It’s been a little bit since my brother Davilo stopped by for a visit. The Justice Rangers of my home dimension can get busy. But he decided to stop in, timing his visit for right around the time things typically wrap up for me, which is also just before the full moon.
“Never want to visit me when it’s just me, eh?” I asked as we pulled back from our hugs. Yeah, he’s Justice Ranger, but he’s also the only surviving family I know of from back there. And he is Qiang’s uncle. I have to go by things I see and hear, mostly from entertainment, on how these familial relationships work. We’re figuring it out.
“This way, I get to see both my sisters. You’re twins of a kind,” Davilo said.
I rolled my eyes. Leah came up and gave me a hug, too. My former ward and protege is dating my half-brother. I’m sure that Freud guy would have some stuff to say about all that, but he’s busy being dead.
Qiang, meanwhile, was hopping up into an embrace with Davilo. “Little lizard!” he called her while hefting her up. “You’re getting so big!”
My daughter giggled. Leah looked over at them. I whispered to her, “Qiang’s got more than flesh and bone to her, too. It affects her weight a little.”
“Looks like your weight is affected, too,” Leah joked and poked me in the belly. I made a Pillsbury Doughboy sound and gently pushed her away.
“Careful, that’s my battle fat, for when I lose my arms and legs, and have to smack someone around with my gut,” I grabbed it and gave it a little wiggle. “Plus, they’ll never suspect I’m a superhuman because, supers are never gorgeous women who are down with a thiccness.”
“Hey-,” Leah started to say. She narrowed her eyes, pretending to take offense. “Thank you for the compliment.”
Sam came up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. I felt stress melt away that wasn’t even there. Maybe it was the smell of pineapple from her body lotion. “Hey, Leah, Davilo.”
“Do I know you?” my brother asked, looking at the girl with the mohawk from purple in the front, green in the middle, and dark red in the back.
She offered a hand. “I’m Sam. I’m Gecko’s girlfriend and minion right now.”
“You have a minion?” Leah asked.
I shrugged. Sam kissed the back of my hair, then answered. “I’ve offered, but she prefers to work on her own. Starting next week, I’m going to hog-tie one of her clone bodies and take over at the store. Isn’t that right?”
She had to scratch my head right there. I melted. “That’s a yes,” she said. “She doesn’t like to admit defeat. Or when she’s in love.”
“I’m not-” Sam put her finger over my lips.
“If I don’t talk about myself, she’ll try not to mention me,” Sam kept going.
So we had a pretty nice night catching up. Nothing wild happening in Radium, apart from the beginnings of special mayoral election ramping up along with talk of integrating the super and non-super schools.
“It’s so quiet,” Davilo mentioned at one point. “The cities feel different and aren’t as loud, you know? But out here especially, how do you keep up with everything?”
“I knooooow,” Sam said, leaning on me. I kissed her head where she had a little bit of fuzz growing back after her latest mohawk look.
“Quiet isn’t bad. Keeps me out of trouble, helps me curate stuff. Not so good for when Reindeer has to come out or I need to actually go to an important place. I think that’s part of why Medusa picked it. World-changing plots don’t generally happen in the middle of nowhere like this. Or if they do, a band of plucky young adults or angsty teenagers save the day before it draws in anyone too capable.”
“Gecko watches lots of TV,” Leah warned Davilo.
“It’s how I became an expert on this Earth,” I nodded, deadpan.
“Anything exciting planned for tonight?” Davilo asked.
I shrugged. “Everything’s ready if we have to do some throwing down. I guess it just depends on what Reindeer wants.” My internal alarm went off letting me know we were close to the change. “And I better go on down to the basement.”
This time, I swapped into a spare body, one that looked a lot like the semi-chubby look I’d gone for, but I threw on some fake glasses, a pink top, and some dark blue jeans. I focused on that until the screaming stopped, then turned around and held up a dress and a costume. “Work or play, which is the Reindeer doing today?”
The tall Reindeer woman snorted and picked the dress. She comes out every full moon after I ended up with a case of reindeer-thrope, or whatever you want to call it. I’m a were-Reindeer, only my alter ego is driven to stop crime. We share a body, so I keep her safe when she does all that. “I don’t lots of time to relax. Come on, let’s go bowling.”
“Bowling?!” I asked.
“Bowling?!” asked the crowd once we got upstairs and Reindeer told them the plan.
“Is that a form of ritualized combat?” My brother asked.
“Not really. It’s a game where the humans throw a heavy balls around,” I said.
“Pretend combat,” Davilo nodded. “Where do we find bowling?”
“I don’t think there’s even a bowling alley around Radium,” I mentioned. “Maybe someone ought to put one in.”
We ended up running across one at a nearby small city that I had never heard of. To be fair, I haven’t heard of most of Minnesota. I hear they do weird things to fish here. Lighting Crack, Minnesota seems like one of those towns, but it was the closest bowling alley to Radium.
“Welcome to Lightning Lanes,” said one of the workers who greeted our part as we walked in. He gaped at Reindeer, who wore a dress, then looked down at her hooves. “You may not be able to bowl, ma’am.”
“Relax, I brought my own,” she said, holding up these rubber booties I’d thrown together real quick at Reindeer’s request. She’d anticipated the problem. The rest of us had no problem renting shoes, though we had to explain the concept to Davilo.
“My Earth does not have your primitive bowling!” Davilo declared playfully.
“Did you have to do that?” Leah asked, swatting him gently on the arm.
“I wanted to take some of the attention away from the rest of the group,” Davilo declared. He wasn’t wrong. I think my cybernetic eyes were some of the least outlandish things to those folks. We grabbed our shoes, lane, and snacks, and set about having a fun time, interrupted at one point by a few kids wanting to say hi to Reindeer. Davilo, Reindeer, and I all got showed up by Sam, Leah, and even Qiang getting some strikes. These lightning bolts would light up above the lane, with an animation of a lightning strike on our monitor each time. Then I’d drag myself out of Sam’s comfy lap and her sweet humming to go make three of those ten pins sorry they ever met me.
I sometimes wonder if my life was curse, but this particular night, with Sam doing her absolute best to embarrass me in public, had a bright point. Because that night was when Lightning Crack’s local criminal element made a hilarious mistake.
In walked a man with a green metal helmet, holding a pair of hammers in his hands. I’d say he was in his twenties, as was the guy in the red suit who walked in alongside him in a red suit that pulsed. I could feel the power in the suit somehow, like a wave of heat getting closer, but not actually affecting the temperature of anything. The others who stormed in along with them looked to be a bunch of regular folks with store-bought Halloween masks over their faces, carrying things like chains, bats, and claw hammers.
“Give us your money!” shouted the hammer guy.
The guy in the suit waved his hand toward a laser light ball hanging from the ceiling. Crimson crevices spread across the device an instant before it blew apart. The shards ended up hurting some people in there.
A bunch of people screamed and hit the floor, or started emptying pockets. Our group didn’t. Reindeer cracked her knuckles. Davilo got his transforming device ready. Leah took a fighting stance I taught her. Sam aimed a plasma crossbow at the nearest chain-carrying mook. And behind me, the ball I’d loosed just before they walked in hit the pins and knocked some of them over.
“Who are you?” asked the red-suited guy. I grabbed a bowling ball and hurled it at his head. He exploded it just before it hit him, but one of the shards grazed his head and drew blood. The guy with the hammers screamed and ran at us. I think I saw his eyes go white just before he tripped over a raised platform.
“That’s what happens when you change the color of the eye’s lens,” Leah said. I am so glad I taught her creative uses for the super power of changing things’ colors.
Davilo morphed, with Reindeer and him meeting the charging minions to get to the guy in red who was using whatever powers that suit conveyed to close the wound on his head. Sam stuck by me while I knelt next to the ball return, pulling open an access panel and doing some creative rewiring. She raised the plasma crossbow and blasted a baseball bat into burning wood splinters.
The berserker guy with the hammers rose and swung wildly around. By then, Leah had closed. She kicked him in the shin, the balls, and stomach. When he doubled over, she pulled the green helmet off his head and watched him get pulled to the floors by his hammers. Leah figured out there was thunderbolt iron at play, that weird alloy from a destroyed meteor that has telepathic and telekinetic properties. When the hammer guy tried one last time to let go of the hammers and do something, Leah grabbed a pair of bowling shoes nearby and smacked him upside his bearded face.
The guy’s minions weren’t doing well, but most of them were at least doing a good job getting in the way of Davilo and Reindeer for long enough. Red turned, the wound on his face now a raw scar, and raised his hands. Davilo and Reindeer were lifted into the air, then screamed when the villain began to squeeze his hands into fists.
My ball made its way up the ball return with me kicking the mouth of the return over to the side. The supercharged machine emitted a burst of sparks and caught fire. The ball shot out of there with the speed of a professional baseball pitching machine. Redsuit guy had time to widen his eyes and try to bring his hands together. It knocked Davilo and Reindeer into each other, but the ball had already passed by them and gave the guy in the red suit a splitting headache. A seven-ten split, I’d say.
“I guess you’d call that a hole-in-one,” I said.
“My girlfriend, the Earth expert,” Sam said. “Hey, who’s a lady gotta kill to get some cheese sticks around here?”
But seriously, the whole family event was kind of ruined with that. We didn’t get our cheese sticks. They didn’t let me strip that guy’s suit off so I could figure out what was going on there. “It’d sure be a lot easier to loot the corpses if y’all listened to me and we came in the Flyer,” I said, pouting, while the cops held us off to the side for some questioning.
“Who won, anyway?” Sam asked.
“I did,” I whispered to her. “Gave myself a score of 69. A perfect bowling score.”
Colin, the bullied teen I’d helped out a little by giving some enhancements and advice to, is on the lam. It would be more fun if he’d orchestrated a daring petting zoo breakout, but that’s a lamb. His big nemesis got taken down and is in custody. It should be a happy time. Let the ewoks dance. Except Colin beat up a girl in school and ran off. It’s high time I strip him of those enhancements.
I don’t know what they’ll do to the kid out here. I don’t feel like they’ve done just by my victims with this rehabilitative justice idea, but that’s not my call to make. The only justice I’m really prepared to mete out is killing him, and I’ve let worse people live. Same for that Daryl kid who bullied him. But what I can do is take back the ability to harm people that I gave him. There truly is nothing to the kid without that.
This wasn’t something that took a lot of work to figure out. It just got a little tense around town with some issues coming up. The Radium townsfolk who have been here the longest are starting to get a bit mad. They have some signs up about it, at least. Some militia twerps are walking around, too. They tried to look intimidating outside my windows. They don’t like that a bunch of people moved in and decided what was best for a community they’ve barely been a part of, including taking in supervillains and getting rid of most of the police force.
So I searched quietly, with a bunch of recon robots that flew stealthily over the town and ran everyone through facial recognition looking for Colin. Most of them worked their way out, while a few stayed around to run some patrols and identify spots for charging stations. It’s kind of 50/50 if the townsfolk would have liked me doing this, given this is the kind of things cops are doing elsewhere. I don’t know. I don’t have these answers. I’m just looking for peace and doing a shit job finding it.
Had a session with my therapist in the meantime. We’ve been trying this thing where I just cry the whole time. There was some talk in there from the therapist about not skipping my meds and not just assuming that all my problems have been fixed because I’ve had a shitload of supers rattle around in my head and declare the problem solved.
And that was followed up by reports coming in from the next town over. A teenager matching Colin’s description tore an ATM off the wall of a country store and smashed it open. There’s a manhunt in the woods of the town of Moose Whiskey, Minnesota. I dried my eyes and ran along toward the store. At the store, I activated my armor, including its new antigrav capabilities. I jumped up and kicked off the wall of a store to meet my armor in midair. Some people in “Radium is for Rockers!” tourist t-shirts took photos before I zipped off.
This came through as an official report, and while the Radium Sheriff’s Department only has a few people now, they’re still the most heavily-armed law enforcement around. The Exemplars tried to set them up to be able to handle if some of the supers in town got too big for their britches. That meant I had to get there if I wanted to solve this my way and hide that I’d helped make a teen boy capable of picking up an ATM. It’s going to be super hard to explain that away.
I landed near a bunch of Moose Whiskey Sheriff’s cruisers, throwing on a hologram of the Lady Guardian armor so they’d think they were talking to a hero.
“Hey, who are you?” asked a deputy who jumped out of the car he was in, nearly spilling his coffee.
“Lady Guardian. I was visiting Radium when I heard about your situation on the radio. Anything I can do considering I can fly?”
“Uh, hold on,” he went to get the radio. “Sheriff Topper, there’s a superhero here from Radium. She flew over, was wondering what she can do to help.”
The response was pretty rough, but the deputy relayed it to me. “He said to take a radio and a flare, uh then get in the air. If you spot the kid, signal everyone. They said watch out, the kid’s supposedly wearing some armor.”
Armor? That’s new. The deputy handed me a flare and a radio, and I took to the air. Not really a lot of help there, but I swept over the forest, switching vision modes to pick out thermal signatures. The forest teemed with life, big and small. I passed a herd of deer at one point, saw some rabbits and birds. Before long, the radio crackled. “Lady Guardian?” it sounded bit like the Radium Sheriff. “Get back here. This isn’t any of your business.”
Whoops. The radio slipped through my fingers and landed in the woods. Funny how that happens. It was another six or seven minutes when I saw an unusual heat signature in the woods, moving slowly. It looked like a human, with a large heat spot on the back. I swapped the flare out with the canister of nanites. I lowered myself into the woods, dropping the Lady Guardian illusion. “Hello, Colin. Where’d you get those duds?”
He was pulling himself up an incline, one hand wrapped around a smaller tree branch. The exeoskeleton he wore over his body made him stronger and better able to carry the armor plates over his torso. It didn’t make him any better at climbing up a hill. Instead, the added weight negated some of the benefits it and my enhancements conveyed upon him. “You can fly now?”
I looked down in mock surprise. “Holy shit, I can fly?!” I dropped to the dirt and leaves. “This is going a bit far, isn’t it?”
“You don’t get it! You get away with things all the time because everyone’s afraid to mess with you, but they’re going to lock me up for a long time. My life is over!” He was bending the branch pretty far, but he pulled himself up to the tree it came from and braced himself against it, staring down at me. “It’s over, all because I got stupid.”
I held up my hands in what’s supposed to be a calming gesture. “You’re not the first person to let a little power get to your head. What happened?”
“I beat Daryl, so I thought things were different, but when I asked Leann out, she laughed at me. She treated me like the same loser I was when all this started. I wanted to show her. I only meant to lift her up, but she screamed and kicked and I ended up throwing her. This got out of control, and I…” He’d been building up anger through all this, but at that point, he began to cry, his voice cracking. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I know this is going to be a hard pill to swallow coming from me, but it’s times like this where you have to show people you’re deserving of a second chance by standing down. You’ve got to give up the exoskeleton there, and you’ve got to give up the powers I gave you.”
“Then what’ll I be, huh?” he bawled. “I’ll be some weak nerd again with a criminal record and nothing else.”
“Very few people’s lives are defined by how much power they held,” I tried to reassure him. “I mentioned the potential hypocrisy of me suggesting you turn yourself in because I’ve gone the other way. I’ve killed so many people trying to prove I had power, but it doesn’t get you too good of a community. Other villains hated and distrusted me. The women and men who were after me, and some of the ones who still are, are the type who get off on hooking up with a killer and that’s not the kind of person you’re going to have a happy relationship with. Trust me. I didn’t get the chance you have now for too long. Stand down.”
Colin’s hands dug into the tree. The bark cracked, then he wrenched the upper part of the tree free of the base. “No!”
“Kid, do you know what Vampire: The Masquerade’s one rule is for when any vampire tries to fight Cain?”
“I don’t care about some old game!” he said, throwing the tree at me. It bounced off some other trees along the way and fell harmlessly to the ground.
I formed the nanites out into a shiny, liquid metal spear. I tossed it right into Colin, the spear twisting in midair to correct for my bad aim. The nanites swarmed over him when they hit. They disconnected the exoskeleton first, then dug into him. Colin collapsed in pain while the nanomachines went through and replaced metals, alloys, and minerals with calcium, protein, amino acids, etc.
“The one rule of any vampire versus Cain: you lose. Sorry, kid. This is for my own good.” It was probably for his own good, too, but a lot of my motivation here had been to help myself. While he screamed, I pulled out the flare, aimed it at the sky, and fired it off. The red light went up and made it clear where they could find Colin. I walked over then and rolled him over, pulling out the battery so the exoskeleton would be nice and useless. Figured I’d just take that with myself.
I knew when the nanites were finished because they flooded out of him and toward me, joining the nanite cape on my armor. The yelling was replaced by moaning and crying. “Sorry, kiddo. I am. Maybe if I’d never got involved, or got involved more. Maybe if the adults at school hadn’t failed you. What happened to you reflects badly on a lot of people other than yourself. But I’ll give you a tip. I think you can leverage whoever gave you that exoskeleton in exchange for leniency, and a chance to start over somewhere else. I think they’ll be amenable to putting you in witness protection elsewhere, seeing what happened to Daryl.”
I stuck around until I heard the canines and deputies closing in, then I threw on my holographic projection and took to the air.
One thing that I absolutely got right is that there were some failures from the adults, the people who should know better but lapsed in their responsibilities. Something’s got to change around Radium. And if the Exemplars don’t agree, I’ll change it myself.
When we left things last time, Colin’s problems seem to be over. Daryl outnumbered him with a gang who made the mistake of following him to my store. I beat the crap out of them, gently. Just a light ass-whoopin. That bunch got hauled off by the sheriffs because the alternative was me doing something with them. Colin ran off before he could give his side of the story to a sheriff who might have been sympathetic given the situation. Instead, he decided to run off and surprise his nemesis Daryl. I went to go visit Daryl to be proactive and end all this crap. I found Colin there, getting beaten up by Daryl in an exoskeleton. Daryl got distracted and took a brick to the face, giving Colin the W and ending this thing with the Sheriff showing up trying to look into why a teen boy had an exoskeleton.
While they were at it, I was looking into the exoskeleton. Sure, I gave Colin some enhancements. Nowhere near my level, and it didn’t do him a lot of good because I had to teach punching 101 to him. I’ll have to take it away soon. But first, I’d like to find out where this high tech toy of Daryl’s came from.
I didn’t get much from examining it. There was no company branding, so it wasn’t some stolen piece from commercial exoskeleton makers. They always keep it somewhere. This was custom made, as plenty of them have been through the years.
The Sheriff lead Daryl into the interrogation room. The kid was handcuffed and they sat him down at the table on the other side of me. Between us lay the exoskeleton. “So, this is something interesting,” I told him.
“You’re that supervillain bitch,” Daryl noted.
I ignored him. “These aren’t just repurposed pieces from the hardware store. The frame, the hydraulics, the connector, and the fist armor are all custom made. But with some really high end equipment. See this? Look at where the punch plate connects to the forearm frame. Like it’s one piece. Some high school dipshit in his garage couldn’t pull that off,” I said. I rose up to lift up the part in question and let him take a look.
Some high school dipshit actually could, but most of those would be easily wound up into admitting their intelligence. That kind of intelligence in a kid tends to breed insecurity and a desire to prove themselves the intellectual better of the people who have authority over them. The adult mad scientists often work that way as well. A chip on their shoulder, a chip-powered death ray in their hands.
“I’m not saying anything,” Daryl said, saying something.
“That’s what I thought,” I set the exoskeleton down. I focused on the area the power source had fit into. “Interesting battery, too. So you didn’t make it. Where the hell would you get this? I didn’t sell it to you.”
“Maybe you’ll find out,” he told me.
I nodded. “Just be careful if they find out this crossed state lines. Then you’ll get ATF up your ass with a fine-tooth comb. You want something gentler in there, like latex or gel or even some really strong slime.”
“I’m not gay!” he yelled. Weird outburst there. Guy might have some issues.
“Nothing’s would be wrong with it if you are, but that’s not what I’m getting at. You’re already old enough that a lot of places could make an argument for charging you as an adult, especially when you throw in the history of bullying, the ambush at Colin’s house, pulling in your friends to do it, and now acquiring some hardware to use against him. And ironically, the right to bear arms is not generally applied to weapons that actually fit over your arms like this.”
“Don’t you ever shut up?”
“Just the mystery of its origins will probably be enough to get them in here. Sure, it’s not treated as badly by the Feds as pot, but once they go looking, who knows what they’ll find?”
“I got it in town!” Daryl yelled at me. “You’re not the only one who can sell shit to people, and Colin already went to you.”
I nodded and reached across to pat him on the head. “Thank you. See?” The robo-bug, as in a listening device in the shape of a small bug, dropped off my hand and into his hair. I got up and took the exoskeleton with me.
The Sheriff met me outside to ask, “You get anything else off him with your weird powers?”
“I’m not psychic,” I said.
Talking with her hands as well, the Sheriff was like, “I know, but somehow things fall into your lap. Good job annoying him into giving us something.”
“What’s this ‘we’ business?” I was in this for myself. The interest of these cops and my own just happens to line up in this instance, like with me leaving them a report on the exoskeleton because the miniscule department here doesn’t have nearly the kind of expertise needed to evaluate that equipment.
Rather than go into a whole paranoid recon drone extravaganza, I did the usual. They let Daryl out with an ankle monitor, but those things can be disabled by someone able to build the kind of thing Daryl got his hands on. Further proof that wasn’t the kid himself is he kept the monitor on. They put him back in the house, up until Daryl’s family made a big stink with their insurance company and got a put in a motel. They went around telling everyone who would listen. The mother would raise it with a friend of hers working at the grocery store. The dad yelled at the Sheriff about it. Then they got it, and everybody knew where to find them.
That’s how they were able to find Daryl. He got his own separate room, and that’s where he got a knock on the door late at night. Daryl got up to open the door. “You got something new for me?”
“First, tell me what you said to them,” a man’s voice asked.
“I didn’t say anything. They asked me a lot of stuff but I didn’t say anything. Then this annoying woman came in talking about the exoskeleton and the feds.”
“Was she a cop?”
“No, she’s that old retired supervillain who owns the electronics store.” Old? Someone should kill that tater-brained sewer licker.
“What did you say to her?” the man repeated.
“Nothing. I guess they got me to admit I got it from someone here in Radium. I never said who. That’s it, I swear.”
There was a wet stabbing sound, followed by a half-second later by a thud and the closing of a door. I reluctantly sent off an alert to the paramedics and Sheriff. Didn’t matter as far as Daryl was concerned. He died pretty quickly. I sent a recon robot to check out the scene for me. As much as I didn’t think I’d find anything, I figured I’d be thorough. I had a feeling this was all about to become my problem, too.
Indeed, I got a call from the Sheriff a couple hours into the mess at the motel. “Hey Gecko.”
“Hey Sheriff. This town still big enough for the both of us?”
“Yeah, yeah.” She’d heard that plenty. “I need what you have of this encounter.”
“Already tossed the file into your inbox. Probably go ahead and have a deputy have a listen.”
“All my people are here trying to secure and investigate a murder. The whole defunding thing was controversial here and was based on the premise that crime would stay pretty low and mundane with so many superheroes around to volunteer. Well I don’t see a lot of superheroes volunteering to stand outside on a September night and keep onlookers out of the tape.”
I took some pity on him and gave him the rundown, which ended with her sounding even more tired. “Fantastic. I really need you to leave this alone then. The parents could make the case that you talking to that kid got him killed. I got bullies with power armor, people on my ass about supers using the town and making it all about themselves. Please, I know you’re a contrarian, but I’ll owe you big time if you just sit this one out. I have enough to do.”
“Fine, I’ll leave that mess alone. Besides, I have some other business to tend to related to all this that should help keep things from blowing up any further.”
The Sheriff let out a big sigh of relief. “Thank you. I’ve got to go now, bye.”
That other business was Colin. I doubt the guy who killed Daryl was concerned with the kid. This was about the fact that Colin beat his bully down and no longer needed the enhancements I made to his body. I had a big canister of nanites made specially to bring him back down to the human standard. He’d still end up stronger than when he began this mess, but in ways that didn’t involve so much alloy being integrated into his skeleton.
I waited until the next day, figured I’d catch him as he was leaving school and he wasn’t there. So then it was off to his place, a trailer. Knock knock knock.
I heard someone rush to the door. A woman opened it. “Who are you?”
“Who is it?!” a guy called from inside the trailer.
“I’m looking for Colin, your son?”
“What for? What’s he done?” she asked.
“Nothing. I run the electronics store in town and he’s been helping out with a few odd jobs for some extra money. He hasn’t shown up the past couple of days, and I realized I don’t have his phone number, so I stopped by to check on him.”
A hairy, shirtless, short-haired man stepped up to the door. “What else has he done?”
“Nothing, like I was explaining.”
The mom answered, “When the school called… sorry.”
The dad pushed her out of the way. “That boy, if you can even call him that, started causing problems at the school today. Beat up a girl. Hell, they want equality, so why not? But he’s in trouble and I’m going to show him what a beating looks like the next time I get my hands on him. Whenever that is. No one’s seen a lick of him since he ran out of there. I hear the school don’t even have a cop to wrestle the bastards when they get out of line.”
“Thank you for your time,” I told them. I’d rather get out of there before I make an example of the dad Vlad the Dragon style. He whistled watching me go.
So now Colin’s getting into trouble with the power I gave him to defend himself while a murderous supervillain is running around town. This is fine.
On Wednesday, Colin walked into the store with a baseball bat. Nearly ruined a deal I was doing with this old guy, a Gulf War veteran. I had this number out that I’d custom built for him. “Fully automatic, just pull that trigger there to blow them high. You get caught with that, you don’t know me, ok?”
Ding! In walks Colin to see me handing over a high tech hyperbong to the guy. His shirt was torn and his greasy hair was mussed, but he held a bat up triumphantly. “I did it, Ms. Gecko!”
I shrugged to the old vet. “Anyway, that’ll be the other half of the payment. Then, you can go home, Courier.”
He nodded and handed me a bag full of cash, then loaded the hyperbong into its case. The man walked out silently, slipping on a cowboy hat and nodding to Colin before exiting. Out in the street, he got into an armored SUV with “Uber Express” written on the side, peeling out of here and heading out of Radium.
“Was that illegal?” Colin asked.
“Are you a cop?” I asked.
“No, of course not!” he reassured me.
“Then don’t do their job for free,” I told him. “Good, you got your bat back. What happened? Did you have to smack him upside something? Was it the head?”
“I ran at him and tackled him into the workbench in his garage. He tried to fight me, but I’m stronger than him now. I got the bat out of there and came right over!”
“Good for you,” I said. “Now, I know you think you’re ok now, but he’s probably going to try something soon. Real soon, I bet. Be on guard.” It occurred to me for a moment that this might be escalating. “Or maybe I’m being paranoid. This is high school. He might egg your house or something. But don’t let it get to your head.”
“Come on, have you seen me?” he tossed the bat effortlessly up toward the ceiling and missed catching it on its way down.
“Yeah, you can’t fight worth a damn. Sorry kid, that’s just the truth of the matter. If you could, I wouldn’t have needed to do all this just to make you capable of getting that back.” Colin’s reaction had me thinking that was maybe too harsh, so I added, “That’s kind of a good thing, too. You should be a teenager doing stupid teen things, like staying up all night playing games or trying to lose your virginity. If we get to the point where I have to train you, this whole thing’s going to be way bigger of a mess than your life’s supposed to be.”
“Yeah, fine,” Colin said, turning to go.
I sighed. “Come on into the back, I’ll at least show you how to throw a basic punch.”
“It can’t be that hard,” he said.
“Just get in the damn workyard, kid. This might help you a tiny bit.”
When I saw him the next morning, Colin was pissed off and had a scabbed-over split lip. That was not left over from the punching lesson. I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking about how this whole situation really was becoming more of an attention-hogging clusterfuck than it needed to be. I also had some of that feeling, what do you call it, where you don’t like yourself for doing a thing. As fucked up as my own life has always been, part of me knew that if I ignored this situation, I’d be just as bad as the teachers and administrators at his school. If those dickheads had just used the whole proper authority they’ve been given, Colin wouldn’t have to choose between taking enough punches until his bully Daryl gets bored, or fighting back in a rivalry that keeps going further. And I don’t have the time or inclination to teach every bullied kid around here how to fight back.
Part of me also felt like this whole thing could have been solved if I’d gone right to 100% like I normally do and maimed or killed Daryl. It turns out a frog won’t sit in a gradually-heating pot until it boils, but humans are smart enough to fall for that with their grudges. Suicide bombers are a uniquely human invention.
“Alright, what happened?” I asked at the time instead of spending my day in contemplative silence.
“Daryl got a bunch of friends. They egged my house. I got up to run them off, but they tripped me once I got outside and beat me up. I couldn’t handle all of them at once.”
“Yep… that’s a thing that happens. You gotta pick ’em off, one or two at a time. Fight them in a way that neutralizes their numbers.” I noticed a crowd of teens approaching.
Ding! They came in, but that Daryl kid wasn’t with them. “Hey, we’re not done with you!” yelled the one in the lead, pointing at Colin.
I quickly stepped around the counter and in front of Colin before they could run up. “What can I do for y’all?”
“Get out of the way, lady, or we’ll bust your shit up!” yelled one of the intellectually-challenged group.
I nodded. “So you intend to beat up someone in my store, or you’ll start breaking things, have I got that right?”
“What are you going to do, call the cops? All two of them?”
“Hey, isn’t this lady supposed to be a supervillain?” asked one of the group.
“Yeah, you touch us and the heroes will kick your ass. Now move and let us kick his ass.”
“Leave now, younglings, before I pull an Anakin,” I warned them. I gave them every opportunity to back down.
The blowhard in front ran at me. I kicked his shin out from under him and caught his chin with my knee on the way down. A couple of others ran to join him. They couldn’t use their numbers so well with the shelves being there, plus there was the strength difference. I moved toward the one in the lead, grabbed his shirt, and threw him to the floor behind me. The one behind him got slap that spun him around, with me pushing him into the two behind him and overpowering the bunch until they fell into a big pile.
I went super easy on them, in other words. I had to be, after all. I had to turn over part of the video to the sheriff. Turns out while I was doing that, Colin was heading around some of the other shelves. He bolted out the door. That left me with some beat-up kids and no obvious victim around. I knew then I was definitely going to need that video. I went ahead and started getting them all tied up, which stopped when the Sheriff showed up and respectfully requested to enter and find out the situation.
“Ma’am, their parents are going to throw a fit,” the Sheriff told me when we’d finished our little video session.
I shrugged. “They attacked me in my own store after threatening to break stuff.”
She tipped her hat. “That’s what I mean, any self-respecting parent would ground them until they’re twenty-one for being stupid enough to do that to you in particular.”
“Kids fighting this way around town, it’s outrageous,” the Sheriff declared. “I’d like to talk to the one you said they were after if I could. This is going to be a fun day.” The emphasis on the word “fun” gave away the sarcasm in the Sheriff’s statement. She left soon afterward, thanking me for going easy on the kids and providing such good quality video evidence for the parents.
Still, that was the latest escalation of this feud dealt with. Maybe I should have made it last longer with some breaks and sprains. Remember, though, this wasn’t my whole day or anything. I still had other stuff to deal with. And I decided to put that aside this time to go track down Colin and Daryl. It’s time I stopped just reacting. I had their addresses from bribing a secretary at the school. I started with Daryl.
Daryl lived in suburb-style neighborhood, in a small cookie-cutter house with an old, rusty truck next to the driveway, tire-free. The truck was the only real sign of anything not being kept up decently, up until one of the windows burst out with Colin landing in the flowerbed outside it, glass cutting into him in places. I didn’t make the kid stab proof. A sharp enough blade and strong enough arm, nobody’s stab proof. Toss a throwing knife in the right exhaust port, you can take down a Death Star.
This time, Daryl managed to take down a kid who should have been a lot stronger than him. Some of the bricks and drywall of the wall under the window were kicked out and Daryl stepped out with a metal frame on his body. An exoskeleton, one of the most basic types. No armor, but hydraulic tubes and metal attachments on the arms, legs, and back.
I sighed and sent the Sheriff a text, then made sure I was clipping things going on to protect me from even more charges of beating up kids. What a step down. Infamous worldwide assassin-turned-child beater.
Daryl saw me and gave me the finger. While he was distracted, Colin grabbed for anything he could find and came up with half a brick he punched forward into Daryl’s crotch and stomach. Daryl doubled over and Colin knocked him down. Daryl was able to get his arms up, but the half brick was denting things and after a lucky hit, Daryl’s arms fell. I reached them by then and grabbed Colin’s arm, then hauled him to his feet away from the knocked out bully.
“Easy there. Fight’s over.”
“I should kill him!”
Whoops, looks like there was a hiccup in the recording there.
“Easy there, kiddo. Come on. Cops are on their way and they’re going to want to know about this exoskeleton. Let me get you patched up real quick so they don’t ask why you’re not worse. Tell me what happened.” I was curious, and it would distract him a little from the feeling of the nanites mending broken skin and muscle.
“I wanted to come here and end it after those chodes tried to jump me at your store. He got back and went inside. I walked in and slammed the door and told him to come out and get his ass kicked unless he was nothing but a big pussy. I went down the hallway to look for him and he punched through the door with that on. We fought, and he threw me through the window. Then that happened.”
Yeah, safe to say the cops and the doctors had some questions about all of this. The Sheriff said she was going to call in all the parents and lay into them. Which is nice, because Colin’s dad didn’t show for any of this up until now.
I took responsibility for examining the exoskeleton. I didn’t sell it to the kid, and while it was a simple system, it was designed well. Good craftsmanship. Now, what other supervillain is playing around in this?
The last person on Earth that anyone should go to for meaningful mentorship is probably me. Now for me to gently lead us into things so y’all can understand why I said all this.
I was just working in my regular ol’ life as a private citizen with a certain number of my crimes forgiven. Not all of them, because the pardon was only for the United States, but enough. I mean, it’s not like Sweden’s really going to send assassins after me. Not a second time.
Some shrimpy little teen came in with a black eye, holding his arm. He walked up through some of the shelves and approached the desk. “Excuse me, I need some help.”
I put down the robotic limb I was working on. “Just fixing yourself up or upgrading?” I lifted up part of the counter to let him through into the back. We weren’t crowded that time of day.
“I don’t have any money to upgrade, but I can’t go to the doctor, because he’ll tell my parents and my parents will complain to the school and nothing will get done,” he explained. I led him into the back and allowed a robot to shopkeeper hologram to appear in my place
“Fighting? Bullies? Love triangles?” I asked. I motioned to a nice padded chair for him to sit in. He hopped in and a set of these small saucers flew around him, scanning him. He held his arm out for them to get a better look. “One periorbital hematoma, one sprained radius.”
“Is that bad?” the boy asked.
I shook my head. “It’s not serious, but at the same time it’s not humerus. For, forty dollars, don’t have to pay all at once because I know you’re a local.”
“Jesus, no way I can afford an upgrade.”
The diagnosis bots projected a few things in midair so I could at least tempt him. “Varying layers of armor plating: outside, inside, and under the skin. Enhanced muscles, bones, and ligaments. Extra limbs and other body parts like fangs, tails, and webbed feet.”
“I thought webbed feet was something you get from incest,” the boy said.
“In Biology, they call that Artificial Selection. Same reason corn has so many kernals. My way’s cleaner. And for some of those, we can go artificial, organic, or a combination of the two.”
“Just fix my arm. That would cause too much trouble. I can’t beat Daryl in a fair fight without a lot of help,” he said.
A couple of the diagnostic bots loaded up on regenerative nanomachines and nutrient goo so they could repair the boy’s body. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Colin,” he answered.
“Nice to meet you, Colin,” I held my hand out. He reached out with this good arm to shake it. I held onto it while the two bots floated over and injected him in the hurt arm and on the face.
“Ow, hey!” Colin tried to twist away but the chair’s hidden clamps locked around his ankles and waist.
“Buckle up for safety,” I told him.
“I don’t know if I want to do this anymore!” he yelled. It was over pretty quickly, one of the diagnostic bots holding up a mirror for him to look into.
“Ta da!” I announced. I let go and so did the chair. He jumped up but felt at his arm with the other one, then at his eye.
“Thanks, but do you have to be so scary?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I was scary because you were scared. I won’t pretend everything’s attitude, but a lot of things are. And I don’t know what your bullying situation is like, but it’s just a petty period of bullshit.” I walked him outside.
“Yeah, but it sucks now,” he said.
“Yep. Sometimes you have to wade on through it. But if you need more fixing up without your parents finding out, my shop’s always available. Even late at night. Which, by the way, is the best time to handle a bully. A fair fight should always be your last resort. A baseball bat to the knee is a good opener instead. Available pretty much anywhere sporting goods are sold.”
This leads right in the alarms at my store telling me someone was approaching and then knocking on the door. I woke up a spare body in the basement there to go fetch this Colin kid, who was… shit, that kid got beat the fuck up. He had blood dribbling down his chin while he held onto his upper body, whining every time he took a breath and crying.
I opened the door and carried him in. “…base… bat… Daryl,” he said.
“Quiet. Remember, pain is just your body warning your brain you’ve taken bodily damage,” I rushed him back to the chair with the diagnostic bots ready for the emergency treatment, except to leave the anesthetic alone that I also injected him with. Cracked and broken ribs, internal bleeding, and a minor concussion. I went ahead and had them just plain knock him out so he could heal in piece. It can be pretty unpleasant having your body taken apart and reassembled by tiny robots.
I let him sleep it off an extra ten minutes before having the nanites wake him up and head to the bladder. I may not be lacing the water with helpful robots, but I have my own addition to the local water reclamation systems to salvage what’s out there. Prior to the vaccine coming out, they were a pretty good way to keep people alive around the world, if people can get over the fear of the cure.
“Wakey wakey,” I said, poking the kid in his now-fixed ribs.
Colin shifted in the chair, unsecured and realizing that he wasn’t in screaming, moaning, wheezing pain. “I’m better!” He lifted his bloody shirt up and looked at himself. “I have abs.”
I shrugged. “They had a lot to fix. Was just easier to smooth out some rough spots in the process.” Not really a lie. It would have been more effort to reprogram the nanites to leave him shrimpy, and I have the extra nutrients. “You’re not superhuman, but you might find you’re in better shape than you thought.” I reached out for a diagnostic bot and had it create a holographic chart. “Looks like we also fixed a Vitamin D deficiency, some asthma, and we topped off your brake fluid.”
“Brake fluid?” he wondered, poking himself in his six pack and running his hands over the grooves along his abdomen. “What’s this?”
“They call it either the Adonis belt or the Apollo’s belt. Don’t worry about it, except it means you could stand to develop more fat in your diet. You start eating some steaks, we could really build you up,” I said.
“I mostly get by on Ramen,” he told me. There’s a story there, but it’s also not my business. How much none of this was my business became apparent when I realized my ideas of bugging Colin or his high school with recon drones would be… yeah. Instead, I stuck a few on the outer edges to see what I could see and decided to bribe a few people for some records.
I was up there getting the records when they brought him and this other kid into the office. Colin had a bloody nose and his hair was all ruffled up, but I he didn’t seem to have broken anything this time. Daryl, if that was the kid with him, was a head taller and generally thick without working out. My daughter could kick his ass, which isn’t an insult. My daughter can kick ass. Not so much Colin.
“Try it outside school again, I’ll make sure you don’t get better,” I overheard Daryl whisper to Colin. He wasn’t trying too hard, but the teacher with them was doing a pretty good job ignoring things. The receptionist, too.
I looked between them and the adults in the room. “Really? That’s just going to be ignored?”
The teacher turned to me, “Are you one of ’em’s parent? No. Then it’s not your business how we deal with this now we don’t have a school resource officer.”
Goes to show that not everyone in town knows me by sight. I considered my options: I formally take this to the principal and police, who wonder how I know the extent of the physical trauma to the one kid because of my illegal back-alley medical practice. Or I bring it up to Medusa who throws her weight around all over a single student instead of setting up her own illegal clinics in Texas while playing bodyguard to doctors down there. Or I pretend to be a high school student and that’s right out. I have better things to do than play at high school, especially if the numerous TV shows on the subject are in any way close to believable about the amount of useless bullshit drama involved.
No, I would have to handle this the old-fashioned way and whip a kid into shape. I sent Colin a text to go ahead and meet at the store when possible. He showed up later that night, knocking on the rear workyard gate.
“Surprised they let you out this early,” I mentioned. It was only nine.
“Dad was so angry it took him longer to get drunk,” Colin said.
I let him in and inspected him in the moonlight. “Come on, let’s get that nose looked at, then we program you with every martial arts known to man.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Nah, can’t do that. And if I taught you, we’d be here all month without much to show for it, so I’m going to help you out with some shortcuts,” I informed him.
“You’re going to kick his ass for me?” the teenage boy said about his teenage bully.
It was tempting, not gonna lie. I’m just wary of giving anyone a reason to ask why Psycho Gecko, who a lot of folks have gone out of their way to put aside judgments about, is running around beating up kids
“Nah, kid. Different sort of shortcuts.” Back to the chair again, this time not having as much to mend. The nose was mostly fine. Nothing was broken or strained, but I went ahead and secured Colin to the chair anyway.
“Uh, what’s this? What are you doing to me?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“Nothing much. Don’t worry. First shot should put you out.” The diagnosis bots went to work, injecting the objecting teen with some anesthetic and nanites. Then came the nutrients, minerals, and metals. When he awoke, he jumped out of the chair before he was really ready, his weight shifting all over the place as he stood.
“I feel weird. What did you do to me?”
“No fangs yet, kiddo, but your knuckles are custom now. Knees, elbows, and skull, as well. Going to be harder to break bones on you in general. You’re nowhere near my level even if you knew how to fight, but this is only temporary because you fragile teenage body is still growing. Same reason dulling of your nerves is temporary.”
“I’m almost grown!” he insisted.
“You are a child that is growing larger and reaching sexual maturity that marks functional adulthood for the human species. That includes your brain, which is already pretty sus in the supposedly adult humans as well,” said me in all seriousness knowing this kid didn’t have access to about eight years worth of crazy and silly shit I’ve done. Case in point: “Anyway, go beat the bully up a few times next time he pulls something. He’ll learn to stop.”
“He’s still got my dad’s bat.”
“Good, then you know one of the first things you can get back from him.”
I don’t feel like it, ok? I’m allowed to have a downer episode, aren’t I? Alright, so it’s my pills. I’m on something new for my mental health instead of relying on Mix N’Max’s mysterious meds. I feel like I’ve been up for awhile and impossible to drag down, but something about the change of prescription has killed my motivation. And I’m not very motivated on my own. Feels like I’ve done nothing but react for awhile now. I’m actually looking forward to loafing around the house and just taking care of my daughter. Ugh, but I should probably clean more around here.
New plan, and it might distract me from the funk I’m in. Step one, play a Parliament album. The best way to get funk out of your brain is to put some funk into your soul. Step two, invent robots with a limited learning AI capable of simple cleaning tasks around the house. Oh, wait, I have some of those from the store. Well then, step two is to eat Cheez-Its and binge Murder She Wrote. Note to self, ask therapist about pot gummies.
Oh, yeah, I’m sure there’ll be something entertaining from Outlaw X.
“Folks, we’re in the shit right now. I’m not saying our moving pirate broadcast station was caught in the sewers during some flooding, or that we’re up literal shit creek without a paddle, because that would be embarrassing and potentially give away our location to the people who want to shut us down.
We lost a few files, but we have back ups. We just need to dry those out and spray them down so we can be in the same room as the back ups for more than thirty seconds without our noses burning off. Heading down these sewers was the worst idea ever, and I can’t wait to find someone else to blame it on.
Listeners, while I handle that and find someone to swab the poop deck, we’ve got a recent submission that we’re going to put on for you. So here’s one we got recently with a different perspective to it. It’s the story of science, and the mad science assistants that make it all possible.
The Igor View
“Ready the Critterator, Branson!” yelled the doctor. I lost track of this one’s name and checked my clipboard.
“Yes sir, Dr. Designer!” I called. I shuffled over to the Critterator’s control panel. Most of the machine was a block that took up the wall. A rainbow of different-colored wires snaked from the top of the block to the saucer-shaped mechanism hanging down from steel ceiling supports. The saucer made it look like an enormous showerhead that topped a round enclosure of transparent aluminum and reinforced steel walls.
A man lay drugged unconscious in the cell with a goat chewing on his jacket collar.
I’m Branson, professional mad science assistant. I have a background in conventional science, but my passion is history and archeology. I got into mad science after college because I had student loans. One of my professors’ fired colleagues needed some help with a personal project. He wanted to build a device that would convert people into bees. He even had a captured bee woman. I felt bad about helping out, but then these bee people broke it up. They got back their woman and the guy, leaving me with nothing but a bunch of scientific equipment. I wiped out some of my debt. I figured the first time made me so much easy money, I’d put myself out there. Bee guy left me a phone with a connection to VillaiNet. The rest isn’t history. It’s mad science.
I want to say real quick, there just aren’t enough mad Historians worth working for. I mean, sure, this guy invented a device that combines humans and other species into a horrifying abomination that shares a single body, but it’s better than working for someone like Dinesh D’Souza. Dr. Designer is less murderous. I’d love to do mad archeology, but I hear there are snakes and poison darts involved. I’m allergic to poison, so I stay where there’s air conditioning. Mad scientists love climate control. Quite a few of them plot to control the world’s climate.
So I’m comfy, I’m paid, and I’m not the poor sap and goat in the containment cell.
Dr. Designer paced back and forth, a grin underneath his tinted lab goggles. “I can hear the generator powering it up. The hum of progress, a beautiful symphony that society wished to strangle and mute. Soon, the pioneering spirit within this chamber shall become the first success of my project, combining the intelligence and tenacity of humanity with animals for our benefit. Imagine, Ig- I mean Branson, imagine the possibilities. A human with the speed of a cheetah, the strength of a gorilla, the senses of a wolf, and the immortality of jellyfish. It is devoutly to be wished!”
Yeah, that slip of the tongue there is where he meant to call me Igor. That’s a nickname for people like me, and I’m not the only one. We’ve got our own community and union of sorts, which is why nobody puts us in that cell unless they want to wire their own Critterator. I devoutly do not wish it, and neither did the blowhard doctor since he called for other people to have all the honor of getting zapped instead of him.
“Uh huh,” I said. Dr. Designer cackled as if I made a great quip. I turned to pull out my vape and noticed someone moving around in the dark. I stepped aside as a woman in a black catsuit stepped past, flicking onyx-black claws in my direction as a warning. I held up my hands to let her know I wasn’t getting in the way. I make sure my contract includes a part about not fighting. That’s what the minions were for. They’re a separate guild. Designer had some cheaper guys, more of a group of goons than proper mercenaries. They wore harnesses over black shirts that would hold the batons now in their hands or the zip ties they hoped to put on the infiltrator’s hands.
The person in the catsuit was a blur of limbs and claws, slicing goons across the forehead to blind them with their own blood.
“Throw the switch, Branson!” Dr. Designer called. I’d just as soon not, but he was paying the bills and hadn’t lost yet. I used the activation lever and the room lit up with a bright flash of lightning from the showerhead. The transparent aluminum front of the containment cell lit up. When the light faded, goons littered the floor and the cat woman was approaching the cell. We could all see the results inside: a goat man, standing on two hooves, with a goat’s head and horns, but human eyes and hands, draped in thick fur. Dr. Designer opened the door from his remote.
The goat man stumbled, then exploded into chunks of goo and blood. A bunch of it got on the cat woman, who then got tackled by a bunch more goons.
“Branson, pressure wash the chamber and prepare to run the experiment again at 95% power.”
I sighed. This is why I told him we needed to build a drain in the bottom of the cell. But no, now I have to dry everything out once I get it washed. “Yes, doctor.”
I awoke the next morning to the sound of alarms. I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and pulled it free of the charger. I had bluetooth access to the camera system and saw the catsuit woman free, fighting alongside a man in black fighting with a saber. They had the goons handled pretty well.
I stuck around long enough to see Dr. Designer get tied up with a sore, clicking jaw, and I started grabbing my contingency fee in the form of copper wiring and an armored case the doctor said could power a larger version of the Critterator. He always emphasized that it was obscenely valuable, so I thought it’d make an obscenely good thing to steal when things went belly-up. It didn’t have any decals on it about biohazards or nuclear stuff, but I knew better by then to trust a mad scientist to put up warning labels.
A couple weeks later, I was in a new laboratory hideaway. A swankier one. I was put in contact with this guy, calling himself Nucleosis, when I asked the rest of the Igors about getting this power source evaluated and valued. A woman named Mary Sue mentioned Nucleosis. She knew him as someone who 1. pays, 2. needed exotic power sources and 3. dabbled in nuclear energy with lots of lead shielding.
Nucleosis greeted me at the door of his forest lodge with a brown turtleneck and a pair of cargo khakis over brown shoes. He looked boring, an excellent disguise for a mad scientist. Having had to sneak up behind people talking to mad scientists, it’s way easier to whack them in the head if they think the only threat around is a middle school teacher with dad bod. “Come inside,” he greeted me. “Let’s see what you got.”
His lab was built into a cave underneath the lodge with its own proper walls, ceilings, and floors. “Your fellow Igor, Mary Sue, helped me so much with the walls and insulation. I didn’t want to rely on the caves alone. Call it a habit of working with nuclear materials, but I like a lot of control over my environment.”
“I can tell,” I commented while enjoying a breeze from a vent. He showed me to a room labeled “hazardous material testing chamber.” A man in a radiation suit exited and mumbled something.
“I’m sorry?” Nucleosis asked.
I leaned over to Nucleosis, “He said he’s prepared to run the test.”
Nucleosis looked impressed. I shrugged, “I’ve worked with a lot of protective helmets.”
“Brilliant,” Nucleosis said. He indicated the man. “Lets see your case.”
“It’s pretty light,” the man in the suit said.
Nucleosis led me down the corridor to the control room, manned by a single minion. “Raymond, where’s Kevin?”
“He’s out sick, sir,” the minion said. “I can’t get him on the phone to get that left monitor fixed.”
It was stuck in monochrome. I glanced at the system, then leaned down and messed around with the system. “It’s a common problem when the system updates,” I explained. The left monitor came into focus on the testing chamber where three guys in those lead-lined suits. They had a box they put it in with a robot before opening it up to reveal a red glow.
“What is that?” I asked.
Nucleosis leaned forward. “I’ll take it. Whatever you want.”
“Fine, but you have to tell me what it is,” I told him. If this is really so valuable, I need to look into stealing more of it in the future.
“That is a concentrated remnant of the unique bioenergy from an ineffably powerful being known as Mr. Omega.”
“It looks like a big… pearl,” I noted. I get tired of everything being an orb or a sphere. I consider it part of my job to help people come up with better names.
“Yes,” Nucleosis said, voice lowering to a whisper. “An Omega Pearl. It may well be the secret to phenomenal cosmic power. They say someone imbued with that would have immense power, reality-warping power all to themselves.”
“$100 million, no checks,” I told him.
Igor’s getting the fuck out of this, unless anyone wants to buy the location of an Omega Pearl. The bidding starts at $100 million, no checks.
Don’t worry. My little date with Agent Clark was purely about damage control. She wasn’t happy with what I did, but she decided to make it her business as well when I told her about the whole shebang. She was skeptical of me, of course, but that disappeared when she met the Hawkins from another dimension. It helped that all the meetings took place over meals that she had me pay for.
Agent Clark had a background in law enforcement. I have a background in lawbreaking. Between the two of us, we didn’t think Hawkins was proving his double from our dimension was innocent any time soon. I was faking it, but Agent Clark let him down gently. She finished a sip of her water, set it down, looked him in the eye, and said, “Your guy is fucked.”
“What?” Hawkins asked.
Nita, because I don’t want to keep being too wordy, shook her head. “Hawkins is guilty, love. This is as cut and dried as possible. The only way I think he could be innocent was if…” she paused here to glance to me, because we had discussed the possibility that a doppelganger of Hawkins could have done it if he’d somehow managed to put the same wounds on our Earth’s Hawkins. Nita finished up by saying, “…if he was possessed. But if it’s like that doctor in the hotel, there may not be anything left to save.”
Hawkins’s expression fell.
“I want to talk to this guy,” Nita said.
“That’s my line,” I mentioned.
“I’m the federal agent here. You’ve done a lot, but this is my investigation and my credentials. You owe me after lying to talk to that detective.”
“How about I go with you? All invisible, in case something goes wrong,” I offered.
“What could go wrong?” She was starting to get annoyed.
I waved it off. Something was going to go wrong and I’d just stick close. Besides, my manicotti was getting cold. I kept in on that while Nita Clark crushed our Hawkins’s hopes and dreams by walking him through her contribution to our investigation.
“He didn’t put up much of a defense. He had some money, but there wasn’t much to do. The lawyer insisted the neighbor didn’t hear anything and that this was a badly-timed break-in while this Hawkins was taking the money for some other reason, but no one bought it or the reasoning that the blood and skin under the fingernails was from sex. That”s not even how you choke someone in sex.”
Noted. She’s right, too.
Hawkins slumped. “I’m so stupid. This whole thing was one big, stupid, stupid, stupid waste.”
“Not that stupid,” I said through a mouthful of manicotti. “Thanks to you, we know about this other hole to another dimension where a forgotten god has wiped out the people and has set his sights on us.”
Nita nodded. “I’m going to look into that company building and find out why they neglected to mention this before now.”
“Good, you do that, I’ll handle the prison interview,” I said.
She gave me a tired look, the sympathetic smile she had toward Hawkins fleeing from her face momentarily before she plastered it back on to sympathize with him. I shrugged.
Agent Clark and I both left for the prison where they kept the Hawkins Mace of this Earth. It’s not like he was Supermax, or even in a prison specializing in supers. If anything, Fourtrees Correctional Institute was a place without even one tree on the property, and I guarantee no one was getting corrected in there.
“I let you come along,” Nita told me, “But you’re sitting outside. If I need you, I’ll tell you, and I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll keep the line open when I’m in there. In return, you know what you have to do for me.”
I nodded. “Don’t worry about me, I keep plenty of them ready. You want Japanese schoolgirl, or Catholic? Oh, look at that. Is that a smile?”
“Shut up,” she told me around her smile. She stepped out and I unmuted the connection to her earpiece. It’s a neat piece of tech, those earpieces. It’s a new standard issue for various government people-in-black. Difficult to detect, picks up relevant context sound pretty well, and they think it’s so secure.
They checked her over a bit, made sure she was who she said she was and wasn’t bringing Hawkins a cake with anything inside. After awhile, she was waiting for him in the visitor room. And then came Hawkins. His voice sounded gruffer than the one I’d been working with. “Who are you, lady?”
“Agent Clark, Office of Superhuman Resources, Paranormal/Superhuman Crimes Division,” she introduced herself, reminding everyone why I shorten it.
“First of her name, hero of the Imperium, etceterca?” Hawkins wondered. “You’re some sort of cop?”
“Federal, yes. We’re new, created to investigate crimes involving magic, superhumans, and other circumstances that exceed the conventional.”
“What makes you think I’m one of those cases?” Hawkins asked.
Nita shifted. “A consultant brought it to our attention. She looked into your case as a side project and found a lot of concerning information.” Hawkins scoffed, until Nita brought up the possessed elephant in the room. That’s a metaphor, by the way. These days, it’s important to keep track of when there is and isn’t an actual possessed elephant in the room. “She found Ahmety.”
“No. There was an incident in Memphis at the same time, involving a statuette from Ahmety.”
“Christ, you guys are in for it.”
“Someone was possessed by what we’re calling a Forgotten God. It was defeated when the statue was destroyed. The girlfriend you killed was from Ahmety and some of the information we’ve recovered says her absence was connected to what destroyed the place.”
“That’s a lot more than I thought anyone would figure out when I made that geocache. Is there something you wanted to know about me?”
“We have questions about the other world, the Forgotten God, and Hu Mabel,” Nita told him.
“I thought someone might.” He sounded like he was smiling to me. Like a positive, happy vibe to the voice. I don’t know if there’s actual science or just phony pop telemarketer science to it, but people can hear a difference. “If you want my cooperation, you’ll need to help me out. First, I need the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger around with a side of cheese fries, a large chocolate shake, and enough time to enjoy it.”
Nita said, “That’s not much of a list of demands.”
Hawkins guffawed. “That’s what you give me before I give you my list of demands.”
Just as voice alone can convey a smile, I heard Nita seethe. “I’ll be right back.” She enunciated each word more than usual. I imagined her baring her teeth at him through that sentence. After a couple minutes, she whispered, “I’m in the restroom. What do you think?”
“I think you have two main options. If you play ball, he’ll want a lot, including probably freedom. Ethically-speaking, option number B is less nice. We convince him to drop his price and make him focused on finding someone to protect him from something or someone he fears.”
“Like you.” She got pretty close.
“Or like that Forgotten God thing. Remember, I’m a master of disguise. I can be many people,” I reminded her.
“Only a master of evil, Darth,” she told me. “You go get what he asked for. I’m going to have a chat with the warden.”
Whatever. Nita had the keys with her, but I got her car going regardless and got her her food. She put her earpiece in private mode at one point so we could handle our business without a lot of crosstalk. When part two of the visit started up again, we were both ready. Nita, because she gets to lean on the power of the state as her stick in negotiations, had Hawkins tossed into solitary for her to go meet him with the burger. I should once again note that solitary confinement is psychologically damaging, but I guess it loses some of the bite when we remember I intended to threaten his life in prison to get something from him. As much as I might consider my deception more honest, the main difference is that I’m a well-known outlaw and she is the law. I’m supposed to be what society sees as unacceptable, and she’s supposed to be the one that stops me.
Anyway, enough brooding. She had him tossed in solitary and held a cheeseburger up. “You start talking, and I’ll decide if I like your story enough to give you half of my burger.”
“You can’t throw me into solitary confinement,” he said.
“I can do whatever I want just like you could tell me whatever lying bullshit you want,” she responded. She started to open the burger’s wrapper when Hawkins sighed.
“I started looking for Ahmety as this place where your dreams can come true because I heard about it on a forum after my girlfriend left me. I went there to some scary, frightening town and city where some thing made of shadows was right outside waiting to be let in. I met Hu there. She was the answer to my prayers. It’s like she was made for me. Some of her friends tried to scare me off, but I brought her over to the other side, where she could live somewhere safe, with plenty of food. I heard when Ahmety got destroyed and kept it from her. She would have gotten mad. Then she wanted to go back there and I couldn’t stop her, so I had to tell her. She was mad at me for a few days, but I thought we were good. Then she tried to leave me and I lost it. She wasn’t supposed to leave me. She didn’t even have anywhere to go back to. I- we argued. Things happened. I thought if I could get back to Ahmety, maybe I could fix things.”
Nita tossed the bag to him. Her voice was stern, controlled. “My card’s in there. If you can think of anything important about Ahmety and the thing that destroyed it, call my office. Maybe you’ll eat better.
Alternate Dimension Hawkins was devastated that we had the conversation. Right from the horse’s mouth. The horse that looks like him, that he couldn’t have contacted the police or prison officials about. Now, I’m not the best at comforting people, so it ended up being Nita who did most of the work there. She sat next to him on the hotel bed and patted him on the upper arm. “I know you’re feeling disappointed, betrayed by your double being that kind of person. You probably think if he would do that, you might to. But you’re wrong. You risked your life to find out the truth. Look who you turned to for help, the woods, finding Ahmety, the close call in Memphis. He was so focused on his own wants, he doomed those people. He doesn’t care. Do you understand?”
“I was the same way about my podcast and proving he was innocent,” Hawkins sniffled.
I told him, “You’re going to have that ‘what if?’ in your head going forward. The fact that you know you could have been him is what will keep you from ever being him. And if not, you know there’s people like me and Agent Clark here.”
Nita and I left him in his room, me wishing the end of all this involved a climactic fight instead of some reveal. I guess that’s why I’m not a detective. “All in a day’s work, Agent Do-goo-”
She grabbed me by my ass, now out of armor and in some nice jeans, and pushed me against the wall. She also pushed her body up close to mine. She was going to kiss me, but I grabbed her face, rolled around so she was against the wall, and kissed her instead. Then I let her go and let her get a good look at my ass as I walked away.
I’m glad I stuck around close to Memphis. Hawkins, at least the Hawkins from the other dimension with a portal in Empyreal City, is still hunting through some dangerous stuff for proof that the Hawkins of this Earth really didn’t kill his girlfriend. So far, we found a bunch of old tapes that supposedly pointed us to some weird town. There wasn’t much info about the girlfriend, except she was from that town. A town that, as far as this Earth is concerned, doesn’t exist.
Instead, it’s in another dimension. That’s three different ones so far. So the day after my were-reindeer other half and I fought off some weird darkness god that told us “The door was open.” Hawkins explained about how he found this weird town over fried chicken.
“There’s a construction site across the bridge into Arkansas. The sign says the shopping center is coming in 2014. There isn’t a lot of work going on, but it looks like they’ve been digging. They have these marked off squares in the ground and some tents with a bunch of bins in them. They left one unlocked. It had a bunch of lumps of rust and pieces of potter in it, but it also had this.”
He showed me a photo on his phone of a statue that looked similar to the statue of the forgotten god that was used to call it into our dimension.
I sent him a screen capture from the podcast and told him, “It looks a lot like this one that got me into that fight at the hotel.”
The Peabody was wrecked after that. It wasn’t a quick and easy fight, with the god not caring what was done to its host. The only thing that seemed to phase it was light and the statue was the key to banishing it for now. Now it turns out there’s a second, at least. I had the fabricators back home whipping up a special version of my Psychopomp armor and some support drones. And over in Memphis, I ate some damn good chicken.
Hawkins nodded. “That must be why he said something about the door being open.” Good, he kept up.
“What else did you find?” I asked Hawkins.
He got this huge smile across his face. “I wandered all over the place. They must have surveillance. These guys showed up in an SUV to come look for me. By then, I was eating a sandwich out on the edges of the site. I ran for the undeveloped woods and jumped over a pile of dirt. When I landed, I was in another world. It was dark in the daytime from a cloud of darkness over the sun. It was this trashed town. The sign read Ahmety. Like a modern town, not one with a bunch of potter and statues around. I looked in one house and didn’t see anyone.”
The waitress brought us some fresh tea before Hawkins continued. “One of the guards came through after me and looked around for a couple of minutes. By that time, I was hiding in that one house I’d checked. No one was home, obviously. The guard didn’t look too long before running back the way he came when the shadows who looked like people came. They came out of nowhere. I think they were hiding in the darkness next to some of the buildings. He shot at them, but it didn’t stop them from dragging him off. That’s when the other two guys came through. They heard the gunshots and saw the other guy, so they went after him. More of those shadows appeared and went after that group. I hopped through the window and booked it for the same way out. I don’t know how they missed me.”
“So this girl was from another Earth. An Earth that sounds like it’s way worse off,” I pondered. “She came here, then ends up being killed. It’s suspicious, but so far just coincidental. I’d like to see the place once I’m prepared.”
“I got this out from the other side,” he said. He held up a laptop. “Charged it up and finally looked through while you were doing whatever after all the stuff at the hotel. So far, there isn’t a lot of useful information on it, but I found some saved MP3 files for a show where people review apocalyptic movies. They keep mentioning how they started theirs just in time for the apocalypse to actually happen, but they’re joking about it. Here’s the last one.”
He didn’t play the entire podcast for me, just around the part where they were reviewing an apocalyptic musical about about body snatchers who make people act like it’s a musical. They get interrupted by a cut to one of the hosts.
“This is Tom. Michelle’s… shit, I don’t know what happened. No one can find Mabel. We didn’t know if the stories were true that she kept the darkness away somehow. Now we know, and she’s gone.”
The episode cut off there.
“Yeah, but how are we going to find out how many Horses of the Apocalypse they rated the musical?” I asked, trying to lighten things up a bit.
“I think the Mabel they mean was Hu Mabel, Hawkins’s girlfriend. He got obsessed with a broadcast from over on that side of things, found the portal, found Hu, and I guess convinced her to run away with him. She could have found out what happened and killed herself out of guilt,” Hawkins said. There were a few suppositions there, but good ones worth looking into.
Problem was… “Yeah, but where’s the proof here? A motive to kill one’s self isn’t actual evidence of suicide.” I had already looked up the details of the case against Hawkins and the report on Hu Mabel’s death was that she suffered blunt force trauma to the back of the head while inside a house and it caused a fatal hemorrhage. Not your average hanging, drowning, gunshot, or poisoning you’d expect from someone doing it to themselves.
“You’re missing a possible motive. People like this Forgotten God tend to attract followers, people eager to share in their power. If that thing and its followers now have access to this Earth, it could be they went after her as part of a grudge or a preventative measure. On the one hand, I’d like to inspect this other world. On the other, I think the more vital thing we can do is find out more about the death of Mabel. Who was she? What was she like? And how did her killer strike? A bit late in the game to look into it, but we know who she is and where she came from, but we’re supposed to be clearing your double.”
Hawkins nodded and took another bite of a chicken leg. After some chewing, thinking, and swallowing, he said, “Yeah. I guess we’re not done yet. I tried to inquire from the police, but they refused to give me a good look at all the evidence unless I came down in person and filled out forms. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to do that. You could get in, see all the materials behind the case.”
And away we went, after grabbing some chicken to go. It was damn good chicken, and we had a long flight ahead of us from Memphis to Seattle, even over the Flyer. I thought about stopping over someone’s corn fields and grabbing some sides, but decided not to add to any UFO hysteria. I got the armor completed and packed into an armor for rapid deployment wherever I might need it. Because I can be worried about this Forgotten God but still realize we’re focused on someone else’s murder case. That god of shadows might be a complete dick, but there’s no proof he had anything to do with this actual murder.
So, shortly after having obtained a Presidential pardon (and a green card), I impersonated a Federal officer. I walked in and nodded to the desk sergeant, “Agent Nita Clark, Office of Superhuman Resources, Paranormal/Superhuman Crimes Division. PSCD needs to take a look at your files from a case.”
My documents all checked out and I was shown to the detectives who handled it, who had a respectable goatee going on instead of a cop stache. “I’m Detective Freeson. What does the, uh, Superhuman Resources Office…”
“The Office of Superhuman Resources. PSCD is trying to assist with crimes of a superhuman or paranormal nature. We recently learned of some unusual circumstances surrounding the victim, Hu Mabel, and we wanted to follow up on your work. We want to eliminate the possibility that something unconventional was involved so we can all move on. It’s probably nothing, but there’s pressure, you know?
Freeson nodded. I meant to assure him that I wasn’t calling his investigation or suspect into question. Plus, cops know a lot about public pressure right now. My sympathetic look must have done the job. “Well I’m glad you came asking instead of bringing in a bunch of paperwork to force the issue. Tell you what, you take a look at it real quick and let your bosses know you covered your ass.”
He walked off to go fetch the files. I helped myself to his computer and made a few things disappear. Loitering, protest arrest records, that sort of thing. Then he got back and I got a little present. “Thank you, detective. Is there somewhere I can sit and go over everything in private?” I asked.
He showed me to a quiet interrogation room not being used at the time. I decided to get a good look myself before sending any stills over to Hawkins. Whether it’s his enthusiasm or some ulterior motive, the guy tried to frame me, blew up a pig to make it look like he’d died to goad me into investigating, and jumps right to assuming suicide on Hu Mabel’s behalf. Plus, the bit where the shadows were close enough to nab someone right by the way out but never touched him seems off. I’m suspicious.
The file didn’t help matters, but then they could have been lying about stuff. Photos looked like a fight happened. The skin and blood under Hu’s fingernails matched Hawkins’s DNA. The one they nabbed had similar markings on him, and he was arrested trying to leave the city. She was beat down a little, too. Freeson even had an affidavit from someone at the bank Hawkins used. First, a day before the murder, someone pulled that money out. Next was a complaint from Hawkins wondering why his account is suddenly missing money. Either that was a bold lie, or Hu was looking to leave him. That was hard enough considering she had no ID and wasn’t even from this world. The police found the cash on him after a neighbor reported the fight and the landlord reluctantly came in and spotted the body.
I hate to hand it to the police but this looked a lot like they found their guy. If the doppelganger Hawkins had led with this, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gone any further than talking to the incarcerated one. Still, there’s always the possibility that this is a straight-up lie. It’s just one where a lot of stuff has to be fabricated, instead of one of the lazier lies. I handed over the file to Freeson when I was done with it and thanked him before sending the stills to the Hawkins I was working with. Only so that guy could hear, I said, “I’d like to speak to the Hawkins of this Earth, because that info there makes a lot of what we’ve been doing look unnecessary.”
Funny enough, I exited just in time to see a familiar face pulling up in a car. “Hello there, Agent Clark,” I told the woman from PSCD whose identity I’d just used for this.
“You, huh? Get in. You can explain over dinner. You’re buying since you decided to borrow my name,” she ordered.
I mean, I didn’t have to… but I was kind of hungry.
I kept that spare body around Memphis in case Hawkins needed me. These extra bodies don’t seem to be afflicted with the same mojo that causes me to turn into an anthropomoprhic reindeer during the full moon. But all of this seemed just as important to include for me.
I stayed in the spare body. Back home, my real body answered the rising moon with fur and antlers and a monthly change that looks really painful and makes me glad I’m not part of it. Reindeer took flight to head the same direction, but I called and told her we didn’t have to meet up and work together this month. “I like it when we do. We make a dynamic duo,” she told me.
I didn’t say much one way or the other. I didn’t figure she’d catch up anyway and I could just lounge around. She wanted to stay on the line and listen along while I checked out whatever was playing. I ended up coming across a live stream from this one podcaster, a guy with a big following. He was smoking pot on air with someone who claimed to be a professor of folklore. “So you say this is supposed to be some demon everyone’s forgotten about from another culture?”
“A demon isn’t the right connotation. It was a dark god from a pantheon that’s been almost entirely forgotten. All we have are a few images and idols. We think this is the adversarial deity who tried to kill the other gods,” the folklore person said. He looked pretty standard. “Anyway, we think now that the evil gods were all representative of gay people and Black people. People back then hated gay people.”
“Bro, really?” the streamer asked. “Did they do a lot of mushrooms?”
“The priests would use incense we’re sure was drugs. Cannabis, probably,” the folklorist said. “They also practiced animal sacrifice and made sure to give the sick the first sip of water from the bucket. They were very intelligent people, which is why they opposed cCultural Marxism. The Thule Society researching ancient traditions for Hitler is why the Nazis were Cultural Marxists, you know.”
“They knew what’s up,” the streamer said. “Wait, did you say the Nazis were Marxist?”
“You’re taking me out of context. You should really buy and read all five of my books, promo code ChaosDragon5, for five percent off the price. Most people aren’t fit to have these discussions until they’ve also sat through my two hour seminar, which costs $80 at the door.”
“Cool, cool. Is that writing on the back of that stone dude?” the streamer asked.
“This is bullshit. Why are you listening to this?” Reindeer wondered.
“In light of the latest stuff going on, I figured I’d check some of the most popular stuff out there. This sounds like crap, though.”
“This inscription is a dialect of Sumerian. It’s said to be an invocation of the deity. Hey, can I have a puff of that?”
“Yeah, bruh, but you gotta read that out from me. I want to hear Sumerian. That’s like Muslim, right?”
The ignorance was staggering. I was going to switch away as soon as the invocation was finished, but the stream started to disrupt. As I watched, the skinny folklorist in his suspenders seemed to grow paler, his mouth opening wider than most humans can manage and his eyes going white. As soon as he finished speaking in Sumerian, he said, “I will tear your souls apart and swallow them piece by piece!”
The stream cut out.
Reindeer and I both sighed. Reindeer told me, “Where is it?”
I groaned as I looked up that the streamer was in Memphis, living it up at the Peabody Hotel. Where I was, I could hear the wind howl. Dark clouds gathered in the early night sky. It was like a thunder cloud had parked right over the Peabody.
I threw on my armor and headed over to the Peabody. It was Gecko-style armor, not Lady Guardian-style. I hid it and skipped along buildings to avoid the line of local supers trying to go in at ground level. I figured Honky Tonk Hero would be there by then, but there was no sign of him. I crashed through the windows of three wrong suites before I broke through the window into the right one.
The streamer was sitting at a table, passing a blunt between himself and the possessed folklorist, who coughed after his puffs and handed it back. “Nectar of the gods, filthy human. We did so many drugs but nothing can compare to three millennia of stronger cultivation. But as I was saying, our people did not hate those people you speak of. Many of us had the dark skin and bedded whoever we could. I hated the Galli priestesses, but that was because of who they served, not because of what they were. The truth is, I was forgotten because I was banished long ago to another world. Someone from your world opened the door, and now this fool has called me to you.”
The possessed folklorist stood up and grabbed the streamer’s head. “Bruh, seriously?” the man asked before his neck was snapped and his head ripped from its spurting neck. The folklorist turned to me, a sneer on his face. He squeezed and burst the head in his hands.
“Are you a god?” he asked me.
“I am death, none can excel. I open the door to heaven and hell,” I answered. Yes I know I’m violating the Stantz Principle: if someone asks if you’re a god, say yes. But if I am one, it’s a god of death. And Death doesn’t need to say it’s a god. It just shows up and kills a fucker. Instant respect. That’s why all the motherfuckers who try to mess with Death end up dead.
“Cease your prattle. Death cannot touch me.” Behind him, the dead streamer’s body stood up. He bent over and showed off a monstrous mouth of fangs from the neckhole of the body. His hands became as claws. Lo, did the streamer run for me, and lo, did I snatch that bitch up and piledrive him through the floor and into a suite of a screaming women. The streamer wasn’t moving anymore, so I gave him the ol’ Rule 2: Double Tap and tossed him out of the building. I think we were nine stories up, so a pretty good distance for a dead man to fall. I ripped the TV off the wall and hopped back up.
A couple of local superheroes were on their knees, a black lightning flowing from them into the hands of the folklorist. Then, they were gone. Just gone. Fucking vanished with their blue and yellow costumes.
The Forgotten God’s host turned to me raised his hands. I lurched forward and it felt like a bunch of my body’s nerves were on fire, but I didn’t have the whole lightning thing going on. I decided to give him what he asked for and charged my gauntlets. I’d switched my armor away from that void technology after the big blowout when I first tried to use it, so this was merely a charge of potential energy, some of which was wasted in light form, that would amplify my punches. I jumped at him and punched a hole right through his chest. The head and neck dangled there, then looked down at a torso that mostly didn’t exist anymore.
“Impressive. You could have been a god!” He grabbed for my head. I did a split and punched him with the other hand right in his banana. It went bye bye like fried chicken on a hot Sunday night, but all it did to the Forgotten God was make him laugh. He swiped at me, but I rolled to the side, popped to my feet, and dodged a pair of arms that were barely connected to the floating upper torso.
Other shadows appeared, smaller. Two of them wore the costumes of those heros. Another was puffing shadowy smoke from its mouth. “Bruh, where even am I right now? Did I drop some MDMA without realizing it?”
Even punching the folklorist’s head off did nothing. The head was gone, but a shadowy being was left there. I charged up my armor and shoved it into the middle of the shadow person. The air around me swirled in some sort of vortex of darkness. The Forgotten God’s voice echoed in the wind, laughing. It swirled past me and the voice on it told me, “I will feast on your flesh when I get through that armor!”
The whole damn exterior wall opened, letting in the light of a full moon that penetrated the darkness along with the glow of the antlers of my super-powered were-form that created the entrance. They became even brighter an instant before she fired her antler beam into the shadow people created by the Forgotten God. The vortex calmed down, but the Forgotten God was gone.
“I guess you could say he was magically malicious,” Reindeer said.
“I’m pretty sure I already made that joke. So it was the idol somewhere in there?” I asked.
“I think it was the light that did it. Jack told me I would need the moon,” Reindeer said.
I cocked my head to the side. “Jack? Who’s that? He give you a ride?”
Reindeer nodded. “Something like that. An old Irish dude named Jack, carrying a lantern in his hand. He said he’d get me here quick so I could stop something bad for all of us.”
“Wonderful, someone else I’ll have to run into again when it’s least convenient,” I said.
“We better find that thing,” Reindeer said. She handed me the Bellringer, a handy gadget-filled warhammer I created for her with enough memory to allow my consciousness to inhabit and control it. I took it and we headed out into the hallway.
There were more shadows. I flashbanged them, with simultaneous flashing and banging as the warhammer blinded and smooshed them at once.
“I don’t think this is going to stop until we take out the main incarnation. They’re all connected to that Forgotten God,” Reindeer said.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Fuck no,” she answered. “But it’s the best guess I got right now. I didn’t see that idol back there, either. Maybe it’s a weak spot or something.”
We fought our way to the elevator. When it dinged open, it was full of darkness from the cackling shadows.
“Hammer,” Reindeer requested. I set it in her waiting handpaw. She raised it overhead like she was ringing the bell at a carnival and slammed it on the floor of the elevator. It shuddered, then dropped. She leaned out long enough to fire her antler beam at the brakes so it wouldn’t stop, either.
“Going down?” I asked.
She nodded and we hopped down after the falling elevator, picking our way through the fresh wreckage to appear in the lobby of the Peabody. There was a large fountain in the middle, and the possessed Folklorist stood there atop it. All around him, shadow-consumed ducks flew, stopping to peck at anyone who dared get too close. The black vortex was reforming.
“You distract, I’ll finish,” Reindeer said. She held the hammer out for me.
I grabbed it and ran to the side, then jumped and kicked off a column to go flying right through the shadow ducks at the Forgotten God’s host. “By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!” I hit the flashbang effect, clearing the ducks away. The Forgotten God almost seemed to get more solid in contrast, but raised his arms to hold back the blinding light of the hammer. As much as it looked like a void with nothing in it, that darkness faded as I pushed the hammer closer. It’s like it was darkest just before the light.
“Mortal rubbish! You won’t stop me consuming this Earth as well!” he growled. I spotted the edge of stone where the heart would be. A hand-paw wrapped around it and pulled it back.
Behind the Forgotten God, ironically forgotten about in this being’s struggle with me, was Reindeer. She held the idol aloft in both hands and twisted. All the small scratches and imperfections seemed highlighted in the second before the idol broke in half.
The remains of the Folklorist fell into the fountain. The darkness was gone. Scared people, and a few remaining free ducks, littered the lobby.
Reindeer turned to me, “Want to just hang out in a hotel room for the night? Order some delivery?”
“You got it,” I said, bumping fists with her and tossing her the warhammer.
That’s where we were when Hawkins Mace called me up, sounding out of breath. “You won’t believe it, but I found it! It’s another dimension, not another plane. I don’t know if it was the moon, but the doorway was open. It’s like our worlds, only dark and disgusting and rotten. But it’s there. And it had a bunch of these statues.”
He sent me a photo. I displayed it via the armor for Reindeer. We both sighed again, seeing that the statues on the other side of this portal were larger and more refined versions of the Forgotten God’s idol.
“Bruh, you serious right now?” Reindeer asked, then laughed at her impression of the dead streamer.
“Oh no, I’m so wasted and I’m so far from the campsite!” I called out. The spare body I’d taken out there was dressed in short shorts, hiking boots, a flannel shirt tied together under my boobs, and a tank top. The backpack behind me carried a suit of power armor. The bottle of Irish cream sticking out of it was actually a bottle of Irish cream, and rested on top of an 8” long iron dagger.
“Please don’t do that. You don’t know what’s out here,” pleaded Hawkins. The investigative podcaster from another dimension might have been too scared by what he’d heard of the situation to come without the best killer on two Earths by his side, but he did come. Props to him for that. I wasn’t sure at the time how much was foolishness and how much was courage. The difference is usually determined afterward, depending on success.
He didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to ourselves ass we made our way into the wild woods of this section of the Appalachians. He also didn’t want to fly in. Said it doesn’t work that way. “How do you know if you haven’t been this way before?” I asked.
“It’s part of the lore. It can’t work that way. I’m worried it won’t work with you being a cyborg.”
“Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton,” I said in a thick Austrian accent, even though that was an android and not a cyborg.
“My favorite Stallone film,” he said.
I shook my head. “Please tell me there’s one over there where Nic Cage and Christopher Walken co-star.”
“No, but that sounds wild,” he said. He was lagging behind a little bit, looking at his phone. He was using a geocache app to find where we were going. We both faced a bit of interference in the last hour, when we entered an area with some low level magical interference. Just a bit of latent magic in the land that flared up from time to time and messed with compasses and other signals. He snapped his head around to the side. “What was that?”
I looked over there as well. There were stairs in the woods. They were rickety rough old wood, uneven and warped to a twisted gray by years of bad weather. There on the topmost step was a dull green ammo can. Hawkins looked back and forth between the stairs and his phone. “That’s weird.” He turned the phone toward the stairs, then shrugged. “I guess that’s it.”
I reached for the backpack and dropped it, first to slip on my armor, second to grab the iron dagger. “Come along.”
“You don’t want to leave me away from it, maybe?” he asked with evident cowardice in his voice.
“If it’s not what it seems to be, it might want you separated from me. Too far to notice you disappear,” I pointed out. “I’ve read a few creepypasta, too. Even shared hot wings with this New Zealand sea witch who writes a few.”
“That’s a good point. I’ll stay close by,” he said. He moved close, glancing at my legs even in a situation that had him scared. He was reaching for his own stainless steel pocket knife. I slowed so he’d stay close, but tapped at the stairs with the iron dagger I had brought. Cold-forged iron, in fact. There are better stabby materials out there, but iron weapons crafted without heating it are supposed to be repellent toward various supernatural beings, most notably the Fae. Which might just be the Three Hares conspiracy.
The Three Hares are this bunch of aliens, supers, hybrids, and their human relatives who decided to hide from society. They often claim to be gods. They might even be the folks worshiped by people in the past who couldn’t contextualize superpowers in any other way, gifted with immortality or longevity thanks to alien medicine. Or their descendants had similar powers and took similar names. They want to be confused with fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean the tales are false or true. Like the Valley of Forgotten Souls, home to an old undead train robber said to murder anyone who comes in after him.
So if I can stop rambling for a minute, the point of all that was that some of these stories could be aliens, mages, supers, lies, or true. This cold iron dagger may just be a piece of sharp metal as far as far as some super is concerned, but let’s not underestimate the power of stabbing something really hard. over and over again. That’s how babies and corpses are made, after all.
The stairs didn’t react, so if they were something nefarious… they just didn’t react. IDK. I’ve read the stories, so I know why they’re here and supposedly all scary. I raised my foot to step on them, but Hawkins grabbed my arm. “Don’t!” He moved back, not wanting to be any closer to the stairs in spite of me being his only protect. Wouldn’t step on them, wouldn’t touch them, nearly peed on them. I believe that last bit was an accident. My HUD indicated some magic in that old staircase we found, too.
I smiled, figuring I’d solve that particular mystery another time. Instead, I turned and threw the dagger. The side of it smacked into the ammo can on the top step and knocked it the five feet to the leafy forest floor. The knife itself bounced down as well through the steps. I walked around the stairs and picked up the ammo can. The sturdy can was just fine, weight telling me something was in there. I brought it back around to Hawkins, opening the can toward him deliberately. Might as well get some use out of him.
It wasn’t booby-trapped, and Hawkins maintained enough situational awareness to walk with me away from the stairs while he looked at these tapes inside. Some were VHS and some were cassettes. “Good thing the evil entities don’t ever put anything on laserdisc,” I noted.
“Yeah, they wouldn’t survive the fall.”
“It’d be difficult to play the things anyway. I take it you didn’t bring a VCR or cassette player, so let’s get out of here… whichever way that is.” In the middle of the place as we were, the magical interference was strong and not a fan of Earth’s magnetic poles. I don’t use a regular ol’ internet connection; my connection runs through a transdimensional gateway. Zero lag and magical interference isn’t as much of a weakness as it used to be.
“This isn’t good,” Hawkins said, holding up his phone so I could see the screen had gone black. The black mirror of the phone flickered faintly, like something just as dark was moving around in the darkness.
I shrugged. “Time to put the phone away. I’ll get us out.”
A long groan echoed through the woods. The wind picked up. A shape watched us from the distance.
“Look,” Hawkins said, slapping my arm. He pointed to where the stairs had disappeared.
“Looks like we got things just in time,” I said. I pointed off toward the shortest distance to the road by aerial view. I already had my Flyer powering up and preparing to meet us from that direction. I hate hiking. One of humanity’s greatest inventions was the indoors. I intend to make plenty of use of it.
Some guy did a bunch of fucking backflips right up to us. He wore a gray suit and when he turned around, he had no face. I kicked him in the balls, pulled out a Sharpie, and left him with a wincing >_< face.
“That's gotta hurt,” I whispered into the smooth skin where an ear would be, then I grabbed him by the groin, picked him up, and tossed him into the trees.
Hawkins jumped with joy instead of the fear he would have jumped with if he'd seen the thing behind him. It looked like bundles of fallen branches had been used to create a humanoid shape.
“Pick that up for me,” I said, pointing to a really large leaf. He bent over and I popped the mini chainsaw I kept nice and sharp under one forearm. Hawkins crawled between my legs as I hacked my way through the branch man, throwing off black gunk. Half of a branch man wasn't as interested in pursuing us as the whole one had been. I pulled Hawkins to his feet and started us toward the direction we'd meet the Flyer from. “Just keep swimming.”
“We're going to be alright, aren't we?” he asked.
“Fine. Worse comes to worse, I'll burn this whole fucking place down. Even forests have fears,” I said.
As if in response, the wind sounded like an angry roar. I flipped the nearest tree the bird but kept pushing Hawkins in the right direction. I didn't let him get too far away from me one way or the other. The forest didn't want us there and we didn't want to be there. We compromised by getting the fuck out of there pretty quickly. The Flyer pulled up overhead and opened its bay door. I grabbed Hawkins and the ammo can, hopping right up out of that old, old place.
We waited until we were well away from the old mountains of Appalachia that have existed since the days of Pangaea. Heh, here I am sounding as superstitious as the rest. I suppose having been turned into a were-reindeer in the service of the winter spirit has impressed a bit of superstition in me.
Hawkins found that all the tapes were labeled, with the earliest being a video of Hawkins playing around with the old camera and talking about this old bunch of stuff he found, including a radio that can record to cassette. We'd parked the Flyer in the parking lot of a super store for the night. He knew a weird radio show he wanted to record. The cassettes sounded like an eccentric small-town radio show with talk of rainbow lights and obelisks. And rabbits, for some reason. As they went on, the other Hawkins became more tired looking and obsessed with the storyline of a place outside of the town. They didn't give a lot of information about it, just that it was some place outside the town of Amehty that was dangerous and wondrous all at once.
“Has this girlfriend of his shown up in any of these?” I asked.
Hawkins paused the video he was looking at where his double sat with a lot of facial hair and darkened circles under his eyes. “I didn't notice that. Weird.”
“What's her name?” I asked.
“Hu,” he said.
“The girlfriend,” I reiterated.
“That's what I mean. Her name was Hu Mabel,” he clarified.
I shook my head. “That name sounds made up.”
“There's not a lot about her. The Seattle newspapers had an obituary about her, but she didn't have a driver's license. That's not surprising in big cities,” Hawkins informed me.
“You keep on the tapes, and take good notes. I'm going to check on something,” I told him. He sighed, but went back to the video and the document on his laptop.
I unfolded a chair and sat outside, setting up some scrapers to find information about the oddly-named woman whose life seemed so neglected in this story and watching the nearly-full moon in the sky. Hu Mabel didn't have a trail except for her death, and Hawkins didn't care except for the consequences of that death. But at least part of this whole idea of “proving” the innocence of my companion's dimensional double will mean looking into her and finding out who did kill her.
I didn't get much. A barely-used Instagram account that looked like it had Hawkins in the background, staring at a radio, titled, “I can't believe I moved from Amehty for this, but I'd do it again. Love you, boo!”
Hawkins had something similar. “He stops giving as much detail near the end. He didn't want anyone following in his tracks for some reason, but I think he found Amehty.”
“I know he did.” I informed him of the Instagram account. “So how'd he get to this unusual-sounding place?”
Hawkins scratched the back of his head. “How is the difficult part, since he says it doesn't exist on this plane of existence. I think I should go to Memphis. He used to live outside of it, and he says it was closer than he expected, but it had to be or how else could he find the signal.”
I nodded. “I'll drop you off, but I'm going to be unavailable on Saturday.”
“Sure,” he said, grinning. “Can I give you a call in case something else dangerous happens?”
I shrugged. “Sure thing. But if it happens on Saturday, things are going to get complicated.”
Forests and monsters and were-deer, oh my!