just some of the body shapes I saw on display. They all steered clear of this one race that looked remarkably humanoid but for the intense orange skin, bald heads, and tiny hands.

“Oh don’t touch them. They’re belligerent,” said Mobian, catching me staring.

“They seem familiar, but I just can’t place them,” I said. “Hey, you said communications transit?”

“Right. Yes, well, the universe is a large place and no matter how good your communications network is, it can take awhile to get there and you risk signal degradation. The Hinge serves many purposes, but it also has a Communications Transit Depot where it stores incoming signals, cleans and enhances the signal, then boosts them to the appropriate destination.” He explained it all to me without breaking stride, even as a red creature floated by hanging from twin gas bladders that helped it resemble the cartoonish heart shape.

“You think we got here in time?” I hurried after, dodging a crowd of things green things with long, thin bodies and limbs. To me, the faces looked female, but they lacked boobage. Instead, they had four long, leafy protrusions extending from their necks, which is why I had nicknamed them Clovers. Given they might be plant-based, I’m going to ignore the hand gesture one gave me that the others responded to with noises like rapid creaks. I couldn’t help but the first music to come to mind.

“Is that from the Mos Eisley Cantina? Anyway, here we are,” Mobian said, leading me to a room with multiple consoles on glowing platforms. Each one had different sets of controls all in different marked-off areas of the console. He picked one empty of anyone else and headed over there. “These depots are amazing, but they tend to be backed up.” He turned to look around, then slipped something out of his jacket pocket. One weird whizzy sound later, a holographic monitor appeared and scrolled through to something in a language I couldn’t understand.

“Here it is. Yes, it just arrived yesterday. My, that’s impressive speed.” He nodded and turned to glance at me. I just shrugged. “If you knew how far away from Earth we were right now, you’d be impressed.”

“Yeah, while I’d normally love the prospect of tearing up an alien space station or getting a second chance to rampage through time, my mind’s on Mot,” I told him. Behind us, another party entered, heading toward us. It looked like a white giraffe with a smaller muzzle and eyes on the front, in armor like chunky rocks. There were twenty others, most of them short little things in chunky rock armor, all of them in helmets. There was one of the heart-shaped aliens, though. Just like the others, it had a big round disk, like a wheel, pointed at us. “Mobian,”

The giraffe said something and Mobian’s head whipped around. “Cheretha! I hadn’t thought I’d run into you here.”

The giraffe answered back. I couldn’t make out what she was saying. My translator programs’ good, but there’s several worlds of difference between figuring out the human languages and tongues of the extraterrestrials. Note to self: Tongues of the Extraterrestrials is also a good name for a band. And a porno. And a Scientology book.

“Mobian, do I need to give us some privacy?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No! No, that would be a bad idea for all of us. We’ll be more than happy to come with you, just let me finish my transaction.” Mobian turned and pointed back to the console. The giraffe barked and one of the rocky little dwarfs fired a transparent wave from the disk, blowing up the console and shorting out the hologram.

I ahemed. “You sure, Mobian?”

“Do not tempt me with watching you get your arse handed to you here and now, Gecko. Let’s go with the nice, friendly staff and get this cleared up.” Mobian smiled and raised his hands to walk out. I sighed and a hologram of me walked along with him, hands raised, leaving me behind unseen. It might’ve worked until the heart—alien swam over to me, honking and huffing. That one could see me, and brought the attention of some of the dwarfs. They pointed their disks all over, but at least a couple had them in the right direction.

“Fine, fine,” I said, appearing and raising my hands for real. I just had to take comfort in the fact that we do show back up at the battle, right?

They put us in alcoves off in a quiet corner and down a hallway. There was a circular desk that another dwarf sat at, still with its helmet on. Another led us into our little nooks and left alone. I tried stepping back out and was thrown against the padded wall as a result. “Huh, guess the padded room wasn’t meant specifically for me this time,” I said, sliding down to a seated position. In another alcove, this big rodent thing chittered away at my predicament. It had two front paws that looked more hands, while another four stretched down to the ground. Like a capybara centaur with a blue hair spiked out from left to right over its head. If the Planet of the Rats had a statue of liberty, that’s what its head would look like. And long, droopy sideburns, if you can say that about a thing with fur all over its body.

Mobian had gotten comfortable laying down on his bed, but waved a hand toward the capybara. “It’s her first time off planet. I swear, can’t take her anywhere.”

The capybara clucked at Mobian, who responded with, “Earth. I’m saving it again.”

If they were worried about the guard, they didn’t show it. It just sat there at its desk, watching something on a holographic monitor. I could almost make it out on my side, but not enough to be helpful in whatever language it was.

“No, you’re sitting in a cell,” I said. “How does being incarcerated help us, by the way?”

“I will work this out, I promise. Cheretha and I have to talk, that’s all. We left things in a bad place, and I’m not supposed to be back here if we’re being honest.”

“Wow, trespassing on your ex’s property. Now all we need’s the new boyfriend out here in a tank top,” I said.

The station shook. Mobian sat up and the capybara quieted down. “Does that normally happen?” I asked. The guard at the desk looked up at us, but twisted and pulled frantically at something on his desk, checking a holographic screen.

“Only when something’s gone terrible wrong,” he said. “A disaster like a redirected meteor that no one intercepted, or a rogue black hole, or even-” he stopped as a sound started up that even I could recognize as an alarm. “invasion.”

The guard stood up, pulled a disk out from under the desk, looked at us, then hightailed it out of there.

The capybara started chewing on the wall of its alcove then. We heard other sounds. Turns out in space, you CAN hear people scream. The odd shake didn’t help matters. I looked up and around, trying to see about hand holds or obvious weaknesses.

Meanwhile, the capybara chewed on something that sparked. It tested a paw and found the barrier gone and ran out of the cell before ducking under the desk. A mess of robotic parts stepped in on a nest of mechanical legs. It had a big round head with lenses all around, and a thin mechanical pincer with something held in it. At this point, I’m just assuming anyone or anything holding anything else is a weapon.

“Hello gents,” said Mobian. “I see you’re from the Collective. Don’t mind me. I’m just a prisoner.”

It checked the other two nooks in there before turning to Mobian. After a second, another joined it in the room, a round saucer on a tripod with a lens on a cable stalk. Just assuming whatever rotated around at the top of the saucer but on the outside of the eye stalk was a weapon too. The noises they made were like synthesizer music, but sounds without a tune. They stepped closer, losing track of the rest of the room from the way the capybara rushed out from under the desk and slapped the wall next to my nook.

The machine thingies turned to stare at the capybara. The one with all the extra eyes stalked closer on its tentacles. It blared noises, backing the capybara up against the wall of my cell. It made music like laughter.

Then I yanked it up to where I hid on the ceiling, tearing it apart and spraying the lower part of the cell with oil and parts. I dropped from my handholds in the ceiling, uncoiling more like, becoming visible one again. The tripod just looked at me as I raised my three-eyed helmet toward it and released a joyful “Haaaa!” from my fanged mask.

The tripod let out a loud, dissonant tone and fired at me, missing and hitting the walls with sparking ball lightning. I jumped and slammed it into Mobian’s nook’s barrier. It bounced off and onto my thrusting arm which went through it. I lifted it up as the machine shook and went still, then tossed it aside and hit the panel to free Mobian. “You know, I just wanted to kill a guy and get it done with, but you wanted to go sight-seeing.”

“Be that as it may, we need to fight through the Machine Collective’s invasion, gain access to that file, and stop it from getting to its destination. Otherwise, the same aliens that stopped Mot before will come to Earth and it won’t matter if you beat him or not. Are we on the same page?” he turned to me.

The capybara saluted with the boxy thing that the first of the machines had held in its pincer. I looked between the two of them. “Aw fuck. If you’re gonna mess with my schedule like this, it better at least be fun, star prince.”

He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “This is nothing serious. We’ve got time enough for an adventure, and I never thought I’d see the day I faced the Machine Collective with you on my side. Brilliant.”

He ran out of the room, leaving me to laugh as I realized. “A trip to the intergalactic mail depot where I get to go on a killing spree? Hey Mobian, does this mean we’re going postal?!”

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Facing Mot-ality 1

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I know, I had to do it. I passed out, of course, but don’t believe the hype. I wasn’t out long enough long, just long enough to wake up in the arms of a man with the body of a Greek god. I don’t know when Apollo circled back around, I just know he was carrying me.

I got the sense Titan had been shielding us with his wings. He stopped to look back, but Apollo yelled something back. I don’t know if I hit my head again, but I know I passed out. When I woke up, I was propped against the door of a really hot building. The smoke was making me cough, but a Venus ran out with a baby in her arms. I fell down, hacking and vomiting.

Next thing I knew, I woke up strapped with my belly to the front of a cart that rolled down a street. I couldn’t see where I was going, but there were gunshots and impacts against the back and ass of my armor. I tried to turn, but then I hit some sort of barricade and the cart flipped.

Not good times for me, and the didn’t get better until I awoke coughing to a Riccan medic applying nanites via aerosol spray up my nose. “Easy, Empress. You’ve suffered a lot of brain trauma.”

I nodded and sat back, working on breathing. Not the best way to apply nanites, but it does get to the lungs a lot quicker, and I remembered something about smoke at the time. After a moment, I had time to ask, “Anything permanent?”

“Not now that we’ve applied the nanos. You were out of your own, Empress,” he pointed out. He pulled out a flashlight. “I need to check pupillary response.”

I let him go through checking me real quick, but once he seemed sure I was ok, I shooed him off. I looked around as I made sure to signal the nanites to emphasize my brain and essential organs over my lost arms and any skin-deep injuries. The carrier bay of the Psycho Flyer was loaded down with the injured, my soldiers doing their best to see to them. They hadn’t been sent out for a rescue mission.

I didn’t see the heroes, Hares, or Titan in there. They’d stayed behind to help with the evacuation. Even the Hares. The news showed Apollo trying to whisk people out of ground zero as Mot stalked the city, then left for greener pastures. And they get a lot greener around there.

And once I got back in control, I was able to contact Titan’s people to coordinate getting the wounded to Cape Diem bases for medical treatment and evac via portal to better places, including some who went with me to Ricca. I had other things to prepare. I couldn’t run myself ragged trying to get more than a billion Indians out of the way of a being that devours people, or the next billion next door in China.

It had been an emotional whiplash. Rage at Barkiel trying to kill my daughter. Tension. And then all kinds of shit from the actual fight with Barkiel that hadn’t even been processed. Sympathy. Humiliation. Indignation, which isn’t quite the same as anger. I can tell, because there’s still plenty of rage from knowing he played me like a harp from hell. And I know it’s boring to mention I spent time processing this kinda shit, but not doing so got me into this mess. For all I know, I had plenty of other enemies who would send a bomb to kill my daughter. My first assumption was to think it was the Hares, and that’s exactly what Barkiel wanted me to think to make his plan work. I can’t be going up against Mot with that kind of handicap.

So I And, let’s face it, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. If Barkiel was telling the truth, it sounds like pretty much everything I’ve done since that whole time travel mess has played into this. And I didn’t even go anywhere good, like to go back in time and become Genghis Khan’s father, or kill slavers during the American Civil War, or punch Hitler in his face while wearing Puerto Rico’s flag on my chest. But no, I had to go, leave behind a broken time machine, and not save myself as a kid.

Barkiel really hammers home how important it is not to get too wrapped up in all that. For all his manipulations, he let loose a super with who-knows-what powers that promptly devoured him. It was that, or face the god of war. The same asshole wannabe deity stayed behind to fight something he had to know he couldn’t beat, and then Apollo carried me out. Going to subtract points for using me as a door stop and a battering ram, though.

All that stuff and more went through my mind as I laid in a nanite bath in full armor, healing and repairing. I sent a great many of the nanites out to build more and steal materials. That involved a raid of the refrigerator, for instance, where I made absolutely sure they didn’t touch anything with Max’s name written on it. The guy’s full of so many substances that eating after him or stealing his food could mean all sorts of nastiness. Only guy on earth who could start a zombie plague with an STD.

If it seems that I was basically sulking in a tub, yeah, a little. Bit I was rebuilding myself. And, more importantly, I was building a little something to deal with Mot. It would take a lot to kill him, and the future-that-won’t-be used armies and supers had plenty at their disposal. But they didn’t have my brain. Which sounds a lot more braggy than intended. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with my other Earth of origin and the portal to it in Canada, but I have to imagine there was some reason they didn’t step in to help in the other timeline.

Why bring up that delightful place? Because of the technology required to breach the dimensional barriers of the universe and cross into a new dimension. That’s right, that simple little weapon is the answer. Because when ever problem’s a nail, then stop, because it’s hammer time.

Qiang sought me out in my little tub. “Mommy? Are you ok? They said you were hurt.”

I had to connect to a music speaker around the house. “I’m ok, sweetheart. I got hurt, but unless I’m destroyed completely, I can come back better than ever.”

She hugged the side of my tank. “You broke the kitchen.”

I laughed through the speaker. “I was mad and did something stupid.”

“Why’d you do that?” she asked. The pouty and accusing way she asked that made me laugh again.

“Honey bear, someone made me so mad I couldn’t think straight and I did dumb things.”

“I don’t want to be so mad that I, that I, that I don’t, um,” she went on.

“Sweety,” I interrupted her, “Everyone gets mad. Even people who go around all snobby saying, ‘I don’t get mad or sad, everything I do is because of my brain being smart’, but it’s their brain that gets mad, too. Because they don’t think they are being that way, they don’t realize it and don’t know how to deal with it. There are good ways to deal with anger.”

“Like when you and Uncle Max drink that stuff?” she asked.

Huh. She got me there. “Yes, but that’s a special drink for adults that can also make people act stupid if you don’t use it right. I’ll teach you more once I’m done beating someone who is very, very bad.”

“Some people say you’re bad,” she said.

“This person’s way worse and bad things are going to happen if he’s allowed to do what he wants.”

“What kind of things?” she asked.

I didn’t tell her, but I’d been keeping track of that. At first, he seemed to be moving at just a walking pace. They could try to move folks out of the path. Try. It’s hard to hundreds of thousands of folks to up and move in so little time, and those are the ones capable of moving under their own power. Then he teleported straight to another city. The noises coming out of Allahabad don’t sound good. One guy on the Indian military lines just kept repeating “They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other,” over and over until I found a way to disrupt his signal. It went out on its own soon afterward.

Morale’s important right now, and this is the time to manage it. That’s part of why I’m taking my time. The other part has to do with a pair of D-Bombs. They’ll be a bit on the crude side rushing this through. Less precise, and I won’t have enough to teleport them in using another bomb as a sort of wormhole. That means hand delivery, and this HAS to go right. I don’t know if I can trust Dudebots. I think this has to be me. Or maybe I still think I have to personally do all this.

There’s basically a hurricane moving across India. There are random earthquakes. Gotta give the Hares credit for however they sealed this guy up if it was able to stop this sort of thing. California’s even on fire again, but that might just be how that state works now for eleven months out of the year. Ricca’s shield has had to go up because of all the tsunamis.

Oh great, superspeed. He’s got superspeed too. I had a top, down satellite view and he just zipped right the fuck out of Allahabad and crashed into Lahore, Pakistan, population 5 million while heroes are still playing catch up trying to calm people down and get them out of Allahabad in India. He dragged the hurricane with him. If it was almost anybody else, that’d be awesome. A superspeed hurricane. That’d be a good name for a band.

Suddenly, a bright orb flew through Earth’s atmosphere and began to fly into the hurricane clockwise to the hurricane’s counterclockwise spin. “People of Earth!” a voice said, taking over all frequencies and channels. “I am the Mobian, and I promise you that Earth will not fall while I live. This being is Mot, and he has powers beyond that of any superhuman to walk the face of the planet, but he can be stopped” He spoke with such conviction, I gotta say I got goosebumps.

As usual, someone had to fuck it up. “General Mayhew here. We are monitoring the situation and the world wonders: how? What is Mot after?”

Mobian sighed. “Your life. I know that Mot will only rest when the world is ashes. I’ve seen it in a future that cannot come to pass. You can’t debate him, you can’t buy him off with money or a fiefdom. It is at the core of his being that every human is inferior and must be purged.”

“Mobian, if this is meant to inspire hope, you’re doing it wrong,” chimed in Titan’s voice.

“I’m Psychopomp Gecko,” I said. “This is my home, and I’ve never met anyone too powerful to die.” There in my palace, I rose out of the solution of the nanite tank. Taller than I had been, and ripped. I looked so good, I could have done an infomercial, or even porn.

“You have a plan?” asked this General. I pulled my armor out from the solution and slid it on, nanites melding it to my skin.

“I need Mot held in one place and I need to get close to him. Then I’ll need everyone to run,” I told them just before I slipped on my helmet and the nanites built up a final seal meant to be permanent.

I gave Qiang a long hug before I grabbed the D-Bomb cluster by a pair of straps I’d built onto it.

To that same channel Mobian had opened up, I said, “I looked and saw a pale horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hell was coming after him.”

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Hare-Brained 11

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It didn’t help me get sleep. Maybe it was the lack of endorphins related to killing those particular people, but the tension was still there. Took something a lot stronger than Max’s medicated beer to help ease me out of it. Like some diazepam, and the soothing sounds of a Korean woman saying words in Japanese while moving around. Upon reflection, to people who don’t know about it, that probably looks like some weird fetish stuff instead of a way to relax.

I was quite surprised when I dreamed I was in some room at Master Academy. I looked down to see a pair of boobs I recognized, but only two arms, holding a power suppression collar. I looked up when I heard Venus saying, “This is a lot to ask me to believe.” I looked up and saw we were in an office. She was seated across from myself and… Ares. I thought they found parts of his, but maybe that doesn’t matter so much. The guy had an arm of metal, as natural as if he was just made of the stuff. Perhaps he can regenerate eternal, shiny and chrome. He still looked old, but instead of wearing some old leather vest and sandals, the old man wore bronze hoplite armor, with a bronze helmet sat in his lap. Behind him, at the door, stood several other supers I recognized from around the school, and a few who I have to assume are newer ones based on context.

“After the murder of our peace delegation, I would have no other reason to come before you about this,” Ares said, glowering at her.

“That was Psycho Gecko, not me. He… she’s unreliable and paranoid,” Venus said.

“She should be. Barkiel tried to use my death to justify a measure we cannot take. When I showed myself, he called for the visitors to back him and do it by force. When that failed, he tried coup by robot and tried to destroy us with a small nuclear weapon. Something is very wrong, and I am here to offer our surrender on all your points that are possible while we uncover what has happened over the past months.”

“The god of war asks for peace,” Venus said. She took a moment to look at him. “You said he was trying to call for some measure. What’s going on? Are we about to be hit by some sort of weapon?”

Ares closed his eyes and massaged his nose with a pair of fingers. “There was a god who transgressed against the rest of us and sought to take control over the pantheons. He began consuming healers to absorb their powers and to cow us by keeping our peoples from healing. A group of them allied with the Hindu pantheon to lure him into an ancient prison for gods. The prisoners inside rebelled. It almost failed, but the last of them sealed the way out.”

“You wanted to put us in the prison?” Venus asked.

Ares shook his head, “When we first created our agreement with our human descendants and the visitors to keep our existence a secret and protect Earth, we realized the prisoner, Mot, could be what was needed to cull people with powers.”

Mot. FUUUUUCK.

Ares went on, “The visitors have been more aggressive ever since supervillains started breaking out of prisons all over the world. I think Barkiel’s snapped. Worse, he knows where Naraka is.”

“Where?” I asked as Dame.

Ares looked to me, then to Venus, “I would rather not say.”

“We can help guard it from Barkiel,” Venus said. “Consider it one of the conditions of your surrender.”

“The Hindu prison Naraka is underneath one our shrines in Varanasi, marked by a symbol of three hares chasing each other around in a circle.”

Within Dame’s mind, I got a flash of memory. Barkiel relaying a message on behalf of this Council. “Play along. Give him locations, but warn us first. We want to control where he goes instead of allowing him to pick randomly. Use this map, but not any of the sites I’ve crossed out.”

I remember the map he showed Dame on a monitor. Munich was one of the crossed-out sites. Others included the storage depot I told Venus about. Varanasi, India didn’t have any information about it, even for Dame to see.

“Dame, are you alright?” asked Venus. “Maybe you should put that back on.” She pointed to Dame’s power collar.

I smiled with Dame’s mouth. “Sure thing.” I dropped the collar accidentally on purpose, and reached for Dame’s cell while picking it back up. A ringing in my head helped bring me back to my own body that fought through the drug-induced drowsiness to answer hang up on Dame’s call.

So now I knew where Barkiel was. And, more importantly, I knew this had something to do with Mot. I injected myself with nanites to clear up the sluggishness while I put on my armor, two legs at a time. Because even when I’m a woman, I am a god among men.

I did two things on my way out of the palace. First, I left a note for Qiang, telling her I’ll be back and not to let everyone make a mess. Then I shut off the water to the kitchen sink and pulled it out of the wall. I carried it like a club as I headed to the missile base, where my ordinance technicians were already clearing space out of a missile. The techs all bowed as I helped myself into the rocket, with one ready to shut and seal the hatch of the capsule. But before he did, he asked, “Any further instructions, Empress?” I buzzed him with a pair of drones that I flew in.

“Yes, hand me those two rockets there,” I told him. He dutifully handed me a couple of those rockets a person could stand on that I’d never ended up selling as a means of personal conveyance. “Good, now prepare for trouble, and make it double, once this rocket’s blasting off again.”

He looked puzzled but nodded, “As you wish, Empress.” I fired off a message to his superiors anyway ordering Psycho Flyers deployed to India to pick me up and mop-up whatever was going to go down.

Rockets are fast, that’s for sure. You can get moving much faster than jets in these bad boys, and make all sorts of distance if you’re willing to hit the outer atmosphere. The reason they aren’t that popular a method has more to do with the fact that the human body has trouble going that fast and that high. Bones break, you have trouble breathing, there are pressure concerns. That’s not even touching on the landing. By the time the rocket itself broke off and obliterated itself, the nanites were having to extract my tailbone from my throat and patch me up. And while I could have made a capsule designed for travel given a little bit of time, I was rushing here. Venus, Ares, and the whole lot of people who are supremely pissed at me probably knew I was on my way to Naraka.

I had to beat them there, so I rushed the rocket and had to break my way out of the capsule. Two hands on the kitchen sink, and with a hand each on my rockets, I hopped out and let them slow my fall.

The Naraka Shrine was in another walled-off courtyard with tents and shakes. Folks were milling about, with the tall robots Barkiel used standing guard at the gates and doorway to the shrine. Black but for glowing red accents and a big red oval on their faces, they held up arms ending in plasma cannons as big as some people’s heads. And they were keeping them trained on the people in the courtyard, who had definitely noticed me. Some little kid was there, hopping up and down. “Look, up in the sky! Who is it?”

The robots all turned as one to aim at me, so I let go of the rockets and dropped, letting the blue plasma pass harmlessly overhead. I tried to land standing, with bent knees. The weight of the armor and force of the landing took me down to a knee. Not the best position to be in when eight big-ass robots decide you’d make a good torch.

The closest two got a rocket through their heads and collapsed. From out of my cape flew the drones, a pair of laser drones this time. They carved through the next pair who advanced on me. I used my stance to jump, then flying over a blast to knock the crap out of one of them, then turn and send the next closet smashing into the outer wall. Before it could pull itself out of the indentation it left, I had run forward and impaled it through the midsection.

Behind me, another pair of robots lined up for shots. I turned with the impaled one and caught a pair of blasts with its body, watching him melt away with each shot. The rockets looped around in the sky and came down, tearing through their heads and torsos to pin the wreckage to the ground. I dumped the remains of the impaled robot next to them and quipped, “Vlad to see me?”

I spun when I saw the Hares coming closer, but they didn’t SEEM hostile. One older man raised his hands up. “Thank you! We thought he would kill us before the Council could send help?”

“Who?” I asked.

He pointed into the shrine. “He’s one of the Visitors; said he was the Captain now. He ordered his robots to keep us under guard for what comes next.”

Food for Mot. Yummy. I shared Barkiel’s desire to see them dead, but if any of them had powers, it’d just make Mot stronger, IF he got out. And he wasn’t supposed to get out. I was supposed to have had 30 years to prepare for him, according to the Future Venus from that timeline who spared my life in the hopes it would change the future. So the timeline’s changed… yay.

I headed in and found more robots. Less sarcastic yay! I turned a corner and found myself facing a couple of them guarding a door. I jumped up and hooked my legs around one’s neck, twisting around to wrap a pair of my arms around the second’s neck. I’d hoped to twist the heads off, but I couldn’t bring enough strength to bear for that. Instead, we all tumbled down. They both aimed their cannons at me, so I grabbed them and kindly adjusted their aim just in time to see them put holes in each other.

That room had more captives who were eager to get out of there and I let them. Mot and Barkiel were more important.

Down the hallway, down a staircase, because if they’d imprisoned someone in the air I’d have noticed. Trailing drones, I found myself in a long, dark corridor with a pair of heavy stone doors halfway open on the other end and a couple robots on the other side. They spotted me. Instead of trying to fight, they started pushing the doors closed on me. The drones began to move in a circle, chasing each other in front of me, lasers carving through the door. I charged up the energy sheaths on all four gauntlets as I ran.

When I hit the cut portion of the door, it flew inward, nailing those robots to the opposite wall, which looked to be rough cave wall. To my right was a gentle stone slope that humanity hadn’t built, though it had left skidmarks on. Tread marks, I mean.

I also heard the sound of fighting from up ahead. I started charging the energy sheaths on my upper arms just in case. Around the bend, I saw Apollo hopping around, all nimbly-bimbly, like a cat. He had on a leather outfit with a skirt like something they’d expect me to wear in a fantasy game, but he just jumped around shooting his light arrows from his bow a gleaming blue and nickel machine menace.

It was Barkiel, I saw, in walker armor. Like with power armor, it’s my hands and feet in the boots. His armor was a good twelve feet tall, with his head sticking out of the neck. He probably had his arms and legs down the arms and legs of the armor, but he wouldn’t lose a hand if it did. I thought his exposed head would make him easy pickings until a light arrow sparked and disappeared against a dome that appeared out of nowhere around his head when it got close. Apollo reached out with his spare hand and another field lit up, glowing red, tight around Barkiel’s face.

The alien laughed. “Like my latest apparatus?” A grenade shot up from over his shoulder, bounced against the roof of the cave, and exploded into a thick cloud of black smoke. He jumped to the side, jets igniting on the soles and belt of the armor. When the smoke cleared, Apollo had taken up a new position but was firing nowhere near Barkiel.

The real Barkiel had raised both arms toward Apollo, the ends glowing. Trailing sparks, I skidded between his legs, bouncing my head off the invisible field as I passed too close to him. When he fired, the energy sheaths around my gauntlets absorbed some of the power for the suit’s back-up batteries and deflected the rest at the ceiling. We all looked up for a second to see if this stalactite was going to fall, but nothing. Then Barkiel looked past me to Apollo, who had now turned to focus on the real one. “Is she with you?”

“I thought she was with you,” Apollo said, eyeing me.

“Apparatus. Helping me hunt down you Hares, helping me escape, attacking your own people. You’ve been playing all sides here, haven’t you!” I yelled.

“Ha!” he spat the laugh at me. A quartet of missile tubes rolled over onto his left shoulder from behind his back. “You made such a great enemy, but if you’d like to make up, why not kiss under the missile?” He fired the tubes, but lasers spilled out from one of my flanking drones to detonate them close to him. His shield caught most of it, but I think a little bit was inside it. It looked like we scraped the paint on his ride.

The other drone fired at him from behind, aiming for center mass. The thing wasn’t really agile enough to get us along with it. Apollo leapfrogged me and fired his own arrows at the guy. I stepped out of his path and charged for Barkiel.

A wave of force went out from the walker in all directions, pushing me back enough to halt my run, knocking one of Apollo’s arrows into him, and throwing my drones into the walls of the cavern to their destruction. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Gecko!” I continued my charge and split off a couple holograms, one to dodge to my left, another to stay in place, and then me branching off to the right. Something flew off the chest of Barkiel’s armor and right through the middle Gecko, but I stopped, armor shaking, and flew back until I was suspended over it. I couldn’t reach out without getting pulled back into a huddled bunch.

“You sent the bomb, didn’t you!” I yelled at the extraterrestrial asshole.

“Yeeessss!” He said, sweeping his arms after Apollo. The god tried to outrun it, but then Barkiel just moved his left arm to the side quicker and took him off at the knees. At least Apollo ducked the second beam before it could take off his head. He disappeared in a flash of light then, leaving me alone with Barkiel. “See? He ran and left you to me.”

Barkiel looked at me and winked, then hit the jets on his suit and flew it to a wall I hadn’t been paying particular attention to. “I’ve been on this planet for so long. You have no idea.”

“Why are you letting out Mot? He’ll kill everyone!” I said. Weird to hear me object to something like that.

“I want to go home,” Barkiel said, stepping up to wall with actual stones laid out in around a round center stone, like a sun. He touched the center one, which slowly lit up with a glowing overlay of white light and ancient runes. “I never wanted to be stuck on this backwards planet. We have that in common, don’t we?” He tried to look back at me but couldn’t turn his head all the way.

Whatever this thing was, I had no access. None to his suit or that wall, either. The only machine I could still connect to outside of my suit was a drone that wasn’t getting airborne anytime soon. I tried it anyway, watching it hop around. The laser still seemed usable, though. “I’m trying to remember… this threat that some of the Earthlings believe in if they’re exposed or… Sam said if Earth got too advanced or there were too many supers…”

He cut me off before I could slowly work it out to cover up the sounds of my drone hopping around. “Yes. If Earth is a threat, my people will get off their lazy, aristocrat asses and deal with the upstarts. That is my ride off this rock of ignorant savages. You can leave as well. In fact, do you want to come with?”

“No,” I said. “I left my world, but my world sucked. It sounds like yours does too if they give so few shits about you. This is my home. I have a family here, and friends. How long have you been here stewing instead of doing anything?”

“Fif. Teen. Hundred. Years,” he said. The blocks around the central one lit up. He started tapping on one and the light flew into the center. “Fifteen hundred years with dirty monkey men. I could have had a family. I used to have friends. We could have reported the place as a threat, or advanced you to the point of getting us home. We could have even come forward during other alien attacks and taken their ships. Israkeel didn’t want to risk the stupid barbarians though.

He laughed as he worked on more of those perimeter blocks. A couple more went fast, but he had to stop some to consult a holographic display I couldn’t translate. “You were perfect. One day, you started breaking supers out of prison, and I realized what I could do. The others, they just wanted to use the collars, and I did pass relay orders to make that happen. I eagerly overstepped my bounds. I guided you and made sure you survived. Do you think it’s any accident you’re a woman now? I knew that would rile you up, the big bad supervillain and his fragile male ego, so I put advice in the right ear.”

Well, nice to know he doesn’t know me as well as he thinks. Hippity hoppity, little drone. One of these days you’ll get that laser facing me… “If I didn’t kill Centeotl, he’d have attacked Los Angeles anyway.”

“He agreed with me about the need to assert ourselves over the humans, but he would have been glassed like the rest. I relayed secure orders, always from superiors, to hire assassins. You had me worried when you sent that message back…”

There. I fired the laser of the drone. The drone caught on fire from something not quite being in alignment, but the beam shot out and burned enough that the device crackled and I fell to the ground. I hopped up in a hurry, but Barkiel didn’t pay me any mind. I split off more holograms to try and hide my approach, glad I still had a couple gauntlets ensconced in energy waiting to disperse into him. My free hands took up rocket knives. I jumped as the holograms all ran to catch up. He never turned back to me.

And then he suddenly was turned to me. He caught my in midair, one hand on my waist, the other on my head. The, fuck, the projection he’d left at the wall disappeared. Even the glowing circle on the wall faded. At least he had to stop whatever that was. I punched at his arm, but the attacks did nothing to dislodge his grip. The field stayed, glowing red. I shot a rocket knife into his face, but it bounced off, blade bent. Barkiel gritted his teeth and pulled with the hand on my helmet, aiming to take my head off.

“Fuck, this is good armor,” he said after a minute of straining. He let go of my head and held his arm to the side. A long, round rod of metal flipped out from under his arm and into his hand. A white trail rose out of the far end and formed a curving shape that could have been a one-sided blade. “Make this painless on yourself and hold still.”

That’s not how I roll, so I wiggled and reached up to try and keep his hand away.

“I told you!” he yelled and brought the blade down. Sudden pain shot through my left upper arm, right through the elbow and up near the shoulder. I still felt it even though I looked down and saw two pieces of what used to be that arm rolling to the ground. The uneven flesh of my arm wasn’t bleeding, but I saw smoke and felt a sudden coldness around those nerves. Barkiel tried to bring the blade down on my helmet, but my lower right shot up to grab at it. The blade split that arm and carved it in two. Between that and my shiftng, the blade only took off part of the right side of my helmet, and left that arm hanging useless. When he pulled the blade free of it, I got to see it flop to the ground, severed in the bicep.

“This could have been painless,” He said, raising the blade up to wave it in my face. He thrust it, but I moved my head. After three thrusts, there really wasn’t even a helmet left. “Stop moving!” he said before trying a sweep. I ducked my head under it like a limbo dancer ducking under a green snake in a sugarcane field, but he clipped a bunch of my hair. I could smell it as it burned.

“I don’t normally let this out,” he said, sneering at me, setting the tip of the blade against my breast. “But you things are disgusting to me.”

I flipped my fangs down and opened my mouth to spray hot sauce at him. It didn’t penetrate, but it did cover it for a minute. I threw myself to the side he wasn’t holding my hip from and twisted. It wasn’t the best way to hold a person and I tumbled loose, if not in good position, scrambling away. He stepped toward me, raising the blade. “Yeah, cute. Die now- oh shit!”

A bright light had flared up in the middle of the cavern, headed toward Barkiel. He raised the sword. I didn’t get a good look at what happened, the sword wasn’t there anymore, just as sparking rod and a field that glowed red around edges that weren’t closed around Barkiel. I leaped, but Barkiel kicked me away, into a wall where I could see Apollo, whole again, step out of a beam of light.

I heard footsteps, too. I turned to see Dame running down. “The fuck are you doing here so fast?”

She slid to a stop right by me as I struggled to sit up, probably tearing her skintight black tights. “Once I clued you in, they knew they had to come here right away.”

“Than-” I started to say, but she cut me off with a click of metal around my neck. Everything went black, and my hearing didn’t work right. I couldn’t do much of anything except feel. I felt hands wrap around my throat, squeezing. For some reason the ground was vibrating, but that probably had more to do with the big armor stomping around.

I tried to hit her, but the armor wasn’t working too well. My limbs were sluggish as parts of me didn’t want to function right, and without the armor being a real part of me anymore. When I got an arm up, she pushed it back down with one hand and slammed my head into the ground a couple of times, choking with one hand all the while. Of all the people to kill me, I didn’t expect Dame. And I was wrong.

My head jerked to the side and I could see again. I could punch again! I knocked Dame flat on her ass with a punch and reached for my neck. The collar had been blasted by something. A glow attracted my attention to the light arrow stuck in the cave wall behind me. I tugged the remnants off and threw them aside, then told Dame, “Kill me later. For now, we have to make sure he doesn’t release Mot.”

I scrambled up, but suddenly that shaking from before got a lot more noticeable. I looked and saw Barkiel, with a face full of smile, locking up with Apollo. “It’s too late!” he yelled.

The stones I thought looked like a sun slid inward and the wall slid up into the ceiling. Everything past that was darkness. Apollo backed away from Barkiel and the darkness.

“Quickly!” called a voice from higher up in the cave. I saw Ares running down, helmet on, spear and shield at the ready. He skidded to a halt when he saw the opening. “We’re too late.”

Venus was there as well, and Titan. Venus looked to Dame in particular, my neck, and the wrecked collar on the floor.

“Mot!” Barkiel yelled into the darkness. “It’s supper time!”

“Close the door, Barkiel, while there’s still time!” Ares said.

I crawled until I could get to my feet, running over to Venus and Titan. I had to fight through dizziness to stand there with them. “We have to go.”

“No,” Venus said. “We stop this here and now.”

“Nobody’s getting to this door just yet,” Barkiel said. A tendril of flesh wrapped around Barkiel as he grinned confidently at us. He looked down then and realized too late that he was the closest thing to a very hungry being. He tried to pull it off him, but it whipped back into the darkness, dragging the screaming alien along with him.

“I know what we’re dealing with here, and there is no stopping it. How do I access the door’s controls?” I asked Ares.

He looked to me, then shook his head. “It’s too late. Go, all of you.”

“I’m here,” Titan said.

“That’s a good reason to go,” I said. “Imagine something just as hard to kill as you, but it can absorb anyone it touches and gets their powers.”

He squinted at me, then at the opening. Apollo ran back toward us, and past us. Ares held his shield on guard and told us, “She’s right. Go. I fight in the rearguard.”

“What’s Mot do to people?” Venus asked.

“He’s got a couple thousand years of hunger to make up for. We need to go,” I said.

A burst of lightning flashed out of the darkness and floored Ares. He coughed and stood back up, metal showing through holes in his skin.”Go, now!” A long-haired, bearded figure stepped out of the darkness, tendrils trailing from his back. He wore rags that vaguely resembled Barkiel’s uniform and dropped one of the arms of Barkiel’s walker armor as he stepped out.

“This feels wrong,” Titan said, backing up.

Ares jumped forward and impaled Mot with his spear. Mot raised his arms and blasted Ares with more lightning that threw the old man back. Then his hands became icicles that broke off and flew at Ares. The Olympian got his shield up, but they penetrated, stabbing into his arm.

“Venus, slap him,” I said.

She jumped up and hit Titan across the face, then yelled, “We have to get as many people out as we can.”

I turned to head up the slope as well. I wasn’t as quick getting out of there as I was coming in, especially the way the floor kept spinning. I tried to get some nanites into me, but they flew out of my hand with all the spinning. At least I had time to advise the Psycho Flyers to hurry and take on as many refugees as possible so long as I was one of them. Then there was the rumbling, and I passed the fuck out as things began to collapse around us.

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Hare-Brained 10

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In the days after the bombing attempt on my daughter, I left most of the negotiation strategy to Titan and Venus. Titan, Venus, and Psychopomp. Maybe it’s just paranoia or pareidolia, but I’m seeing a pattern. Really, the culprit be chalked up to some shared concepts. Both our worlds had Greeks. One of those threads I’d pick up before dropping it to focus on the plan, only to grab at it again.

My household had a pretty good idea I wasn’t in a good mood. Most steered clear of me. Max kept offering me sane juice, as if I wasn’t taking my meds. I’m perfectly sane at the moment. I’m just pissed as hell. And I did try to relax a little when it was hard to sleep. Then I found out one of my favorite ASMR people retired all of a sudden in July and I went straight back to being fucking enraged!

Aside from that, I stuck to my own preparations. Missiles built, nanites stored up, and making sure a Dimensional Bomb was ready to go. I didn’t care to talk with Venus and Titan about the plan before I met them, or even after. I stepped through the Riccan base’s portal to Cape Diem headquarters where an attendant offered to take my cape or helmet. I waved them off. “Then allow me to show you to where you can meet with the others,” the guy said. I nodded and followed after, all four arms behind my back.

“Hello Gecko,” said Titan.

Venus nodded, “Gecko.”

They’d been enjoying a cup of coffee in Titan’s office. It looked warm. Not expensive, but he had a few things he liked in there, like books and a few photos. One with him smiling next to a woman with a bow in a Cape Diem uniform. One with a different woman and a girl missing a front tooth smiling. His powers may not be related to the Greek gods, but his libido might be.

“If it’s all the same, I think it’s for the best you two take the lead on this one. Let me stand there looking mean, as if y’all are keeping me from killing them,” I suggested.

“That’s a great idea,” Venus said.

“Just one more time… in order to agree to a peace, the following conditions must be met. Point one, they provide us with a vaccine and cure. Point two, they go public with their existence. Point three, they allow people to leave their group who wish to do so.”

“That’s new,” I said.

Venus said, “Dame told me how insular and controlling they are. They had to keep them like that as part of staying secretive. When they go public, there’s no reason to do so anymore. What do you think?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Is your head in this, Gecko?” asked Titan, straightening up.

“Yep. I’m here. My brain’s here. Everything’s accounted for,” I told him.

They shared a look. They didn’t know what was up, but they knew something was.

As a trio, clad in our respective garb, we all set out to the Cape Diem base in Switzerland, merely a portal hop away. I had a pair of Psycho Flyers on approach before this to throw off the Hares. Didn’t want them assassinating anyone. That’d be my job, after all. The Flyers broke off their approach to Geneva, which we were fairly close to, and instead landed a good distance from the city. Even better for my plants, they could swoop in and drop off a couple squads of my Dragon soldiers in no time.

I wish I had tanks I could bring in, but I think we’re at a point where I can outfit infantry with the firepower of tanks and enough armor to make it count well enough. The nanites provide a boost to healing that aids in muscle growth and stamina, along with a few subtle alterations to skin resistance and bone density.

I put Elda on a more intensive version of the program. She was flown off to the United States, to be dropped off in the midwest with her new armor, sword, and supplies. By the time I was appearing in Geneva, she was waking up to find herself stronger and faster in a country raged by civil war. It was her choice whether she stood up for the weak or took advantage of the chaos for her own advantage. I left a way to track her… a ring on her ring finger. It gives me GPS and even her pulse, should I care to keep an eye on it.

She’ll hate me, but I’m good at being hated. Even though the world might be caught offguard by what I aimed for, they really couldn’t be surprised.

Light rain sprinkled down as we stepped into the Place du Bourg-de Four. As impressive as a group as we made in our unusual party, the folks meeting us couldn’t help standing out either.

I recognized Ares. Smart choice for screwing us over. I thought they’d have Apollo, but they instead had a dark-skinned man with eyes the color of clear water and short, light brown hair. Despite the suit he wore, I caught a glimpse of wave tattoos running up his neck, with others on his face; a dolphin underneath his chin and some other fish bent like it was leaping over his eye. Or maybe not his neck. Their face was more feminine than I expected, and I couldn’t get a close enough look at their chest.

Another pair included an exceptionally pale woman with black hair that covered half her face, with a svelte, muscular body like a dancer’s. I labelled her “Rhythm” on my HUD because I found it funny. She was with a swarthy Asian man with an epic curled mustache. Aside from Ares, that bunch were all dressed in something like normal formal wear. Ares, old hippie that he was, more closely resembled Willie Nelson or Tommy Chong. He even had sandals on.

The last two of their group had another person I recognized. Barkiel stood there without his disguise. I recognized him from when he announced their agreement to these talks. The person next to him was taller, with a long jacket, the bottom of which swept out stiffly instead of hanging loosely. This one had a light, short fuzz of yellow hair on her pink head, and a horizontal scar cut through her right eyebrow. I assume it was a her because of the way her chest stuck out further than Barkiel’s did. This species either had mammaries, or something close enough to it.

Six of them to three of us. Not ideal if they hoped to escape, but I know enough to be wary of Barkiel. He’s got tricks.

We stopped twenty feet or so from them. The alien visitor with Barkiel looked to him. Barkiel stepped forward. “Greetings, honored foes. Welcome to the negotiations. Allow me to introduce our party. Representing the Old Gods are Olokun of the Orisha and Ares of the Olympians.” For reasons of politeness, we shook hands. I had the advantage there, being able to shake both their hands at once.

“On behalf of the humans, we have here Margaritte Manx and Ian Borjigin.” Nice names. They’re gonna die.

“In the name of our group of visitors to your planet, I have here Captain Israkeel, and I am known as Barkiel.” Maybe it’s because I’m used to her looking at me with the expression, but I could tell Venus took particular exception to Barkiel upon his introduction.

Venus looked to me after he was done, as did Barkiel when he had stepped back behind his Captain there.

I stepped up. “I have brought with me Venus, champion of the Master Academy of superheroes, and Titan, leader of Capie Diem, dedicated to serving all and saving the day for everyone. I am Psychomp Gecko, Empress of the rogue nation of Ricca.”

When I stepped back, Venus spoke up. “We have come to see if we can come to an agreement over your unprovoked attack on our peoples and our response in kind or if this must continue until one of our sides is destroyed.”

Israkeel nodded, then raised a hand in front of Barkiel and gestured. Barkiel turned and clapped. The waiters from a coffee shop rushed out, setting up a folding table between our two groups. They ran back to get the chairs when Israkeel turned to Barkiel, “Did you want to try out that gizmo to keep the rain away?”

He smiled, “I’m afraid I left that apparatus behind.”

They brought us an umbrella with the chairs and took our orders. Barkiel and I both declined.

The silence was tense enough while we all waited, though at one point Olokun looked to me and asked, “You were our Tripura Sundari if I am not mistaken.” Their voice was soft then, feminine.

“One of your tricksters used a substance meant to hide my memories and called me by that name,” I responded.

Olokun looked to Ares, this time speaking with a voice that suggested the ownership of dong. “Many decisions were made without my input.” When he turned to look at me, he smiled, his voice softening once more, “I hope you were welcomed warmly into our hospitality.”

When Titan spoke, everyone noticed, “It’s an old tradition among various gods that hospitality is to be respected. Each of us welcomed one of yours with hospitality and was rewarded with betrayal.”

Olokun folded their hands in front of them like a prayer, “I must apologize. Again, there were questionable decisions made behind the backs of the chain of command.”

“With all due respect,” Venus jumped in here, “how can we expect any agreement here to be honored by your people if it is normal for them to ignore your chain of command?”

Olokun shared a look with Israkeel. Israkeel raised her nose before answering, “You have our full attention now and we give you our word we are instilling discipline and respect into the ones who lack it.”

“And we’ll just take your word for that?” I asked.

Israkeel smirked, “We are all here to give our word to an agreement.”

“It’s about trust,” Venus said, nodding to Israkeel, who returned the gesture.

Things kicked off in earnest once they all got their drinks. Israkeel opened things up at that point. “Empress Gecko’s message to us incorporated the phrase ‘unconditional surrender.’ I should hope this was mere affectation.”

Venus responded for me. “We have conditions. First, if you want us to stop dismantling your operations, we will need a cure and a vaccine.”

Barkiel leaned over to whisper something to Israkeel. I cranked up microphone sensitivity enough to hear him tell her, “Gecko is in possession of a cure.”

Israkeel said, “Agreed.”

Except Olokun and Borjigin were whispering back and forth too, with Olokun asking, “You said we were twenty years from a vaccine.”

“I said thirty years, but somebody panicked. You can’t agree to this, because it’s not physically possible” Borjigin told him.

“We agree to whatever they want. They can’t kill us for trying to vaccinate them,” Olokun whispered back. Then, loud enough to where he or she was supposed to be heard, they said, “The gods agree.”

Borjigin tightened his jaw, but added his agreement as well. I saw the other human put her hand on his forearm. I think they all knew they didn’t have a vaccine ready.

“The second thing we demand for is that you allow your members to leave if they want,” Venus said.

Olokun shook her head. “Unacceptable. Our people must stay with us for our protection and theirs. The world would find us out.”

“Our third condition is that you let the world know about your group anyway,” Titan said, grinning.

Manx nodded along to that one. “We would lose our status and become pawns to be used as leverage to co-opt our powers for the worldly governments. We just want to protect ourselves.”

“You lost the right to talk about protecting yourselves the moment you used my portals and their countries to distribute a virus that’s killing people and trying to handicap supers,” Titan said through a smile that could make a shark back off.

“As I said-” Olokun started, but they were cut off by Israkeel.

The alien captain bowed her head, “We took the course of action we felt was best. We have reason to believe the growing population of superhumans is a threat to the entire Earth, including our loved ones among you.” Israkeel smiled over at Borjigin, who flushed.

“Is that why you sent my daughter a bomb?” I asked. Venus went bolt upright at that, as did Titan a half-second later when he’d processed it.

On the other side of the table, the Three Hares delegation looked between each other except for Barkiel and Israkeel. The Captain looked right at me. “None among us did such a thing.”

“Allow me to remind you then,” I projected an image of my shaking daughter holding the box. “Fingerprint scanners to activate a timed detonation. Gun-style, uranium rings and uranium core, with just enough deuterium and tritium to make it spicy.”

Israkeel laid her hands down on the table, palms up. “We’ll do whatever you want to assure you we weren’t behind this and make this right.”

I pushed the table over between us. I punched right through to grab Israkeel’s throat and squeezed, then got another hand on there. Any human and I’d have been crushing spine while blood spurted, but the alien was tough.Venus grabbed at one of my free arms and tried to pull me. She didn’t have much luck until something severed the choking hands. Titan grabbed onto me as well and lifted me in a bear hug.

Venus, at least, had time to notice the lack of blood coming from my wrists, and the lack of flesh within the armor. Then the D-Bomb went off, setting off a cascade of events.

First, I lost contact with the Dudebot I’d given four arms to as the D-Bomb within it tore a small hole in reality, big enough to take Venus and Titan with it. Their intervention stopped me from having to give them a hug. At the same time, another bomb activated on Ricca, disappearing from the bomb lab Dr. Creeper had kept the device in.

Titan, Venus, and the Dudebot reappeared in the Directory building where I sat on my throne in my real armor. In Geneva, another new one torn in reality spat out the shell of the nuclear, hollowed out but sitting on top of a large, black, rounded bomb of the sort seen in cartoons. If the Hares had a moment to read, they’d might have noticed it read “That’s all, folks!” written on the side of the cartoon bomb in white paint. It went off before they possibly could have.

I could have gone nuclear, but for Max’s medication. People hold nuclear weapons as particularly awful, no matter how few their death toll in comparison to conventional arms. A terrorist bombing in Geneva would be glossed over. I was a supervillain. I do things like that. A nuclear attack on a foreign country is harder to walk away from without your metaphorical nuts in a literal vice.

The Psycho Flyer began to move it, the soldiers onboard getting instructions and photos showing them who to make sure is dead.

“What did you fucking do?!” Venus yelled at me in the Directory building.

“They tried to kill my daughter. Peace is off the table,” I told her.

“I should take you in right now. This alliance is over with!” she yelled back at me.

I just laughed, a short and cynical bark. “They tried. To kill. My daughter. And probably me along with her. I warned them. I told them it would happen. If they sent another assassin, I’d send one of my own, and it would be the only one I needed to send.”

“You’re just a scared bastard,” she said, walking up close to make tuning her out harder. “You don’t care about making the world better anyway. You say you want peace for your daughter, but you’ll never get it. You’re too scared of giving peace a real chance in the end, because if people can put aside hate and revenge, they can improve and you’ll know you’re wrong, you’re wrong for killing them instead of giving them a chance, because you’re a hurting, jealous little man who wishes he was a hero but has to settle for killing everyone he thinks is wrong with the world except the worst part of it. Himself. Yourself. You have to make sure everyone stays wrong so you can prove yourself right!”

She slapped me across the helmet, once, then again. Then she punched me, grabbed my helmet, and slammed me to the ground. She raised her fist and extended a spike that I knew could generate an electric current. She didn’t know it wouldn’t penetrate anyway, but still all I did was look up at her and ask, “Are you going to kill me?”

“I should. Do you know how many people are going to die?” She asked, and I swear there were tears in her voice.

“Every Hare I can get my hands on,” I said. “But not me unless you want that speech you gave to apply to you, too.”

She pulled the spike back in, but gave me a punch to the belly that knocked the wind out of me. She stood up and began to walk out, accepting a wing draped over her by Titan.

I smiled to myself in spite of the discomfort and pulled myself back onto the throne of Ricca. Words can be weapons too. I prefer bombs when available, though. They were effective enough in Geneva, as my soldiers soon reported back they had the remains of five individuals in the middle of a wrecked street with some big water main busted and flooding the area. Manx and Borjigin were a mess. Israkeel was in slightly better shape, meaning her body had been blown into a nearby building where being impaled through couple of support beams finished her off. Olokun had stayed relatively intact better than the humans, but that was a moot point with identifiable body parts scattered all over.

That just left Barkiel. The other one who hadn’t ordered a drink. The one who, upon playback of satellite footage over Geneva, disappeared all on his own around the same time our side of the table had.

Tricky little Barkiel. I’ll find him too.

If even gods bleed, I know what he’ll do.

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Hare-Brained 9

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I’m “swearing” off women other than my wife. Yes, the square quotes are intentional. I didn’t swear actually swear or promise or make a deal about anything. I’m just going to try. I don’t know why it seems worthwhile to me. I don’t love Citra. We’re friendly but not friends. Maybe the best reason I can come up with is the dignity of my position. I mean, just imagine how hard it’d be to take a world leader seriously if I had strippers and porn stars doing tell-all interviews describing what my sex parts look like in an embarrassing way. Like saying it’s abnormally big and resembled a Sarlacc pit.

I know, it’s weird. It’s just that her feelings suddenly matter more after a few of Max’s beers. Not that they were completely out of mind. Carl, Moai, Qiang, Max… not the first people I cared about.

I confronted someone I didn’t care about, too. I visited Elda. Technically, she’s supposed to be my wife as part of a political marriage with the Bronze City over on the island of Mu. I betrayed her and put her into a coma while marrying Citra who used nanite surgery to look like her. I stopped by a special room in the hospital that no one knows about and left a sword in there. “Hello Elda. Long time no see.”

She didn’t respond, naturally. The equipment hooked up to her showed her to be healthy enough. The nanites were keeping her comatose. She’d lost weight, though. I sent out out an order to nanites and the medical staff. “A bit skinny there. I’ll work on that. I’ve wronged you, Elda. No duh, right? You had dreams of being some warrior princess and here I come to be the one to marry you. I should have worked something out with you that didn’t involve hurting you.” The nanites made sure my message go through to her, because science. Hail science!

“I’m sorry. This sword is the first of the gifts I’ll be throwing together for you. They’ll bring up clothes later and I have armor being printed off for you. Before I… there’s a fight coming up involving people who have a reputation as gods, and the powers to back it up. When I go, I’m going to make sure we drop you off somewhere. Give you a shot at being your own person, as you deserve. I’ll throw in some money and arrange for a tutor on this crazy new world you’ll be in, but I think you’ll fit in. The land I have in mind is a land of conflict, where you can find your way for good or ill. A land where you can, with effort, become who you want to be out from under my shadow.”

I stepped close and laid my hand over hers. “I am by far the shittiest spouse you could have gotten. I hope you find a better life than I obviously planned for you.”

That decision’s going to bite me in the ass at some point. But it’s still the right one. Ugh, that statement… I need a beer.

Speaking of things that can fuck me over, Hu. Hu’s attempts to get me to understand proportionality, like Citra, rubbed off on me. The dude’s still not being my liason another time, but he’s got good skills and he cares. He just fucked up. I suppose the case could be made for how I shouldn’t have killed that judge or Wong the Director, but I can rationalize it another way. Hu is still good at his job despite his poor judgment, in which he went above and beyond his authorized powers. Wong and that judge’s entire job amounted to their judgment and how they used it. They both showed themselves incompetent with the powers vested in them, which was hazardous to my nation.

Side note: Queen Beetrice, the giant bee woman obsessed with snoo-snooing me to death, has heard I did a good job on the courts and thinks I need to help out over in North Korea. They are my people too, but I guess her self-education hasn’t prepared her for making North Korea’s judicial system less gulag-y. I got her some notes, but that’s the best I could do. I have more important things to worry about than that at this point.

I have the Place du Bourg-de-Four under so much surveillance it would make a porn site feel forgotten. Do you know how many rats fart there on average each day? I do. Disturbances in the pattern of rat farts could be the only indication the Three Hares have snuck an ambush into place or deployed some form of weapon. Rat farts start petering off and then I find out there’s poison gas hidden around that’s been killing them off slowly while waiting on me to get close.

The Hares wouldn’t expect me to pay attention, but I’ll show them. I’ll show all of them. There’s an ancient conspiracy uniting ancient European, African, American, Asian, and Oceanian mythology, involving gods and aliens guiding the world while remaining hidden, and the rats will tell me if they try to kill me. Yes, the Three Hares will rue the day Psycho Gecko started taking her medication! Mwahahahaha!

So like I said, the stuff Max is giving me for my mental health has done wonders to make me a more sane and functional person. And it’s all thanks to my extensive drinking of alcohol. Couldn’t have done it without putting all that beer in me. It’s practically made me a role model compared to my old self.

That doesn’t mean all my problems are solved. In addition to keeping an eye on the Three Hares, the United States government wants me to give back Rhonda, Leland, and Kayla. I’ve refused on the grounds of Ricca being safer. The envoy from the U.S. Started to laugh at the idea that U.S. Citizens are safer in an foreign dictatorship until I showed him the front page of the latest newspaper showing brutal murders committed by police, children being rounded up and placed into internment camps, and constant mass shootings. The only response was an awkward, “We didn’t realize you subscribed to American news.”

He’d had a drink of water. It would have been so easy. An aneurysm. A heart attack. A stroke. He sat there, speaking as if I needed to do what he said or I’d be obliterated. Because how dare anybody challenge them. The rest of the world just has to let them push them around. Makes me want to find something big to shove, whole, up that guy’s ass. Reminds me a lot of myself.

Well, Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day. The Visigoths didn’t have dimensional technology. I do, so I’ve been throwing one together. It’s all part of the plan, you see. Get peace, or make them die trying. But that’s all boring. I’ve built plenty of those. The really interesting stuff happened, as it so often does, when I was in the shower.

I was sudsing myself up with all four arms, getting my curves nice and clean. The door rang. It was that pizza I ordered that I didn’t have enough money to pay for.

Fanservice over. I was farting my way through another shower when someone screamed my name. It’s not an unusual sound for the shower, but I do prefer the person screaming it be in there with me when the magic’s happening. I didn’t think too much of it, until more voices joined in. Figuring the household wasn’t turning into my own personal chorus of the damned, I threw a towel around my waist, another around my boobs, and a last one around my hair. The final towel I tightened into a spiral for self defense.

I found Silver Shark, Citra, and Rhonda all surrounding Qiang. My daughter held a box between both hands. The top of it had fallen open toward me and I read the phrase “Hold your hands on the markers for the surprise!”

I started to ask what was going on until I realized Qiang was shaking. One second I was in the hallway, the next I was by all of them at the door. Qiang looked up at me. “Mommy what is it? It said to pick it up?”

I looked down at the digital timer inside the box. It was made of a black composite material, with two things sticking up that could have been shortwave antennae until one of the tips began to glow and turned to point at me. The other light up with a hologram of a dark silhouette. “Psychopomp Gecko. The glorious apparatus will negotiate with your successor.”

The Three Hares, those slimy sons of parakeets.

“Just hold onto it… let me look.” I checked it over from various angles, then popped an eye out and eased it down between the bomb and the box. While it had pressed against the sides of the box with either pressure sensors or fingerprint scanners, there wasn’t anything like that on the other sides. “How are your arms, sweety?” I asked as I popped the eye back in.

“They huuurt!” Qiang whined.

I nodded. “I nee you to keep your hands there, but we can set them it down on something. Let’s just sit you down, ok?”

She nodded and I guided her over to a little table in the living room where she could sit down and rest herself and her arms. “A person can be perfectly strong, but holding something out in front of you with arms extended makes anybody tired quick. It’s- no, we’ll discuss Tai Chi later. What we have here is a small example of an implosive-explosive sub-molecular device. Not a big deal at all, I promise y’all.”

It was the size that was so astonishing. Excellent miniaturization. The thing wasn’t round, but it was a couple baseballs in size.

It seemed like a longshot, but I reached in with a finger and pressed it to what I’d identified as a crucial computerized part of the initiation sequence. A lot of these explosives, it’s really a matter of chemistry and physics. Fire or water can set stuff off, or simple kinetics. It often just depends on which chemicals are used in the process. Even an atomic bomb isn’t that complicated of a weapon. My ability to bond with computers would be useless against Little Boy, for instance.

The difference here is that this thing had sensors rigged up, and a timer. I’d have just put a timer on to scare someone while the thing detonated whenever I wanted. This person put one on to tell me I had five minutes to fix the problem.

When I linked up with it, I found that an internal mechanism was capable of reading when the timer reached zero to activate an internal explosive driving… ya know, unless I want this censored in that dimension, I should probably keep the specifics to myself. Don’t want Optimal Outer Control getting in trouble for teaching people how to build a nuclear weapon, regardless of the availability of plutionium over there.

Regardless, the flaw wasn’t in the fundamental function of the bomb, but in how it was meant to be triggered. The sensors on the side were fingerprint scanners, which meant they specifically targeted my daughter out of a desire to die by having as much of their body shoved up their own ass as humanly possible. They would trigger the explosives that would initiate the fission reaction if released. Otherwise, the timer would make it all happen.

It was actually pretty simple to trick the computer in there into increasing the amount of time and holding onto a false positive for the scanners. “Ok, hon, you can take your hands off.”

“You promise nothing bad will happen?” my crying daughter asked.

Oh, something bad will happen to someone for this. “Mommy promises.”

Qiang pulled her hands away quickly, then started jumping and screaming in relief when nothing happened. I managed to put the bomb into shutdown mode, then disconnected and called up the Institue of Science. Dr. Creeper practically flew. Actually, he completely flew. I heard him roar in on an old-fashioned rocketpack that looked like if Wile E. Coyote joined the Third Reich. “I vill personally deliver zis to a secure room for decommissioning, my lady,” he announced.

I leaned in to whisper so no one else would hear. “Make sure the room can contain a nuclear bomb. This one’s crude and small, but still.”

He nodded, tucked the bomb under one arm, raised a fist to the air, and blasted off again.

“There goes trouble,” said Silver Shark as she watched the trail of his rocket power through the air.

“Make it double,” I said flatly.

“Are you alright?” she asked, looking at me. “I expected you to be pissed, or to go laughing mad.”

“I’m fine, Sharky,” I said, cracking my fingers and walking back in. Even when I hugged my girl to me, the cold rage in me refused to yield.

I’ll get peace when the Three Hares rest in it. All of them.

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Hare-Brained 8

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Micro-managing my island is fun and all, but I’m missing all the fun stuff. Despite being a dictator, it’s considered bad form to just kill any of my citizens I’d like. I CAN, of course. Even the Directory’s pretty well gutted at this point. Security, Intel, and the military are all my guys. But it still benefits me not to be a malevolent dictator. Follow along here. If I’m an asshole, that spreads a lot more resentment than necessary and I get people willing to cooperate with coups and assassination attempts. If I keep everyone poor and without the basics, that opens me up to Robin Hood situations.

Machiavelli once asked if it was better to be feared or loved. In The Prince, he concluded that it was better to be feared. He was also a proponent of democracy who argued that the tyrant to be feared should live within a conquered city and arm the citizens of the city. I’m not listening to Machiavelli on this one. I’m just a feared assassin and dictator living in the city I conquered while allowing my people free access to all kinds of goods being smuggled or shipped through- FUCK!

Well, all the more reason not to piss off everyone. And all the more reason to put tiny machines I can control into the water supply.

I think it’s pretty clear I’ve gotten antsy waiting around. Y’all see it. Max has noticed it. Holly actually approached me one day asking if I had any fairy dust to sprinkle on her and help her fly, so she definitely noticed.

I tried to channel that energy toward building more stuff, Dudebot modifications, armor maintenance, etc., etc. And I didn’t take Max’s medication anymore, but I’m willing to think about it. As soon as negotiations are over.

Speaking of negotiations, I finally got word back on that. It happened while I was sitting in on a court hearing. Bank robbers helped themselves into a passing car. They forced the driver into the backseat at knifepoint and tried to escape from Security. Security laid down a tack strip at Wong Way, popped the tires, and now there was a hearing about possibly charging him as some sort of accomplice. The Imperial attorneys figured he might have brought the car along and pretended to be kidnapped to save his own skin.

I showed up to make sure the courts were working smoothly, but I think I’ll have to take a look at finding some way to keep something like this from even making it to court. The attorneys representing the Empire need a little shaking up over it, and I might implement some sort of public defender program. The guy’s just sitting there without an attorney, ignorant of arguments, procedures, motions, and all that.

The judge was quicker on the uptake than the Imperial attorneys. He banged his gavel and declared, “I am not inclined to press the matter further with someone whose only crime was being borne on the Wong side of the tacks.”

I nodded and got up to leave when I saw Barkiel standing there. One of these purple humanoid aliens of the Three Hares, he favored jeans and a denim jacket, projecting a disguise of himself as just another guy with sandy blonde hair. This time, he let the human projection fade into one that more accurately showed himself in a uniform that included a short jacket with poofy upper arms that reminded me of those fancy uniform pants, the jodhpurs.

I raised an eyebrow. Barkiel clicked his heels together and stood up straight. “I have an official announcement for Psychopomp Gecko, Empress of Ricca and North Korea.”

“Can we take it outside?” I asked, quietly. Looking around, it didn’t seem anyone else had noticed the projection. I walked through the projection and the door to find a more suitable place for receiving an emmisary from a hostile group. My first thought was to sit on the nearest throne, but… fine, ok, I led him to the lobby of the courthouse. “A most unconventional audience, Barkiel.”

“Thank you for seeing me, Empress,” he said, floating over to stand in front of me and perform a formal Western-style bow. “My superiors wish for me to inform you of the receipt of your message and our desire to meet with you and representatives of the other belligerents.”

“As it happens, my island is a great place to have such a meeting. Here, in the Directory Building, in a week.” I tapped my toe on the floor, figuring the impatience and annoying sound might mess with Barkiel.

He kept his voice calm and downright monotone as he responded, “Your island is unacceptable. We suggest Jerusalem as an alternative.”

I shook my head. “First, that’s insulting to my island. You should go outside and apologize. Second, that’s not happening. Just about the only thing Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in that city can all agree on is that I’m not allowed there anymore. Which is really stupid, because I was Pope once. That changed before I could do anything about the kid-fucking too, and the world’s worse off for it.”

Barkiel tried not to laugh. “We need a neutral location. We propose Switzerland.”

I was going to propose Mu, but Switzerland isn’t too bad… “The Island of Mu.”

“You maintain a client state on that neutral location. Should you agree to a meeting in the public square of Place du Bourg-de-Four in Geneva, we would be willing to acquiesce to your desire on the date.”

A public square isn’t a bad idea. It’d be much harder for them to pull off replacing everyone around like in that John Wick movie, and being outside gives a lot more options to get away if it’s an ambush. Plus, I can keep an eye out with satellites and even launch on the place. It’s bad form to launch missiles at Switzerland, but it’s not like they’ve helped any of the major world powers out in a war lately. The thing about neutrals is that they have enough sympathy to your cause not to attack you themselves, but they’re more than happy to stand by and watch your enemy throw your corpse in a ditch.

I nodded to him, “You bring your leaders, we bring ours. And we meet in a week, when the autumnul equinox has brought me to my full power.

No matter what, my preparations shouldn’t take too much longer, but I have to have time for Titan and Venus. So a week from when we talked: September 24th. And the part about the equinox is just a straight-up lie that might put doubts into someone’s head if he tells them about it. Never be afraid to lie to your enemy… it’s kinda their fault if you’ve killed a bunch of their people already and they choose to believe whatever you say.

Barkiel didn’t stay to goad me into anything. I think someone had a way of keeping an eye on him, because that alien’s been helping me take down his people. Well, technically he’s been helping me kill off the divine part of the Three Hares. He even helped me escape from them. I don’t know what game he’s playing, but I know he’s not entirely opposed to me succeeding.

I immediately sent off a transcript of the conversation to Titan and Venus and called up everyone to check on how we were doing. Still no vaccine. The island shield seemed to do well, but they found some more issues when testing it. Something about regulating the flow of electricity and concerns about heating. They’re working on it. It’s not the first shield the Riccan Institute of Science has dealt with, even with the post-Claw brain drain. It should be ready in case anything goes down when I decapitate the Hares.

But first, it was off to dinner with Citra. My poor wife has gone through a lot. Not labor, ok, but she used to be my made, then her mother and I had sex and I agreed to marry her, then married another woman and made her pretend to be that woman for awhile. Such is not the origin of a happy marriage, but I’m at least trying not to be a complete asshole.

So I took her out. I’d wanted to get all dressed up and go to this fancy place, but a little bit of Max’s beer prompted me to get the novel idea of asking her what she wanted to do. “Dance with me,” she said. And so instead of fancy dressing up that I enjoyed, we threw on skimpy clothes and went out to this dark club with pounding beats. I don’t normally dress like that, as I’m a villain in the streets and a freak in the sheets.

It was there in the club I discovered my wife is considered something of a hotty. Or at least a lot of the guys thought so when they saw her in a leather skirt and stripper heels. Which, if I’m not mistaken, explains where my pair disappeared to. We should really go shoe shopping together.

Stripping can be good exercise, and you never know when you’ll need to fight using poles. Plus, the heels are really good for inserting into enemy weak spots, like eyes or urethras. I have trouble getting them in on the first swing, but I am known for my dogged persistence. And doggy-style insistence. Which explains why Citra preferred to dance up on me from behind and whisper in my ear, “I got a new strap-on.”

I wrapped my arms around hers, holding her hands and keeping her close to me. “I’m a poor excuse for a husband.”

We danced way too slow for a place with a spinning discoball that helped reflect multicolored lights through the black lights of the dance floor.

“You’re my wife though,” she said, whispering in my ear before giving the lobe a little nibble. “Evil supervillain Psycho Gecko is concerned about taking time off for her wife.”

“I may be sleeping around, but this is supposed to be a partnership between you and I, but I’ve forced you into roles you were never prepared for. Mother to a child you didn’t want or ask for. Wife to one of the most hated people on Earth. Empress to a nation you were a servant in. You’ve had no say in this, and that’s not what I want. So, to once again drag out that most interesting of questions… what do you want?”

I felt her press a kiss against my hair where it covered the back of my neck, then return to my ear, speaking a little louder to be heard over a new song that started up. “I’d like to go to college and be the second best Empress on Earth. And I want to have you all to myself. And I want to put a baby in you.”

That brought a raised eyebrow. “I can think of two ways that last one’s possible right now, and I have to warn you that I’m not into unbirthing.”

She giggled in my ear. “Max has some ideas about that provided you don’t give your daughter and her best friend a baby half sister first.”

I rolled my eyes and leaned back against her. “Just not a lot of guys I feel that way about… and the thought DID occur to me. It felt symmetrical in a freaky way.”

“Mhm, I bet.” I let her turn me around to face her. The face I saw wasn’t hers. It was Dame’s. “Maybe this is the woman you would like a baby with?” She held up her phone and pressed a button, at which point her face began to change again through what I recognized as nanite plastic surgery. After a few seconds, she had Venus’s face. “Or her?”

I smiled in a crooked, skeptical sort of way. “You really don’t want me messing around anymore, do you?”

She winked at me, then noticed something over my shoulder. Her smile faded. “It’s Wong.”

“I mean, if we both agreed I could do it, it wouldn’t be, but clearly that’s not the case here.”

She pointed over my shoulder. I turned to see one of the Directors I recently sent home on indefinite leave. It was him and a half dozen other guys with Uzi pistols and swords that looked like short machetes with handguards, known colloquially as butterfly swords.

I broke into the DJ’s computer and made an alteration to the playlist. The crowd were understandaly confused when the song changed to “Danger! High Voltage” by Electric Six. I kept dancing along with Citra as irritated people left the floor, making plenty of room for Wong and his gang to surround me, illuminated by the colored lights from the discoball spinning overhead.

I pushed Citra down my body. Lower, lower… until she was safely on her knees while I faked moans.

“I knew if I watched, you would make a wrong move,” announced Wong.

“Oh yeah. Right there. There, there, there, oh my ME!” I yelled, raising my face and firing my eye laser. The discoball redirected the laser all over the club and the men who came to voice their vociferous opposition to my tyranny, frying them and catching parts of the club on fire.

I laughed as Citra stood up and checked out the corpses. “As hot as this has been, it’s kinda dead on the dance floor now.”

She smiled and took my hand to lead me off to a night of spousal fun, telling me, “I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart.”

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Hare-Brained 7

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Sitting around and waiting isn’t much of a life for me, but it does give me time to catch up on doing things that need doing. For instance, we had a successful first test of the shield generator. It’s more my design, but the guys at the Institute of Science said they built in a few redundancies for the sake of security. When I asked for specifics, since the entire thing’s made for our security, they showed me fake panels on it that just look like you’re doing stuff if you mess with it. Now that it’s functional, they’re going to wire those panels so that messing with them sends a signal to myself and the men and women of the Riccan Armed Forces.

It also gave me time for a nice lunch meeting with Hu that I didn’t rush. It was overdue, but I wanted to prepare first. Part of that preparation involved a nice lunch outside on a balcony. Yes, I have balconies. I’ve sometimes imagined I’m never going to keep finding rooms and other areas on this house. I’m going to notice a door I never opened before, look inside, and find an entire dead menagerie of exotic animals. The smell will be horrible. But at least I knew about the balconies. Being outside, missing them would be particularly egregious.

I munched on some lumpia as Hu was sent out to meet with me. “Hey there, Hu,” I said, waving him over with the fried, flaky roll in hand. I moved a file folder out of the way as he sat in the only other chair available. Instead of files, I pushed over the plate of lumpia. “Care for one? I made them myself.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” he replied.

“You’re welcome.” I set one on a plate that I pushed toward him. “They’re not really all that authentic, since I focus on meat and don’t care for the normal mix of veggies. But I didn’t say they were authentic, just that I made them.”

“Are you alright, Empress? Have you been drinking again?” He took off his shades and pulled out a wipe to clean them off. He appraised me with bare eyes and I gifted him with a smile. He set his glasses down to try a bit of my lumpia.

“No, silly. Just offering you food here. And I offer all my people of Ricca my protection and services as the sovereign. I am the state, so they don’t have to. I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy ruling. And despite the fact that I am a vicious killer known to utilize chemical, sonic, and dimensional weaponry, I’m trusted with both. You trust me to rule, and you trust that I didn’t poison you on a whim just now.”

He looked down at the roll he’d taken a couple bites of. Then he looked up at me and sat back. I held up a hand to reassure him. “Nope, I didn’t poison you, but the point is that you know I cooked it and you trust me. It’s just lumpia.”

I lifted the plate up so I could grab one underneath it and throw the empty plate at the floor, smashing it.

“Empress?” asked Hu, still no longer touching his lumpia.

I smiled. “I wanted to be dramatic and smash a plate, just not while wasting the food. I think it’s damn good lumpia.” I set the plate down and continued. “There is an enormous trust placed in me that is not put in you. You are not the one people look to when things go wrong. When rebels storm the palace to throw someone’s neck into a guillotine, it’s mine they’re after, not yours.” I grabbed the file and set that on his plate, then flipped it open. “These signatures creating a paper trail, though, are not mine. Some people know how much I dislike paper these days. Plus, I’m a career criminal even if you don’t count my time in politics. Creating more evidence someone could use if a team of heroes decides to make their name delivering me to the UN? Not smart for me.”

“I can explain,” he said.

I nodded. “Good, because that’s why I invited you. I want to know why you’re issuing orders in my name for the sorts of things only I can sign off on. It was apparently quite the secret.”

“You hadn’t been entirely well after returning from captivity. I’ve been led to understand your nightmares are worse. You had been irritable, more murderous. Instability is the bane of nations. I used my own judgment to moderate your impulses militarily so that your disregard for human life did not extend to the grandiose crisis created by your predecessor. I feared you would lash out and create a similar situation to the one that required his removal.”

“What about my demeanor and drinking?” I asked. I wanted to keep the questions as open-ended as possible. Let him create a story to be tested and knocked down, if need be. Knowing how much I was messed up, I went back through the recordings of my memories.

“Your substance abuse convinced me I was right. Heavy drug and alcohol usage is a sign of distress after a traumatic period. I began researching therapists as well, but this is a delicate and private matter.” Hu picked up his glasses and tapped the side. A file appeared in my own augmented reality with a few names of therapists with dossiers attached. I checked to make sure they were real, then I skimmed to see if he’d done more work than a Wikipedia entry. Everything looked legit from that brief view.

“Doesn’t matter. Talk to me. Question me constructively. Suggest better alternatives. Let me know when I screwed up. I welcome that kind of interaction to help me improve. It’s better than not figuring out my mistakes until I have Eschaton halfway up my ass. And by all means exercise your power to do what you think is best. Issue your orders. But you don’t get to issue my orders.”

Hu sat there in silence for a minute after I stopped, then bowed his head. “Empress.”

“Intelligence Chief Pagan will see to your replacement. Take the day to organize the files for the continuity of your successor. Then you will be put on leave for the immediate future while Pagan decides your reassignment.”

Hu sat for a moment, then reached for his lumpia. He took a last, deliberate bite. He set it down and stood up, then bowed low. “By your leave, Empress.”

“Go, Hu.”

I got to eat another one before my next meeting was shown in. She sat across from me, smiling. “Hi baba!”

“Hello dear. What’s this I heard about you making fun of another student?”

“I don’t know.” She bowed her head but looked up at me.

“You don’t know?” I asked. I moved aside Hu’s plate and tore a roll of lumpia in half for her on her own plate.

She took it and began to munch happily, at least until she remembered what this was about. “The kids at school made funna this boy who had a bow in his hair and I said ‘Did you assume his gender?’ like you do to be funny and everyone laughed.”

I may have made a mistake. “Hon, let’s have a little chat, and then we’re gonna make a deal that involves ice cream.”

It’s a good thing most kids can understand all this gender stuff pretty easily. I explained to her about the differences between gender and sex, and how some people might be a certain sex but realize they’re a different gender, and this is just how people are. “And you shouldn’t make fun of people for that,” I finished, not adding that it’s really too lazy. Any asshole can make fun of someone for that, and they do. Just a constant stream of identical assholes, all needing to be torn up. “And you helped me realize that joke I made is a lazy one that works like how those bullies act even if I didn’t mean it that way. So from now on, I want you to let me know if you catch me saying it. Let’s try it for a week first. If we both get through it without using that joke, we’ll have big sundaes.”

She giggled. “Ok, baba.” Of course, then she had to sit up all excited and go, “I get it, because, because, because they’re just like you!”

I looked at her, wondering how I was going to explain the thing that is Psycho Gecko to my daughter, when she hopped out of her chair and walked over to hug me. “I’m sorry, mommy.”

Ok, let’s just leave that behind and focus on the other big major meeting that’s way more important and relevant and not gushy and in no way involves warm, fuzzy feelings or ideas about raising a child to be a better person than the parent or anything at all like that. We are dropping further discussion of Qiang calling me mommy from here on out. It’s dropped. It’s done.

After another day of observation to see how, if at all, Mix N’Max took my discussion with Hu, I invited him along to go fishing with me. Just the two of us on a little catamaran, switching off playing Kevin Costner as we headed out into the water. We each brought our kit: dynamite for me, pescacide for him. That’s fish poison, and that’s why I wouldn’t eat seafood from our fishing trips even if I did eat seafood. And even if he claims to have a way to treat them to make it safe.

Far out in the water, we opened a cooler, I pretended to drink, and began setting our lines. He took a jar out of the cooler and tied it to a rope before poking holes in the lid. I fetched out a bagged chicken, threaded it with fishing line, stuffed the dynamite inside, synced a blasting cap to a detonator, shoved the cap in there, and tossed the chicken overboard. The secret is to get good distance on the throw, and to include a bobber that lets you know when it’s a safe distance away to detonate. You really don’t want to lose track of an explosive cock. It’ll sneak up behind you and, bam!

I let us enjoy the fishing for a bit. Even set a timer for it. Max noticed when it went off. “Is that the Godfather theme?”

I reached up and squeezed the tip of my nose, shutting off the alarm. “Yeah, just to remind me of something.” I checked around to see where my bobber was. I’d had some nibbles, but nothing big, so I pressed the button. The water blew, causing the boat to bob a bit. I waited for the seas to settle before standing. “Well, guess I better get that net.” I walked on over to where we had this big net on a pole in the middle section. Max was sitting on the rear of it, legs dangling out over the water in some cheap flip flops. He’d smeared himself with something to avoid darkening his gothly-pale skin. “Hey, Max… just why have you been drugging me?”

He turned to look at me, standing there behind him next to a pile of dynamite, a net and pole in hand. “Are you going to kill me?”

“I’d rather not. I’ve buried enough friends. But I want to know what you’ve been doing to me and why.”

He shifted to the side so only one leg was dangling and he could better look at me. “I wanted to help you. I was trying to medicate your mental health.”

“Without discussing it with me.”

“You’ve been worse than ever and you never want to work through this stuff with anyone. You keep collecting traumas to carry on your psyche without ever offloading it.”

“Why the fuck is everybody so fucking worried? I function! I do more than function, this is how I win. It fucking sucks, but it’s made me the awesome being you see before you today.”

“Nice sarong by the way,” he said.

“Oh, thanks,” I showed off a little. I’d picked that shade of pink for its potential to cause blindness from how the brightness, and because it matched my bikini.

Max tied the end of his rope to a metal loop, then turned all the way around to face me while sitting. “It’s great that everyone is worried for you. It means you have people who care. That’s new for you, because you were alone for so long that you resented that and saw it as weakness. You’re still kickass, but think how much better you’d be if you were healed up there. Not to take away who you are as a person, but to get rid of the damage that’s keeping that person from being 100%.”

That made a frightening amount of sense to me, and I’d made sure my drinks on the way out here weren’t spiked. I turned away from him to contemplate this and scooped up floating fish from my dynamite blast. After a moment, I called back, “Never do it again, dude. And seriously, you’re on some Buddha level shit right now.”

“I haven’t felt my face for days!” he called back happily.

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Hare-Brained 6

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I feel like I’ve finally found an occupation that fits my contempt for human life and the whims of the little people’s lives. But seeing as I’m not a god (don’t tell anyone I’m not, dear reader), I’ll settle on enjoying being a sovereign instead. Getting the courts figured out is a difficult thing, but I think I killed enough people to make it work. I just kinda, sorta, maybe had to make an executive decision to take back all power related to the courts. Had to rearrange some things, make a few more judges, that sort of thing. I’m trying to give people a fair shot in a post-authoritarian society, but the only people with experience are the people who used to work for the last authoritarian regime.

It helps that I’ve been unusually focused lately. I dunno, it’s like I’m getting into a new swing after my imprisonment. Fixing things that need fixing, reprimanding Directors, and working on some special projects. I think the shield generator project is going to work out, but I’m also wondering about a better system of high speed transit to and from the island. A mag lev bridge is too unwieldy a public works project right now, but I’m considering gauss transportation.

I was talking it over with Max the other day. Load passengers up in an appropriate container and use electromagnetic forces to hurl the container at high speed across the ocean. I was trying to work out the appropriate velocities over some more beers Max brought over and just kinda lost interest. Seemed a bit farfetched and dangerous. I put it aside to figure out some new laws I was rubber stamping. And writing. If the Directory’s going to screw up so much, I’ll just have to take over all that. For fuck’s sake, one of these guys made a list of prohibited names of men divorced women are allowed to date all because of his marriage going south. I’m not going have my Security guys waste time arresting women for screwing every Tom, Dick, or Xue who comes along after they divorce.

But, hey, I made it up to them by sending the Directors home for a holiday. They’ll be fine. Makes it easier for me to handle peace treaties and all that, too. I find myself sympathizing with Simon Bolivar’s advocacy of a military dictatorship to walk a people toward democracy because they had no experience with self-rule.

It seems as though the Hares might be working at the problem from the other end. A militarized hierarchy that handles most of the important stuff, but has a problem with volunteers and possibly resources because everybody’s so independent. The aliens do their thing, the various pantheons and other groups do theirs. It’s entirely possible the regular ones on the ground don’t even know about the power collars. Dame didn’t, before all this. If I have to go public in some way, that might help me splinter them. But if it that was such simple leverage, why didn’t anyone in the group try it already?

It bugs me. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve got a trump card hidden to deal with that.

In the hopes of finding that out, I managed to get a bit of time to talk with Titan. It wasn’t easy, though. I ended up dropping in with a Dudebot where Titan was busy clearing some mines away. It was a stretch of land in one of the Stans where someone had decided they didn’t want some tribe or another moving up into their country and dropped a bunch of mines that have also been taking off the legs and destroying the vehicles of pretty much everyone moving through. Hold a gun to my head and I still wouldn’t tell you I cared which Stan it was. The one that really likes that rapper Eminem, maybe? Anyway, Titan was there stomping through, trying to cause as many vibrations and step on as many mines as possible.

While moved from the south, I approached from the north to find a bunch of guys in sandy camo sitting around on trucks. “Let him, “ one was saying to another who checked out the scene through binoculars. “We’ll set more tonight. He won’t be back for months.”

“Not worried about saying that where he might hear?” I asked via the Dudebot. They all turned to point their rifles at the remote-controlled robotic copy of my armor.

“We’re an authorized military checkpoint. We’re allowed to be here,” said whoever I took to be the ranking officer of the dozen men all aiming at me.

Another Dudebot seemingly de-cloaked nearby. The group swung their rifles around, then back to the first one. “Mmm, but if you were publicly using mines, you wouldn’t be letting them destroy those, would you?”

The leader raised his voice. “Somebody has to protect our people, even if the worms who call themselves our leaders will not! Identify yourself and step back!”

For Titan’s sake, I made sure to record on my end. “I’m Psycho Gecko.”

Disappointingly, the leader signaled “Retreat!” They all hopped in their trucks and began speeding off, kicking up dust. I could have gone after them, but I was having a pretty chill day. Sittin’ around in my granny panties, breaking open another of these six packs Max brought me, farting whenever I felt like it.

The soldiers weren’t too far off when I caught sight of Titan on approach. The guy’s wings shouldn’t lift him, but I guess that’s the benefit of being insanely strong. On the other hand, he’s going to have a hell of a time trying to get a colonoscopy done.

He landed near me, folding his wings up and doublechecking the discs he held onto. “Psychopomp. This is a surprise. You didn’t kill them?” he nodded toward the trucks trying their hardest to blow out their engines escaping.

“I dunno, felt like letting them go for some reason. Of course, I only announced myself so no one could connect you to their deaths when I sent in video. I really oughta go kill them, though. Otherwise, they’re going to drop more mines as soon as you’re gone.” I pointed a thumb back toward the areas where Titan had been having a blast.

He stared after the retreating soldiers, the sun gleaming on the sweaty blue and orange skin of his exposed arms. “Thanks for the consideration. I’m sure it’ll be handled.” He turned and checked back to where they’d been stopped, then looked to me. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“Just a chat. Some questions I wanted to ask you,” I told him.

He nodded. “I got a minute if these don’t blow first.” He hefted the discs he had stacked up.

“Mines?” I asked.

“Duds,” he answered. “Or probably duds. You never know with mines. They sit out in the wild and degrade. You could walk on an old mine with nothing happening, then something slots in just right and blammo.”

Or some are just designed to allow two or three activations before going off, but he doesn’t need to hear about Riccan products, especially ones that count as war crimes moreso than regular minefields. “Yeah, I know how that works. I really don’t mean to take up much of your time, so this can wait until you’re finished.”

He shook his head. “Since you’ve been spotted here, that means I’m confronting a potential threat to my operations. Looks bad to let you sit around watching.”

The Dudebot shrugged on my command. “Ok, fine. Titan, considering your name and powers that seem to live up to it, I need to ask how you came across those powers.”

“Name and… ? Is this because the Hares think they’re gods? They went after my people too. If I was working for them, they wouldn’t have needed a sleeper agent. Those storage depots wouldn’t have had mysterious accidents.” He glared down at me. It was probably hard to stare down a robot with three camera “eyes” arranged in a triangle, but he gave it a go. “It’s possible the people who gave me powers were related to the Hares, but I don’t know.”

I waited for a moment, letting the Dudebot rock on its heels until Titan continued: “I’m not telling you my origin story. You wouldn’t be able to verify anything and if I were a Hare, I’d just be lying to you. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

He had a point there, so I figured I’d move on to Plan B. “Just curious what our endgame is. Figured we’d all have a talk on it. I know you wanted some revenge against them, but I somehow doubt you want to kill them all like I might be inclined to do.”

“I want the disease done away with completely,” he said. “They created an unstoppable disease. It’s already hurt a lot of people. We could be facing a global pandemic if it mutates. I want to hurt them for using my portal network, except then I have to call it restitution.”

“So revenge is a part of it, good. Gotta be honest, I’m not sure if talking with them is going to work out, and it’s not like we can just hand them all over to governments who don’t even know they exist. There’s not really a way to contain any of them.”

“What about the Academy?” Titan asked. He grabbed one of the mines separately and began messing around with it. It was a delicate job that he somehow managed despite the large fingers.

“I broke out of there and I didn’t even have the ability to turn any doorway into a portal to another place. I’ve already been trying to get people to notice them, but I think we have to force them to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, but Venus and I are talking a space prison,” Titan said.

I hopped up and down, clapping. “That sounds awesome! On every level except practical, that’s cool shit. Let me know if you figure anything out and I’m just going to keep on having my guys wreck their shit until they set up a time and place for the meeting.”

“Let us know, and feel free to send along more tips like the last one,” he said, waving to me as I jumped away with the Dudebot. I left the bot hidden a few countries away, in Egypt. The tomb’s already been looted, but they do not want to open that particular stone box and risk the Dudebot’s curse.

Also neat, turns out I didn’t have to do anything about those guys. I kept an eye on the news for that region out of curiosity, and it turns out the minefield wasn’t completely cleared away. An army unit was moving along that highway for some reason when it was caught by mines in an area that suggests the field extends further than government officials previously indicated. Titan apologized and vowed to keep someone around there clearing it all up until they can be absolutely sure.

And then the news came down. Hu called me up with news from some negotiations with the Privateers, those former UN counter-insurgency guys who set up a base off Africa, and they believe they’ve narrowed it down to a city in the Iberian Peninsula. That’s Spain, or Portugal, but nobody’s cared about Portugal since the 1700s.

I almost ran after it myself until Max brought me this mixed drink with a little umbrella in it and I got distracted for awhile. By the time I got back around to thinking of it, I guess I’d sent orders for a team of elite operatives to go in, figure out where all this was coming from, and blow it up with an Earth-shattering kaboom. Hu had a copy of the signed orders in case I doubted them.

Which is odd, because I don’t really sign orders. As many a dictator has done throughout history, I prefer not to leave a record definitively proving my connection to anything. So I think maybe it’s ok for me to sit this one out, seeing as I need to have a chat with my Intel liaison and my friend about how my diet appears to be affecting my job performance.

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