“…and the dastardly do-gooder who captured him and recovered the stolen Viking relics is said to have remarked, ‘There’s Norway you’re pulling this one off, Man-Opener!’ Folks, your old pal Outlaw X is going to break from the program to tell you about one of our latest sponsors. I’m sure you’re all aware of that crazy cat named Psycho Gecko, Emperor of Ricca after the Claw’s unfortunate demise. Inter-villain squabbles can be a real bummer, so that’s why I carry the new RA32 pulse blaster. The latest handcannon from Riccan Arms uses photons and gluons and more -ons than you can shake a stick at. I don’t know how it works, I just know it can light up your enemies like the Fourth of July and fold into the shape of a large flashlight so the missus won’t find out where you go at night. Riccan Arms is the innovation you desire in a package your enemies fear. Pick one up today…”
The labs set up a forward outpost of a sort in order to easily access the outside. The Claw had the place set up the old way for information security. At this point, I’d be grateful if random people on the street downloaded enough of the work on the infection to give us a hand with it. It also let me listen in on Outlaw X, the premiere radio station for villains. I never kept up with it as much as I cared. Even they hadn’t quite gotten wind yet of the Riccan lockdown, courtesy of stockpiles we had off the island and a comprehensive decon protocol the guys came up with on a hunch.
The bacteria spreads quickly, so my guys decided to see what the transmission tells us. A few days outside a human body and they die. They collected a few to see what the dead ones could teach us. Vulnerabilities, but also a chance at a vaccine. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone uninfected except the Deep Ones. Not all Deep Ones, though. It took some probing questions, but it turns out the purebred ones just don’t get infected. The bacteria just don’t recognize their brains as targets. It’s the ones with some human in their ancestry that end up infected. Deep Ones, eh? Close enough to mate with humans, like homo machina, but far enough away that they can’t be infected by this, unlike homo machina.
I figured out this was a handy thing, though, so I made inquiries through the Drone Division to see if elders and other Deep Ones community leaders could find me some able-bodied seapeople. I also sent along money and high-end moisturizing cream as incentives. A couple Deep Ones insisted on holding out for more. Specifically, they wanted to make sure their people’s work on behalf of mine wouldn’t be forgotten. They’d seen the way Americans were throwing away the lives of Puerto Ricans and concentrating immigrants in camps. They’d even begun a process of investigating citizens to decide if they should end up in the camps as “citizenship cheaters”. I told the guys working for me to inform those holdouts that I remain committed to seeing to the welfare of all Riccans, humans, Deep Ones, and homo machina alike, and would gladly honor those who help to save my people in their hour of need.
Lofty language, sure, but a lot more inspiring than sending them an answer of, “Fuck, man, sure, whatever.”
Luckily, the Chinese were making another shipment to the U.S. The Deep Ones were more than capable of capturing the ship. A science team donned hazmat suits and went onboard to find the people being sent over to the States. They went deep into debt to afford the chance at a better life, probably without realizing how bad the U.S. has gotten. Or things are just shitty enough in rural China that they’ll risk moving to a country where Nazis are still a major demographic.
The Deep Ones had to tackle one dumbass scientist who thought it’d be a good time to attempt taking his hood off. He got chewed out so many times up the ladder before I heard about it, Dr. Creeper told me he had to turn down the man’s request for seppuku. Which is an especially odd request for a Filipino, but Ricca’s something of a melting pot. Just the other day, people celebrated some holiday and I never got around to figuring out why they had dog balloons fighting with bird balloons.
In the end, they maintained quarantine and kept the people clean enough for experimentation. Because, as some upper-class white guy once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. You can tell, because you don’t hear too many poor people, or oppressed folks arguing that some people need to get the shaft for the greater good. So as a white guy, I had no problem ordering captured Chinese people to be used for experiments to save my people. Well, a white guy in the body of an Asian woman.
Once the exterior’s open to being changed like clothes, racism and sexism make about as much sense as being a fashion snob. Plus, a supervillain should always be on the lookout for downtrodden people. Think about it; police hostility to oppressed people means a lack of trust and gang organization. So you go in, you have people who area already disinclined to inform on you to the cops, and you can recruit in groups. Plus, you can buy a lot of loyalty sending them to school for subjects like mechanical engineering. They learn a trade, you get someone to help maintain the robot army. You know why you don’t see shadowy cabal of Jews taking over the world? Because nobody gave them a chance, dammit.
Enough, brain! Get on point, or I will poke you with things!
Work on a vaccine stalled when it came to using dead cells. They didn’t suddenly spring to life and create a full infection, which is great, but they also didn’t elicit an immune response. So while that’s a setback for vaccinations, it means we can safely ship weapons and equipment with no trouble. It has helped keep things under wraps.
With the science guys hard at work, I had a call to make. And since I had Psychsaur talking to Venus for me, that means it was Titan’s blue and orange mug that appeared on my giant screen at home. “Titan.”
“Psycho Gecko,” he acknowledged. “Any luck on a cure so far?”
I shook my head. “No. We had an idea for a vaccine, but it didn’t pan out. On the plus side, materials are safe to spread around after a few days. Maybe not anything from a refrigerator. We’ll see on that part.We’ll get you nanites for detection purposes, though.”
He rubbed his chin. “Is that safe? You said the bacteria eats nanites.”
I waved it off. “It’s fine. They tested to make sure, but it only seems to attack nanites that attack it and derive all their nutrition from hosts. The solution the nanites are in is more about preserving them from moisture and air, and the bacteria die off just as easily.”
“Thank god for the little things,” he said, pun probably not intended from his complete lack of reaction. “How are your people holding up?”
“It seems to be limited to the hundreds. If this were any other population, with less general health, I suspect we’d see more. What about your folks?”
“We’ve had four with the adverse reaction that we know about. Six other attempted to break quarantine. I have someone investigating.”
“Thank you,” I told him. “I peg the heroes, personally.”
“Not your own?” he asked. I mean, technically yes and no, that time my wife made herself look like Venus…
“Anyone infected could have spread it from the airport or docks as soon as they arrived, or from anywhere else. It’d have gotten everyone anyway. That’s what they made it for.”
Titan shook his head. “That assumes Patient Zero knows anything about it. He or she could have been ordered to let it out at a social function or in your vicinity. You could be collateral damage to a different target.”
“I think we can assume the target was me. It’s able to bond to homo machina and resist my nanites and it first appeared on my island as far as anyone knows. Not like the symptoms are unique, though. We’ll stick a pin in that for later.”
“With the CDC,” he interjected.
“Right. Those guys, if they even still exist these days. I just don’t think they’d risk someone getting caught ahead of time with this when all they have to do is release it anywhere on the island, so I think this person’s first opportunity was the party. That means someone who came in, either with the Master Academy group or with your people. But I will have recent arrivals looked into by my pervasive peace force. I might loosen the restrictions on brutality.”
“I emphasize efficiency of brutality,” Titan said, glowing eyes giving off just the faintest hint of disapproval.
I cocked my head to the side. “You wouldn’t believe the level of pissed I’m on. I think you’d better hope the perpetrator is found by someone other than me.”
“You are allowing the heroes to investigate their own,” he pointed out.
“I don’t trust Venus to investigate. I need you to get Psychsaur over there for me.” I’d hinted that Qiang might want to play with the reptilian superhuman quite a bit. Get her real sympathetic to what I’m fighting for. I don’t have to trust Venus to find out of if the heroes are behind this. I just have to trust a mindreader who likes my daughter.
“See if she’ll help me first and you have a deal.”
I nodded. “That is, of course, up to her. I’ll see if I can make it happen. Heroes, villains, and neutrals all aligned. Someone clearly wasn’t satisfied with the small size of their asshole.”
“Some things just aren’t done,” he said. “Standards don’t make you weak. Maintaining them shows a strength that means more than most understand. There are things you simply don’t do to people or children. Even your nanite scheme was a bluff in the end. The better for you that it was.”
Ehh, maybe I won’t tell him I was prevented from killing a huge chunk of the world with nanites that time.
I’m not telling lots of people lots of things. Like how I haven’t told even those in my science team that Mix N’Max has set up a little lab right in my own home to come up with his own concoction to cure this thing. It’d be about useless if it takes too long or if he somehow has to do one at a time. And then, once we’ve got a usable cure, it somehow slips out that he’s got lab space elsewhere and is working on this very thing. Sure would be interesting to see if anyone tries to break in and sabotage efforts.
Then, I play Whack-A-Mole.
While the doctors worked on figuring out this thing, I stayed with my family, waiting. I know I got a call forwarded to me through the Directory. The first time, it turned out to be Venus. When I heard her voice, a laugh forced itself from my mouth. Just a short one, then I hung up. I’d originally intended some sort of crafty lie, but why fucking bother? I didn’t even pick up the next times. Should have just told the Directors not to even bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. So I just hung out in the palace. I think Qiang and Max realized something was wrong. Qiang asked a couple of times. All I told her was “Nothing, honey,” and set her on my lap.
I didn’t get much sleep, and what I did, I got in Qiang’s bed. That first night in particular, I stayed awake thinking of vengeance. A Dimension Bomb on a dead man’s trigger. An eternally replicating grey goo swarm. Nuclear attacks on the ice caps to drown the world in a nuclear flood. Or even just disperse all the infected around the globe to make sure this disease took out everyone else. I thought of setting the world ablaze to serve as the funeral pyre for myself and my loved ones. Like I’d tried to do before.
In the dark there, I remembered those times I’d read about during the Cold War. There were a couple of times when the Russians believed the Americans had launched on them and they almost launched in retaliation for what turned out to be false reports. I’d wondered on occasion about that situation. Knowing the nukes are coming, unstoppable, and will wipe me out and my people. What do you do, eh? Do you launch, and kill everyone else on Earth for the sake of people who are about to be ashes?
I could. It’d be so easy. Really, anyone capable of turning a key, pushing a button, or giving an order could. Capability of destroying the world is easy. The question on my mind as I nuzzled my daughter’s head and tried to keep her hair off my lips, is would I?
I paid Psychsaur a visit in the middle of the night. As I’d suspected, the Claw really was the sort of enterprising but paranoid evil overlord that he’d construct testing rooms capable of negating whatever invisible whammy makes telekinesis and telepathy happen. I found Psychsaur laying on a floor made up of overlapping squares of thing wire strands. I didn’t go in, but instead stood at the observation area, the cameras giving me a view inside, and looked down at a red button. “Oooh, what does this button do?” I asked no one, pressing it.
The floor crackled and sparks flew underneath Psychsaur, jolting her awake and into a jump. She scrabbled at the smooth, reinforced walls, unable to find purchase to escape the shock from the floor. I hummed a short tune before looking down at my finger still pressing that darn button. “Oh dear, look at that. Totally forgot about that.” I let up and instead pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello Psychsaur.”
“Hello Gecko. Please let me out. I need to find out-”
“I’d have left you to the chief interrogator, who is excellent at his job, but we’re having something of a labor shortage now. Lots of people out sick. Lots of people helping to move the bodies. That’s why you have the pleasure of my personal attention.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Look at that, someone turned down the temperature in the room. “I don’t know what’s going on. Let me help you! Let us help you!”
“Is that what this is? Another gambit to make me dependent and controllable? You’d be happy to help so long as I surrender myself to your custody and give up my powers? You’d have a much better chance of that if you sick bastards hadn’t gotten my daughter infected.”
Her jaw gaped open and her knees collapsed under her. She sobbed to herself. “I’m sorry about your girl. Just, please… please, please, please, how is Venus?”
“Venus? How should she be?” I asked, figuring now we’d gotten to the good stuff.
“He said it started at the party. She’s probably infected too. Oh God, and if they’re infected, it must be all over Empyreal City by now.”
I looked at her, crying there. “I’m sorry about Qiang,” she said, her voice croaking. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me see my Venus again before she…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I let a breath out and moved my and over to push a button.
The door opened.
She looked up as I stepped into the doorway, my armor on except for hood. It hung off the back above my cape. “Come on. I had to be sure because of what’s at stake.”
She got to her feet shakily, snorting at a nose stopped with mucus. “I’m free to go.”
I shrugged. “You can be. I’d rather you stay and help me, but you’re not the enemy. You’re just as infected as everyone else, though.”
“When is it going to get me?” she asked, moving toward the door. I stood back to give her room to leave, figuring she’d rather not get too close. Instead, she grabbed my arm and leaned on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “For all that in there. But I don’t know. Qiang’s not affected so far. Hardly anyone is.”
I hardly believed it either, but I escorted her to the bio lab team for a better idea of what we were facing. They’d managed to get a secure line out that let them continue monitoring the island and North Korea, both of which had maintained a quarantine. I sent off for food and drink while we were on the way, and they met us there to help Psychsaur regain her strength. While she sat in the lab chowing down on a bowl of rice and chicken, I gestured to Dr. Smith, who had been caught scratching his prominent, beaklike nose. “Explain to our guest here, whose motives I believe to be honest, what seems to be going on.”
His smile was awkward and apologetic. “The vast majority of those infected are having no adverse response that we can detect. There is the odd reaction similar to the officer in the other room, and we have collected those for further study. If you don’t mind, miss, we’d very much like to do a more in-depth scan of your brain.”
“Why?” asked Psychsaur from behind a cup of coffee.
Smith looked to me, but I gestured again. He continued, “The infection as we’ve seen it appears to be spread out across the brain. We’re still learning, and every data point we obtain helps us determine why some are having this adverse reaction, and how common it is. Is it inevitable, or a fluke?”
I butted in here. “That may be her choice, but I insist she have time to see to herself first.” I turned to Psychsaur. “I believe you wanted to check in on Venus? Maybe get a shower or some proper rest in a proper bed, right?”
She practically sprinted out of the room before she had to stop and ask how to get back out of there. I pointed to the same person who brought the rice and coffee. “Show her out and call a car to take her to my palace. Thank you,” I nodded to the man, then to Psychsaur, who smiled at me. The one I returned wasn’t quite so enthusiastic, but then I’m a pessimist.
I sent her off for rest and to make her call.
Smith came over, talking quietly around everyone. “You trust her, Empress?”
I nodded. “She was worried about her girlfriend even over her concern for a child she believed might be dying. It’s selfish. If you’re pretending to not be involved, it’s the last thing you want to do. If you aren’t involved, it’s a reasonable reaction. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
“Now that she’s gone, I should inform you we have determined more about the nature of the illness.” He tapped a tablet in his hands and a hologram projected out to show an image of the human brain with red dots around it, most concentrated at the base. “Red indicates the full extent of the infection.”
“Multiple places? Does that alter our idea of who has it?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Instead, watch what happens when nanites are directed to engage them.”
A see-through holographic body appeared around the brain. The view zoomed in close to the red at the base of the skull. A cloud of blue dots appeared, one detecting the red and pulling the rest to it. Zooming in even further, I could see blue-highlighted nanites land on red growths. That was about all they had time to do before the red opened up and wrapped around the nanites, capturing the nanites and breaking them down.
Smith spoke. “We’ve taken samples the conventional way. It’s bacterial, and engineered specifically to fight off your nanites.”
I nodded. “Not a parasite?”
He shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t manage this rate of airborne infection even if it was. Our tests have shown something else of interest. The bacteria causes acute, temporary strain on the body as it reproduces enough to spread to anyone nearby. This all started at a party, so it’s likely that’s why no one noticed at first. From what we see, it spends little time reproducing before going dormant. The infection in your officer didn’t. I must stress my assessment will become more accurate with more data points across a greater range of infectees, because I currently believe going dormant is how it is meant to function. The officer’s reaction is atypical.”
“If someone’s engineered this stupid thing, I wonder what the point of the typical reaction is,” I said. “It’s good work, and I thank you for it. I know I’ve placed a lot of importance on this, but now we know it isn’t trying to kill us all, remember to take a break. Catch a nap of your own, and something better to eat than stale coffee and sandwiches, ok?”
He nodded and said, “Thank you,” then looked back to his team. “I have something I want to finish up before I can take a moment, but thank you.”
I nodded and headed out. Creeper caught me on my way out though, moving with the assistance of a crude exoskeleton covered in the brown patina of case-hardened steel. “Psycho! You have heard the news, ja? The disease is not meant to do to us what it did to the unfortunate man they carried in here?”
I nodded and reached up to rub my eyes. “Yeah. Great news, so far. I’ve told the team in there to ease up a bit. Don’t want them too tired or hungry to think up a cure.”
He nodded. “Of course. But I have another idea. Do you know the status of the infection outside of our borders?”
I shook my head. “We ever figure that out?”
“Nein, but it would be child’s play to sample the bacteria and modify a strain. It would be a poetic weapon to unleash as payback against the world for our fates. If we are to die slow, horrible, agonizing deaths at the hands of this epidemic, that is.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Creeper, I want any samples we take now to be used for finding us a cure. That’s the only thing I want us doing with this disease.”
“But what if we die?” he asked.
I closed my eyes as I answered. “Then we die wronged and we die containing it from the rest of the world. Take care of yourself and your people, Doc. I’m going to go catch a nap and make some calls. We’ve got a disease to kill, then we can focus on whoever did this to us. We wouldn’t want to be too tired to have our fun with them, now would we?”
Wonderful times on Ricca. We’ve had someone get sick on the island by something that didn’t clear up on its own. I’ve got nanites in the water keeping people healthy. This is the only place where if you cut a body part off, it might grow back on its own. Somehow, a guy who drank plenty of water got sick. Making it worse, any quarantine was fucked from the beginning, since he’d been at my daughter’s birthday party. The end of that saw a fuckload of people leaving before I even knew anything was wrong with this guy.
We had a failed quarantine from the start. But a few people did end up staying the night, including my daughter’s best friend, her parents, and the inebriated superhero girlfriend of my nemesis. Once Psychsaur had awoken and recovered from her hangover, I had to pull her aside and tell her why it was potentially risky to let her leave. “There’s a chance you and every single other person was exposed yesterday.”
“What did you put in the punch and how much do you want for the videos?” she asked, feathers still looking flat in places from how she slept on them.
“Not that kind of exposed, and $10,000,” I told her. I filled her in on the presence of he disease and the fact that our nanites were unable to heal it. “We have our guys looking into it. Full body scan, figure out what’s affected, what the cause is, disease or virus. Nothing in the guy’s medical file about a genetic disorder. Can’t do anything at all about the people we let leave. If we’re lucky, this thing doesn’t pass to others very easily. But until we know more, the island’s on lockdown. No one in or out. Which means I’ve already had to send Titan a message telling him he can’t sent out through the portals anymore.”
“You’re serious,” is all she said, looking me over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you more serious. This worries you.”
“It’s an illness unaffected by the things I rely on to stay alive and I’m trapped on the only island where it’s proven to exist. This shit is whack, yo. Worse, I’m put in the position of holding onto the girlfriend of Venus, and a kid, and her parents. It looks bad and we have to contain how many people know about this.”
“Crap, you’re right. Can you show me the guy? Prove what’s going on to me and I’ll talk to Venus. She can contain the situation out there, but she’s going to want to know this isn’t a plot. If you’re serious, I think you need to share the medical data here.”
I screwed up my face. “Yeah, because she’s a doctor? She won’t understand it. Knowing her, she’ll even use it to screw with my people. Your school there is handling education for kids and teens.”
“We have doctors on staff and as alumni, genius,” Psychsaur said, bopping me on the head.
I reached up to make sure my headdress was still ok. “Don’t fuck with my hair. My hair’s on point. I will tear a motherfucker up.”
She burst into laughter. “Oh my god, you’re so girly!”
“Don’t let the dress fool you, I’m the same Gecko I’ve ever been. Now let’s go play doctor.”
As usual, I got to feel the irritating silence of the digital blackout that came with entering the Institute of Science. We have hospitals and doctors there, but the Institute was deemed the best place for the guard’s quarantine, care, and study. It also didn’t have people all around with compromised immune systems, more careful procedures, and a lot of flamethrowers laying around in case things got bad. Then again, I bet strategic flamethrower placement could solve a lot of issues as far as doctors forgetting to wash their hands in hospitals. Hmm…
That aside, we were shown to the biological wing of the labs. We checked in with the doctor on staff who assured us the results ought to be back soon. Dr. Smith, he called himself.
“Smith, eh?” I asked, looking at the holographic interface floating in the antechamber to the isolation unit. It depicted a rough outline of a human brain that slowly, piece by piece, was refining itself. “Good job, Smith.”
“You couldn’t have told the nanites to do this?” Psychsaur asked.
I shrugged. “I have a certain amount of medical knowledge and can program them easily enough, but these were originally built for healing. Most of their code came with them. I just made certain changes, like having them only work on myself. And, well, that whole thing with taking over the world and using them to control and kill people. I actually made a pretty stupid mistake with them early on. These guys know tests I don’t and are intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of the brain. Intimately, do you hear me? That’s why this guy pretends his last name is Smith.”
“There are concerns we could be branded as criminals,” Dr. Smith said.
I waved his objection away. “Tell them you were just following orders. People accept that all the time, even when they think they’re too good for it.”
“I would rather not test that,” he said. “Once we’ve found the infection, testing others will be much quicker. If anyone else is infected, even as an asymptomatic carrier, the nanite network can reveal it to us. A full map of it, virus, bacteria, parasite, or agent, will help our understanding and attempts to cure it. Then we can update the nanites to counter whatever new disease we’re dealing with.”
I raised a hand. “If you’ve seen the sort of programming in these nanites, you should know they’re pretty good at figuring out what’s unusual for the humanoid body and eliminating it. I’ve literally bet my life on this technology many times over. If this is capable of evading them, I think we’re guaranteed a major problem on our hands.”
“Holy crap, you have a third arm!” Psychsaur said. She grabbed that hand. “It’s real.”
“Had to do something with my third arm after I grew the boobs.” I’d held up a lower hand without thinking. I slipped the other of that pair out to wiggle its fingers at her.
“Why do you have two more arms?!”She took my hands and kept looking them over, prompting Dr. Smith to look away and scratch at his temple. “Did you take these from someone?”
“I built them myself, with lots of meat, calcium, and nanites. We’re talking with a doctor here.” I turned back to him, though she kept feeling around on my hands. “I’m going to need a redacted copy of his chart in digital form for her law-abiding friends back in the United States. So see to those details accordingly. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
He shook his head. “We have the resources. All we need is time to work.”
As we left, I had to pull my hands away from Psychsaur. “Won’t your girlfriend be jealous you’re holding my hands?”
“We’ve worked through worse, like her Catholicism,” she told me. “You made yourself a second pair of arms. I guess I didn’t think about what you could do with them.”
“Your girlfriend knows better than most how good I am at growing arms. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you might fail to mention this to her.”
“Yeah, no, that’s not happening. Sorry. I’m surprised you’d do all that. You said you mess up sometimes.”
I raised a finger. She examined the nails on that hand. “I messed up early on, when I first made some work for only my DNA.”
“You want to tell me how?” she asked. “Come on, stop being so paranoid about your secrets. It’s probably not something anyone can even use against you, like the arm thing.”
Now, I could come up with ways Venus could use information about me having extra arms to her advantage in a fight with me. I also knew I wasn’t going to give that kind of idea to her girlfriend. That said, that earlier screw-up wasn’t something they could really use against me, no.
“So a lot of people have a very limited understanding of sex and sexuality, especially in places where that kind of thing is considered a bit rude and risque to talk about. Even on my planet, knowledge of exactly how it all works doesn’t necessarily filter from the experts to the regular folk. So, I messed up and had it handle the chromosome issue in the stereotypical way most people would think it goes.”
She looked at me for a moment. “And? What chromosome issue?”
“When I told the nanites to work on only my DNA, that included a mapping of it. They were to make sure all of me was up to code, save for anything replaced with cybernetics. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that the body is not uniform in sex cells, nor that the sex of individual cells can affect the body so greatly.”
“Parts of me are male?”
I looked her over, from her scaly skin to her feathers in place of hair. “Parts of you are prehistoric. But possibly. The problem with the most conservative estimates on how common it is are naturally incomplete. How many people have the DNA of every cell in their body tested? Look at how diagnosis of autism increased once your doctors learned enough about it to detect it better. Long story short, these nanites could quite possibly allow anyone on Earth to change sex at the drop of a hat just by reading the DNA off cells of the opposite sex and working their magic on the organs that matter for all that. Except me, because I am one-hundred percent male.” I posed, showing off how the dress hung from my feminine frame topped by a gold headdress in my flowing hair.
We walked along in seconds, coming to the lobby of the Institute. “So that’s it?” she asked.
I scoffed. “I said it was a stupid mistake. I didn’t say it was a big one. Besides, there’s already a process involving genetic grafting and my nanites that would let me do that if I wanted to. Just think, a pregnant Gecko.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re thinking of becoming a mother?”
I rolled my eyes. “See, this is the harm in telling you heroes things. You start psychoanalyzing and projecting. Next thing you know, y’all will be trying to impregnate me to try and keep me docile. Joke’s on you though, if you have any idea how pissed-off a pregnant woman can be and add that to my natural pleasant demeanor.” I smiled at her, and not the nice one. This was the smile I like to give people before rearranging their organs with a knife. “I’ma eat ya, bitch.”
We were just getting into the Imperial confiscated convertible when one of the research assistants sprinted out of the building. He came to a stop right next to me. I think he might have bowed, but he was so busy trying not to puke and sucking wind that I couldn’t tell. “Easy there,” I told him. “Catch your breath. Unless you’re a member of the bomb squad, then tell me that first.”
He shook his head and took a minute to get his breathing under control. “Empress, we found it and they are writing a program to patch into the nanites. If it pleases you to wait, we will have it shortly and you can see the results firsthand.”
I looked to Psychsaur. She shrugged. “I’m fine.”
Whoever they had working on the nanite programming, they worked fast, or maybe they’d already been building an app while the rest of the team was hunting this thing down. So we waited in the lobby and a half-hour later, Smith brought us a laptop personally. He set it down, eyeing Psychsaur, then switched it from hologram to augmented mode. The he activated the app.
An outline of the island appeared that filled in with buildings and rough patches to signify the forest and temple ruins off on the other part of the island. Then, pinging off each other, little dots began to appear. The regenerative nanites were meant to coordinate together in order to better repair the body and fight disease. I’ve used that coordination for tricks before, like triggering the grey goo protocol when an enemy needed to be disassembled, or to hold the world hostage during my brief tenure in control of the entire world. This time, it went through and kept jumping through the population of my island, even down into a couple of the sewer crocs by the looks of things. Soon, what looked to be most of the island filled out. More red dots kept appearing rapidly, in ones or twos, sometimes with larger groups.
I looked up to Smith, who looked pale. “Is that just the people it’s scanned, or is that the people infected?”
He swallowed. “Infected.”
Then the view expanded, showing North Korea and Mu as well, who had copied our waterworks and where people were just generally exposed to the nanites for medical care. Our colonies on the formerly-sunken continent appeared to be clean, but the infection was spreading from Pyongyang about as fast as it did here on the island.
“Empress, based on my rough estimate of the rate of infection, I believe it likely the infection first appeared on the day of your daughter’s birthday.”
I threw my head back and laughed, which made Smith jump. Once I had a moment to quiet down, I heard Psychsaur punching buttons on her phone. I turned and slapped it out of her hand, then grabbed her throat and lifted her off the ground. “You’re not warning anybody. Which one of your little friends was it?”
“I don’t know!” She kicked at me, then grabbed my wrist. Her telekinesis squeezed my fingers and forced them open. She dropped to the ground, and I suddenly felt a tingle in my head like she was up to something. I heard Smith fall, the tablet clattering with him. “I didn’t have anything to do with this. I don’t know what’s going on, I promise. But you know you can trust me. You can trust Venus.”
I thought back to my encounter with Future Venus. Willing to give me up to pay some aliens back for helping stop a threat. Willing to kidnap my daughter and do what she thought was best, keep her as a hostage of Master Academy. I could feel Psychsaur buzzing in my head, trying to get in. Ah, the benefits to having a brain that interfaces better with computers than psychics.
I threw a punch. She caught it with her mind. Another with a free hand. Again, she caught it. The same happened with the third and the fourth. I smiled, then went for a headbutt. Now, her catching that surprised me. I think she’s been practicing.
“I don’t want to fight you. I want to help you, please,” she said.
I also thought back to the red dots here in the lobby. The doctor, the assistant who tripped over himself running away from the fight, me, and Psychsaur. And while it pissed me off to no end to see myself represented there, that wasn’t the only thing to take away from it. “You’re in my world now, not your world. And I got friends on the inside.”
She collapsed into unconsciousness as the nanites in blocked the blood flow to her brain just long enough to knock her out. The invisible pressure on my limbs ceased and I grabbed her by the leg. I turned to see Dr. Smith standing up, looking woozy. He had a little bit of yellow vomit dripping from his mouth. “Glad you’re up, Doc. Get Creeper. I’m going to need our best anti-psychic testing chamber prepped for a guest. And forget the chart for her friends. Someone just gave the whole island a disease and didn’t even have the common fucking courtesy to kiss us on the mouth first.”
Woot! What comes before Part B? Part A!
The whole damn island’s having itself a good time to celebrate the birthday of my little baby girl, complete with an impromptu parade from the palace to the Cape Diem compound. When the first fireworks went off, Max took cover and I grabbed the nearest object, a painting off the wall, and prepared to beat wholesale ass with it.
“Watch it, Cinderella,” said Sam said from over by the living room windows. “It’s just fireworks.”
Citra moved up to take my arm and squeeze my hand in both of hers. “Yeah, it better be,” I said, before tossing the painting to the side and checking to make sure I hadn’t ruined anything on the new dress. Qiang said princess party and the tailor did his best to accommodate her wishes for a special dress to wear. It was a Western dress, very much in keeping with the Disney movies that I’ve been known to throw at her, but not any specific one. I told the tailor to make her Moana, Mulan, any of them she asked for. Disney’s not as anal about what constitutes a princess as I am, but my daughter can damn well dress as whoever she pleases.
Instead, she went with a darker pink with lots of frills up and down the front, and her own tiara. With my approval, the tailor went easy on the tiara. Most people don’t realize it, but wearing a lump of gold and gemstones on your head is hard work. Royals build up to that over like weeks or days leading up to official events. So Qiang’s tiara is better than a flimsy gold tiara. It’s durable, light, and gilded.
My own number resembled hers, except I went with a vibrant green that probably looks more at home in Rio during Carnivale, and had a little more space to hide my second pair of arms. If it hadn’t been for all these outsiders, I’d let them out. But I always gotta keep something in reserve when my nemesis is around.
While I was picking at it and making sure Qiang had hers all together, Citra took one look out the window and suggested, “Why do we not make a small parade?” I really should look into what the transit system’s like on this island. Damn delegation. Regardless, I know plenty of things fall off the back of a container ship around here, so I called up my guys in our local police force. They helped a car dealer clear a little space for more merchandise. It’s good for ’em, helps them rotate the inventory.
So my family had a parade of sorts. Nothing all that special to it, only Max was throwing treats at the crowd, and I didn’t really feel the need for security. Anybody who fucked up my dress was going to get a high heel up the urethra. And if they messed something up for Qiant? Oh, even a cyanide pill wouldn’t save them. I’d bring them back to life, and then I’d really fuck ’em up.
While I was keeping an eye out, Citra actually hopped out of our slow procession and carried Qiang down with her. I hopped out after them as they greeted some of the visitors. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“A princess should meet her subjects, and I think it is good for us,” she said.
I narrowed my eyes at her briefly before stopping myself. We were approaching another group who were getting all respectful and bowing. I stepped back and watched as Citra asked after them, how they were doing, other such platitudes. Empty stuff. Might as well ask how the weather is for all we can do about it. But they liked it. And not just them.
“You want to walk some, Qiang?” I asked the birthday girl.
“Yeah, Baba. I can ride in the car again when I’m tired. I get to be a princess!” She was hopping up and down and running along, eager to follow Citra’s example. As for me, I suppose I can’t fault her for having a will of her own. She is still another separate person, if one thrust into position and events far beyond what her life intended. Chaos can certainly be a ladder, or a pit. So while they were all smiles and spreading good Imperial cheer among my people, I kept a close eye out in case someone decided they wanted to hurt the Empress Regnant on our way to the Cape Diem compound.
Now, even though I was fully prepared to let visitors to my world come in peace, even provide an escort to me, the leader, it turns out the Master Academy people worked something out with Cape Diem. I didn’t see anything change hands, but Cape Diem’s whole portal deal with the UN isn’t something they’d risk losing. I wonder what the cost is for using the world’s only portal network to bring a bunch of kids to a birthday party on an island run by a supervillain. I suppose there are benefits for neutrality. But it’s neutrality that goes both ways.
My minions helped prepare everything, payment being they get to enjoy the party too. As my prior discussion of the cake ratio shows, I put a lot of thought into bribing people with food, fun, and bouncy houses. That even includes the guard detail who escorted the various princesses from the pink castle they temporarily called home. All of them formed a receiving line for my daughter on her way to the cake.
The cake itself loomed over the party like a small castle all its own. It was too big for the compound itself. It’s bad hat to kick your guests out of their own home by bringing in such a giant cake. People mostly contained themselves until we got there, at which point Qiang lost her shit with high-pitched squeals of delight and ran off into a throng of her friends who were being held back by their chaperones from Master Academy. We managed to separate them and, before everything devolved into the inevitable entropic pack of playing people, I let Qiang see all the various princesses. She was excited to meet them, and luckily they’d all calmed down a great deal. Something about being in public, with superheroes around, knowing they were going to be set free, and that this was all about my daughter’s birthday party.
Finally, barely able to contain her excitement and glee, it was time for my daughter to stand in front of her cake. And like all great cakes, it required men with flamethrowers hanging from flyers in order to light the candles. Ok, so required isn’t so accurate a term for lighting five candles. Let me think… fun? Awesome? Nevertheless, she stood there in front of a lower part ready to be cut and served to people. Then I unleashed the real humiliation. “Ok, time to sing Happy Birthday!”
Once I’d finished completely embarrassing her with the help of her friends and a huge crowd of strangers, she finally got a piece of cake, and then servants made sure everyone got cake who wanted it, including themselves. And from there, people mingled, people ate, people played games. I even caught this minotaur-looking super from Master Academy snorting in frustration as he kept missing at the clown dunk. The clown itself had a white face, a big forehead, and red hair. He’d also do this little dance in between throws, glaring right at the minotaur.
And it seemed to go ok. It was more like a big fair for a pretty good amount of time. Heroes and villains and me and my family all mingling. It was almost normal. It felt weird, like I should pick a fight just to have something to do. Fucking ball just wouldn’t hit the target and dunk the clown. I swear, that big-shoed bastard did something to the balls. While missing yet again, and ducking a cream pie thrown in retaliation, I noticed Venus.
It struck me as odd that we’d avoided each other so far. Unless she was avoiding me, which is a crazy thing to think. No, unless she was PLOTTING against me. That’s a sane thing to think. So I went over to where she was looking after some of the kids. “So, what horrifying thing are you going to do now in the name of being a good person?” I asked.
“Watching kids play on a happy day. How are you planning to be an asshole and justify it because other people in the world do bad things?” she asked right back, giving me a forced, closed smile.
“I dunno, figured I’d send missionaries to teach starving kids in Africa the joys of cannibalism.” My smile was more genuine, as was my amusement.
Venus wasn’t so amused. Doesn’t mean she was offended, she just didn’t like me. She turned her head suddenly, checking on a kid that had fallen. One of the Master Academy kids she brought all the way here to my daughter’s party even though she hates me. I looked at her and held a hand out. “I should be a better host. Thanks for bringing everyone. This means a lot to her.”
She shook my hand, and this time the little smile tugging at her lips also tightened up her eyes. “You’re welcome. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s worked magic on you.” After letting go of my hand, she turned to keep an eye on everything, smiling at everyone just walking around, having fun and playing games.
I shrugged. “She’s not so different from me. Orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, and trained to be more object than person. But she’s mine.” I saw a Buzzkill giving piggyback rides to refugee children. “That’s a screwed-up life she doesn’t deserve. No one does. It corrupts you, makes you want to cling to it. Makes you af- it feels more secure that way. Because once you know that’s your life, there isn’t anything that can scare you. I can do that for her, and I can destroy anyone who would hurt her.”
I turned to look at her then. Nothing like a good threat to round it out. Instead, she smiled at me. “That’s very heroic of you.”
I flinched. Couldn’t help it. “And here I thought we were playing nice.”
“You’ve become a better person,” she said. “You jumped in front of that rocket. See, I think staying with us helped you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh yeah, y’all putting in a telepathic block to stop me from swearing or killing, that’s what I really needed in my life. Y’all didn’t help that much. Well, aside from saving my life. And… ya know, it’s been awhile since I got the shakes from not killin’ someone.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
She held up her hands. “We thought it would help your recovery. We weren’t going to leave you in the middle of psychological withdrawals while we kept you from murdering anyone.”
I held up a finger in front of her face. “There anything else y’all did to my brain I don’t know about? Any more secret brainwashing to make be ‘better’?”
“No, I swear.” She’d tensed up, her eyes darting past me. Well, if we were drawing attention from her friends, they’d just get to violate Cape Diem’s neutrality and the sovereignty of my nation first.
I folded my arms in front of me.”I get so many mixed messages from you, Boopsie.” Then I just left her there. I wanted to hurt her or at least yell at her. But, and this is an important thing to remember in this instance, this was about my daughter. Besides, an Empress doesn’t get mad. She gets cake. I just have to hope any feelings for her weren’t somehow the result of telepathic manipulation.
And speaking of good feelings, there were Rhonda and Leland, the parents of my daughter’s best friend from Master Academy, just waiting for me to come say hello again and remind them about that threesome they had with a murderous serial killer and Empress.
Qiang could barely able to stay awake long enough to see guests departing by the end of the party. We didn’t have too many who weren’t already here decide to stay the night. Kayla and her parents for sure, but it’s not like all those kidnapped princesses, including all the Marias and Maries from Belgium, wanted to stick around. Even Venus had decided she’d head back instead of take me up on my offer to stay and ease her tired muscles with a refreshing dip in my jacuzzi.
Once almost everyone had departed, though, I heard a shout. I looked to Citra, carrying my exhausted five year old in her arms. Seeing them clearly both ok, I shot the similarly-burdened parents of her best friend a wink and headed off in the direction of whatever commotion we had going on. I found a pair of Security officers holding up one of their own between them. “Something up, guys?” I asked.
The one on the man’s left shook his head. “Apologies for not bowing, Empress.”
I waved off his concerns, “Bow later, talk now.”
“Very well. He got disoriented and collapsed.” I looked him over. Sweaty, even in the lighter gear he had on, but he had a half-full canteen bottle on his belt.
“Get him to our medical tent outside the fence and tell them to contact Dr. Creeper,” I said quietly. Louder, to a nearby family carrying a kid with a balloon tied around his wrist, I said, “Just a bit of dehydration. Make sure to keep drinking water, folks.”
It was when Creeper got there, along with some of the more medically-minded staff of the Institute, that I briefed him with a simple. “We have a problem.”
The man was still disoriented, still out of it. Babbling and feverish. I continued explaining in case nobody got it, “This isn’t heat stroke. We don’t know what it is. Worse, whatever’s going on isn’t being stopped by the nanites in the water or in the dermal patches they’ve applied. We need to find out what this is.”
“We need a quarantine, especially on outsiders,” Creeper said.
Fuck. “That’s not doable. Most of the ones who were here aren’t anymore.” And the ones who are here, like a little superpowered girl and her parents, won’t look so good. “Well, let’s get to it. The sooner we figure out what’s going on, the sooner we fix it.”
I knew arriving back at the palace that this whole situation would take tact. And probably sex. Just make it seem like Rhonda and Leland are having a nice vacation here while their daughter plays with mine. That’s what I was ready for when I opened the door to the palace residence and entered, only to have to hold back a lot of cuss words.
Psychsaur, scaled and feathered psychic hero of Master Academy (and Venus’s girlfriend), was seated at the bar in the kitchen, swaying, talking with Sam and Holly. She smiled a loose, too-friendly smile and her wave to me almost dropped her from the stool. Plus, I could smell the alcohol from where I stood when she opened her mouth to say “Hey Gecko! I’m not driving home tonight, so can I sleep here?”
Cue the Pink Panther theme.
Imagine, if you will, dear readers: a robot in my heavy armor sneaking carefully through a neighborhood in Florida. Not Orlando, where King Mickey reigns supreme, or even Miami. Everybody knows all about Miami. Hot as fuck there, especially this time of year, but my target did not hide there. Technically, I don’t think she’s really hiding. But whatever she’s doing it, she’s doing it in the very strangest part of the strangest state in Americastan.
The Florida Keys are odd, even by Florida standards, complete with their own semi-serious secession movement. There’s not much to fear from the Conch Republic, though. I think they’re seceding to get rid of daylight savings time and extend happy hour. They call themselves the Conch Republic; how important could their demands be?
The house in question had its own airstrip behind it, which made it rather easy to locate with the aid of drones. Ubiquitous little spy devices. Give everyone their own civilian drones to play with and nobody pays that much attention anymore to how often they zip around spying on people.
A gunshot rang out.
Ah, that’s right. I hear some people are selling drone shot for shotguns now. Good thing that was a cheap civilian version meant to blend in and help me spy on the area. It’s a little tougher to manage drones and a Dudebot at the same time, but I found what needed. An airstrip with an older prop plane named “Conch Rage”, a Conch Republic flag hanging from the porch, and the presence of somebody capable of firing a shotgun.
I almost wish I could have felt the humid and windy night air for myself, but my own body was back in Ricca. I couldn’t just go myself. I had to get fitted for a big poofy dress for the party. So the Dudebot stalked the night of Florida’s archipelago.
“If anyone’s out there, fuck yer drone and stop spying on me or I shall unleash a rain of hellfire upon you like a thousand boots to the upside of your ass!” yelled someone from the porch with more cheap beer than wariness of tempting fate. Because fate is a petty bitch at times. Or is that me? Or is that both of us?
I didn’t actually need the guy’s house. It was his plane I was there for. He had a bit of fuel out back in a can, so I fueled up while he got more drunk. The house’s occupant finally came running once I started the darn thing. I started to pull away, but I turned and tossed him a life preserver ring. “Man overboard! Hold on tight!”
Between the alcohol and an unwillingness to let someone steal his plane, he actually did. It was probably mostly the alcohol, truth be told. He grabbed onto that ring as I taxied out and took off, dragging his drunk ass into the air. Once I’d gotten safely into the air, I called back, “Doing ok back there?!”
I couldn’t make out any words, so I figured I’d take it easy on him. “You look tense. Relax a bit!” And with that, I threw him a cool, refreshing beer. It thunked off his forehead and spewed a bit of beer belatedly. “You know what? Relax a lot!” I turned and hefted a cooler, dumping beer and ice at the trailing life preserver. I shook it all clear and, seeing him still holding on for dear life, I tossed the cooler at him too.
At that point, it was time to put in for a landing, and I had just the spot. A local hotel where a Belgian woman was vacationing. A woman with Marie in her name. I could have just snuck inside the place no problem, and in fact I did in order to find out which room she was in. But anybody can break into a hotel room. Being a supervillain means breaking into a hotel room with style. And fucking your nemesis, preferably in the ass. But mostly it’s the style part. Still a bit about the fucking though. I want to make it very clear that fucking is still an option.
It just wasn’t going to be much of an option in the hotel in question when I brought this old, WW2-era thing plowing into the opposite side of the building to the room I was aiming for. Which, come to think of it, meant this was a bad time to look Asian. And I suppose I didn’t have to holographically project the rising sun flag.
The plane caught fire and tore itself apart as it broke through walls and dragged along floor. The wings didn’t make it past the first room. By the fifth room, there wasn’t a whole lot left of the fuselage at all. I actually came skidding to a stop just before the room of my target, Princess Marie-Christine Daphne Astrid Elisabeth Leopoldine. The final Belgian princess.
I got up from my seat and walked around the flaming motor at the front of the stolen aircraft. I politely and quietly knocked on the wall to the last room. “Room service!”
“What the fuck is going on out there?!” cried the room’s occupant, which told me she was indeed in.
“Quiet in there, I’m being subtle!” I yelled back, then smashed a hole through the wall. I found the old bird in bed, hand near a lamp she’d turned on. She threw it at me, but I caught it and threw it right back, knocking her on the shoulder as she rolled to get up. I hopped on the bed, wrapped her in my cold metallic embrace, and set off the D-bomb, hurtling the Dudebot to Ricca.
The Dudebot dragged her over to a waiting Deep One guard. “Book ’em. This is one sick son of a bitch. You wouldn’t believe what I caught her doing in bed with a lamp.” The guard nodded and grabbed the screaming woman for a trip into the waiting castle. Sure, she was the black sheep of the royal family, but I doubt the atmosphere can get much worse there.
What surprised me more was seeing equipment being brought in that resembled enlarged holographic projectors, and seeing the 3D assemblers going at it building another pair of buildings and otherwise crowding out the military base.
Yeah, Venus’s idea to have all this linked to Cape Diem and partially on their grounds was looking better and better. Good thing I have an amicable working relationship with them. They’re fond of kids anyway, and I made sure to let them know anyone housed that site is welcome to the party too. Gonna be harder for the heroes to start shit with all those hostag- guests present. Refugees and Cape Diem capes. Saving the day by doing good deeds in other countries instead of just fighting first world problems.
And as for all that equipment now doing stuff on my military base, I intended to go right up to the guys loading it and find out what their deal was. Then I received an email from Pagan, my new head of Intelligence, informing me he was preemptively implementing additional security measures without my prior knowledge. So, I guess that’s good. That’s what I pay him for. Putting booby traps around without telling me first.
It put me off a bit, that having happened, but I figured it was a good thing. Delegation and all that. Letting other people worry about some stuff for me. It gave me more time to avoid Beetrice, the giant bee woman, queen of the Buzzkills and North Korea, and probably the best diplomat loyal to my Empire. Someone leaked word of Qiang’s upcoming birthday party to her and she arrived bearing presents, a retinue of Buzzkills, and an intense desire to hug me to death.
I didn’t care for the Buzzkills being around either. They don’t seem to be making a big deal about it, but they are my kids too. Only I’ve never shown any affection or fatherly anything toward them. They haven’t been making a big deal about me being their dad either, but it’s just strange to me. Almost all the interchangeable insectoid minions known as Buzzkills are my kids
See, this is why I should have gone after the Toybox. Leave me alone with time for idle ponderings and I end up wondering if bee people are going to call me Daddy. Bee people aside from Queen Beetrice, that is.
Luckily on several counts, I didn’t need to ponder for long. After a couple of days hoping for something to go wrong, something did. That is, I was awoken one night to digital alerts. We had an intruder on the island, at the base, in the conservatory, with a candlestick!
The last two turned out to be false alarms, but I slipped into my armor and jumped right out the door, getting caught by Beetrice in a hug as she flew back to the palace. “There’s a break-in!” she said, slowly turning me into a humanoid accordion with her embrace.
“Take me there, and less squeezing my lungs,” I said. She held me by my sides instead. The side of my boobs, the side of my ass. For a being whose palace has so many hexagons in it, she sure is a fan of curves. I “ahemed” several times as she flew me there, but she just interrupted her humming to ask, “You aren’t getting sick, are you?”
The mother of my children, folks. Take it from your old pal Psycho Gecko: keep the sex out of insects.
Something was wrong at the big pink princess castle, and I don’t just mean the obliterated front drawbridge or downed guards.
“Take me inside, Beetrice,” I directed before interrupting her giggling to clarify, “NOT that way.”
She buzzed on in there, past beat-up guards, broken walls, and Deep Ones who had been smashed with fallen debris. Our interloper burst through walls without regard for all our hard work we put all the machines through to build it. That inconsiderate bastard!
Thing was, the interior was nothing like I knew the inside of the castle to be. I programmed the damn thing. There were way fewer rooms, and no way to the upper stories. I don’t remember putting in a bridge or lava either, which is the room where Beetrice dodged a fireball. She yanked me to the left to avoid a charbroiling and brought us down to hover over the lava, with plenty of heat. “Seriously, where’d they get all the lava from?” I asked myself. “Beetrice, remind me to ask Pagan later if this is from the volcano under the island. I really need to know if we have access to that again.”
“When did we get a dragon?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said, looking at the dragon and its foe. The man in front of it would have fit in at a bodybuilding competition. He had to be like 6’6”, with vertical teal and black stripes on his tights. Yeah, tights. And they were tight. I could make out butt muscles underneath the round hammer strapped to his back. He took a fireball head on, too, before firing some multi-streamed purple energy blast from his hands. Then, glowing purple, he flew over the dragon, which had advanced down the bridge to face him. Safe on the other landing, he withdrew his hammer and held it aloft, the beams of purple light flowing into the hammer from all directions. When he brought it smashing down on the bridge, the entire thing shook and briefly glowed purple. Then the bottom of the wood began to fall out and the ropes on that end snapped, sending the dragon plummeting to its presumed death in in the lava below.
The man in the costume turned and ran in into the next room. “Beetrice, follow that ass!” I instructed. As we crossed the gap, I looked down at the dragon and saw the hologram fail and paper burning off whatever robotic sentry Pagan had left behind. A frustrated yell came from ahead of us.
The next room was empty save for the hero and a broken holodisc that couldn’t maintain the illusion of a room full of women. Then the walls themselves began to churn and move, with ratcheting noises coming from all ’round. The hero turned to look at me, his face turning from rage to worry as I told him, “Sorry, but your princesses are in another castle.”
The roof collapsed in on him. As I soon found out, the whole of the castle was meant to fall in on itself, a fate I barely avoided thanks to my queen bee. She landed and refused to set me down, carrying me in a hug that didn’t look all that Imperial to all the soldiers and guards who showed up, with flyers hovering in the air. I spotted Silver Shark and VelocityRaptor in attendance as well. The real pink princess castle became visible briefly at the guards’ shift change, but by then they’d dug out the unconscious hero and brought him before me for judgment.
“I’ve agreed to cut back,” I said, trying to look intimidating while aggressively snuggled by an amazonian bee queen. “Take him to Cape Diem. Tell them to shove him through a portal or something. And whoever’s reporting to Pagan, inform him I need a dungeon, preferably with an oubliette or two. Maybe a labyrinth.”
When I dismissed them, I ordered Beetrice to return me to my palace, at which point she confronted me with the burning question of her night. “A labyrinth?”
“Yes, it’d be perfect for the babe.”
“The babe with the power.”
“Oh, let’s not start this again.”
The big day draws near. Now that I have fewer people to kidnap, I’ve had time to deal with catering, including getting a big-ass cake done. The design almost gave me diabetes just looking at it, but it had to be huge. We’ve got a lot of guests, and I’ve done some rough calculations on the additional cake necessary to offset the hard feelings from the kidnapping.
It’s one of those areas of science from my more advanced home dimension. Whereas the power armor and nanotech are the results of the hard sciences, my world also advanced in the social sciences and humanities. For instance, we discovered that there is a ratio of discomfort to cake that allows someone to completely offset all dislike from a situation with application of the proper amount of cake. I had to leave out various factors, though. Dairy tolerance, differences between frostings, the ice cream and milk modifiers.
But enough about confectioneries. I also handled the balloons and the shopping. Well, I’m not sure shopping is an accurate name with all that theft. But I didn’t want to just get Qiang the normal toys. She’ll have pretty much one of everything anybody else could possibly have. Then I realized she needed one of things people couldn’t have.
I didn’t need a toy store, or a toy factory. I’ve wrecked China enough for all that. I need… The Toybox.
“The Toybox is a legend,” said Max.
“What’s the Toybox?” asked Sam, his assistant with the more goth or perhaps punk look. There’s a certain point where I can’t tell them apart. But I suppose she’s grown some. She shaved her hair down except for a green poof at the front, so she’s got that going for her. She sat with us at the bar for our mid-afternoon drink. There’s breakfast, like screwdrivers, followed by mimosas or champagne at lunch, something with a bit more zip at eleven or so, then lunch, then the mid-afternoon drink around 3 o’clock, with more drinks at dinner and later at supper. Of course, we don’t always make all the appointments, so there’s the option to put them all together throughout the night.
“Ooh, I know!” That was Holly, the cheerier and generally preppier of the two. She’d been to Sea-Offee. A Riccan entrepreneur partnered up with Deep One suppliers who had cultivated some beans that sunk in airtight storage before the beans themselves went extinct. There’s also a gimmick about iceberg iced coffees, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a common lie.
Holly set her coffees down before answering, “So like so many supervillains went around stealing prototype toys and special toys for gimmicks and stuff or to sell to people. The toy companies got together and used their money to build a secret vault where they can lock them up safely. So the legend goes.”
“But why?” asked Sam. “Why not destroy them or sell them themselves? They aren’t useful anymore, are they?”
Max and I looked at each other before focusing on her.
“You never know when you’ll need a prototype. You can make an inferior version to sell to everyone else,” he said.
“They often have features later editions don’t and provide a practical model for implementing them,” I added. “Those can come in handy later on.”
“It can be even more valuable if the product’s good,” Max said.
I nodded my head toward him, “The artistic value, too.”
“Yeah, they make good trophies,” Max said.
“Some of them are toys they never put into production,” I came back with.
“It all sounds like stupid bullshit to me. I bet they wanted to make a vault to feel special,” Sam said.
Max and I both nodded. “That’s also likely, yeah,” I told her. It really is. Makes me wish I had a giant vault full of traps and valuables just thinking about it.
“You’re going to break into a vault that may not exist to steal toys that don’t work right when you already have everything you already need.” Sam was trying to be the voice of reason, which made it easy to ignore her.
I turned to Max, but he cocked his head to the size and said, “She has a point.”
“It’s a natural way to get Venus’s attention so I can get her here,” I argued.
“I don’t want to tell you your business,” he started, “But I will anyway. Does she bring little kids along when she goes to fight you?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t you want Qiang’s friends to come here?” he asked.
I raised a hand parallel to the floor and shook it back and forth a bit. “For her, sure.”
He adjusted on his stool and was about to talk, but Holly spoke up, “You didn’t go around kidnapping a bunch of princesses for their company, did you?”
“There was one who was actually real pleasant to talk to, but that was mostly about Qiang’s birthday.”
It was Sam’s turn now. “Hey man, if you do stupid shit, you might ruin her birthday. I remember one of my birthday parties, my mom and pop got into an argument over the cake. They both bought me one just like I wanted, but they each got mad at the other for trying to show the other person up by going behind the other’s back. Mom threw his in the trash, he threw hers out the window. I didn’t get any cake.”
I shook my head. “Destruction of cake. Those monsters. Somebody get me the Directors, we need a new law.” I started to stand up and see to that when Sam reached out and put a hand on my lower right forearm. I looked down at it then at her with a raised eyebrow.
“This is her day. Don’t fuck it up for her,” she told me.
Max clapped a hand on my shoulder, subtly moving sliding Sam’s limb away from me. “Think about it this way: now you know what to steal for her next year.”
I pondered it for a moment before heading off into an office area where I’d hung the communication screen. This is one of the newer models using Riccan paperthin display tech, so it just looked like a painting and wasn’t too out of place with other pieces of art around here. I don’t know who hung this one painting in here, but it was nothing like the rest of their aesthetic. Some old-timey looking thing with a woman playing the piano, a guy with his back to the viewer strumming a guitar, and another woman just standing there, all on a black and white floor that looks sorta like a chessboard.
When I was nice and ready, I put out a call and, after a second, Venus’s helmeted face looked down at me. “Who is this?”
I sat there in my pretty red and gold dress, face powdered and made up, my hair running through another golden headdress. I only raised my top pair of arms as the lower pair were hidden inside the dress. “It’s your absolute favorite supervillain in the whole wide world. Did I catch you at a bad time, Boopsie?”
She stared. “Gecko?”
“Empress Gecko,” I answered. “Well, Emperor’s fine, but they insist on calling me Empress right now. I swear, you tuck your nuts between your legs then shove them up inside a pussy and everyone loses their fucking minds.”
“You sound like Gecko. Pretty hologram. What do you want?”
“Hologram? Hey, can’t a guy just put on a dress, do up his hair, grow boobs, and wear makeup and a vagina just because he feels like it? You’re getting awfully judgmental for a Catholic bisexual, you know.”
She reached up, fingers hitting the visor over where it covered her nose before she lowered that hand out of view. “What do you want?”
I straightened myself up. “I’m throwing Qiang a birthday party and she has requested her friends attend. That includes you for some reason, but also that girl she used to hang out with over there, and the others from that school.” I took a moment to consult my memory. “Kayla, that was the name of her friend. She can even bring her parents, if she’d like.”
She looked down at me, thinking. “Is this a plot?”
I gently shook my head, not wanting to fuck up my bitchin’ hairdo. “There are plots involved in it, but this is not a plot. This is my daughter’s birthday and she wants her friends there. Unfortunately, that means… you.” I rolled my eyes. “Good news is, I can provide lots of cover for you-”
“-excuse me?” I asked. I didn’t expect her to just agree to come here like that without some sort of incentive. Over to the side, Citra stood with a photo of one of Belgium Marias with today’s newspaper. She looked at me curiously and started toward the screen’s view, but I raised a hand to wave her off surreptitiously.
“Qiang is a good girl and we enjoyed having her. I think we can make arrangements with Cape Diem to come to the party. When is it?”
“Wow, ok, this actually moves up the timeline a bit. I was planning to rob a place or threaten to in order to get your attention. Dammit, you’ve foiled me again,” I said that last sentence playfully. “A week oughta do it. Should be enough time to wrap up any sudden problems that’ll show up. And if anyone gives you any trouble over coming to see me, you can always give them some spin about it being a rescue operation to get back all those kidnapped princesses.”
“You have them, don’t you?” she asked.
I waved it off, trying to say, “No, no, of course not…”
But that’s when Citra stepped into view, smiling wide while holding a picture of a pissed-off Belgian woman with a newspaper in one hand and giving the V-sign with the other. “Hello,” Citra said, way more happily than I expected. She waved at Venus.
Venus gave her a small wave. “Hi. Who are you?”
“I am Citra, Empress Gecko’s wife.” She linked her arm with mine.
“That is so sweet. Smile, I’m taking a screenshot,” Venus said.
Gonna kill her. Gonna kill her so hard. Gonna kill her and paradox the shit out of Future Venus because she won’t live long enough for me to kill her in the future when she time travels to the past. I swear, she’s trying to bait me just as I’ve often tried to bait her.
I put a hand over Citra’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. She intertwined her fingers with mine and leaned against me. I took a breath and carried on. “Anyway, now that the pussy’s out of the sack, you can bring the whole school over, no shenanigans, and you get to walk away with the princesses that we officially do not have here. And, more importantly, I will have less time to draw out party preparations and decide to rob places for more and more extravagant gifts. We’ll have entertainment, too. There’ll be music and games. Clowns and a dunking booth, even.”
Venus grimaced. “Some people don’t like clowns.”
I waved that off with my free hand. “The clowns will be in the dunking booth. It’ll probably be therapeutic. And don’t worry about the clowns either. They’ll float. They all float.”
That got a shiver from Venus at least. “Let’s work it out with Cape Diem and I’ll see you next week, alright?”
“Fine by me, Venus. Oh, and just so you know, the theme is Princesses. Do dress accordingly,” I said, feeling my grin take on predatory menace. I’ll get a picture of her dressed ridiculously even if I have to roofie her and take all her clothes off myself! And I guess I can put more clothes on her at some point, too.
Before I went too much further, I had to deal with an issue at home. Because, fuck me, some people have some misconceptions about me. I was informed one of the Directors had a special gift for me he wanted to discuss with me over the phone because he was seeing to the offloading at the docks.
“1,500 kids? Where the fuck do you get 1,500- oh I’m sorry, interrupt your damn Empress while you’re at it, 1,475 kids? I don’t give a shit about the price. I understand what the phrase ‘fall off the back of a truck’ means, but most people don’t consider children the sort of thing that falls off the backs of trucks. I don’t care what that video shows, I caught her before she hit the ground, and this isn’t about her. This is about 1,500 kids that you decided to buy… why? What do I need kids for?! Anything worth doing is worth training an adult to do. What I want you to do is turn the boat around and send them back. It’s the United fucking States, it’s not that hard to sneak in. I know a bar in Mexico, place called the Titty Twister, caters to truck drivers. Pay a few of them enough, they’ll get them in. Worse comes to worse, you take them in through Canada instead.”
I put on my helmet so I could slam my head against the desk in my office for the appropriate slamming sound. That’s one of the problems with integrating cell phone technology into your brain; it’s so hard to manage a satisfying hangup. I’ve got a pretty liberal immigration policy for Ricca, but people begin to wonder what the fuck’s going on once you’ve smuggled in 1,500 kids. And do you know how hard it is to find a buyer for children in bulk?
I mean, sure, there’s China and its sweatshops. The Vatican and its child molestation. South Korea and its professional gaming slaves. And whatever it is Russia does with kids. Probably science experiments, if they even can pull that off now. The place got royally fucked. No, czarally fucked. For some reason, investing almost all legal power into a mortal man instead of some sort of system of government turned out badly for them when he died, especially with various crimelords free of control and eager to prevent any future president from being able to control them.
The Claw, being long-lived and difficult to kill, managed it for a long time. I just found it easier to shove some of the responsibilities on other people by making them draw up a constitution. That allows this Directory bunch to run the country while I sit around remotely controlling a robotic doppelganger in Belgium. I’ve had a small castle made for them all to be kept in at the military base, with plenty of room for all the other princesses I have villains and mercenaries kidnapping for me. They’ve had time to make their own deliveries. The princesses haven’t tried anything stupid, like escaping. The Deep One guards are fairly intimidating to regular humans, but we also keep drones around. And we’re on an island.
It’s gotten out that someone is kidnapping them.
I naturally got a call about it from an interested source. As in, Venus, the nemesis who has overstayed her welcome in my life. I was on my throne, laying around while my Dudebot scouted the Royal Castle over in Belgium. One of the Directory aides ran up with a phone for me. “The Director of Foreign Affairs sent this,” he said.
I took handset off the phone and held it up to my helmet. “It is I, the great and devious Psychopomp Gecko, master of death, destroyer of worlds, eater of souls. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Gecko, it’s me.” said a familiar voice.
I hung up. Six and a half minutes later, the phone rang. I answered it, fairly certain it was the same caller as before.
“You have no idea how big a hassle it is to call you. I have to call my friend in an embassy who calls someone he knows in another country’s embassy who directs it to that country’s Riccan embassy who sends the call all the way to his boss in your government.”
“Wow, that sounds just-” I hung up again. When she called back, I decided to reveal, “Ya know, I made sure lots of people know that if you’re reaching out to me, to go ahead and get the call to me. It’s complicated this way, but you won’t give me your number.”
“You keep hacking my phone anyway.”
I nodded. “Oh, that’s right, I refuse to give you my number. Anyway, I’m a very busy world leader here. Can’t spent all day playing phone tag with you. What do you want?”
“Are you kidnapping nobles?”
“Nah,” I answered.
“If you’re just going to say that about any answer I give, why bother asking? Venus, y’all worked out some sort of crazy reverse diplomatic immunity for me. It’s open season me if I leave, so clearly I don’t just run off from the island.”
“You were just over here during the holidays,” she reminded me.
“Yes, and maybe someone needs to give you and your friends a stern talk about aiding and abetting international fugitives from justice, but it won’t be me because I’m adhering to the terms of my agreement.” Either I’ve gotten really good at envisioning Venus’s reactions to my antics, or she grinds her teeth loudly. “I have not left this island and I am not kidnapping royals. If I had some sort of plan for that, why would I wait until after that big wedding in the UK?”
“I don’t know what you’re doing, but we know you’re having royal women kidnapped for whatever reason. I shouldn’t have to remind you that being a leader means worrying about war instead of jail.”
I laughed at that one. “Right, like anyone would invade a country that actually has weapons of mass destruction. Only an imbecile or a madman actually declares war on someone like that, what with millions of lives all snuffing out in the first few minutes of any such war. Plus, ya know, I can teleport my bombs anywhere in the world. No, I’m perfectly safe here. But if you’re looking for kidnapped royals, then I have to say thanks for thinking of me, but your princess is in another castle. Oh, but while I have you, I was hoping to invite you to a party-”
She hung up on me that time.
Over in Belgium, I used the Dudebot and satellites to recon the Royal Castle. It’s a misnomer, though. It’s a palace, but not really a castle. The difference isn’t just pedantic. A castle is an actual fortress, designed to withstand knights and catapults. Palaces are designed to protect nobility from living in a mere mansion like one of those dirty plebians who worked for their money. Or worse, who don’t even have money. With today’s military technology, the difference can be negligible.
They have the Royal Castle locked down tight with guards and dogs, and guards as ugly as dogs. I mean, they’re trying. It’s the thought that counts, right? Plenty of people would be deterred by those shitty defenses. Lots of folks wouldn’t go after the last four princesses in Belgium. There are actually five Belgian princesses left, but one of them lives over in the U.S. Or something. Princess Marie-Christine Daphne Astrid Elisabeth not only continues the trend of having either Marie or Maria in her name, but appears to be something of a black sheep. She lives abroad and estranged, already spent all her money, and talks about how maybe Belgium would be better off without royalty. Given some people I’ve seen elected to power, I’m not sure she has room to shit talk the monarchy.
Regardless, Marie-Christine wasn’t gathered up by the royal family and shipped to the Royal Castle for safekeeping during this kidnapping spree. The other four were inside this sad little piece of architecture they thought they could defend with probably more armed guards than their normal standing army.
It really wasn’t that hard to just sneak in. Jump some fences, sneak in behind a patrolling guard, invisible as a fart in the wind, but twice as deadly. It took me awhile to find where they were actually being held. I had to go through a lot of bedrooms, and even when I was sure I found the actual room, it turned out to be sadly empty. On the plus side, I know one of the remaining princesses wasn’t wearing panties. I hope it’s not the 55 year old.
All the bedrooms… empty. Which wouldn’t be entirely suspicious, but even the ones that looked like room for the guards didn’t have anyone in them. And it occurred to me there should have been more staff in general. I expanded my search and was a little less gentle, like someone finding out his girlfriend has problems cumming from just penetration. As this tends to do, this did eventually lead me to a room full of women. Also, a gaggle of guys with guns aimed right at a door that opened all by itself. Had to be like twenty of them packed in there along with the four nobles I was after. They stood on a platform of a sort, with a slope reaching out several feet in all directions and bolted to the floor.
“Test it,” said one of the security detail. A man stepped forward and fired a shotgun, peppering my armor with buckshot because that’s the kind of gun that’s awesome for shooting into a doorway. Natural chokepoint, after all. And with only one way in or out, a shotgun would normally shred someone to pieces there. It just ticked me off a bit and prompted the one giving orders to turn and signal something to a woman sitting at a computer near the princesses. The computer person made twenty-one, a fun number for every occasion. “Activate it! Open fire, protect the princesses!”
The guards opened up on me all at once. Just a good, long, loud few seconds of automatic fire. Right as it petered off, one guy thunked a grenade at the doorway that began to spew smoke. As a whole, the group turned to stare at one mustachioed guard in goggles, the nearest asking “Really, Dietrich?”
I stepped the Dudebot out of the cloud, the smoke marking it for everyone to see and preventing the cameras and projectors from working properly to conceal it. Or the panties stretched over the helmet.
“Are those my knickers?” asked the skinny blonde 29 year old of the bunch, Maria Laura Zita Beatriz Gerhard.
“Score,” I said, pumping the Dudebot’s fist. Then my helmet started blasting “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.
I jumped and put my hand through the nearest guard’s skull. His body fell back down and I grabbed the legs, yanking him into the air to smack another into a very heavy classical marble statue that fell over on top of that one. Another flew into a vase that looked pretty old. I tossed the body at his head, snapping it back.
The next one in front of me got a punch through his gut, leaving a hole that let me see yet another one behind him who was trying to get me with a shotgun he managed to reload. I reached through the hole and grabbed the guy’s crotch. He screamed as I pulled it back, the gun firing off to the side. I think it got another of his team. I turned to someone flanking me and whipped the torn-off dick at his face, causing him to be momentarily blinded. I grabbed his gun out of his hand and slammed the barrel into the top of his skull. Then I bent him over and emptied fifteen shots through his asshole into another pair of guards.
A shot to the back of the Dudebot reminded me they were trying to get around behind me. I turned and brought the ripped dick straight down. The guard, a woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, opened her mouth in shock and, amazingly, took the entire thing down her throat. “Holy crap, that’s just great,” I told her. She flailed her free hand and reached for the bloody cock. “You doing anything later?” I asked.
She shot the Dudebot in its crotch. I kicked her onto her back. “Rotting, eh? Sounds fun. I’ll leave you to it.” I stomped her groin. She sat straight up, at which point I kicked her head off with the other leg.
“Got it!” shouted the woman at the computer, hitting a button. The four princesses, all huddled together, were cut off from everything else by a shimmering barrier. “Now you can’t get them!” she said, turning to give me a triumphant and teasing grin.
I plowed through everyone else, pushing them aside, to grab the woman and lift her up. Then I turned to look the princesses themselves and cocked my head toward the dead bodies and regrouping guards. “So, you wanna come with me, or do you want all of them to die in fun and inventive ways while you stand by and watch. Then I find my way to y’all anyway.”
“You’ll never get them!” said the struggling woman in my grip, her legs kicking at my armor with futility.
Princess Astrid Josephine-Charlotte Fabrizia Elsabieth Paola Marie, a name that makes me want a deep breath just thinking about it, spoke for them. “It is our duty to stay strong for our people. To be their spirit and will. Though their bodies fail, that indomitable spirit remains.”
I shrugged and slammed the woman on the ground, leaving her splayed out on the ground while the Dudebot stepped as close to this shield and the device emitting it as possible. Then I activated the Dimension Bomb hidden on it.
When the bunch reappeared and the Dudebot returned to my control, I saw that about half the technician who activated the shield came with it. The entire device didn’t come with me either, which is why the shield didn’t last so long. I smirked to myself as the Deep Ones rushed up to take the princesses into custody and lead them into the castle, but I threw back a parting insult to the various Marias and Maries. “Outside of ghosts, you won’t find too many dead men who give a crap about spirit. Real easy to sacrifice other people for your own life, isn’t it? Enjoy your stay, ladies.”
Not having the slightest clue how to gather up a bunch of Belgium princesses actually seemed like a problem to me. Maybe I just haven’t felt creative lately. It made a good alternate excuse for why I was doing yoga in the slimmer armor I’d designed based on a future version of Venus’s outfit. My suit’s pseudomuscles and exoskeleton were always at least a little bit separated from the rest of the body. This version, the material has to be right on the muscles in question in order to amplify the effects and the kinetic energy exerted. If I’d thought to tear into her body a bit, I could have found if she used the sort of internal power source I preferred.
So I was just doing all kinds of yoga stretching in my living room, in tight armor. After about a half hour, Mix N’Max, my villainous friend with the mad chemists’ touch, walked over to me. “As a friend, might you consider doing that in another of your many rooms? You’re distracting the girls.”
I looked to see his two aids, Sam and Holly, look away with red faces. I shrugged. “Eh, sure.” I blew them both kisses as I walked away, teasing.
Meanwhile, I’d just decided to say “fuck it” to any grand plan and just kidnap the women in whatever way I could. This is about a birthday party, so why be so uptight about it?
I put on airs of uptightness long enough to call up the offices of the King Leopold III Fund. It’s all about the environment and conservation, but it’s also done stuff as far as indigenous peoples. More importantly, its president is none other than Princess Marie-Esmeralda Adelaid Lilian Anne Leopoldine. Some people only get one or two names, and even three isn’t abnormal. Darn royals end up with a whole slew of them. I could be a royal ass too and start giving myself names. The Great and Devious Psychopomp Von Alexander-Victor Persnickety y Appaloosa Gecko the I, Empress of Ricca and North Korea, Protector of Mu. In lieu of business cards, I’ll have to hand out pamphlets. Maybe I’ll hold off on that until I take care of that Mot project that can damn well wait until after my daughter’s birthday party. That way, I can include the title “God of Death” to it.
A person with that many names is invariably a busy person, so that’s why I had to make an appointment as a representative from my nation. Between Ricca’s native wildlife and the newly-returned island of Mu appearing, I could make a good case for meeting with an environmentalist who cares about natives.
While I was waiting on a meeting with Marie-Esmeralda, I was able to acquire a handy tool in the form of a delivery van, and managed to move some money around to various accounts such that I could drop a few gold coins on the desk of a secretary at the charity.
As for the van, I painted the whole thing white, tore off a portion of the back, and added a clear bubble of bulletproof glass. On the side, I added emblems of a lizard creature in a robe and popehat within a blue circle that had “Crocodylus pontifex” around it in various languages. The finishing touches were these little flags I stick in the windows of a crucified Godzilla. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for work, I could have added a mural of a skeleton wearing a sombrero, riding a tiger while trying to rope a unicorn, with a fire-breathing eagle in the air behind all of them.
Sorry, no. This was the hardest kind of labor: boring. It did get slightly less boring when my Dudebot was accosted by a man who tried to mug me for some strange reason. He wanted the wallet I had, anyway. What was I doing with a wallet? Eh, I found it somewhere. With my van fully renovated and cleaned of all that annoying blood splatter, I found the princess had finally arrived back from a conference and eager to talk.
The secretary was a chubby, happy woman with a short head of bouncy curls. Perhaps she’d have minded letting in a walking robotic suit of armor, but that’s not what she saw. Instead, she saw some random Asian guy I found online. It wasn’t that bad of a disguise if you take into account Ricca being something of a melting pot of East Asian cultures and ethnicities. And that’s a lot of ethnicities. China’s got more than 50 all on their own. With that kind of background to my disguise, I can’t really blame this one on racism.
The bubbly, bubble-butt secretary showed me into the office of Princess Marie-Esmeralda, where the princess herself stood up to greet me. It was warmly furnished, not with a bunch of tacky gold stuff like someone who just came into money wanting to flaunt it. The place was warm in a classic, subdued way. Brown wood, white carpeting, flowers in vases. I suppose if I was the sort to know all about the different sorts of architecture and interior design, I could paint more of a picture. My preferred medium of art is the human body, instead, so that’s just an area where I ain’t not gonna talk good.
In English, the international language of business. “It is so wonderful to meet you, Mr…”
“My name is Yusuke Chang,” I said. People who know Asian names are laughing their asses off right now. “I have been asked to represent the glorious Empire of Ricca in outreach with the rest of the world. We would not remain a terrorist state forever, your highness.”
“Please do not allow my title to stand in the way of the discussion. You may call me Marie, Mr. Chang.” She found a way to nod regally, and not in the condescending queenly way. Like she had grace and gave a damn. “I would be honored to speak with you about environmental outreach. Please, have a seat. Thank you, Therese,” She said to the secretary before looking back to me, “May we offer you refreshment?” Her eyes flickered past my robotic double to the door as someone started a vacuum cleaner elsewhere in the building. Therese turned to look, but didn’t leave just yet.
I shook my head. “I am fine. I require only time to make my case.” I waited for her to finish dismissing Therese, who closed the door behind her and shut out the sound of the vacuum cleaner. Then I sat the Dudebot down, carefully distributing its weight to keep from breaking the cushioned wood chair.
“The organizations I head have been interested in you nation for some time. Ricca is unique in the world for its ecological footprint and the quality of its medical technology. I understand you have provided space for a permanent Cape Diem base on the island?”
I must confess, I got lost in the role a bit. We focused on medical cooperation between our two countries, as it turned out she also heads an organization named after yet another princess, The Princess Lilian Foundation, that’s been known to fly kids to other countries for heart surgery, as well as trying to foster scientific cooperation in the medical field.
I had to cut her off in the middle of talking about the professorship they offer. “I’m sorry, actually. I actually kinda like this talk, but I’m afraid it’s time to cut to the chase. Or, if you’re slow enough, the lack of chase.” I stood up and dropped the hologram, then jumped over her desk. She slid out the bottom of the chair, causing the Dudebot to take a chair back to its ball bearings. They’re kept between its legs, but they really weren’t in any danger. It was the chair that cracked apart.
The princess tried to call out, but I put a metal hand over her mouth, hauled her up, and slapped a small device with a pair of small orbs on it onto her belly. She had only a moment to release any unmuffled cries once I threw her into the air and one of the pair of Dimension bombs detonated, shifting her to another dimension. Once there, the other one went off and dropped her right at the expectant detention area on the military base. It had been spruced up for the occasion of hosting princesses, appearing like a small fortress. Really more of a small castle. Something got mixed in with the 3D assembler, which is basically just a giant 3D printer, and the darn castle came out pink. Nevertheless, she had plenty of room and amenities there.
The brief scuffle brought Therese running through the doors to find what appeared to be Princess Marie-Esmeralda rubbing her rear. “Your royal highness?!”
The hologram shook its head, rolled her eyes with a smile, and gestured to the broken chair. “Just an accident,” I responded in Flemish, hoping the vocal match checked out enough for someone she likely interacted with regularly. Sounding like any random person is easy, and I’m not half bad at such exact matches in person. Remotely piloting a full-body robotic copy from the other side of the world makes it a bit trickier.
Luckily, Therese seemed convinced, up until she looked around and asked, “Where is Mr. Chang?”
The hologram flashed the princess’s pretty smile. “Mr. Chang had to leave suddenly. I must go as well.”
Something about the response puzzled Therese, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I had more work to do on my reptilian Space Popemobile, having had an idea right there in the office of my holographic disguise.
That led directly to me scooting around Brussels in the Space Popemobile, chasing down a trio of teenage girls. The three had been walking around, enjoying their freedom on a nice, sunny day, getting some ice cream. Then I skidded around the corner in the modified white van with the bubble dome up top. With the yank of a lever, the left side of the van flew open and a chute shot out. The girls dropped their cones and cups and began to run for it as the chute began to suck. And suck. And suck some more!
The one in the rear turned out to be Princess Laetitia Maria Nora Anna Joachim Zita. These fucking names. Well the long name didn’t help her out any when she went up the shoot and got dumped in the bulletproof bubble. The next one up tried to run across the road, so I shoved the first lever back and pulled the other. The left side vacuum retracted and one extended from the right instead, pulling up Princess Louise Sophie Mary. Finally, someone with a decent name. That just left Princess Elisabeth Theresia Maria Helena running in this group, for fuck’s sake. And what’s with Mary or Maria? It’s in all the damn names. I swear, one of these damn princesses is just going to be named Maria Mary-Maria Mary or something.
Elisabeth, the heir apparent to the throne, couldn’t be nabbed until I switched vacuums again, and she decided to try stopping and holding onto a light pole. I skidded to a stop just as a carrounded a corner in front of me and honked at me. Flipping another switch caused a hand giving the insulting V-sign to pop out of the front hood of the Space Popemobile before it turned and shot at the windshield of the other car like a hand trying to poke someone’s eyes out.
Free of that distraction, I backed up and began sucking. Then again, some readers might think I started sucking long ago.
To the awkwardness of everyone, the sixteen year old girl had a stronger grip than her clothes. A royal nude in the streets? For shame. Shame, shame, shame. Luckily for her, she didn’t have that much better of a grip. She got pulled up the shoot into the orb, at which point I had the Dudebot turn the Popemobile around. It sped down the roads of Brussels, picking up speed. Another great thing about a bubble full of abducted teenage girls is that I made it soundproof. That one really paid off for me, because I know they were screaming their heads off.
The speedometer climbed. 120 kilometers per hour, then 130. At 140, napalm spilled out behind the rear tires, leaving twin lines of flame down the road. At precisely 141.622 kph, or 88 miles per hour, the first Dimension bomb in the Popemobile activated and I lost connection with the Dudebot. I felt it as it returned to our dimension, the Space Popemobile skidding to a controlled stop at the military base, just in front of the castle I’m hiding the kidnapped princesses in.
Meanwhile, a rocket and drone setup deposited another Dudebot in the German countryside just outside of Belgium. Cool as that was, all their princesses are not belong to us. But they will, no matter if I have to send out giant fungi minions or mutant turtles with wings and hammers. I’ll have them, my pretties. Their little dogs are optional though.
Well, I finally had the talk with my daughter. Not the talk about sex, that has to wait. Probably until after the talk about nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. It’s important a girl has plenty of protection before she starts doing the dirty deed dirt cheap. Making the beast with a billion backs. Which reminds me, I need to learn how to take apart and clean an artillery cannon in time for her first date. I’ll just be there, sitting on the front porch, the Riccan air force and army surrounding me, cleaning a cannon in my lap. “Now you better have her back by 9, kiddo.”
No, I sat down Qiang because she’s almost certainly turned five, but either of us know for sure when her birthday is. “I’ve put this off long enough because I was stealing stuff and rescuing people, but it’s been a year since the Claw brought you into my life. So I think it’s time we had a party. It’s very important that we talk about if there’s anything you want.”
She kicked her feet back and forth, looking adorable in a dress someone made for her to match my own, her hair done up in a miniature version of the same headdress I had. “I wanna have a princess party!”
“A princess party? You’re already kind of a princess. Just a party for you and all your girl friends?”
“I don’t really have any friends,” she said. “I used to have some friends back when I lived at the bad place, but there aren’t any other kids I play with now. I guess I want a party where everyone can come!”
Huh. That’s not really a good sign. The lack of friends more so than the generosity, but the generosity’s something to keep an eye on. That’s simply no way to live. What kind of a world would it be if people were just nice to each other simple because they can be? Maybe that’s part of wishing a better life upon her, but it still irks me. Irks, I say!
“We’ll have to see about getting you enrolled in whatever schools they have for kids here now. Something to let you interact with more people. But that’s later. A princess party where everyone’s invited. You want a poofy princess dress?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I want lots of princesses!”
“Have they been showing you Disney movies?” I asked. Another nod. “Ok, so princesses. Got it. And a big cake, that’s a given. Anything else special?”
A water slide. Lots of presents, of course. I had several catalogs from toy stores around the world for her to circle anything she liked. I don’t know what would be a traditional birthday party for her or for Ricca, but I know the one I’m going to throw.
But just before I left her to figure out her presents, she looked up at me and gave me one last major request for this little shindig. “Oh, oh, Kayla and everyone else from the school in that city! Can they come? Can they, baba?”
Kayla and that school in the city. That’d be Master Academy’s Empyreal City campus. Really the wrong crowd to invite to this thing. Inviting a school full of heroes to a birthday party on an island that sells drugs, guns, and pirated rock n’ roll to all comers? That’s a recipe for trouble.
But I smiled. “Sure, baby. It’ll take me a little bit to get everything and everyone together, though.”
The sound she made caused me to activate diagnostics on my ears. I thought it had to be an internal high-pitched squeal from the volume and intensity. It ended up triggering my ears’ flashbang protocols before I patted her on the head, pried her off my leg, and left the room. I also began to regret my instincts that my daughter needed more friends her own age. It was like the universe decided to spank me with some karma. There are a lot of great things to be spanked by if you’re into that, folks. Karma is not one of them.
The island already buzzed with activity from our recent rescue of loads of special criminals. I say “special” because they weren’t all necessarily super in the sense of having superpowers. A superhero doesn’t necessarily have superpowers. For some, it’s just training or gadgets, even just something like a cop who wears a costume. And if they wear a costume like that, they’re super. Just like even if they have superpowers but don’t use them for this grand game of heroism and villainy that I participate in, they’re also still super. Some of them, like the members of Cape Diem, use their powers to do things humans can’t do, and even wear costumes, but are also considered neutral.
The island is now hosting a mix of all of those liberated from China, and that does include neutrals. Even some Cape Diem members. Even some heroes China had tossed in prison for investigating into areas inconvenient for the government. So even though what I’d done should count as grounds for war as an attack on another country, people were rather silent on the whole issue.
It also gave me a lot of villains to get registered on VillaiNet who were eager to make some money or just pay me back. I’d assembled a group of them in a conference room at a local branch of a big-name bank that doesn’t shy away from doing business with criminals. I shouldn’t even bother hiding who our corporate accomplice is anyway. What, are governments going to do anything about it? For fuck’s sake, they’ve been caught laundering money for terrorist groups and drug cartels before and got away with less than a slap on the wrist.
“Ok, folks, take a good look. These are our targets. Princesses, one and all,” I said, pointing to a holoboard. Think of it like a whiteboard or a chalkboard that works off holograms instead. Pagan, my new head of Intelligence, assured me these were all the current princesses, barring a divorcee that didn’t count anymore. “I call dibs on the two hot twenty-somethings from Japan.”
That brought groans from the group of assembled villains. “You would, wouldn’t you?” asked one of them, one of the ones who hadn’t been rescued.
“Shush,” I said, “If it’s that big a deal, we can swap. Maybe I’ll take the York one. Maybe the Belgian teen.”
One of the villains raised an arm that glistened with scaly patches. “Do you really need us to grab all of these? Some of those wrinkly cunts might break if we put a hand on them.”
That got some chuckles from the group, and a follow-up from the be-clawed, hairy villain who had also come from the First Court of Hell. He now wore a tiger-skin jacket and had died stripes into his hair. “Or they die of dehydration being touched by a real man for the first time in fifty years!”
“I guess you’re volunteering then, to make sure that won’t happen?” I asked him, prompting good-natured “Oohs” from the audience. A few of them patted the tiger guy on the back in response. He adopted a smug smile and waved away the suggestion, taking it in good fun at least.
I held up my hands to quiet down all the jokes and commentary. “I know, I know, everyone wants to kidnap a young, pretty princess in case they take a liking to y’all, but there are some things to consider. This isn’t about wetting your wiener. Kidnap them and deliver them unharmed to the island. No molesting, no groping, no fondling, and no rape. If you’re here to rape, you’re in the wrong room.”
That prompted one fellow in a grey suit jacket to stand up. Didn’t even look like a super. “Excuse me, pardon me, coming through,” he said as he worked his way down his row. He waved a polite goodbye with the newspaper in his hands and left the room.
“Okily dokily, now that he’s gone…” I sent out an alert to Security with the man’s face so they could keep an eye on him. “This isn’t supposed to be about any harm to them. Bring them here so they can attend my daughter’s birthday party. It’s money for y’all and a bit of reputation from the prestige involved. Also, the gratitude of the Empress of Ricca, a country which has proven itself capable of jailbreaking people from the middle of a worm-infested Gobi desert, among other such prisons. Trust me, y’all are getting the easier part of the party planning. And, since I’ll need a break from that, I will take one or two myself.”
In fact, I set out immediately to get ahead of all of them. That’s easier to do when you control the airports and have the odd remotely controlled robotic double hidden around the world. The robot doubles, the Dudebots, are built to resemble the armor I so recently used, but with only two arms. Most people haven’t realized I have extra arms now, and even fewer know I’ve updated the armor. At least I incorporated the light armor’s design with the heavy armor. That way, I can go back to playing a guessing game a little bit with anyone who encounters both myself and a Dudebot.
Now, I haven’t spent that much time in Belgium. I know they have a lot of mucus, so much so that many of them speak phlegmish. It was where the great World War II battle known as the Battle of the Belge took place. It’s located in Europe, just under the Nether Region. And it’s got nine fucking princesses, I learned when I picked one of them to go after. The fucking is meant as a cuss word, and shouldn’t be taken as a statement about what the 67 year old princess does in her spare time. She can fuck all she wants, as long as I don’t have to see it or picture it in any way. Some guys and gals like hairless cats, some like ’em grey.
I’m going to have to come up with one hell of a plan to kidnap all this Belgian royalty, from the oldest of the tiara wearers to the youngest Brussels sprout. And I think I know how, through a plan involving needless complexity, mandatory nudity, and necessary violence.
They stuck the First Court of Hell in the Gobi Desert. I remember looking down on it on the approach and telling one of the pilots, “I think I’ve passed this spot before… maybe back when it was more thataway.” I pointed off in the direction of New Yinpan.
The pilot glanced that way briefly before fixing his air filter more firmly to his face. “As you say, Empress.”
“Oh lighten up… not everyday you get to see me assault Chinese hell,” I swatted him lightly on the shoulder but neither he nor the co-pilot seemed to be in much of a joking mood. I don’t understand. I was having a great time. Fantastic. One of them, though, turned to look to our right.
“Trouble?” I asked.
He continued staring. “Unsure. I thought I saw something, but there’s clearly nothing there.”
“Keep your eyes out regardless. We don’t actually know what sort of defenses they’ve got. Locations, maybe, but our source was of the opinion that they varied defense countermeasures regularly. That’s why I brought a weapon few things can withstand.”
“Smells horrible, Empress,” that one noted.
“I like to think of that as an added bonus,” I told him. “Hurt ’em so bad, they’ll be smelling it for weeks. They practically beg you to break their nose for them.”
“This is it…?” said/asked the other pilot. Checking his view, it was easy to see why the statement became a question. This grand prison consisted of what looked like a single cube-shaped shack of steel, maybe iron. Nothing that, on its own, could hold to many people.
“Well, it is a hidden prison,” I reminded them. “There’s likely more under the surface. I’m going to go down and say hello real friendly-like. I’ll even tell them a joke.”
The pilots shared a look, the one who’d spotted something just saying, “Acknowledged, lowering the rear hatch.”
I jumped out the rear, avoiding our special payload, and left a small crater in the soft sands of the Gobi. Don’t worry, I saved room for desert. I didn’t see anything off about the one-room shack. Just a door with a sliding hatch at eye height and a camera encrusted with so much dirt you couldn’t see the lens. I did not anticipate it would be a problem, so I knocked on the door twice, my lower arms beginning to glow faintly.
“Who is it?” asked someone inside in Mandarin.
“Interrupting Gecko,” I answered back in Mandarin.
“Interrupting-” the person inside started to say before the door flew forward inward, off its hinges, and smashed against the opposite wall while squelching out either someone’s extra large dish of lasagna or what used to be a human being.
“Moo!” I said, stepping in. “Wait, wait, wrong sound. What’s a gecko sound like again?” I thought it over a moment before calling out, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Sadly, there was no one left around to hear a Gecko in a desert, which means I technically didn’t make a sound as I checked over the room. It had a small desk, a cot, a stack of novels falling apart, and a hatch in the floor. “I’m hatching a plan!” I said to no one, again making as much sound as a tree in the forest with nobody around, then unlocked the hatch door. I found a set of flimsy stairs leading down into the dark, so I activated light enhancement on my helmet as I headed down. And by headed down, I broke through the stairs and landed about ten feet down in a pile of broken metal.
“Dinner time!” someone called out in Cantonese. I hopped to my feet and went invisible, but nobody rushed around the corner in front of me. After a couple seconds of that, I went looking for the voice. I turned the corner and found myself in an open room, my access to it barred by, well, bars. Kind of basic, actually. The room had some old chairs, a few crates, some old pillows and moldy mattresses. Oh, and people. Quite a few of them. A couple dozen men were in there, most not bothering to move, though a couple waited by the bars.
“Come on!” one of them called closest to me. He had an overgrown mane of dirty blonde hair, which isn’t as expected in someone of East Asian ancestry. The hands he banged on the bars, I noted, had long, sharp fingernails. “Hurry up with these shitty ration cubes!”
I appeared in front of him, startling him back. “I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled programming to bring you… an escape attempt!” I grabbed the bars in front of me and began to bend them. Behind me, someone swung a gate right open and stepped inside.
“It’s nice that you think we’re escaping,” said another man whose skin glistened in places from multicolored scales. “But we’ll never survive outside.”
“I have food,” I turned and told him. “Water. Transport. Hiding places. A light itch in my crotch.”
“That may be, but unless you can fly,” here he looked over his shoulder at a skeleton in a bomber jacket and leather pilot’s helmet seated against the wall, “we won’t survive the journey .”
I pointed at his face. “Don’t play coy with me, whatever your name is.”
“King Koi,” he volunteered.
I pulled that finger back in. “Ah. Unfortunate turn of phrase then. But don’t play coy with me. Whatever’s keeping you here, let me know. I’ve got an aircraft outside.”
“I hope you didn’t land it,” he said, but I ignored that when the skeleton jumped to his feet and stomped forward with the smack of bone on stone.
“Aircraft, you say?” asked the skeleton in a Scottish accent. The visual and accent combined to get a hit on my identification program.
“The Dead Baron?” I asked.
“The very same, lassie,” he said, giving a quick Royal Air Force salute. “I been shot down and dumped in this pit for I dun know how long. Now you said you had a plane?”
“Not exactly a plane. Not a helicopter either, nor did it have to land,” I looked back over to King Koi at that, a smile flickering across his face briefly. “I’m here to rescue y’all, so let’s get the fuck out of this hellhole.”
A cheer went up throughout the prison. “Is this the only floor?” I asked of Dead Baron and King Koi, who at least waited while others began to file through and find themselves at the destroyed the stairs. It didn’t stop anyone for long, though.
“Aye,” Dead Baron asked. “One floor, one way in, one way out, and nought but hostile desert in all directions.”
“None of us have speed or flight, at least on land,” King Koi said before clarifying. “I am swift in the seas, but not in the desert.”
I made sure to get them all up, though the shack up top got crowded. For a bunch of prisoners, they were awfully wary of heading outside. “Y’all haven’t been institutionalized, I hope,” I said as I led them out the door. “Some people have to climb through a river of shit to see the outside like this. Some just do it because they’re into that sort of thing. No judgments.” I stopped and turned to seen none had really gone that far outside the shack. They were looking around, then jumped as sand was thrown up and a reddish thing poked out of the sand.
I stepped closer, at which point the thing zapped me. It might have actually done some damage if I hadn’t bothered hardening my armor against electrical attacks. Still pissed me off, so I went to stomp on it. Instead of smooshing it, my leg disappeared into a hole. When I pulled it loose, I had a red, three foot long, segmented worm thing clinging to it, chewing on the armor. I watched as flakes fell off, then grabbed the damn thing and squeezed until it popped.
I called up to the flyer hovering overhead. “Good news, it looks like we don’t need the big package. Bad news, we’ve got worms. I’m going to need some ropes tossed down. We are not landing in this.”
“Acknowledged, Empress,” said the pilot.
“Look at that!” said the other.
“What, is there some sign of the worms or something?” I asked.
“Empress, we have wormsign the likes of which even the gods have never seen!”
I saw it. It wasn’t hard. The thing threw up waves of dirt, a hint of its disgustingly bloated black and white body peeking through the loose sand. The prisoners began to push and stampede over themselves to hide back in their prison as the giant worm headed our way.
“Ok, flyer… now,” I signaled. A bus-sized worm broke out of the ground, its body striped black and white, black mouth open wide to swallow me, when a whale smashed into it from above. The worm and whale both exploded in a mass of gore that made me real fucking happy I cut off any smells from the exterior of my armor. I still got a wave of guts and fluids washing over me, but at least I couldn’t smell it.
The flyer lowered, anti-personnel guns lining up shots against more worms. It wasn’t so much of a climb for the prisoners, who were suddenly eager to get the hell out of their prison. Though the guy with the claws and the wild hair did complain that, “It smells like fucking fish in here!”
I jumped up and back down, helping them along faster so we could get the fuck out of here. It proved to be a good decision when the pilots called back. “Empress, we have incoming!”
As much as things were exploding today, this one involved fire that barely missed us to blow apart the shack with an actual detonation.
“That would be the artillery base,” said the Dead Baron, rushing toward the cockpit. “Let me through.”
I ran on after him, pushing the button to close the hatch. “Let’s get fuck out of dodge!”
“No, lassie, let’s dodge the fuck out of these,” said Dead Baron. He grabbed the controls and whipped the flyer hard to the side, further than I thought he should have until I heard the barrage of blasts that showed at least an attempt at leading us. There was even one that blew up in midair in front of us courtesy of the co-pilot continuing on as a gunner.
“You blokes shoot, I’ll fly!” said the Dead Baron.
The pilot whose controls the undead World War I pilot had stolen looked to me and I nodded. That one got up and let the Baron sit in his place while he maneuvered around to man gunnery controls without disturbing him.
Immediately, something changed. The Baron’s empty eye sockets lit up with green fire and it sounded like the metal of the flyer itself warped. I sent off a drone to check the external view and found the flyer shifting from smooth lines to something more resembling a flying armless skeletal torso and skull with bat wings. The shift appeared to be purely decorative, which is great. Kinda hard to flap our way out of an artillery bombardment. Shortly after the change stopped, Dead Baron accelerated us forward, leaving my drone to explode when it intercepted a shell that passed us by harmlessly.
The sudden change in velocity threw me and the standing pilot against the wall. From the sound of things in the transport section, we weren’t the only ones not properly buckled in. The Dead Baron flew through that storm of shells like a bat out of the First Court of Hell, dodging things that I’d swear I could see were heading right for us. We’re talking this shit was level with us and he navigated through it.
“You know we have a vertical control too, don’t you?” I asked.
The Dead Baron merely cackled and flew through the storm toward the direction of the assault. He passed overhead a fenced-in base whose giant guns struggled to turn in our direction. The Dead Baron punched the button for the missiles. Green rockets’ flares sped our ordinance along to a fiery end for our assailants, and I swear I could pick out a skull in each fiery cloud. Once he’d had his fun and revenge, he took us up further into the sky before calling back to me. “Where shall we drop this lot off, lassie?”
“To the island of Ricca,” I told him. “Do you know where that is?”
“The land of the Claw Emperor chap? I heard of it,” he said.
“My empire now, and something of a safe haven to those with nowhere else to go.”
By the time we arrived back on the island, I think most of us were ready to leave. Even trained pilots didn’t often pull off some of those moves, though I did have to take the flyer back. We only had so many of them, and so many pilots, and they were all heading out at once. Teams of soldiers, drone operators, and agents were moving out almost all at once to liberate the other prisoners now that we’d confirmed Mr. Feng’s intelligence on the First Court. We even brought in a few mercenaries and supervillains to help out.
The Dead Baron did object to not being a part of that when he realized the flyers were heading off to have more fun. I took one look at the people we’d brought back as they got off the flyer as quickly as possible, including that one clawed guy with the crazy hair nursing a broken nose and muttering, “At least I can’t smell the fucking whale anymore.” The flyer itself had reverted to its normal form once the Baron left the controls, so I doubted he had any supernatural connection to it anymore.
I patted The Dead Baron on the shoulder. “Thanks, but I think we got this.”