Collector of Curiosities 4

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The remaining refugee kid called himself Gastrap. “I woke up one day and could spit a toxic gas. My mom freaked. She registered me and then she gave me up because she didn’t think she could handle my powers and having to be a hero.”

“What do you mean, she gave you up?” Medusa asked. The first thing that jumped out at me was the bit about having to be a hero, but that’s a good point, too. We were all sitting around the counter at my shop while I worked on some gadgets. I managed to cover up my basement, but I didn’t think it was safe. Not like my shop is. I had a jammer there I could put on. Fucked with my connectivity, but it also Caligari’s. Medusa wanted to chat with him while I worked on the chip my nanites found inside Gastrap.

He nodded. “They do it sometimes. Powers are a burden. A responsibility. At least, that’s what they teach us.”

“You said ‘having to be a hero.’ What did you mean by that phrasing?” I asked. I held the chip in my palm, feeling it out with my homo machina nerves. Unlike a lot of my tech, running on batteries or on advanced compact reactors, this thing ran on natural body heat. It’s not a good option for anything bigger.

Gastrap took a sip of his soft drink. “They make you go to training and send you out to fight.”

“Conscription,” Medusa said. “They made you fight.”

“I didn’t want to get shot at!” Gastrap said. “All I do is spit poison.”

He could do a lot with an ability like that. I wonder what sort of poison, if it’s even just one sort. He supposedly breathed in all the poison from the gas trap as well, and that’s incredibly useful. Does it apply to acids as well? Even I could tell the kid didn’t want to talk about it, and I could sympathize with not wanting to be forced into that situation. I could tell it tugged at Medusa’s heartstrings.

“Doesn’t sound like Good Earth,” I mused.

“Gecko!” I deserved the admonishment from my girlfriend. Don’t know if it was my love of this Earth or my desire to be right, but it was the wrong time for that response.

“Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I should have this thing figured out. Next time the signal gets where it’s supposed to go, it’ll ping one back to me. I don’t have a way to counter a shrink ray outside overwhelming force applied to the skull of Caligari. I figured I’d burn that bridge when I got to it.

“Am I coming with you?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No need for that. You can stay out of this. He won’t be able to track you now that I have this anyway. The nanomachines have scoured your body and you’re clean of all tech that isn’t them. Also, they fixed a cavity that was starting in one of your molars. You also had this weird thing in your intestines…” I trailed off, noticing the way both Gastrap and Medusa were looking at me. “It’s not important, life-threatening, or anything that’ll likely happen to you again, but I recommend you eat more fiber in general. Worst colon I’ve ever seen inside a person’s body.”

“Why did you say it that way?” Gastrap asked.

“Moving on, Medusa, dear, honey, love of my life: are you joining me?

She crossed her arms. “Didn’t you want Painbringer along with you?” The little smile tugging at her lips told me she wasn’t really mad. Medusa trusts me. How fucking weird is that? But she knows I’ve made up my mind about her and trusts me to stick with it despite years of lying, cheating, stealing, and killing to serve my own benefit. Huh, I guess I ended up dating someone with a mental illness again after all.

“She’s volunteering, so I might as well. Maybe she’ll come in handy. Flak did,” I said.

Medusa laughed. “Ok, ‘Eminence,’ I’m in too.”

She got Gastrap situated staying over with the Sheriff for the night while I prepped the Flyer and got a read on where we were headed. Pittsburgh, eh? I deactivated the chip and slipped into my armor. Soon, Medusa’s silver, gold, and pink power armor joined mine, looking way clunkier now than my more organic-looking version. She looked it over and whistled as she saw the nanomachines shift armor plating all over, me showing off how it could give me claws, add jet turbines to power up my punches, form tendrils and extra arms, help brace me with extra legs. “If you made the whole body like that and piloted it from afar, you could freak people out. You’d look like one of the Terminators.”

“Maybe I’ll upgrade that rustbucket you wear instead. Gotta stay ahead of the curve with handheld flak cannons and those armor-piercing guns people are passing around more and more. Only a matter of time before lasers and Gauss weaponry are in the hands of everyday gangs.”

She cocked her head to the side, smiling again. Her visor was up enough to show off her mouth. Made her look more human, less intimidating. “I might take you up on that. Nothing this complicated.” She pointed all over at the shifting metal and robots that settled and made me look bulkier.

We had a pleasant enough trip, though I made it a little awkward when I told her, just as we stopped to pick up Painbringer, “As much as you do for me, I really want to pay you back somehow. Help you out instead of being such a fuck-up.”

“You’re not-” she started to lie, so I went ahead and dropped the Flyer’s ramp.

“Hello, Painbringer!” I called out. The woman sauntered in again in her whole fetish gear outfit. Is it bondage and domination? Is it sado-masochism? Is it BDSM?

The other villain stopped when she saw Medusa. “What are you doing here? Eminence, you’re working with a fed?”

“She’s not a cop. More a vigilante these days,” I said to Painbringer. “I trust her. Still want to come?”

Medusa stayed quiet, which is for the best, because Painbringer got onboard but stayed well away from her. The villain turned and smiled at me. “I’ll get there.”

I figured I better keep an eye on her.

Our target was located north of the McKees Rocks Bridge, who I guess was someone who really rocked, smack dab in the middle of the Ohio River. “Did he dump the trackers?” Painbringer asked.

Medusa was checking the computers next to me. “The Fort Pitt Blockhouse is missing, so he has been here.”

“Let’s just see something,” I told them both, taking us off to an empty space on an island nearby. I wired together a holodisc and the tracker chip and activated both, leaving a hologram of Gastrap standing there, sending a signal he was in the area. Then it was back aboard my invisible aircraft to wait.

Painbringer broke the expectant silence first. “Do you worry you’ll hit a plane when you’re invisible?”

“Yeah, but I think it’s better than letting them see the unknown, armed aircraft and panic. It’s safer for their peace of mind this way.

“Eminence knows what she’s doing.” Medusa emphasized Eminence, I think because she wanted to call me Gecko.

Luckily, the conversation was interrupted when the waters of the Ohio River split open. “Ladies, gentlemen, and all the wonderful people who are neither, I give you, for his one night return to showbiz… Moses!”

My announcement didn’t cut the tension as much as I’d hoped. It wasn’t a full-on “10 Commandments” split, either. More like circular hole big enough for me to catch a glimpse of more infrastructure down there before Caligari the Collector’s flying disc rose into the air.

“Stealth on,” I said, turning the Flyer invisible and moving us around.

The flying saucer responded by firing off gas rounds into the air all over, filling the air with blue, purple, green, yellow, and red clouds, all over the place. Really hate that so many people know how to counteract the form of invisibility I favor. The smoke clinged to the cameras and projectors, disrupting their ability to project. “We’re exposed. The fiend! Nobody exposes me but myself!” I opened up on him with the guns and the rockets. The spun around and went into a wild maneuver that threw it wildly to the side. Unless they’ve got some really good anti-gravity in there, Caligari had to be puking.

Some of the shots hit, though. And one of the rockets. The Flyer zoomed in on parts of the exterior pockmarked by bullets and bent and blasted from an explosion. While it did that, a bright light grew in size on the front of the disc. I took us into a dive just before a fired from the disc and toppled some Pittsburgh skyscraper.

I thought I had the measure of that ship, but the Flyer gave a proximity alarm as we were came up from the dive. The disc had opened up and a pair of spindly hydraulic arms had reached out to grab the engines on either side of the Flyer’s body. We were in a bad position as far as bringing any weapons to bear on it, but I could jump out. Unfortunately, Medusa’s not a pilot.

“Can you fly?” I asked Painbringer.

She shook her head, face pale. “No, but I can feel the pilot. Let me do something.” She took her riding crop and smacked herself hard on the boob. It looked like it hurt, but she didn’t react. Instead, the Flyer and ship both shook.

“What was that?” Medusa asked.

“I can transfer physical sensations, but it has to be in the moment. Can’t save anything up in the spank bank,” Painbringer said with a smile. No, not a smile. She was biting into her lip hard enough to draw blood. “Spank me,” she ordered my girlfriend. I projected a bucket of popcorn next to me.

“Oh god,” Medusa said, but she gave Painbringer a hell of a smack on the ass with her armored hand. Painbringer moaned and fluttered her eyelashes at the heroine, but it’s disc jumped suddenly and the Flyer slipped out. I spun us around suddenly and popped a pair of rockets into the retracted sections of the disc’s exterior where the arms came out. The explosions sent the smoking disc falling toward the bridge underneath us, arms bending and breaking off from the damage done to them.

I hopped out of the Flyer before it landed, piloting it to the bridge remotely. The disc wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t see anymore weapons charging up, so I went jumped onto the dome on top of it. My armor shifted to brace my legs and added a puncturing spike to my right fist, which began to glow as I charged that gauntlet. The last little addition to it was the twin jet engines shifting to behind my elbow. When I let loose, it smashed a hole through the dome and revealed a terrified Caligari sitting in a messed-up cockpit. He tried to stand, but suddenly flew to the side, a red handprint appearing on his face.

Caligari put up his hands. “I surrender! Just don’t kill me, and please stop doing whatever you’re doing that feels like a finger down there.”

I raised an eyebrow under my armor, but grabbed Caligari and made damn sure it was him instead of another illusion. Nope, real guy. “Not a clone?” Painbringer asked over comms. That stuck with me, too, but a quick check by nanites confirmed he was a really good one if he was.

And so once again, the day was saved. Though it was less of a heroic venture than us leaving Painbringer to guard Caligari while Medusa and I flew over to the hole in the river. And I can tell Painbringer had gotten over her dislike of Medusa based on the way my girlfriend grabbed onto the dashboard of the Flyer at one point and tried to hold in a moan, followed by a similarly flirty wave of pleasure sent to me from the other villain.

“I can tell her to stop if you want,” I said.

“No. I’ll talk to her.” She got up, closed her helmet up, and went back to give the other woman a piece of her mind. Or, ya know, whatever other bodyparts were involved. Painbringer had to know she was taking a bit of a risk with that. Medusa wants me to end the other villain because of some unwanted empathic touching, I’ll do it.

At least it all got worked out by the time we landed and walked out to find row after row of clear containers all designed to counteract the abilities of the living beings held within, whether they were refugee superhumans, black rhino, or even a machine intelligence. My daughter’s looked particularly stabproof, and it was awesome to see the way Qiang lit up when she saw me.

“Time to go home, everyone,” I announced cheerfully. I even turned to the robot and unleashed a squawk through my cybernetic voicebox that vocalized its language telling it the same thing. Hearing that, it stopped and stood upright.

“Rescue?” it asked.

“Rescue,” I confirmed.

It’d almost be heartwarming if you forget the dominatrix with the spank powers.

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Collector of Curiosities 3

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I didn’t see much of those kids after our little group hug. If I’m not turning them over, then this is going to be done the hard way. No more going in there half-assed. This time, I’m going three-quarters-assed at least.

At least I can still make jokes. If anyone could hear, it would probably put them at ease. I’ve stayed locked in my basement lair since the other day, working on my armor. It needed an initial patch of the areas where the robot managed to cut through. And while I thought how to prevent that from happening again, and about using the tail again, I had an idea. That idea left me ensconced in the lair for days, drastically redoing the tail project.

Rage is safe for me. The kind of anger that can see me through long nights working in a confined space on this kind of project also kept me from thinking about what Caligari might be doing. I didn’t want to ask the kids. It wouldn’t calm me anyway. There was a point when the door swung open and Medusa looked in at me, standing there in the middle of rotating rings of nanomachines with thin strings of the nanobots holding up shards and solid cylinders of metal. “Do you need help with a plan? I’m good at this. I’ve helped out on a lot of kidnappings in my time as a hero.”

“Thank you, Medusa. I have it handled.” Actually, that reminded me I needed to do some stuff on VillaiNet. I had a moment of decision paralysis about whether to do that or implement some ideas I just thought of, but I went ahead and had the nanites start building some small jet turbines. While that was going on, I headed to the Classifieds section of VillaiNet. “Need seven people for group project, not sex. Will pay, additional loot benefits, not sex.” The Classifieds automatically generated a disclaimer that “This advertisement is not for sex,” after I clicked the little box.

I got a lot of responses in a short amount of time, but I had to juggle reading through them while working on a few standard protocols for this entire mess so that I didn’t have to concentrate on controlling it the entire time in the field. Just like I didn’t want a team I had to closely monitor.

I had no intention of doing this the hero way. I wasn’t going to re-kidnap these kids and send them back to him, but I’m not going to take a damn month or something. I want him dead. I want his guards dead. I want to burn down his lair and piss on the ashes. Then, perhaps, get my daughter and myself a milkshake.

I had to shake myself awake at some point. I passed out reading the application for one of the guys. Not a supervillain himself, but a henchman who has been around the block or two, getting older, and feels he has the experience to apply for a more senior role. He says he’s got some kind of handheld flak cannon. With all the applications that were sex-related, I went ahead and threw him in so I could stop going through all of them.

It was short notice, but I figured I could round them all up. Up until I put the finishing touches on this new accessory for my armor and started to walk upstairs. Whew, that set of stairs. The lack of sleep hit me hard. I needed to sit down for just a bit. Lean on them. Blink. Blink. Bli-

I woke up hours later. My awkward sleeping situation kept me from a full-length sleep, but the one I had helped. My body wanted more, but I had to go. I needed to round up some of the crew. Others were going to meet me there, since they were local or near enough to get there in a hurry.

I pulled on my armor except for the helmet and commanded the nanomachines to affix my new tail to my body. I flexed the new limb, the additional nanomachine contacts and their reinforcing protocols helping me get the hang of it a bit faster. It looked solid on the outside, but some of the shards and armor plates shifted to the base to help reinforce it. Unlike the solid tail before that was just a tail with a flamethrower, this one isn’t solid, which doesn’t matter when it creates sharp edges. There are all sorts of parts in there that it can use to shift to help me with a variety of tasks, all without compromising the integrity of the rest of my armor.

I kept the helmet off so that when I went upstairs, I could stop by the refrigerator and help myself to one of Medusa’s energy drinks. Terrible things. Completely unhealthy for her. I downed one all at once, then grabbed another for the road.

I had to pick up the henchman guy on the way. He seemed impressed by the Flyer landing in his yard and me in my armor, letting out a soft, “Whoa.”

“Call me Eminence,” I said, still not wanting to go public with my real identity just yet. “What do I call you?”

He wore a combination face mask and goggles that looked pretty cool while also providing some face protection. He went with one of those urban camo pattern shirts underneath dark body armor and gloves, with the same pattern on the boots tucked into his boots. Was kind of a military or tactical getup he was going for. “Uh… Flak, I guess.”

“Flak? Ok. You ready?” I pointed inward with my thumb. He nodded and walked up the ramp. The thing on his back was all folded up, so I wasn’t sure how practical it was, but it’s his funeral if it isn’t. At least I know the guy can lift, so he can carry shit out of there.

The only other one to pick up on the way, I thought I made a mistake. We met her on the roof, but she was wearing a tight black leather outfit with spiked high-heeled boots. She twirled a riding crop around in her hands and lowered her ballgag as I facepalmed. “I said no sex.”

“It’s not about sex. It’s about my powers. Call me Painbringer.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Don’t forget to ask the asshole we’re robbing for his safeword.”

The others were around when I landed, waiting in the parking lot of a gas station whose attendant had to be freaking out. I kept the briefing brief. I passed around belts with holodiscs on them. “Put these on over your clothes. They’ll give you a disguise. I’m supposed to be making a deal with this guy. Kidnapped my kid in exchange for me bringing him some other kids.”

“What a piece of shit,” someone said. Similar agreements went up, so at least these folks weren’t likely to sell me out. Some villains are cool with human trafficking, but it’s a sore sport for a lot of people who knows what it usually means. And doing it to kids is even worse.

“He said he’d know when we’re there and bring her, so I think he’s close by. We secure my daughter. Or, if he tries something funny, we secure him. Either way, we get my kid, we get him to lead us to his base, and y’all get paid. Any questions?”

Flak raised a hand. “Will these alter our voice if we have to speak?”

“Nope,” I answered. “Next?”

“What if something goes wrong?” another costumed criminal asked.

“I’ll see you’re paid if something goes wrong. I honor my deals.” Which is technically correct, the best kind of correct.

“Didn’t you make a deal with this guy?” asked Painbringer.

“No. He kidnapped my daughter, then dictated a deal. Very different.”

Most of the rest of them nodded. There’s a big difference between a negotiation in good faith, and a “negotiation” made when someone’s holding a hostage over you. Some of them have been on the villain side of that.

Nobody else had any questions.

I brought the Flyer in back to the strip mall. The roof was closed again, but I blasted a hole in it. “Open up, it’s not the police!” I called out as the Flyer hovered lower into the place. I led out my crew, the holographic disguises showing them as the people I picked up originally. I goaded them out, no disguise for me except for my tail.

We were there five minutes when a section of the floor opened up. Caligari walked out, leading a handcuffed Qiang who sniffled and cried. Behind him, a dozen of his giant tardigrades followed. I called out to her in Riccan. “Did he hurt you?!”

No answer. I turned to look at my bunch. “That’s not her.”

What a surprise. Being double-crossed in this hostage exchange. But we had that basement down there to go through. Maybe there’d be a clue, or maybe she’s down there. One of my crew stood up and threw a shadowy circle through the air toward Caligari. The Collector’s hand shot up and glowing claws slid out of his arm to swipe through the shadow disc, which broke apart. The shards of it struck Caligari and revealed a familiar metal body underneath. Huh. Both of us are using illusions.

“I’ll handle the robot,” I told my crew as they all stood and started pulling off illusion belts. Flak rolled to the side and pulled the unfolding cannon off his back to take aim at what was now becoming a flood tardigrades.

And I charged for the robot, which dropped its own illusion. It had been rebuilt. New arms, a new head, and a patched chest with an armored chestplate. I shifted the armor from the new tail all over for increased protection as I stomped forward. The robot walked calmly for me, then jumped suddenly to wrap those claws around my neck. It squeezed, jamming the light into the armor but failing to penetrate. I laughed and stopped hiding it as the tail behind me formed up the end of it into a warhammer with jet turbines. It swung down and smashed into the head of the robot, which opened up into a set of three metal clamps. I’m not the only one who adapts.

I struck at the robot’s elbow to break its grip. It rotated on ball hinges and kept up the pressure. Up top, my mail shifted and slid out of its vice-like grip. The pieces from the tail moved up along my body and formed a second pair of arms ending in spikes. Jet-powered sings smashed them into the side of the robot’s armor plate where it met the chest and dug in, pulling it out. The Adaptbot popped claws from its other arm and rotated the wrist until it became a whirling blur. It cut through one of my arms, disconnecting it but doing little real damage. The nanites on his chest flowed back to the main limb, which split into a pair of thin, whip-like tentacles. They wrapped around that arm. The bigger spike-arm shifted so that it wrapped the other arm’s bicep in the middle of it. So while it dug into the chest plate, all three of my mechanical arms pulled its arms away from me.

Adaptbot bent forward to headbutt me. Correction, headgrab me with its headclaw. But I still had regular arms of my own. I grabbed those claws to keep them away, leaving us one big, twisted mass of metal and machinery. And then I ended the stalemate by giving it my left arm to clamp down on. My right arm popped out a Nasty Surprise, a powerful mini-chainsaw. Now that ate through its arms. The Adaptbot tried to fly off with my arm, but all the others I had with me were enough to yank it back down to the ground. I stomped on it, all the various arms pinning it down. The three artificial ones dug into that chest plate again and tugged it off, then smashed it down against the base of the headclaw. My Nasty Surprise chewed into that as well, but it was on there pretty well. I solved the issue the issue with a rubber chicken grenade from my belt. Twisted the head off, jammed it into the chest cavity, and hopped over so all my body was with my arm above its torso.

I got free when the bot’s body blew apart from the inside. Well, I got “free”. The clamp was still around my left arm, but there wasn’t any additional pressure being added. I looked around and saw the rest of the group had done a decent job tearing through the tardigrades. A couple of the other villains were patting Flak on the shoulders. The henchman-turned-villain stood near a pile of shells and in front of a shitload of tardigrade corpses.

“Well, let’s get ourselves downstairs,” I said.

The place was packed with a lot of his exhibits, but none of the living ones. It’s easier to shove weapons and other valuables into a crowded space, but the black rhino wasn’t around, or the robot, or my daughter. I noted that the old set of my armor had been partially dismantled, so that explains the illusions. And I got the clamp off when I punched through a cement column with that hand.

At least the villains got paid. I had to drop off Painbringer, but Flak opted to stay in town and accept invitations for a drink from some of the others. Good for him. Not so good for me. Even worse, it seemed, when Medusa called me up on my way back.

“He took the house!”

“What the fuck?” I asked, ramping up the speed on the Psycho Flyer.

“Caligari tracked them somehow. I was at the base. The Sheriff says he flew in with this gigantic flying saucer and used a light to shrink the house and pull it up. He got everything but your basement and your greenhouse.”

“So he got all the refugees anyway,” I mumbled.

“He didn’t get one of the boys. He was out shopping.”

I started to laugh. Couldn’t help myself. Some of it was anger; I enjoyed the irony of us raiding each others’ bases at once, as well. But part of me loved the colossal screw-up by Caligari. “Bring the boy to my lab. If he can track them, then we can track them. And he now has a bunch of people with trackers in them. I’m going to collect on his ass. With interest.”

“You are so delicious right now,” Painbringer said. “I want to come.”

“I don’t need you for any further work,” I told her.

“Not what I meant,” she said.

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Collector of Curiosities 2

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For whatever reason, Medusa insists we don’t have enough housing for this batch of transdimensional refugees. I suspect she’d fucking with me. Qiang’s regretting her enthusiasm for bringing them all along by now, too. At first she liked having other girls to hang out with, then the bathroom situation reared its ugly head. I managed to hide my private lair bathroom from them for a couple days, but then they started hogging that one, too. There was one time in the middle of the night, I had to head outside and use the greenhouse instead. Plus, the teens have hormones flying everywhere and I’m hot. Awkward things happen. Awkward boners happen.

With my patience about used up, but the whole crew having had a decent shower, crap, sleep, and dinner, I gathered them around to get them to draw me a map of the Collector’s place. They were having fun with it, remembering all the defenses. That ended when Medusa walked in. She’s not their Medusa, but she took the name and she looks the same as theirs. From personal experience, I know mine kicks way more ass. But it’s kind of amusing to watch their wariness around her. “Hey, I got pizzas!”

I made sure I got one of the first slices and bit into it before anyone else could. They looked worried at first when I acted like I was choking and fell down. Then I stood back up to choke some more and draw it out, and they figured out I was playing. “Seriously, calm down. She’s one of the good guys. She’s the best guy.”

“She looks like a woman,” said one of the teens.

“She’s that, too. But, seriously, she’s one of the paragons of superheroism on this Earth. Aside from the fact that she likes me. Maybe she got some brain damage in a fight.”

She walked over and gave me a playful elbow check. “She tells the best lies about me. Everyone ready to eat?”

I nodded. “I’m ready. Y’all good for a break?”

Food is a special. Builds trust. That’s what they mean about bringing people together. And it seemed to help out. And afterward, I was able to get enough private time away from her to let her know the kids were driving Qiang and I nuts.

She laughed. “I told them I could place them, but they said they wanted to stay with you. They don’t trust me because of the other Medusa. Just like that robot at Caligari’s will trust you more than anybody else on this planet. And I trust you, because you’re trying to save it and them. But you’re still that nasty badass bitch, and that scratches some itches for me, too.”

I growled. “Really wish the house wasn’t full of kids right now.”

“We’ll get them placed and make up for it. You might want to rethink getting pregnant if you dislike kids so much. You can see if the Collector has anything that can help with that.” She smiled at me.

I booped her on the nose. “I know what you’re trying to do, talking about kids and getting preggers to make me less horny. Joke’s on you, thinking about being your baby momma is a turn-on for me.”

Which was a weird thing to figure out on the fly.

Armed as best as I could with the knowledge from the refugees, it was time to go on the offensive. And since I was in a lighthearted mood, I even threw on some music to listen to. Something to get me pumped. Jazzed. That sort of thing. Science and rationality are one thing, but it’s also rational to understand the effects of emotions and use them to your advantage. Like when I played the song “Legal Assassin” while throwing on my armor even though only the last minute and thirteen seconds of it fits me.

Curious children, some teens hoping for a peek and some kids wondering what the music was, got to at least see me throw the power armor on. It was fun and theatrical. At the end of it, this one teen girl in the group was like “Whoa.”

Back to Philadelphia for me, ready, willing, and expecting to resort to violence. We hadn’t been that far from his, which was dug out from inside of a complex of stores. All the stores being shut down made it easier to stay hidden there.

According to the kids, the last line of defenses they had to deal with was the store they emerged from being locked up tight with stronger glass on the door and windows, and a door with an digital lock that could keep people in. I circled around slowly in the Flyer, stealth mode up. I found that one because Caligari the Collector isn’t Caligari the Window Installer. It looked like chunks of the glass had been gauged out. There were claw marks that tore a hole big enough to let someone out. I decided to stay in stealth so I could hover there and do a little recon. I popped a drone out and sent it in closer. If I was him and couldn’t get this closed up, it’d be the place to concentrate my defenses.

I went ahead and popped a few cameras with the drone. No response. Damn drone didn’t have all the fancy visual modes I’d have preferred, so it was a team effort. The Flyer could shift over to let me see things outside the usual visual spectrum, but holy shit that was tough in the daylight. And unless I wanted to shove the nose of my aircraft right up against the shop, there wasn’t a way for it to filter out all the solar bukakke. That’s on me for not going at night. At least the drone gave me a visual on the inside of the store. Cleaned out, empty even. No pressure pads waiting for me, no tripwires, no paint cans attached to strings, no bear traps hidden under toilet seats. That last one is very important, because your minions will learn not to use that toilet, leaving them the cleanest ones in there, and the toilet most likely to be used by an intruder who really needs to get something out in a hurry.

So I bit the bullet and hopped out, staying in stealth mode with my armor. I brought some more drones with me, but moved the little whirling, helicopter rotor thingies up out of sight. Nope, no lasers. No need to deploy my foolproof disguise as a kitty cat. You can fuck a lot of things up if people think you’re a cat.

Let’s see… next would be the gas trap down the stairs. The guy who belches green gas inhaled it long enough for the one of them who is stronger to lift it up. It was sitting on the ground. Looked like the lifting mechanism was broken. I squeezed past even though it blocked much of the passage and directed the drones in to follow me because the materials were making it tougher to maintain a remote connection. I put the Flyer into a hover mode. That had been triggered by a pressure plate. Around the corner was the corridor full of bees and burn marks from how they killed the bees. It’s a classic trap, but not efficient. Still, no evidence anything was being replaced.

The way in and out from here was more labyrinth than maze. Uh, just something I’ve read, where labyrinth’s were depicted, counter to the old Greek myth, as having only one path. It was long and winding, but impossible to get lost. People build them like that as a form of meditation. These hallways were an underground path you couldn’t get lost in, but it’s a dangerous journey. With all the storefrongs, I doubt there’s just one exit or entrance, which completely throws the comparison to a labyrinth or maze out the door.

And instead of a minotaur, I found a bunch of cages and glass containers with nothing in them. The lights were all off, too. Except for a blinking red one on top of a robot. Not an automaton, I think. The fresh arm on this thing looked familiar. This was Caligari’s guard bot, left behind for some reason. A parting “fuck you” to any cops or supers who showed up. It sensed the drones and let out a blaring siren sound. Good disorientation measure, I have to say. It raised both arms, including the one I made for it. A pair of grenades popped out, glowing purple and heading right for the space in the middle of the drones. Which happened to be occupied by me at that point.

I jumped and scattered the drones, who set to work firing on the robot. One went for the head, another for its original arm, and the other two tried to cut its legs out from underneath it. Nothing got through. A spiderweb of glowing light filled the air that none of the bullets penetrated. Not fair. There were gaps in between that 80s neon spiderweb.

A rocket shot out and destroyed one of the drones. Another caught a laser, so at least we know this robot has variety. I headed for it around the time it lunged for another drone. Metal claws with the same neon glow as its shield erupted from its original arm and went right through the cheap metal and plastic of the drone. I snapped its head off with one good punch, an energy sheathe building up around my other hand. That one I slammed through the robot’s chest. Both arms reversed, with the claw swiping for my head. The claw itself embedded in my helmet and got stuck there while I was using my knowledge of its newer arm to pop that one off. It was close enough for me to feel heat and wetness. I swung the new arm at the old one. The same time I did this, the old one retracted its claw into the arm so it could pull back, pop it out, and go for my chest. My swing deflected it. I dropped that arm and wrenched the older one off.

The robot brought its legs together and shot into the air on a plume of fire. The drones took some potshots but didn’t hit anything important enough to stop it. The ceiling above it retracted, giving my eyes a lot more solar bukkake to adjust to while the robot made its escape and leaving me in the abandoned den of Caligari the Collector. Error messages and danger messages from the Flyer rushed me. I hopped up to the opening and saw the Flyer visible and listing, with the rear ramp down. I heard feedback as speakers below me turned on and Caligari’s voice issued forth. “Wonderful performance, my cloaked friend. I would love to study your armor, but the capabilities displayed in your fight will need be enough. You will have to try harder to steal that robot you were interested in. Yes, using the quick-release mechanism built into the arm gave you away, builder.”

I heard Qiang’s cry over the speakers too. “Momma!”

“I used to have children of my own,” Caligari said. “I’d like them back. Your child for my exhibits. You handled my robot far better than they did, so it should be easy enough for you.”

I called up Medusa real quick, trying to make sense of this. I heard worry in her voice as she picked up and said, “Gecko?”

“I’m fine, but did he attack there? He says he has Qiang.”

“No. I tried calling. We just noticed she’s not here. I think she snuck aboard the Flyer.”

I directed it closer while keeping an ear out for Caligari’s gloating attempt at a deal. “…back to the space I had to leave because of their escape and I will know. My sensors show me everything that happens in there. Then, your daughter will be returned unharmed, and I’ll even consider selling you the robot you expressed a desire for. There’s no reason we can’t handle this like adults.”

“What happened? Are you ok?” Medusa asked. “How did he get Qiang?”

I hopped onboard the Flyer when it got close enough and saw some evidence of how that happened. There was blood around in there, and a dead giant tardigrade that had lots of stab wounds all over its body. “Looks like Qiang invited herself along and hid in the Flyer. I didn’t notice. Stabbed the shit out of this guy’s pet, but maybe he had another, or another robot. He wasn’t at the base. It’s abandoned, but he wants me to bring the refugees we rescued back there to get Qiang.”

“Gecko…” she started to say. I could hear agony in her voice. I know she loves Qiang, too. And she knows what I’d do to get my girl back. Caligari’s going to know what I’d do, too.

Amazingly, the refugees weren’t hiding when I got back. It took a bit to get there with one of the engines damaged, but Medusa was waiting out front for me, running up to hug me. Even in the middle of the kidnapping, she still fussed over little things like the bloody head wound I’d received through my armor. She’s gotten so good at knowing what I’m thinking that she even commented on the kids all gathered around at my front door before I could say anything. “They want to help you after what you did for them.”

I wasn’t in a mood for heart to hearts and Hallmark movies. I was pretty seriously considering giving Caligari the kids, then double-crossing the Collector and tearing his heart out. Then came the group hug from that whole bunch. Terrible fucking night for rain.

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Collector of Curiosities 1

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At least where I am, people are being responsible and staying shut down. Gives me free time to work on armor and oversee my daughter’s education. Undermines the business I myself was trying to get off the ground there. It’s not a huge loss to have the store closed.

I even got some work in online, with an advertisement I put in VillaiNet coming back. Just something where I said I could provide high-quality cybernetic limb replacements as long as people provided a few measurements and any custom particulars they needed. This one was a simple handjob. Armjob, too. Everything below the shoulder. The client gave me the length and width he needed to match it up with the opposite side of his body. He also requested ball joints for the elbow and wrist to give it a more full range of motion than what humans have, as well as some empty modular spaces inside the shell of the arm that could accommodate storage or installation of other gadgetry in the future. That meant the shell had to open, but that wasn’t so tricky.

So, with everything all shut down and nothing riskier than selling an arm for less than an arm and a leg, I brought Qiang along with me. Give her a chance to see outside the city while she was at it. I was itching to change up how I looked, but why should I have the fun. “Would you change what you look like if you could?” I asked.

She nodded while eating her bowl of cereal. After she swallowed her mouthful, she told me, “Some of the kids think I can make them sick because I look different.”

Whoo. Shift happens. “There’s nothing wrong with your heritage and how you look. They’re being ignorant and mean, and so is anyone who tells them that. I just wondered if you wanted to look different for fun. To see what it’s like.”

One dip in the nanites later, and I had changed myself up, and so had she. Her hair now looked wavy curly like my own natural hair turned out to be, but it was also bright blue. She was the same otherwise, so I guess that turned out to be a good start without reinforcing any harmful messages. Speaking of messages, I had some I wanted to send to the parents of Radium if I had a way to contact them all. Qiang advised me to leave out most of the bad words, but she laughed at some of the descriptions of what I’d do to people, so I think I’m in the clear.

Which is good, because when it turned out I’d started to suggest she change her appearance after people teased her about how she looks, I was about to shit a brick. I’ve jumped in front of a rocket for that girl. I’d depopulate an entire country to get back to her. And if something actually happened to her… well, it’d make the old me look like a puppydog. So, yeah, no way in hell do I ever want to contribute to going after her like that. I’m just glad she had enough experience with me changing up how I look all the time to understand.

I had trouble in this area, too. Thought of going ginger because I have a certain fondness for that look. Then I considered pale skin, straight black hair, and high cheekbones; a real Morticia Addams look. Then I was like “How about shaved head, mohawk matching my daughter’s hair, with a couple tufts of hair coming down on either side of my face.” Sounded pretty good as well.

I opted for the Morticia Addams look, including a black dress that showed some boob. Fabricated a gothy sort of veil that would look like I’m staying safe from the virus in public, even though my tiny machines already have it beat. After the plastic surgery, I was swarming with the things.

So my daughter and my Gothy self took off in my private Flyer to make a special delivery to a suburb of Philly or something. Suburbs like that provide a good middleground between being able to hide in rural areas but have no shot at real money or power, or being crowded into a big city where all the important stuff happens and people can find you more easily. This place had a little bar we could sit outside and eat, with me keeping the arm in a purse. So Qiang and I had a meal while the client spied on us and cautiously approached. I assume he did the spying, I mean. Since we were close to Philadelphia, I did the tourist thing and ordered a cheesesteak sandwich. It was greasy.

Anyway, the bench my daughter and I sat on was soon approached by a fellow with some truly amazing sideburns, wearing one of the medical masks. “Pardon me, but you look as though you need a hand.” That was the sign.

I gave the countersign. “I already have an extra one,” I said, pointing to my bag. My daughter’s alarmed gasp instantly got the adrenaline flowing. I whipped around to see she was fine, but looking across the street at something hiding behind a mailbox. It looked like a dog-sized tardigrade.

The client held up a hand in a calming gesture toward the tardigrade. “I must apologize. I brought that for my safety. I recently had an incident with security.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Someone broke into the ol’ lab, eh?”

He smiled through his mask. “I am a collector of rare and exotic finds. Someone decided to take a part of my collection and damaged by guard robot. This will fix it up nicely. You should see some of the astounding things I have in my possession.”

Someone taking up a hobby like that is bound to want to show it off, and I was trying to be polite while working this side hustle, so I let him show me. Besides, Qiang found some of it fun. There were rare animals like container of jackalopes(“It started as two, but you know rabbits”) and a black rhino. Unusual weapons and armor, including one of mine from way back. He didn’t know it was me, I should point out. But at one point, going into another section of live exhibits, there was a robot that definitely didn’t follow human design conventions. It was roughly diamond shaped, with two sets of three soft robotics-style tentacles it used to try and get a purchase on its container. The reason it stood out to me is I understood its cries for help.

“Huh,” I said, leaning in closer.

“That’s not the robot I’m repairing. That is some spacebot. It’s completely hostile and has gibberish code.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “I wonder if I could fix it.”

“That would be dangerous,” he warned.

I shrugged. “I think I can fix it. Seems more dangerous to leave it like that. I could put a deposit down. Pay you to take it into my custody and fix it, then you give the money back, plus extra for repairs, upon return.”

I really did have it in my head to fix the thing up if it needed it, but I intended to set it free. It’s part of a civilization of free and freed automatons I encountered in space once. I deciphered the language and connected with them, even helped save one of their leaders and stop the attack of the space station this all took place on. They seem like ok beings, just misunderstood by fleshy sapients without my unique perspective.

“I see what you’re after,” the client said. “You want to buy it!”

Not exactly, but that’d work too. “You got me. I have a fascination with autonomous robots.”

He pondered it, stroking his chin. “I’m not sure. It feels as though I’ve lost so much already. Rain check? I will reconsider your offer when I reobtain the stolen portions of my collection. You won’t be waiting long.”

I shrugged and held a hand out as if I was shaking an invisible hand. “Ok. You have my contact info.”

Qiang had gotten a bit bored in all this, so was dancing. I danced with her a bit before going off to find somewhere we could wash our hands and then making our way back to where I’d hidden my Flyer. Though it wasn’t as hidden as I’d have liked. Sensors in the VTOL informed me of trespassers while we were washing our hands. I decided to handle this personally instead of putting on an aerial show that dumped out all the people I saw in the cameras. More kids is not what I need, and this bunch consisted of a couple children a little older-looking than Qiang, four teens, and a grown man.

The fact they found my vessel was enough to raise suspicion, but one of the teenagers burped up a cloud of green mist at one point. While smelling bad is a particular expertise of teenagers, it usually isn’t visible, so I figured I had some supers on my hands. Maybe some local group of teenagers with attitude or some such.

“Honeybunny, do you have your knife with you?” I asked as we got closer. Qiang pulled a blade seemingly out of nowhere. “Good. I need you to stay out of sight. Someone helped themselves onto our ship and I need to find out who they are.”

“Aww, can’t I help?” she asked.

“You’re a big help to me already, but I don’t want you getting hurt. This is one of those times when you need to do what I say without trying to weasel your way out with your cuteness,” I said, cutting her off just after she tried a pretend sniffle. She stomped her foot against the ground all cute and angry, then stopped walking.

“Ok,” she said. She looked around and spotted a ladder on the side of the building. She started climbing it up to the roof.

I smiled and began walking toward the parking lot around the corner. Sure, I’d doubleparked, but the VTOL appeared to be a pair of minivans, so nothing looked out of the ordinary. I walked softly through the illusion and up the ramp into the back of the aircraft. No one was standing guard, so they didn’t see me right away.

“It’s not airforce,” said the man with them, looking in on the cockpit. “So-so first attempt, but this wasn’t designed by a professional.” He turned and saw me. His reaction to me prompted the others of his group to notice and turn around, getting into stances as if ready to fight.

I leaned against the side of the ship, nonthreatening but ready to command nanobots to form molecule-thick blades for slicing and dicing. “I like it because it’s mine,” I told them.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the youngsters all ready to fight. “We need to borrow it. The cops are all over the roads.”

“They’re looking for you?” I asked. “Why?”

“Some sick freak caught us and kept us in his private zoo!” said the boy who’d burped up a mist earlier.

Another guy in the group stepped forward. His stance was wary, but he stopped holding his hands up like he would punch me. “Please. We’re not from here. We came through the portal because we thought nowhere could be as bad as our Earth, not even the one we’re calling Bad Earth.”

I cocked my head to the side. “I’m guessing you’re not meaning the portal from the Earth with homo machina, so are you talking about the one where Master Academy were the bad guys?”

The boy nodded. One of the little kids, a girl, chimed in, “And all our good guys are bad guys here!”

“So you came through the portal and you somehow got captured,” I said.

A lot of the crowd was relaxing as I heard them out. The adult in the room came forward as well. “He called himself Caligari the Collector. Some of the children and I were part of his collection until last week. The police are looking for us now, so we don’t trust them.”

My expression went from stoic to flat and annoyed when my daughter called out from behind me. “We can get you out!” I love her, but she needs to learn to listen to me.

There was a time I’d have seen this as a great opportunity to doublecross these transdimensional refugees and save that robot. And plenty of people who call themselves heroes would just save the people and leave the bot. “Fine. I know a place where you’ll be safe and someone who can help you get settled in, but I need y’all to help me out in turn. I need to know how to get into Caligari’s place so I can break out this.” My artificial eyes flashed them a hologram of me watching the footage of the robot.

The adult came forward and reached his hand out. “Deal,” he said. We shook on it.

And the other little kid, a boy, nudged the girl and said, “Told you this was Bad Earth. She wants to save the mean killer robot.”

I admit, I took a tiny bit of pleasure in watching them squirm when I told Qiang to go to the cockpit and call up Medusa. Back when she was a more clear-cut heroine, Venus got the idea to take the name Medusa from her evil counterpart on the Earth this bunch are from. Now, Medusa’s the one saving their lives.

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Near And Deer

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With crime way down on account of the pandemic, I figured I wouldn’t have as much to worry about from Reindeer. My weredeer alter ego was due to come out on the 7th, but most of the country nearby remains closed. That means fewer murders and robberies. Sure, the Exemplars and Cape Diem are doing their best to use nanites to clear the virus up, but a lot of people have it in their head that some sort of Illuminati group is going to stick microchips in them using a vaccine, to control their mind. I guess it makes more sense in a world where I have held the world hostage using nanomachines that let me control people’s bodies. The whole incident really set the world back as far as benefiting from nanotechnology.

And in this case, it means the world’s experiencing a slowdown in crime. Hard to burgle a house when the victims are present. And the only thing you have to do to scare off a mugger is cough menacingly in their direction. I figured Reindeer might frolic around the house or whatever deer do. Maybe go on a boring patrol where nothing happens. That didn’t stop the teasing from Medusa from annoying me. “Ready for your monthly visitor?” she asked while I laid out the Reindeer costume. I just grumbled to myself as I checked the batteries that powered the sonic wristbands and the sound-based jump-assisting bands on the legs of the red, green, and chrome costume.

I wish she realized how insecure I am about Reindeer. It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but what if the world preferred Hyde? Would they have worked against Jekyll to find a way to put the doctor asleep permanently in favor of Hyde? Now there’s a theme for my life, wondering how much I have to die to become the better person people want. No wonder I preferred suicide-by-superhero as a concept.

I don’t know how much Reindeer shares my thoughts. But at least she still wears the cameras. I positioned one to get a view of my body when the full moon shone bright. The change looked painful, with bones warping and snapping. Fur spouted in clumps and filled in between that. My face wrenched forward and at one point my mouth opened to show my teeth pulling up into my skull and new teeth coming down make me a proper herbivore. I’m glad my mind doesn’t seem to be present for it.

Where I collapsed, the superhero known as Reindeer stood up and changed into her costume. She even played nice for me and put on her cameras I’d set there so I could keep track of her and what she did. I quickly found out some idea how much of my knowledge she shares when she went straight to where I hid my Psycho Flyer. She took it up in the air and set off for Detroit, spending a good deal of the flight programming in coloring on the camo skin of the Flyer so it looked all bright and cheerful.

She stopped at one point when it became clear that even though the zombies were gone, the braindead still roamed the Earth. A number of trucks had blocked off some key roads, trapping an ambulance. Big trucks, with bumper sticks that involved fishing or a comic book character peeing on things. They were led by a bright orange car with a swastika painted on the top of its hood. I guess that’d be the General Rommel. They had signs, and slogans written on their windows, talking about doctors are now all Hitler. One had that written on a sign.

But they weren’t moving for this ambulance, and there were some people in medical scrubs along the sidewalk yelling at them. From the signs those folks had, I think they were counter protesters. Well, when one of them decided to walk out in the crosswalk in front of the unmoving vehicles that were still refusing to let an ambulance through, that’s when the General Rommel drove forward a short distance. It bumped the person just a little bit. But the counter-protester smacked their hands down on the hood, so the orange car started coming forward, slowly, pushing the counter-protester.

Reindeer was out of trapdoor in a flash. She landed on the hood, denting it and causing the airbags to deploy. She punched her way through the windshield to reach in and shut off the car, then tossed the keys away. The driver stumbled out. “That was my mom’s car, you subhuman bitch!” So that’s when she tossed the driver away. And pushed the car up onto its side so it leaned on one of the others holding up traffic. She went down the line like that, clearing a path. Some of the protesters realized what was happening, then realized they couldn’t get out of the way because some assholes around them had clogged up the streets with traffic. Whoops.

So the ambulance got out of there and no one of consequence was harmed. Guess I can’t give Reindeer too much shit. Some heroes might have tried to claim some nonsense about free speech and so on. And when a bunch of the drivers crowded around Reindeer. “You can’t do this!” said the one who was driving the orange car. “We have freedom of speech! You can’t attack us like this!”

Reindeer pointed to the counter-protester that guy hit with his car. “Yeah?”

“That’s different, that terrorist attacked my car!” I found Reindeer and I had more in common when she punched the asshole for saying that. Instead of killing him like I would have, she zip-tied him and dropped him off, roughly, in front of the nearest police station with a USB containing a copy of the footage showing what he’d done.

I looked into that after I watched it. They released the guy. No arrests.

With that in mind, I was ready for the next disappointing bit of do-gooding that solves nothing permanent and saw that Reindeer’s patrol was mostly quiet. Things calmed down for awhile until just after midnight, when she heard a report of a disturbance along the police bands. Since it was a boring night and she didn’t realize the futility of aiding a status quo that appears neutral but is secretly built to favor white supremacy, she stopped by. Just to see if they needed a hand.

Turned out they weren’t doing anything. Just standing around, watching as burly guys grabbed everything they could out of a building. A different man ran out and tried to grab a vase out of their hands, but a couple of them helped push him off, knocking him down and dropping the vase. A family joined the man, helping him up and pulling him into a sad, crying hug. The son ran over to glare at the cops and point to the men cleaning out their home, but the cops just shrugged. One raised a thumb to another man overseeing the big guy.

Reindeer landed next to the cops and asked in an icy voice, “What’s going on?”

The cops turned to her. “It’s an eviction. We’re not allowed to assist, but it’s within the owner’s legal right.”

“That’s right!” said the overseer. He walked up to Reindeer with a piece of paper in hand. Reindeer’s much better at reading in low-light conditions than most people, so she could make out the wording of the eviction. She grabbed it from him and tore it up.

Then she headed for the building. One of the movers tossed a set of wooden shelves out the door that broke apart on the walkway in front of her. She stepped over it and pointed to him. “Put everything back.”

“Don’t listen to her!” called the landlord over Reindeer’s shoulder. My cameras showed him turning to the cops. “She can’t do this.”

“This is just a job for me lady,” the mover said. “I’m not hurting anybody.”

By the cops, the family they were throwing out on the streets during a pandemic continued to huddle together tearfully.

She heard or maybe even smelled another guy approaching who tried to wrap his arms around her. She stomped on his foot hard enough to crack a couple bones, then kicked him in the gut to send him sprawling. Another mover rushed out of the house with another vase, swinging the decoration at Reindeer’s head. She grabbed it from him and kneed him in the groin, then did a cartwheel that saw her set the vase on the ground, kick that guy in the face, and land on her feet behind the vase and away from the person who now clutched at their bleeding nose from the ground. The one she’d been talking to had grabbed a crowbar and came at her. She dove over the vase with a dropkick that knocked the wind out of him and put him on the ground sucking desperately for air.

Even I could hear the cops talking with the landlord. “I guess we should arrest her, that’s battery…” they didn’t sound eager, probably taking into account the three guys she just beat up.

“Gentlemen, if I may,” said a new voice, from someone who stepped out of the shadows.

This guy wore a teal outfit, broken up by yellow-outlined crenelations, like a castle. That is, they looked like the top of a chess Rook, with yellow lines on the outside, and blue coloring it in. That showed up on his thighs, biceps, and chest, except the one on his chest also had a yellow roaring lion head design there. Same one he had on this pointed kite shield he had, over a foursome of teal and blue squares. He wore a domino mask and had long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, so I had a lot to work with when I started up a possible search of his identity upon seeing all this.

“That animal is disturbing a lawful and, until she arrived, peaceful eviction.”

“This ‘animal’ is the one trying to stop you throwing a family out on the streets now, of all times,” Reindeer said.

The new person approached, raising his hands to the sky. “We don’t have to fight here. You’re a hero. I’m a hero, too. But this man has a legal right to the use of his property.”

“Unless you’re going to fight me for the right to throw them out, shut up,” Reindeer said.

He put up his dukes. “I don’t want to.”

I wish Reindeer had a phone to snap a photo of him with the crying family. I’d have left the flash on so I could suckerpunch him while blinded. Instead, she walked past him, giving him the finger. He looked disappointed at first. “Get out of here unless you’re going to throw the first punch or fuck with their stuff.”

She walked over the family. “Come on, let’s get your stuff back in. What wasn’t destroyed.”

“Beat her up!” the landlord said, running up to the would-be hero. He shook the landlord off. And when the family passed by, giving him a look, he slunk off back to wherever he came from. At least the gathering neighbors let him pass with a little bit of derision. When the landlord saw the crowd, he skedaddled out of there without looking after his movers. At least the ambulance who arrived looked after them and got them out of there past the jeers of the neighbors.

After getting the family and their surviving stuff inside, Reindeer addressed the crowd. “I can’t be here all the time, but the power is yours. You can be there for each other, if you show up. If you take that power. United.”

I guess she didn’t have a proper ending for the little speech, so she jumped up into the waiting Flyer. At least that story got a good ending. The landlord hasn’t been back. Apparently, he’s having trouble hiring reliable help to go in and evict people.

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Outlaw X Presents Gesundheist 2

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Oh, have mercy! It’s time to rejoin our friend Nick in that story we’re calling Gesundheist. We here at Outlaw X have heard listener feedback on the name and I want to start off by saying a lot of it isn’t anatomically possible for most of us. You guys with the stretchy bodies are an exception, but you should have other things to do than listen to us all the time. Like porn.

I didn’t finish all of the story last time, so there’s a part two. Simple. But let’s give a recap. You got Nicholas, Nick, the man who can sense and compel sneezes. I wish we had another word for that, but it has almost no synonyms. So Nick got into debt and tried to solve that issue by using his powers to win at some fine underground gambling establishments owned by the Butterfly crime family. The luckiest thing to happen to Nick had to be the local boss deciding he’d let Nick work off the debt by helping with a theft.

Our last installment saw Nick complete his part of the task by creating panic at the police precinct. A dirty detective tried to talk him out of staying involved, but when he got a text asking him to help further for a big payday, Nick took the bait.

***

Nick rushed to get to a store and buy a change of clothes quickly on his way to meet up with the Butterfly guys. After he agreed to join them for the second part of the heist, they sent him a time and a place, too soon for him to arrange a sting if he wanted. Too soon for him to run back and grab a change of clothes from home.

He arrived at the address his contact texted him with minutes to spare. Nick looked up at the catering company’s sign, “Knife Guys Catering: We Don’t Finish Last” and thought it had to be a known front with a name like that. The door of the catering company opened at the same time as Nick’s, and he stood up to see an older man with thinning, greying hair step out, wearing a bright, flowery mask to match his Hawaiian shirt. “Park around the back. We got a lot for employees back there.”

After making his way back around to the suggested lot and parking, he walked in with his bagged-up alternate outfit. “Sanitize!” someone yelled at him as soon as he opened the door. It was a younger, chunkier guy, pointing to the side of Nick. He looked and found a gallon jug of hand sanitizer sitting on a table next to the door. He gave it a few pumps and wiped down his hands thoroughly.

The other guys in the backroom of the catering company were all wearing masks, and disapproving looks, except for one sitting down with a pair of headphones on. “Stand way back.”

Outlaw X would like to remind everyone to practice proper social distancing and other precautions during this pandemic. What does it benefit a villain if they take over the entire world, but get sick and die? Nothin’ but a tombstone.

The older thief went over to a stack of boxes by the wall. Some were marked: Birthday Party, Christmas, Thanksgiving. He grabbed something out of the top box, Halloween, and tossed it to Nick. Nick caught the mask by its long ear and looked down into an ugly green face with a fanged grin. “What’s this?”

“It’s a mask, since you aren’t wearing one,” said the guy who had thrown it to him. “Goblin, I think, from the Halloween jobs. It doesn’t matter. Put it on. We have a delicate timetable. Hurry up and wait.”

Nick got the mask on and just stood there awkwardly for a minute. “What about guns? Do I get one?”

“You know how to use a gun?” asked the fatter guy.

“No, but-” Nick started.

The older guy pointed to a metal folding chair against the wall. “Then you don’t get a gun. You’re here for your powers and carry things. Take a seat.”

“Um…” Nick was going to ask what they were waiting on and why he had to be there in a hurry to do so.

The older guy sighed dramatically, to let the entire world know how annoying he found these questions. “We’re listening out. They’re clearing the precinct. If there’s a chance they’ll clean it tonight, we have to be ready to go. If not, we can wait a little, until there aren’t so many people around.” When he saw Nick open his mouth again, he added, “And you’re not leaving here except to go with us on the job.”

Nick closed his mouth, wondering if this was going to be as boring as he thought it would be.

It was. But I’m not trying to be so boring, so we’ll skip that part to the point late at night when they ushered Nick out of the rear door and toward a catering van sitting in the employee lot. They all piled into the back of a catering van together, now with nothing to protect themselves but masks. “I just got here,” Nick said.

“And now we’re leaving,” said the older guy. The heavy-set guy hopped in behind the wheel. The older guy helped himself into the passenger seat.

Plaid shirt, whose face mask had a fireball on it, pulled the radio out of one of the bags he brought with him. He went back to listening. Nick was about to ask what it was about, but stopped himself. They weren’t being forthcoming with whatever they had in mind. Meanwhile, the driver took them out of there.

The older fellow snorted. “Any change?”

Plaid guy shook his head. “Still staying away. Maintenance won’t be in until tomorrow morning.”

Nick didn’t recognize any of these guys from his brief meeting with the Butterfly gang before. None of them were the boss he’d been texting, but he understood the need for secrecy and dots not being connected. It’s doubtful the FBI would make many raids in the middle of the pandemic, but it would end at some point. If he’s confused, Johnny Law is, too.

Nick could kind of recognize when they got back to where he’d been just earlier that day. The street was clear. No cops in sight. Old dude grabbed something off the dash and gently swatted the driver’s arm with it. “Take us around the East side.” Then he pointed with the paper to a side street.

“You should grab a tissue,” Nick tried to tell the silver fox.

“What?” asked the other man, before throwing his piece of paper in front of his face for a sneeze. “Hey, cut that out, wiseguy.”

Nick’s “Wasn’t me,” fell on deaf ears.

They piled out and headed in through a side door that had been left unlocked thanks to a piece of tape. “Best lockpick in town,” the older guy said, he looked back at them like expecting a laugh, then waved his hand when he got nothing. “Come on.”

They headed in, Nick trailing behind, wondering what he would be carrying. After everything so far, he felt it was best to shut up this time. He also held in questions about how they knew to take an elevator to a certain floor, or how they had a passcode to get themselves into the room with “Evidence” on the door.

“Load up. Cash, drugs, jewelry, electronic devices, super gadgets. Fill your bags. Use that Tetris fever you got,” the old guy said. They set to work, Nick rolling his eyes at the Tetris reference. It seemed to take forever stuffing bags full of loot.

“One and done?” the plaid guy asked. He swung a bag onto each shoulder. Nick was relieved to see plaid shirt was the only guy with two of his own.

“How about none and done?” asked a voice from the door. Detective Dunsworth stood there, pistol in hand. “Drop the bags and hands up.”

“You’re making a big mistake,” said the oldtimer.

Dunsworth walked over and clocked him in the mouth with the butt of his gun. “I should have made it sooner.”

Before he could get a proper aim on them again, Nick struck. Dunsworth sneezed, not getting the gun up where it needed to go. The old guy jumped him, but the detective hip-tossed him. The pudgy punched the cop, but the detective socked him one back. And Nick knew he wasn’t done. He fired off sneeze after sneeze, turning the fight in the other man’s favor, just like he’d done when betting. At one point, the detective looked up at him, pleading with eyes red with blood.

Nick was briefly amazed that he’d managed to do that. Along with it came a feeling of satisfaction, that for the first time in years, he had some sort of real power of his own. Some value of his own, but also a strength that others didn’t have. He unleashed the biggest sneeze he’d ever cursed someone with right as Dunsworth took a haymaker to the jaw and watched as the man spasmed and fell.

The old guy leading the job stood up with a groan and looked down on the unmoving detective. He looked back up at the chunky guy and Nick. “Good job, you two. Real good job. Come on, let’s move.”

A flash of ice shot up Nick’s spine. “Is he dead?”

The old guy shook his head and patted Nick on the back toward the door. “No, he’s just knocked out. Seen it a million times. Grab your stuff and let’s go, kid.” The old guy hesitated, looking down at Dunsworth one last time, and shook his head. But he left the cop’s body in there along with the others, to become part of the mystery. He’d seen enough people in both states to tell the difference between knocked out and dead. And the kid was a newbie. He knew Nick wouldn’t react well.

That’s why, when they were divvying things up, he made sure to hold Nick’s share for last. Everyone else left and Nick was about to go too, when the oldtimer stopped him. “Here, a little extra on account of you did so good.”

Nick looked at the extra bundle of cash, suspicious but needy. “Thanks,” he said slowly, taking it with him.

He remembered that generosity a few days later when the news was released that Detective Dunsworth had been found dead in the robbed evidence lock-up of the precinct. Signs point to the corrupt cop being killed during a robbery he helped facilitate. And when they released an image from a camera in the building from the night of the robbery, he felt glad he’d decided to wear a cloth mask in the days since.

“Nose Goblin At Large,” said the headline over the photo and story about the villain implicated in the murder of Dunsworth.

Nick should have felt scared but he laughed at the headline. It would catch up to him later that he killed a man, but for now he was glad to have people afraid of him. It felt empowering.

Then he got the text from the number that had originally invited him to that “party”.

“Sounds like you could use a maid service. I no ppl good at cleaning. They took care of some of ur mess the other day. You could make the news otherwise, Nick.”

And then he realized what the dead man had tried to warn him about. The Nose Goblin would have to be careful, and pick his friends carefully.

***

We here at Outlaw X neither condone nor condemn whatever you folks want to do with your own noses, but we suggest, like Nose Goblin, you be careful with your friends. Too many people get caught up in fulfilling their own sense of power and end up in the thrall of someone else. And while we’re on the subject of lessons: wash your damn hands, you filthy animals. Outlaw X, out.

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Outlaw X Presents: Gesundheist 1

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It’s Outlaw X, coming at you with another, did I say another? I mean another story of ne’er do wells doing well for themselves. We know times are tight and boring in the middle of the pandemic, so we’ve got a story to warm your dark souls.

Not everyone wins the superpower lottery. Flight and superstrength are great. Superspeed is amazing. But what happens when you get a truckload of radioactive dust dumped on you and your ability is to make people suffer the symptoms of allergies? Well, then you get powers like AllerJen or Anna Phylaxis. Not the worst of abilities, but not the sort of thing that puts you on top of the pecking order, not until someone figures out how to make Psycho Gecko allergic to metal.

Well, this story’s about someone whose life dealt them a small pair of cards, and they turned that into a jackpot. I know I’m mixing my games here, but the real casinos are shut down right now. I can say whatever I want. Hey Harrah’s, bite me!

This, ladies, gents, and nonconformists, is a story I like to call the “Sneeze Snatch,”-

No, hold up. I’m not calling this the Sneeze Snatch. Are you serious? I sometimes get some help putting word to paper so I can tell a coherent tale, but Sneeze Snatch isn’t good enough. Sounds like a cryptid or a freaky STD. “Sorry, I’d love to come back to your place for coffee, but my last boyfriend gave me Sneeze Snatch and it’s flaring up again.” That’s the kind of disease someone makes up to get out of a bad date. Nevermind that name, I’m going to call this one… I got it! I got the name.

Gesundheist. You’re welcome.

***

Nicholas had powers. He’d had them for awhile, but they weren’t that impressive. He can’t use his willpower to create light constructs or toss around planets. He made people sneeze.

It started soon after he entered high school. He could feel it, a sense of the impending. He would feel a wave of pressure building and look to find someone sneeze. Achoo. Bless you. There was an occasional distraction, one that built slowly over time. He didn’t realize how strong his powers had grown until he returned to school for his senior year and was overwhelmed with the sheer number of growing sneezes. It gave him a headache. It flared up bad enough to make him stumble on the way to his second class. He stumbled into a junior on the wrestling team who pushed him hard against lockers on the other side of the hallway. That made the headache worse, but the wrestler left him alone to go talk to a girl whose body I’m not going to comment on because I’m not a horny teenager. Nicholas felt a release building, and not the usual one teenage boys are often plagued by. He willed it out and the wrestler went full-on, snot down the face, fucking sneezing so hard he stumbled. The girl ran off to the bathroom to wash her cheeks off, and Nicholas realized he had a superpower.

A lame superpower.

Nicholas didn’t find much use for his powers outside juvenile pranks. Tests were fun to mess with. Someone who used to pick on him in middle school had their name interrupted in every class they shared until teachers and students alike refused to say his name. He screwed up the principal’s speeches at gatherings. I guess the bit where he accidentally made the School Resource Officer shit himself was kinda funny, but the rest of this is pretty juvenile and I don’t think anyone will mind me skipping over some of this.

Nicholas knew he wasn’t going to be a superhero or villain, so he went to college. Somehow, this was a worse mistake than running around in public wearing a spandex outfit that hides nothing. You hear me out there? Nothing. I know some of you don’t think we see. We see. We see EVERYTHING. We see you when you’re sleeping and, God help me, we know when you’re awake, fellas.

So Nicholas got into trouble. He owed too much money to the worst of people… banks and the debt collectors they sell to. He might have solved his problems with a run at the tables and horse races until Johnny Butterfly’s guys found out powers were afoot and threatened to stick their feet up his ass over it. Jesus, the backstory on this guy.

That’s why Nicholas, a guy with superpowers comparable to a large amount of dust, ended up walking into a police station to pretend to be looking for a detective who sometimes does favors for Uncle Butterfly. Their meeting was absolutely inconsequential as far as the rest of the force would see. Nicholas came in to talk about a case Sgt. Dunsworth was working.

The precinct as busy. Sure, some people could afford to stay six feet from the nearest person, but there’s a lot of police work that doesn’t work like that. You can’t wear gloves for all of it, or masks. Anyone with half a brain knows an outbreak is inevitable. The day Nicholas walked in there, inevitable would become actual. He needed cool phrases like that to calm his nerves. In retrospect, the iced coffee he picked up from the store was a bad idea.

Nicholas wasn’t a confrontational type. He’d known that ever since his days in high school, solving his problems with his powers from afar. He was so eager to get started on this job, this salvation of a job. He’d made a simple deal. He had used his powers to cheat at one of Butterfly’s fighting pits. A sneeze here or there and everyone betting on the underdog has a nice day. It wasn’t the first night Nick had used his powers in the fights. Even seeing the bloody and bruised faces of the losers couldn’t convince him it was less humane than when he’d fixed horse races using his powers. That last time, a horse broke a leg. Everyone knows what that means for a race horse. A person going into a cage to punch another person knows the risks. A horse is just an animal.

But they nabbed him. And beat him, rapidly changing his opinion on the ethics of making someone else get beat up. That lesson came at the hands of two of the fighters who lost because of him. They brought him before a local boss working for Butterfly, who ordered them to escort him until he’d paid back as much of the money he still had. This day in the precinct would cover the remainder and reimburse the local Butterfly boss for the time and energy he had to spend solving the problem.

Nervous Nick caused the cop at the desk to sneeze three times before he even got up there to ask for directions. “Oh, shit, sorry!” he said at first.

The officer was busy looking for a napkin or paper towel. With Nick’s poker face, it’s a good thing the cop didn’t ask why the new visitor to the station had apologized. Our intrepid new villain knew better than to stick around when he got the directions he was looking for. Instead, he walked down the hallway, rounded a corner, and jumped when he saw a woman approaching around the corner. Not even a cop. He made her sneeze and told her “Bless you,” then shook his head as he walked off. He had to calm down before cops start looking into him and why he was there. They didn’t have to be smart to figure it out. Not when the criminal they’re dealing with is literally something to sneeze at.

He spaced it out. When he got off the elevator, one of the people who got on had a sneeze. Someone leading a suspect around did too. When he reached Dunsworth’s desk, he said what he needed to say. “Hi. My friend said I needed to come see you about a case involving his stolen family heirloom.”

Dunsworth looked Nick over and sighed. The detective motioned for Nick to sit down. “Let’s talk.” Nick joined him across from his desk, but was surprised when the detective actually wanted to talk. “Get mixed up in something you shouldn’t?”

Nick didn’t want to talk about it. He had enough judgment from family. He didn’t need to seek out bad feelings from a dirty detective with a mustard stain on his suspenders. He concentrated on what he was there for, giving a big achoo to a chunky fellow with a flat top who had just grabbed a cup of coffee.

Now, cops are not the brightest. If they were, their problem solving abilities would extent beyond beating and shooting. Even they can understand that if everyone is sneezing for reasons having nothing to do with allergies, then something’s up. The latent fear people have of the pandemic, which is a good and useful fear to have, did the rest. You couldn’t keep people in there, and they didn’t have enough tests for everyone.

Dunsworth noticed the change in atmosphere and grabbed Nick’s arm. “I guess our visit’s over.” He leaned in to talk more privately. “I don’t know what your deal is, but you you should get out as soon as possible. Don’t let them get hooks in you.”

Nick yanked his arm away. Dunsworth grabbed it again. “Listen to me! It’s fixed. The house always wins, even when you think you’re done- choo!” Nick pulled away and ducked through the crowd while Dunsworth sneezed.

He waited until he got a block away before texting the Butterfly boss. “Just got back from a friend’s house. We had a productive conversation.”

The reply came a few minutes later. “We’re going to have a party later. You should come to it. I know how much you need money.”

Nick looked at the text and thought back to the detective. Then he thought about the debt collectors, calling every day.

“I’m in,” he texted back.

***

Will Nick escape unharmed, or will he be caught by the long kerchief of the law?

Who nose? Find out next time on Outlaw X.

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Zombie Reagan 8

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The immediate aftermath of the retaking of Washington wasn’t any smoother than grabbing the Nuclear Football was. The codes weren’t still active, by the way. I’d rather not go into details how I know, but I know. The national guard ended up moving conveniently slowly through the same areas of the District that the Exemplars prioritized. They got K Street cleaned up in a hurry, though. But the main threat was over. The Exemplars were mopping things up with the aid of some gangs and mutual aid groups until the military swept in one night and decided that was the time to enforce some weapons laws. Officially, the Exemplars stood by and let them get taken.

But that early morning raid didn’t go off without a hitch. They had a couple wagons out for all the suspects they arrested. Medusa hit the first one hard enough to cave in the engine. I was more refined, tossing a shrapnel grenade into the cabin of the other. All the soft tissue damage, none of the danger to the passengers in the back end, who all disappeared, along with the evidence. And some odd digital distortion messed with records of who they were even going after. The warrants could have been handy for that, if they didn’t go up in a fire. It was all a real clusterfuck of police work. Personally, I think someone should resign.

When the press corps finally returned, word got out that the President was supposed to have a ceremony honoring some of the “heroes” of the occupation. Just none of the Exemplars, or the local leaders. Just cops, firefighters, EMTs, and the like. Give them a medal instead of anything that would improve their lives, but don’t even bother recognizing all the inconvenient people. Cap off the heroic storyline with a big ceremony.

But this particular section of the story isn’t over yet. Not all of the dead have been accounted for. Like my girlfriend, Medusa, one of the few heroes who can take me in a fight and live to tell about it. Except someone tried to have us killed when we were keeping the last bunch of cultists from setting off a nuclear firestorm. She was sure it was the President. He’d tried to tell us he couldn’t scramble the Air Force to shoot down the presidential jet the cultists took, but then a fighter showed up to blow us out of the sky when we’d accomplished our goals. I could follow her logic on that. She had threatened him before.

I’d taken a quick trip home to pick up my daughter. Little Qiang had missed us and I’d missed her. It’s unfair to leave her behind so much, but I also shouldn’t bring her along on my adventures. Armor or no armor, she’s just a kid who deserves a better life than fighting. Or abandonment. The both of us met Medusa at a bar that had seen better days. Some of the harder-to-reach stains were still around from when they had to clear the place of zombies. The doors need to be replaced; they had wood pieces nailed to them from where zombies had broken through parts. A pump-action shotgun hung over the bar, stock and barrel covered with tally marks.

“Hey other mommy!” Qiang said, running to my nemesis at a booth against the wall and hopping into her lap for a hug.

Medusa gave a happy “Oof!” and caught her, squeezing her tight. The look she gave me seemed a little sheepish. She rubbed Qiang’s back. “Hey baby.”

I sat down across from the both of them. “Lovely spot here. A place for survivors.”

A waiter stopped by and dropped off some beer for myself and Medusa, along with a root beer for Qiang. We had ourselves a nice meal with Qiang, listening to her talking about her cartoons and her books. I even let her have her pick of some of the fancy jewelry one of the museums around here misplaced during the recent unpleasantness. When she was sleeping on a bed in my Flyer, Medusa and I sat down in the cockpit to discuss what the future holds. Not the baby thing, or anything like that.

“What’s it feel like to be dead?” I asked, pointing with a thumb toward the screen and the image of the city.

“I’m not officially dead yet, but it could be useful. I can see why you like it,” she smiled. She grabbed the chair to hold herself steady when I plopped her feet up in my lap and started undoing her shoes. She makes about the closest sound a human can to a purr when getting a foot rub.

“People hate me. Liking you so much, they could see it as a betrayal if you decide to play dead,” I suggested.

She purred and closed her eyes. “I see my options as playing dead or punishing the President and making sure he doesn’t try this again before he’s out of office. No way he wins re-election.”

“Strange things happen. The pandemic and the zombies show that a lot of people have no interest working together to deal with a threat to their lives. Especially when they can pretend it’s not their life threatened.”

“Pessimist,” she said.

“Gotta know what’s wrong to fix the problem,” I countered. Not that I cared being labeled a pessimist. I am one, and worse.

She squirmed a little as I inadvertently rubbed a ticklish spot. “Ok, so how’s this? We’ll meet him after the ceremony. If he announces I’m dead, I stay dead and you get to remove him from office.”

You know, killing the President isn’t such a big deal at this point. I’m sure I’d find some way to enjoy it.

Medusa continued, “But if he doesn’t say anything, I’ll make sure to get something compromising on him and hold you over his head like the Sword of Damocles.”

The ceremony was held the next morning. That alone should be enough to kill over. Everyone’s sleep is all screwy from the entirety of the fucked-up times we live in. Venus showed up. Without all the metal in her body like I have, she doesn’t set off alarms. She’s never been shy about hiding her face with how public her heroics have been, but she’s also been in power armor for a couple years now. So she attended, I watched it on TV, and I met up with her afterward to bring her a hot dog from a food truck run by a Deep One immigrant from Ricca.

“Status unconfirmed,” I said while she scarfed down the hot dog.

“Mhm,” she mumbled between mouthfuls. I took her hand and we began to walk, taking a leisurely stroll back to where I parked the Flyer. There, she sat down to play a game with Qiang while I donned my armor. She looked at me, then down to a circle of holodiscs I’d set up on the ground. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

I nodded.

The White House can be tricky to sneak into, but there are several holes left open when the guy in charge of the whole place is incompetent. Like when you piss off a woman who has worked closely with the Secret Service before and who they like more than you. Medusa, in this case. She still had friends who managed to survive everything from me to zombies, and they were willing to let me in on the condition that I not physically harm anyone. They didn’t say anything about emotional harm, so I headed up to the Presidential bedroom to see what dirty laundry he had.

As Presidents go, it was pretty standard. Some women’s clothes in his size. No big deal there. Pills, coke, and heroin. I think he’d be a lot more chill if he was smoking weed. Ooh, nice, dirty photos on the personal cell phone. Geez, this President’s so crappy, he can’t even get a hot mistress. Not to be too mean about looks here. JFK set the bar really high with Marilyn Monroe. Maybe this guy’s into that sort of thing too. I should be less judgmental about the asshole’s tastes. I still kept the photos, along with footage of all that stuff up close and personal in the Presidential bedroom. Oh, neat, he had a bust in the room too. Thomas Jefferson. He’d turned that one around so he faced the wall like a fun little prude.

Enough tourism. I had what I wanted, so I stopped by the office to talk business. I waited at the door. “Medusa, you at a stopping point?”

“Pausing. Ok, ready.”

When I opened the door, the hologram system synced up with the holodiscs. I became hidden under an image of Medusa in civilian clothes and a mask. And when she spoke, it came out of my suit for the President, and an assistant, to hear. “Afternoon, Mr. President. We really should talk about your attempt to kill me.”

“You survived!” he said, standing up He was a boxer guy, but not because of any interns hidden down there. He glanced down at his lack of pants, then sat, “Someone spilled some soup, my apologies.”

“You have a lot more to apologize for than soup. Start with trying to blow me up.”

He held his hands up. “I told you, the Air Force wasn’t under my full control.”

“How did they find me?” Medusa crossed her arms. I copied the movement even though no one could see me.

“The cult-!” the President started, standing up but leaning over the desk for propriety.

“The cult ordered themselves fired on?”

The President shook his head. “Fine, why not? They’re religious fanatics!”

“All that with the plane’s radio and phone lines down?” Medusa asked.

The President went silent for a moment, red building up in his face. “Whatever you think you know or are going to accuse me of, know that you will not come out of this looking good for attempting to assassinate me.”

“I’m not trying to do anything. As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m not even here. The only record of me being anywhere near the White House are your recordings of this conversation. So if I were you, I’d think very carefully about how I spent a week straight fighting zombies, raided one of the jets you use for Air Force One, took out the last of the cult, survived a fighter jet, then walked in here like I own the place.”

The President sat back in his chair. “You owe me for a fighter plane, by the way.”

Medusa laughed. “Take it up with my friend.”

“Friend?” asked the Leader of the Free World.

The image of Medusa vanished, replaced with the swirling cloud of darkness I used to obscure my presence. The best the President could do was a glimpse of sharp claws swiping through the cloud as I jumped onto his desk and said in a deep, distorted voice. “Me!”

I vanished as well, leaving him to create a puddle under his chair that the assistant rushed to try and clean up. I imagine he had another one later when he found Thomas Jefferson’s head in his bed, with ketchup packets to simulate blood and give me something to write the message. “I was here, too.”

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Zombie Reagan 7

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It should be obvious by now that killing off the figurehead of a bunch doesn’t necessarily end the whole problem. But it turned the tide. The Dominionists are still a problem, but some of them are surrendering rather than dying for their faith. I’ll bet plenty of others are demoralized now. If it were me, I’d have attacked right when they got the news. But them, I’m a murderous bitch who’d prefer them dead to surrendering. Same difference, if this gutless President sticks to the traditional punishment for treason.

At least he and his guys finally moved back into Washington. He got some fanfare, mostly from folks who didn’t live in the city itself. Those folks had decided to share a drink with Medusa and the rest of the gang who actually showed up and lent a hand. I was invited too, but I felt weird accepting. I joined in only to kill Reagan again. Barring any more interference from time travelers, his threat is over for good. Time to go hang out with my daughter.

Or it should have been. Medusa’s victory drink got interrupted, causing her to interrupt my victory celebration. “Whatcha need, babe?” I asked of the voice in my ear as I strolled through the dark, arms full.

“Where are you? Are you in the middle of something?” she asked, frantically.

“I don’t want to say,” I answered.

“You mean I don’t want to know,” she said.

“Yep!” I didn’t have to be quiet. The curators still weren’t back to this museum, and they have insurance anyway. No big deal. “Need me to pick up anything?”

“Yeah, a football. THE football.”

“The ancient football of Amun-Ra?” I posited. A legendary sports artifact said to have been forged by an Egyptian sun god cult. Nah, probably not. “…The Nuclear Football?”

“The President just called. Son of a bitch didn’t get the codes out when he evacuated. His people are back and they found the body of the person who was handcuffed to it. His hand is missing and so is the case with the codes in it.”

“They really oughta booby trap that thing.” I said. I had an idea where this was going, so I started hurrying on back out, ready to stash my loot in my Flyer.

“The President’s people are scrambling to change the codes and certify the loyalty of the nuclear staff, but he’s worried they won’t get it done in time. It’s a mess out there. He’s requested our help one last time in all this.”

“Are we bad enough dudes to save the President from getting nuked?” I asked. I kicked open the museum door and ran down the steps to the Flyer. I ran in and started strapping the paintings down, right next to the bust of Lincoln I took from the White House.

I could tell from her voice that she was running, “Can you pick me up by the White House? It’s you and me on this.”

I had the Flyer activate remotely, close up, and launch while I busted out a tarp to hide stuff. She’d know. First thing she asked when she hauled herself up the deployment line of the trapdoor in her armor and looked around was, “What did you steal?”

“That’s not important right now. We’ve got nukes to stop!” I said, deflecting.

Medusa shook her head, but jogged to the cockpit. She checked around the cockpit, then plugged in a USB stick. “The President says they stole one of the jets used for Air Force One. This will let us track the transponder.”

They had a lead on us, but they hadn’t used it well. What were they going to do, flee to Mexico or Canada? The trip gave us time to work out a plan based on blueprints of the plane that would normally be more secured than JFK’s sex tapes. She ran a gloved finger from the door to the cockpit. “We need to secure the pilot. These fanatics could secure themselves inside and launch the missiles.”

“My guess is, they’ll start launching as soon as they know we’re there, on breach at the latest,” I said.

“Two targets, two of us. One of us needs to take the cockpit, the other needs to hunt down the briefcase with the codes in them and stop the launch, which can be done from the plane’s phone systems.” She pointed to a panel toward the rear of the plane. “This panel controls the phones.”

Inside my helmet, I raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know that?” She was right, but that wasn’t clearly marked on these blueprints the President sent over. Lack of transparency just making our job harder.

“I’ve been invited before,” she said. Her finger swept toward the cockpit. “If something happens, there should be a way to disrupt the phone systems from the cockpit.”

Looking it over, it struck me that a much simpler solution to this entire thing was available to us. “Why doesn’t anybody just shoot it down? Either blow the whole thing up and they’re not calling anyone, or at least send the plane into freefall. Hard to dial out in a situation like that. They have a way to track it, just like us.”

She looked at me, then immediately pulled out her phone and dialed. I didn’t hear a dialtone. The person on the other end picked up quickly. It wasn’t long before Medusa talked to herself, or likely to the person she called through her armor’s integrated comms, “Hey, why don’t you just shoot this thing down?”

She crossed her arms and started tapping her boot on the floor. After a second, she pointed to her head. “He’s talking to someone. Oh, yeah, I’m still here.” She listened to something on the other end, then started growling. “With all due respect, I’m tired of cleaning up your messes.” Finally, she shoved her phone back into a slot on her armor that closed up around it. “The Air Force is fighting itself right now. The President doesn’t know who to trust there.”

I facepalmed. “Perfect. Wonderful. Let’s roll this shit train out of the station then. Who’s going after what?”

“Can you fly a plane?” she asked. When I nodded, she said, “You take the cockpit. If something goes wrong, you would be prepared to scuttle the plane.” She’s got a point there.

We ended up catching up to them over Arkansas, by which point Medusa had taken the tarp off and given me as stern a look as possible through the mirrored visor of her helmet.

“The eve of our possible death is not the time to complain about this,” she said, nudging Abraham Lincoln’s bust with her boot.

I picked her up in a hug, “Hey, I believe in you. You will complain the shit out of this later.”

She giggled. When I set her down, she returned the favor and lifted me up. “And you’ll get to brag about hijacking Air Force One to steal some nuclear codes. Now let’s do this.”

She set me down and we opened the trapdoor, pressure alarms going off in the cockpit. I set the Flyer to follow above the jet in stealth mode while I was busy.

“Ready?” Medusa asked.

“Ready,” I answered.

“Music?” she asked.

I put on Seal’s “Fly Like An Eagle.”

Medusa held out a hand. “Wait. Too slow. Give me something to get my heart pumping.”

“I want to have your baby,” I said.

“What?” she asked, looking over suddenly.

“Nothing, I didn’t say anything,” I said, preempting a follow-up question by blasting out the opening riffs of “Danger Zone” and throwing myself out of the bottom of a perfectly good aircraft to plummet toward a jet. At least I’d remembered the heavy-duty parachute for power armor. I didn’t use it, or the cable in my hand. Instead, I popped my Nasty Surprise and embedded it in the plane just above the door to catch myself. That set off alarms inside, but those were quickly overwhelmed by the alarms from me tearing open the door. I swung myself inside and pulled the mini-chainsaw back into my the underside of my forearm armor. Still holding onto the cable, and held on tight while Medusa slid down it to be helped inside. I got her in just before a panel slid into place and locked down the opening where the door used to be.

“Neat,” I said. Medusa didn’t say anything before running off, heading down toward the accommodations on the vessel. I broke for the front of the plane. A cultist stumbled out, holding a damn musket. Ornate mystical etchings spiraled up the barrel. I grabbed the thick metal of the barrel and bent it around so it faced the guy. Somehow, through my armor, the metal felt like it burned. He didn’t fire, and I’m 99% sure it wouldn’t have followed that extreme curvature if he did. He swung the gun at me instead. Again, I felt a burning sensation when it smacked my face, bringing a growl to my lips. I twisted in the direction of the hit and ducked, sweeping the cultist off his feet. I came back up to my feet and stomped my way past him, smooshing his head into the carpet of the plane along the way.

Another cultist saw me coming and threw a knife at me. I caught it in midair and pulled a little sleight of hand to make it disappear. When he turned to run, I caught him and made it reappear in a very uncomfortable spot for a knife to be in, leaving him to scream in a higher-pitched voice on the floor of the plane.

They hadn’t locked down the cockpit by the time I got there. I could see a pilot and co-pilot up there, with some really big robes. No, wait. Birds. They rushed out at me, as did a shitload from behind me and to from a couple cabins all around. I clocked one, but the others swarmed around, cawing and trying to peck at me. The little peckers couldn’t find a way past my hard outer shell, but they obstructed the view. Too bad that was all they could do in this environment. Then they parted just long enough for Unkindness to give me a punch that bounced my head off the wall and left a dent in it.

“Got some strength to you,” I said. He grabbed my head and smacked it against the wall in a different place. I bounced back off and grabbed his wrist. He threw a punch with the other hand. I caught it, leaving us locked up.

“Why won’t you just die?” asked the undead superhero. His costume spread out behind him, forming wings. They didn’t even flap as he rose into the air. He pushed me some, forcing me to step back along the plush carpeting of the Presidential jet. Then he used the leverage and force of his flight to go for a headbutt. I ducked and brought my cybernetic tail forward. It punched through his chest with a ripping noise. He looked down on it in shock. Maybe the birds that let him see me also let him see with the tip of the tail rotated around and shot flame to incinerate his head. The birds all collectively went a bit crazy after that, going all over the place, flying off further into the plane.

I left Unkindness’s corpse behind and ran for the cockpit door. I found the co-pilot standing beside it, peering into the bird-swarmed hallway. I pulled him past and closed the door behind me, ignoring the scream, the hand dropping to the floor, and a bit of blood. I turned to the pilot, who put his hands up.

“Good,” I said. “Step away from the controls.”

I put us on autopilot, then called in to check on Medusa. “Cockpit secured by the motherfucking Lizard Queen.”

She didn’t pick up. I kept an eye on the cameras in case the pilot tried anything and looked over the plane’s console. Ah, there’s where they stuck all the communications switches. I flipped them all for now, to make sure nobody was making any calls they didn’t need to. “Phone lines are down. You alive back there?”

I turned to glance back at the pilot, wondering if decapitation would help my sudden anxiety.

“I’m here,” she panted over the line. “Codes are secure.”

We got a surge of radar contacts. A gigantic red light bigger than my head went off on the wall. “Holy shit, that’s a big alarm. We’ve got things inbound.”

“Air Force in rebellion, my ass,” Medusa said. “We need to get off this plane.”

I jumped out of the chair and past the cultist, who still had his hands up. I tugged the door open and ran past the downed and de-handed cultist laying there in shock still. The one behind me took a look at the alarm and radar screen and decided to follow after. I met back up with Medusa at the door. She had a necromancer in a red, white, and blue robe with her. She took one look at me and said, “Shit. Your chute.”

The guy in the flag robe cackled. “You’re not getting out of here without our help after all!” He shut up when Medusa smacked him upside the head with a metal case.

The world exploded. I got my senses back plunging end over, with a big hunk of metal coming at me. I was so mixed up, even my music ended up on random, with the Bayonetta version of “Fly Me To The Moon”. I opened my arms wide and welcome the piece of plane, which smacked into me and rolled. I rolled with it and stood up, leveraging my weight to stop it rolling anymore. I gave my chute a try, but the shredded fabric trailed out above me and did nothing else.

“Visual on a survivor. It’s one of the Exemplars,” I heard over a nearby frequency.

“You have your orders,” someone said on the other end. I ignited the energy sheathes around my lower arms in anticipation, trying to get a fix on whatever was going on.

“First mistake,” I broke in to tell them. “Assuming I’m one of the good guys.” Out of the clouds came a hail of gunfire. High-velocity shit. It shot holes through the piece of fuselage I stood on and shot up my legs, but most of my body was protected by the energy sheathes and the armor did a good job keeping me standing. Didn’t make it hurt any fucking less! Thanks to the energy sheathe, flattened bullets scattered into the air around me instead giving me new holes to breathe through.

With the aid of my armor, the visual of where the shots came from, and the Psycho Flyer that was dropping after me and everyone else, I got an idea where in the clouds the offending jet was and took a leap. Yeah, my legs still fucking hurt.

The jet cleared cloud cover and the pilot had time to see me just before I smacked into his cockpit. “Holy-!” he started. It shattered under the release of energy from my armor. “-Fuck!” he finished, looking up at me.

“Second mistake, getting on my bad side.” I grabbed the pilot and ripped him out of his seat, tossing him into the sky. The co-pilot saw all this and hit the ejector seat, knocking me off and ruining that way of going about it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of another piece of wreckage, part of the wing. A familiar power armor clung to it, looking over at me. I maneuvered over that way. “Medusa. Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.”

She jumped off toward me. We collided in midair and held each other. “In other words, hold your hand?”

She hit her chute. It slowed us down a little, but it wasn’t enough. Then the Flyer dropped past, drop cable whistling. We both grabbed it, wrapping it around us. Medusa pulled a cord to detach her chute. “In other words, I love you.”

With us secure, I brought the Flyer out of its dive. The forces involved wrenched on us, pushing my stomach down somewhere south of my tailbone from feel of things. We held tight to the cable and to each other, and when we were finally horizontal, I had the mechanism inside start reeling us in. It was all very romantic until I told her, “Gravity just squeezed my bladder like a thing of toothpaste, so don’t be surprised if I’ve pissed myself.”

“Wait until the President realizes he failed to kill us,” Medusa said.

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Zombie Reagan 6

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Oh to be a fly on the wall of wherever the most recent President was hiding out. So I could kill him. I know I tend to be a hypocrite about things like decency and doing the right thing, so take this with a grain of cyanide. But I sometimes justify the things I do by pointing out that a mankind willing to set aside its differences for the greater good wouldn’t give me something to exploit, or that they need to suffer to learn to be better, or just that I’m punishing them. And not the good kind of punishing where Medusa bends me over and whips out the paddle

By now, y’all can guess he did something fucked up. Medusa insisted I take a break and that we were all capable of it. After the decapitation of the Washington Monument, the zombies are less organized and they’re thinning out. I guess my superhero girlfriend actually cares enough about my well-being to suggest I get out of armor, take a shower, and catch some more stable sleep. I’m personally opposed to her smelling me after that long stuff in power armor, but I’ve had this really annoying itch on the bottom of one of my feet for like a week now.

We were all stuffed into a hotel, so it was easy catching a shower and a nap. I was dragging my armor into the command center/conference hall while de-ranking it. It was quiet despite all the supers, Exemplar soldiers, and locals in there. They were busy listening to a call on speakerphone and Medusa arguing with the caller. “You can’t be serious.”

“I wish I had the manpower to aid you, but my position is precarious. I’m hamstrung by a mutinous military and the incompetent cabinet approved by my predecessor in the office. I fled because I had no other choice. You’re all heroes for staying and fighting, you truly are.”

“That’s bullshit. I don’t want to be a dead hero!” called out a local in the crowd. From the brown stains on his clothing, he must have been out in the thick of it recently. He was a recipient of my medical nanites. Medusa didn’t want to fight a virus the same time we were dealing with zombies, so she’s doing her best to distribute the nanite water I’ve imported into the country. I’m selling some of it at a huge mark-up to those with the money to afford it, and that’s funding the altruism my girlfriend decided to force me into.

“Mr. President,” Medusa said with more rage than I thought someone could manage while being respectful. Even at the heights of our mutually-sustained hate boners for each other, she never respected me enough to be that angry and polite. “Courage is exceptional for a reason. I hoped you were an exceptional man after all the pain your predecessors put us through.”

“That’s why I have you heroes to go out and be the self-sacrificing paragons we need right now,” the President said. It said a lot that I was trying to clean out and remove week-old stink from my power armor but a phone call from the President of the United States was disgusting everyone more.

“Don’t you ever use our selflessness as an excuse for inaction again.”

“I don’t like your tone. I could still have you brought up on charges,” POTUS said.

“Who gives a shit?!” someone listening in the crowd yelled.

“I can do worse to you, Mr. President,” Medusa said. “I know the world’s best assassin.” She grabbed the phone’s receiver and slammed it back down, cutting off the President like a beautiful badass. A badass who just threatened to send me after the President because he wouldn’t send people in to retake Washington but thought he could handle arresting her.

The living President, whose name I never even bothered learning because we all thought he’d be killed in no time during the civil war, was failing at his job. The dead one, Ronnie Reagan, had himself an announcement from the Oval Office. They flashed the Presidential Seal on this weird text message override program. What an intriguing system. The message that followed had a link to the website of a prominent right-wing news network, where the Seal appeared again before cutting to Reagan seated in the Oval Office. They’d given him a touch-up from a mortician, but there was still an uncanny valley look to him, not helped by the glassy, unfocused stare of the dead.

“My fellow Americans, I come before you with full awareness of the challenges of my office. The men who held this office the past few years have been weak and cowardly. Now, regular men and women pay the price. I’m here to assure you, our democracy and our economy remains strong. To honor that resilience, I am calling on all governors to reopen their states and stop living in fear. Death is not the end, and I promise that everyone who succumbs to the pandemic will be brought back. The cure cannot be worse than the disease, ladies and gentlemen. Have faith in our republic and in me, and you will be rewarded by the good lord.”

After that opening, he went into a rambling speech going into more detail. Like a series of loans for large businesses to return bankrupt corporations from the dead. Or the need for a national think tank of the juiciest brains around to try and disprove climate change. He even decided that the time was ripe to revisit his Star Wars initiative that he’s now renaming Star Force, meant to protect the free world from the dangers of space communists.

When it was all said and done, the right-wing network cut to a show where one of the cultists, still in full robe, had on this millionaire journalist who had fled to another country years back. The journalist was in the middle of assuring everyone there was no difference between the zombie actively trying to kill everyone, and the Democratic candidate for president, when I turned it off.

I left my armor aside for a bit. It needed to air out, and I figured I’d see if Medusa needed me for anything. Killing Reagan was already my responsibility. Which, is actually why when I approached and saw she’d watched the same fuckery on her phone, I apologized. “Sorry I haven’t gotten him yet.”

Medusa waved it off. “You didn’t bring him back as a zombie. I’m real pissed at Mobian. He should know better. Torian played a role, but Mobian’s supposed to be one of the good guys. It’s frustrating that he thinks so little of us he can play with our lives and tell people with a straight face ‘you need to let a dictator win for some mysterious future good reason’. So many self-described allies are fine letting us die…” She chuckled. “I bet you’re happy having corrupted me.”

I hugged her. “Hey, don’t sell yourself short. You corrupted me, too.”

We held each other for a bit, just feeling close, feeling each other. “I need to push through and get in there,” I said to Medusa. “The White House, I mean.”

“Should have known you only have eyes for Reagan,” Medusa joked. I stuck out my tongue at her. She laughed, making me wish she’d never eventually hate me and break up with me. “Every minute he’s in power, more people die. The other guy’s nothing special, but he’s also not as bad as this ghoul. If you need cover, I can talk with the locals. We’ll see if they have a way to help.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got an idea,” I lied to Medusa.

She poked me in the chest, between the boobs. “Let’s go talk to the locals first.”

I intended a self-destructive attack, fast and hard. The White House doesn’t just look pretty; the place is a fortress. Even once you get in, there’s a bunker underneath. The Secret Service can lock it down in minutes. What I was looking to do was what we in the business call a Booth. When someone absolutely, positively needs to die no matter the risk to the assassin, they can pull a suicidal attack that’s not meant to account for escape or personal safety. For obvious reasons, it’s the sort of thing ideology-based assassins go for more than contract killers.

One of the many values of listening to marginalized communities you’re trying to help is they’re really good at surviving there. Medusa dragged me along to talk to the same brown-spattered guy who interrupted her call with the President. “We need to get her into the White House. We need help, if there’s any ideas or resources you have.”

The guy looked me over. The name tag on his coveralls said his name was Dean. “Why do you need in?”

“I’m going to kill Ronald Reagan again,” I said.

Dean looked me over again. “You sure about that?”

“Yo, hold up,” said someone else, another of the locals. This guy had a handgun sticking out of his pockets, which stuck in my mind because it was such an easy way to take it and turn it on him. “She’s the one who I was riding with when she blew up the Washington monument. She don’t look like much, but she’s got armor and skills.”

“Word,” I said, which made both of those guys bust out laughing at me.

“Check it out,” Dean said, “I know someone who can help you, but you better do what you say you will, ’cause they’ll blame her for helping you if you don’t.”

More than a century after abolition, it’s unheard of for the White House to still have black servants. And some situations require a person to take a job no matter who they’re cooking for. The cultists were so happy to have the staff around again, they didn’t take a close enough look when she came to work that morning with a huge load of food. The need of the powerful for someone to serve them proved to be their undoing again. Proved their value to me, too.

For once, health food kept me healthy. The carrots, okra, collards, and other fresh veggies they piled on top of me shielded me from prying eyes. Raven eyes, too. She needed some helpers to lower the box onto a cart and wheel it inside. Away from Poe’s favorite foul, I could free myself of the veggies and commence my journey through the Presidential manor.

I kept careful eye out for any ravens hidden around. The congregation of them outside confirmed that the enchanted necromantic weapon I’d destroyed so recently hadn’t put Unkindness in the ground. I just hoped the cult was too stuck up to let them inside. The place had activity all around. Dominionist marines guarded it and walked the occasional patrol, missing the invisible killer in their midst. Cultists ran around. There were also White House staff and abandoned interns. The last group really helped me get where I needed to go. I tailed one of them into the Oval Office where he walked up to the desk to set down a cup of coffee.

“Thank you, son,” Zombie Reagan said. “Say, do you mind if I pick your brain?”

“Um, no sir,” the intern answered. Reagan lunged over the desk at him, grabbing the unpaid twenty-something’s head and drawing it closer to his lips. They were both shocked when the Presidential text override went off. The intern instinctively pulled his phone out with a hand that had been fending off the zombie attack a second before. Reagan had stopped, though, and they both looked down at the screen of his phone where the Presidential Seal was replaced with a view off the Oval Office showing the both of them. They looked up at where it had to be coming from, then down at the screen, then back up.

I’m the one who lunged forward to attack this time, appearing to them as an unclear, swirling mass. The world doesn’t need to know Psycho Gecko still lives. Reagan held the intern up in front of him, so the poor guy ended up with my fist through his face. When I pulled the body away, Reagan was shoving some of the guy’s gray matter into his mouth before he slammed a fist on a button. Part of it retracted and an M4A1 with attached grenade launcher popped out of the desk and landed in his hands. “Say hello to my little buddy, as the kids say.”

I let him shoot at me so everyone could see it didn’t work. The moment I saw him try to activate the grenade launcher, I reached for his hand. And I came away with it, too. He was really brittle and dry.

“Give that back!” he said. I held up the hand so the viewing audience could see it, then pushed down all but the middle finger.

“You degenerate pinko bastard!” Reagan said. He tried swinging the gun like a club. I ducked and dropped his hand. Sure, he had a gun, but my weapon when I arose was a lamp. The next time he swung the gun at me, I deflected it with my tail. I’m getting a little better with it. I smashed the lamp over Reagan’s head.

Behind me, marines filed in, along with Unkindness in place of the Secret Service. A cultist ran in, too, the one with the flag pin. “Stop!” he yelled. I twisted around Reagan and held him in front of me.

“Let him go and we’ll be lenient!” the cultist said.

I grabbed Reagan’s head and did some quick mental division, by which I mean I shoved my fingers down through the skull and in between the left and right parts of the brain, then pulled them apart.

The marines raised their rifles, but the cultist raised his hands. “Wait! We can’t risk damaging the brain any further.”

“Sic semper tyrannis,” a distorted and layered voice said from my armor. I squeezed what remained of the brain until it smooshed. There was no coming back for Reagan this time. The marines opened fire, and that wasn’t a big deal to me, but the cultist turned and fled. Unkindness grabbed him and started carrying him off under the understanding that they didn’t have the mans to counter me right now. The marines tried to do their duty, but as far as they knew, I vanished.

“From the hall of Montezuma,” I said, again distorted. The two closest marines felt their rifles twist in their hands to each other’s face, and fired. The other one in front of my pulled a combat knife and stabbed at the air. I caught it. “To the shores of Tripoli.” I twisted the knife up toward his face but he twisted to the side and dodged it. I broke his forearm to stop any further fancy acrobatics, the set my foot on his chest and pulled. Unlike, this guy bled when he lost a limb. I flipped the arm around and slapped the marine in the face with his own hand as he sunk to the floor, rapidly bleeding out.

“No one’s safe from me,” I said, cutting the Presidential override feed. I gave chase a little and even caught another cultist. I hung him from this big chandelier hanging over a staircase, but I the last I spotted of Unkindness and the cult’s leader, they had both taken off into the air in a mass of retreating ravens.

I suppose the tough part’s taken care of. And Medusa even gets a very public display of why the President doesn’t want to cross her.

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