“Sending a message is dangerous,” Sgt. Slam warned me. He’s right. That’s why I don’t usually do it. It gives someone a chance to get away or to hunt you down, all while you make a statement that may not go the way you intend. It was ingrained into me as an assassin that my job was just to kill. So when I told Slam I was going to send a message, I acknowledged his reminder. I didn’t tell him specifics, though.
All I said when I grabbed my grocery bags and left was, “Don’t call unless it’s an emergency. Or until it’s an emergency.”
ICE set up in city hall. Why not? The old mayor wasn’t using the place and the interim mayor had fewer guns. Some of ICE’s were now getting prepped for the nightly protest, with Icers giving already gone through much of the nonlethal stuff they brought. I don’t think they truly grasped the lack of fucks those glorious protesting bastards have for their own health in the face of injustice. The humans are impressing me.
I’d put a lot of surveillance into this. A lot of spying on phones. A pinch of searching disciplinary records. A suit of armor in case I fuck up. It also gives the these guys their first clue something’s up. Mysterious hot women walking up to them with a backpack and a pair of big bags should probably be viewed suspiciously. Not a lot of people are happy to see ICE around here. But plenty of ICE agents eager to see a blonde in a tank top and tight, tight, tight jeans.
Some of the Icers approached, guns drawn and aimed at me. “Relax, guys,” I said. “I just brought some frosty cold beer for those tough ICE Agents. Yuengling? Goose Island?” Funny how that works, me having their favorites. Each one took a six pack of bottles and let me keep going on through. Another pair of guards challenged me at the lobby. I just so happened to have a beautiful jeweled necklace in case one of them needed it for anything. That one remembered he had an anniversary that night. The other guy took my invitation to take whatever he want and grabbed this toy his daughter had been bugging him about getting for her birthday.
As I left them, I winked up at the cameras and showed off this antique pocketwatch. That was a weird one, but the guy they seem to stick with monitor duty likes the old clockwork stuff. I stopped by the security office and let him have it. Nothing tricky. Didn’t kill him or loop the tapes, none of that.
I had something for everyone I met, though only a couple more guards paid any attention to me. They were posted outside the Colonel’s door. Colonel Rattix. He’d already had a nameplate made. “Woops!” I said, pretending to nearly drop my bags. The one to the right of the door grabbed hold of me to steady me. The other ended up catching a butt plug with a fox tail on it. “Sorry about that. I grabbed a bunch of random stuff for my big, handsome soldiers here, it’s so much to carry. If you see anything you like, feel free to take it.”
The guy with the butt plug slid it into his pocket, only a little of the fox tail showing. The other one saw a Doomguy helmet in the bag and took it. “Awesome! Thanks.”
“I’m just going to go in and give the Colonel something, is that alright?” I pushed forward as I asked.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked as I entered, dropped the bags, and locked the door behind me.
“I’m here to give someone a wonderful gift,” I said.
Rattix looked me over. As I said, hot woman. “Is that so?” he asked. He reached for the desk landline. “I’ll have you know I’m a happily married man, so…” He pressed the button to mute the ringer. “You’d better be discrete.”
I giggled. “I promise, I’ll be so discrete.” I put some extra sway into my hips as I approached the desk, leaning over it so he could get a good look at holographically-projected cleavage. “So discrete, I walked right in here and nobody stopped me.”
“What?” he asked. The Colonel had been undoing his tie, but he stopped, a skeptical expression crossing his face. I grabbed the tie and slammed his head against the desk once, twice, three times a lady.
From the Colonel’s reaction, this probably wasn’t even the first time the guards outside heard a hard banging on the desk followed by their boss going, “Oh god, oh god!” I don’t know how fast he is, but it didn’t take long to reach the climax of his life and leave his smashed half of a head laying on his desk. I grabbed his head and squeezed, feeling and hearing the pop and squelch of his skull bursting and spreading bloody grey matter around.
I walked out a few minutes later, sans bags, putting on a show of adjusting my top and skirt. The guards looked at me, then at each other with knowing smirks. “That was a short visit,” one of them noted, the one with the Doom Slayer’s helmet.
“I know,” I said, turning to grin. “Once I got my hands on him, he didn’t last long at all.”
“If you’re still hungry, I have seconds for you,” he said.
I turned and gave a “oh go on,” wave. “Honey, I don’t think you’d survive me. I’m positively mind-blowing.” I winked and began walking away as they laughed.
I made it out of the building and faded into the civilians passing nearby the building before anyone could raise an alarm. See, it’s best to just kill the enemy and get it over with. This message is for the rest. The superiors and the underlings alike can both see a regular person walk in. The cameras will show my little bribes of beer, toys, and sex toys as I made may way through the place. Their men can be bought and subverted, some of them at as low a cost as a six-pack. That’s all it takes to gain access.
Whoever comes after him in ICE will try to change it, but I think they’ll realize you can’t stop these guys in this kind of urban environment. Hell, you can’t stop them out in the middle of nowhere. Beer’s everywhere and so is online shopping. I wanted them to see me coming and to think I was just a regular person.
Between there and the CDC, my disguise changed a little bit. When I walked through those doors heading for Dr. Strode’s office, I looked like a redhead in a short skirt and a long lab coat, with heels that don’t go with lab work and legs that go for days.
Dr. Strode wasn’t in his office, but you know what was? A computer. I went ahead and gave it a dive, starting to copy the files. Stuff like Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. I smelled smoke and felt something. Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. I broke the connection and fell back into Strode’s chair. Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. The files I’d gotten so far were replicating. Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation.
I quarantined Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. Boom. God my faculties back. Time started running at a normal rate. With that taken care of, I wiped out all but one of the copies in case it was a useful file. Then I killed the original, Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. Alice Liddle, age 21, cause of death: suffocation. Ugh, a human computer virus that actually caused a minor problem. It distracted me long enough to keep me from salvaging more from the computer before it ended up a pile of burnt scrap in the office.
I shook it off with a growl and figured, hey, let’s go kill a guy. Oh, look, my disguise slipped off. I rushed to the morgue nearby. I pulled the door open to see Dr. Strode there on the other side, a new Hawaiian shirt under his coat. Faster than I expected, he turned and pulled an open corpse on a cart at me, ducking around. I grabbed the cart and pushed it aside, then walked in. In the meantime, he’d reached another corpse and slapped it. Its chest stitches popped open and a rifle bounced up. He grabbed it and turned it toward me, opening fire. I was on him, slapping the gun away and grabbing him by the lapel. I tossed him over onto another of his gurneys and strapped him down. I gave him an elbow to the belly that knocked the air out of him and started checking him over.
“How are you doing, Doctor?” I asked.
He smiled and spoke as if we were old friends. “Uh, I could be better. I wish I knew you were bulletproof. You’re strong but pretty. You work out?”
“Something like that. How are you getting the subjects?” I walked back over to the door and locked it. Of course my armor showed him trying to throw his body around and roll the gurney, as if that would help. I caught him and pulled him over near a table with some of his tools on it. Scalpels and bonesaws and spreaders, oh my!
“If I tell you, will you let me go?” Strode asked.
“I’ll think about it,” I answered.
He frowned. “That means no. Damn. CDC clinical trials. We stick people with stuff all the time. I grab someone who doesn’t have much time, give them the treatment, and set them loose. They get brought back here once they’re dead, so I can do whatever I want to the records. One time, I used one guy’s file to write the first draft of my Tindr profile. Yeah, got in trouble when I left it in. How’s the thinking going?”
I pretended to ponder, letting one hand slip over to a scalpel that I pretended to scratch my projected head with. “I’m trying to, but I keep wondering who else is left of DIE. You don’t seem like you’d do it alone.”
Strode laughed. “I give cash to homeless people. I met a nice bunch near the strip club I like going to. They help me out. The only other one I know is Senator McConnell.”
That got my interest. “McConnell?”
Strode nodded. “He’s the majority shareholder in DIE. The entire thing was his idea. Coordination with ICE, too.”
“You got any proof of that?” I asked.
He gestured with his head. “On my computer.”
“Yeah, about that… the computer’s not looking so hot,” I informed him.
His smile didn’t leave his face. Instead, he gestured over toward the rollout shelves on the wall. “Check number twelve. I made hardcopies I rolled up and stuffed into the intestines.”
I pulled open that door and pulled out a shelf with a dwarf. I figured, if this is real, I might actually let him go. He’s been really cooperative. If I’m shoving my hand up a dwarf’s ass for no reason, then I’m shoving his face up it next and suffocating him that way. Like Alice Liddle, age 21.
Wouldn’t you know it, he was telling the truth. He had a condom stuffed with rolled-up emails and documents. I got a good look at some before the flashbang hidden in them went off.
My eyes adjusted quickly, but I still found the gurney empty and the papers I’d held in my hand were on fire. Fast little bugger. I dropped the papers and stomped the fire out. Rushing out the door, I grabbed something a good throwing size, and saw Strode huffing his way down the hallway. I threw what turned out to be a heart, smacking him right in the back of the head. Knocked him down like he’d tried to roll. I was on him in no time, reaching down to the back of his pants.
“At least buy me a drink first,” he joked before I tore through the seat of his pants. Then he wondered, “Hey, what are you doing with that? That’s my sphincter! No, now that’s my colon!”
I pulled his intestines out and tied them around his neck, choking him out. Just to be sure, I picked up his passed-out form and bashed it against the walls a bunch of times until he was nothing but a bloody and stinky mess.
I hope Monroe can work with the remains of what he had and the images I captured before the flashbang.
Whatever’s up with ICE, and how they keep expanding their own mandate, they’ve bit off more than they can chew even without Project Accountability in town. But, hey, I got it wrong too. I thought we’d end up on our own here, but Atlanta does not give one single fucking fuck. The protests are bigger than ever. As much as I want to dismiss heroes in general and the colorful cape brigade we saw the other day, they were there too. No standing on the sidelines or avoiding the appearance of bias.
As powerful as I and Medusa are in our different ways, that’s something we can’t do. There is power in trust and reputation. I’m not trusted because of a reputation no one wants to publicly associate with. She’s got a reputation of not staying entirely inside the law, which puts protesters at risk. The cops, or ICE now, don’t care about if the protesters have done something wrong. They’ll shoot regardless, but it changes how everyone else perceives what’s going on. Can’t arrest a big enough crowd. Shatter the myth of Authority’s control, and make it clear that these are regular people instead of the folks it’s acceptable to hate.
But that’s their business. They protest. I kill. We all have different roles to play.
Sgt. Slam’s role was to get pissed off. Dr. Monroe focused on making his list and checking it twice. Newburgh started in on ICE communications as soon as he found out they arrived, so of course he’s listening in. Thing is, they’re not talking. Or maybe they are, just elsewhere. He’s solving that mystery. I’m joining in, too, but Slam mostly wants me out fighting. See, there’s all these guys around who are, at least tangentially, on our shitlist. And if it’s not them, it’s another pink brute being released by whoever survived the DIE massacre. I try to bring in some stuff from time to time to help. The occasional unanswered text to Medusa about reinforcements, or whipping up some gadgets or drones and sending them down here.
Our focus today involved an incident in the the suburbs of Atlanta. Two of the things were running loose. Again, I took one, Slam and Murko took the other. It had gotten easier for them now that they knew these things were running on borrowed time and could be dealt with if immobilized well enough. Slam’s been practicing with a net and some KY Jelly to make someone slip. It’s not a bad idea with the timeframe he’s had to work around. I’ve offered him some slick oil like villains prefer for their cars, but he’s hesitant to accept that kind of help still. No problem sending me off to kill someone for him, but he’s weird about my personal agency.
We got it all wrapped up, complete with me suffocating my brute with a goo that completely cut off the flow of oxygen to her body, in pretty short order. But while we were away, the mice did play. “Sergeant, we’re under attack!” came the frantic call from Gates, our driver with the cybernetic arms. “We’re in the wagon, rolling out. Monroe’s unconscious, Newburgh’s back there with him. Setting off the burn at the motel.”
I started back for the motel as soon as I could while bring up local LEO channels so I could listen in. They’d noted the motel raid underway and were talking about being ordered to stay off it. That’s a good thing. Then things picked up when they were given orders to go after a white and brown bus traveling westbound. I knew Gates was abreast of the situation when the orders changed rapidly to a bus headed southbound, then a yellow and black one going southeast, followed by grey and blue going north. Wish I’d seen that maneuver, and I hope he programmed in enough combinations and designs to keep messing with them.
“Gecko,” Slam said.
“On my way,” I responded. I reached out back to the motel to feel around for any of my stuff. Drones activated broke through collapsed drywall to leave bewildered Icers fumbling to fire up at them while I slowly swung and jetted through Atlanta to try and meet the bus. The drones caught up to me before I caught up to the bus, looking like mushrooms or jellyfish with jets and concealed guns. Two attached to each leg. I’d have preferred another couple for the arms, but they didn’t all come online. So the ones I did have fitted in and activated the rocket boosters they had to fly me to the team bus, now rainbow-colored, as headed up a small hill toward a police blockade.
Cops ran to catch the slowed bus, but the sides of it began to spew smoke that had them coughing and backing up. Turns out, cops don’t like being tear-gassed much. The gas also kept them away enough for when he went over the spike strips and the tires resealed themselves. Then the ICE agents in their armored cars tried to follow, and it turns out they don’t have someone like Gates pimping their rides.
“Coming in on top,” I warned Gates a few seconds before landing on the roof of the bus. I let the nanite cape spread out and start making alterations while ICE was busy learning how to drive without air in the tires.
Oh, what has mankind wrought? All the United States sought to do was create an independent executive agency with the authority to question people’s citizenship and the ability to detain or kill them in a country with famously lax oversight of law enforcement. Now, they have exactly that, which is deciding on its own that certain people shouldn’t count as American citizens for the purposes of expanding their authority. And those guys are crashing into each other because cars are hard to drive without working tires.
When I was done, we looked to everyone else like an H2 hummer limo instead of a tour bus. It took a combination of modifications, alterations of the camo plating Gates installed, and and holograms. We still stood out, but we stood out as clearly not a tour bus. By the time the chopper caught up to us, we didn’t look like what they were looking for anymore. I had to wait out its scrutiny before I could check the luggage compartment outside and make sure the armor I’d come to town in hadn’t been left behind.
Monroe turned out to be fine. He’d just had an adverse reaction to being shot a couple of times, falling, and banging his head. He threw himself into combing digital backups of his data to solve the mystery he’d been given as a way to calm his nerves.
One complication that arose was Sgt. Slam and Murko being followed. They spotted their tail easily and decided not to meet up with the rest of us just yet. “You need backup?” I asked.
“No, we got it. We’re going to ditch the jeep and the costumes. We’ll see if that works,” Murko said.
I closed up the luggage compartment and climbed back into the tour bus. “Newburgh,” I asked, then figured I’d try being a little nicer with us in a tense situation. “Good work on Monroe.”
“Thanks,” he said, trying to get some blood out from under his fingernails. “Is there something I can do for you?”
I nodded. “I’m trying to swap around and listen out, but I’d appreciate having another set of ears on this if you can spare them. I’m trying to eavesdrop and see how many others who showed up at the medical examiners are getting attacked. Or maybe it’s just a thing where they go after people who appear to be heroes in the city.”
He looked back at Monroe, who was frowning down at his laptop, then back to me and nodded. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
We didn’t. There was plenty about us, even a little about how cops found Slam and Murko’s abandoned jeep, but there didn’t seem to be anything else about other situations like ours in the city. “They might have got them quietly,” Newburgh advised. “We only realized something was up at the motel when cops noted the ICE vans near the motel and someone else cut in to tell them to be quiet about it.”
“Great,” I said. “They’re talking in-person. As the famous hacker Alec Hardison once said, ‘I can’t hack a hick.’ I could hack their phones, but that’s a hell of a lot of effort and extra noise to sort through, all the personal and work phones of every cop and ICE agent in the city.”
After two hours of Slam and Murko making sure they weren’t followed, they stepped through the door of the bus. An hour after that, we found out we’d been singled out. According to the news, ICE was on the lookout for a cell of the “terrorist” organization called Exemplar.
“Terrorist,” Slam harrumphed while drying himself off from a shower.
“Anyone who thinks you guys are terrorists doesn’t know what terror truly is,” I noted.
“It’s saying stuff like that…” Gates said, shaking his head, robo arms crossed over his chest.
Monroe, meanwhile, gasped. When we all turned to him, he held a hand up. “Let me doublecheck before I say anything.” We all went back to the news, where an ICE spokeswoman was talking about finding bomb-making material in the motel. So then everyone turned to me.
I shrugged. “Don’t leave home without it. Besides, they could always say that. You know how many things are bomb-making materials? Give me the right centrifuge, I can blow shit up with a banana and a glass of water.”
“Damn. Stupid!” Monroe berated himself. Slam put the TV on mute while recording the program, because we all focused on the doctor. “I should have checked the files better, the ones transmitted to us from DIE using the credentials Gecko stole for us. The personnel files seemed the same, but their payroll files didn’t match it. There are a few extra people they’re paying who aren’t listed as employees, and one of them is Dr. Woodrow Strode of the CDC.”
I doublechecked law channels, but still nothing out of the ordinary, unless they’re just back to using runners and talking in-person to avoid being hacked. “Still only targeted us,” I noted.
“Why?” Slam asked.
“Fuck!” Murko said, balling up his fist in frustration. “It was me. The day of the demonstration, I stayed behind to talk to him. I wanted to find out if he knew about the nanites Gecko used on the brutes and if he’d made that connection. I ended up hinting about the nanites. He mentioned them in private and said it wasn’t relevant to the briefing. I thanked him for his discretion while slipping him a couple hundos and that was that. He must have realized we were the ones using them, and since he had examined the bodies of the original brute and the other ones, he must have put it together that we were the ones who destroyed DIE.”
“There’s a reason they wanted someone hid in the CDC,” I said. “Maybe not this reason, but the point of it was, we weren’t supposed to know he was there. We didn’t know. Now we do. And knowing is half the battle.”
Slam stood up. “We may as well stop playing superhero. They probably don’t know we know about Strode. Enough shadow games and attrition. No more wasting our time fighting brutes. We cut off the head and burn the stump so nothing grows back in its place. It’s time to end DIE for good and kick ICE out of Atlanta.”
“Relax, and be heroic,” Dr. Monroe reassured me as we walked into the observation room. Slam got us in under the lie that we’re a group of superheroes who know something about what’s going on. He wore his costume, I wore a new set of armor I sent down to Atlanta from home. One with gauntlets that don’t get torn up when I use those laser claw powers. Murko was with us. He had some bright tights on that looked like spandex to me, a red that was almost pink broken up with a white stripe. There was a cartoony black bullet image on the chest in the stripe. Newburgh and Gates stayed behind, but Slam figured since Murko had been in the thick of it, he’d need the cover and it might give us more people on hand if something was up. I don’t know what he expected to be up, but I’m ok with the paranoia this time.
There was a small crowd of us, but the observation room was designed with more in mind. I recognized some of them from the newspaper articles about and other news media about the events around here. Down below, past a glass barrier in an operating theater, a CDC medical examiner waved up at us and spoke into a microphone clipped to his collar. His lab coat collar, I should say, not the collar of the Hawaiian shirt he wore underneath it. “Hello everyone. There are a lot of you, but don’t worry. The room is designed to allow everyone a clear view. Take seats if you like. Maybe we can get someone in to take drink orders?”
One of the other scientists in the observation room stepped up to a speaker. “Dr. Strode, if you please.”
Dr. Strode smiled wide. “I was just kidding. Right, so some of you are here because you fought this or one of the others like it.” He motioned toward the table where a bright pink person laid. She was almost back to human size. There was another body in the room though. Another table held a much larger version without the top half of his head and a large hole in his chest. Strode continued talking about the one I’d fought more recently. “What you’re seeing here is the victim of an unusual virus. This one was subdued in an unusual manner and some attempt at medical attention was made, but it was futile. Sorry. It wasn’t your fault!”
I wasn’t in a hurry to draw attention to myself and my use of nanites. “The virus causes cellular growth that’s only limited by its fuel source. The process of consuming body fat on internal organs caused extensive damage to them, that their body then tried to regenerate using more body fat. If they didn’t feed, they were going to die. Even medical nanomachines have proven incapable of healing the body while fending off the infection. If you’re wondering what they’d look like if they had more energy available, that’s where this guy comes in!”
He walked over to the table with the one I killed. That one was much bigger, though I suppose different circumstances kept the size difference from being all that obvious to me. Strode walked around to the head of the gurney that one was on to try and push it. His first attempt didn’t work, so he lowered his center of gravity. We all got to hear his grunts of exertion, along with his muttered comment, “I hope that was a fart.”
He stood back up and pointed to the body. “This was recovered in the aftermath of the attack on a government contractor’s office. We believe it to be related the ones getting loose. We don’t know who or what killed it, but they left us enough to confirm it was the same virus, and the subject had been extensively modified to acclimate to the virus.” He pulled one of the wounds open to give people a look at metal beneath the skin. “There is armor underneath the skin, but woven throughout the body is an intravenous nutrition system that fueled greater initial growth without the organ damage and would have kept it alive longer.”
The doctors gave us what information they could. The virus didn’t appear to be airborne or transferred by bites. “The CDC has a protocol to test for unusual diseases transmissible by bites in October,” Dr. Strode informed us all. The doctor by the intercom shook his head at us after hearing that and mouthed “Not true.” I’m siding with Strode on that one; if they don’t do that, they need to. There’s precedent.
The CDC would love to get a live one. I looked to Sgt. Slam when the doctor said that. He shrugged, so I take that as a maybe. We didn’t really come to provide more information to the CDC because that would let them know we had that kind of information. And if we had that information, it’s likely because we had something to do with what happened to DIE. They probably don’t know the Directorate for Investigation and Experimentation was a fascist organization. They’d be inclined to think badly of us trying to wipe it out. And the fact that this virus doesn’t seem to spread in more incidental ways suggests we missed someone who is inflicting this on people. The CDC’s going to work on studying it and coming up with a cure, but it’s up to the heroes and us to try and handle any outbreaks that happen.
“Because the cops are fucking useless, am I right?” Dr. Strode asked with a laugh. I like the guy.
That positive feeling lasted until we walked out the door and a bunch of ICE goons were marching across the CDC campus toward the entrance we were leaving. Slam tensed up looking for a fight, but I put a hand on his shoulder and asked, “What seems to be the officer, problems?”
An older fellow in a suit with the bearing of a military man stepped forward. “Our business is not yours. CDC yourselves out.” The Icers and their leader walked past us into the building, so they hadn’t figured us out.
Slam looked around called up Murko on the ear comms they liked to use. “Bulletman, where are you?”
I didn’t need special ear transceivers with all the parts I’ve got installed in me. This was over the general line we had, so I heard when Murko answered, “Sorry, Slam, I just finished talking with Dr. Strode. I wanted to make sure we were cool with the field triage.” I took it he meant the nanites. I don’t know why Strode didn’t mention them; maybe it was to avoid giving unnecessary information to a bunch of people who put on costumes and stick their noses in other people’s business. Murko’s the team cleaner, though. It makes sense he’d think to stop in and see how likely it was that a secret of ours would stay secret.
“What’s the word?” Slam asked.
“We’re good,” Murko answered.
“Good. ICE walked into the building on some business of theirs. Don’t cause problems,” Slam told him.
“Won’t even stop to use the bathroom,” Murko responded.
I went ahead and uploaded the talk to our stuff in the new place. Murko had us change motels out of a sense of paranoia I can appreciate now that we know DIE’s not dead and ICE is sniffing around.
I put in the appearance of patrolling so folks would at least have seen me out and about. It gave me a possibility to be around when a brute attack happened. Mostly, I made sure to patrol the strip clubs. Listen, folks, we have to stop the epidemic of lapdance thieves, and I could think of no better way than having a big Black ass in my face. I even got to handle a couple guys who tried to get violent with the girls.
I was on my way back from a bit of on-land boating one night when I got the call from Slam. “Gecko, a brute’s have been spotted. Murko and I are on our way, but you’re closer. Sending you the location.”
They weren’t slumming it that night. This time, the pink brute had ended up in a pretty location, a gated community. I jumped into the air, my nanomachine cape and hidden jets carrying me toward the land of cast iron fences and meticulously manicured lawns. I was too late to stop all the damage. By the time I arrived, the giant had time to tear this house up. A van by the street didn’t have any one wheel connected to another. The garage had a cartoonish hole smashed through it, and a wall inside there was gone with a car poking out of a kitchen instead. Several upstairs walls were more hole than wall now. I tore open the front door just as something in the house gave a loud pop and it all went dark.
In horror movies, this would somehow give the giant, angry man a chance to sneak up on me like a stealth tyrannosaur. In reality, without all the additional noises people get used to, it made it even easier to hear where the brute was. I picked my way through wreckage more akin to a tornado than a person and found it lashing out blindly in the dark, mouth frothing and teeth clenched around an arm hanging out of its eating hole. We were in some sort of dining room. Thick, expensive wood chairs surrounded a table that looked like a bitch for anyone without powers to carry. On the back wall were a pair of cabinets full of crystal dinnerware.
I had a nifty idea involving a grenade. Chicken grenades like I usually prefer stand out too much. I had the nanites do a different sort of disassembly and reassembly, this time with explosives instead of tissue and organs. The brute finally caught on once they started to crawl down his throat. He tried biting and slapping and puking. Then they rebuilt the grenade inside his neck and rushed out of him back to my cape.
His head actually flew off and bounced off the ceiling when it exploded in his throat. He flopped around a bit like a chicken without a head before falling over and smashing a chair flat underneath him.
Turns out it was the mayor’s house. And the mayor’s arm. And the mayor’s half-eaten corpse in the upstairs bedroom. That was all further confirmed when the same man who spoke for ICE at the CDC went on TV and announced what was going on, declaring the heroes ineffective in protecting the city from this emerging new “foreign” threat, and stating that they were taking control of the city until the current crisis was over.
The reporters started to ask silly little questions about authority, laws, the Constitution, and duration. That lasted until the Icer pointed out one of the journalists. ICE agents grabbed him, threw a bag over his head, and hauled him off while the speaker declared, “This is no time for amateur heroes and whiny reporters to make our job harder. This crisis requires a firm hand to solve. When this city is safe, then you can have it back.”
Monroe and Slam put him on the top of the Accountability list. Second place goes to the mystery person who is creating these brutes and set one loose at the mayor’s place to aid this power grab.
“Looked what the cat hacked up!” Sgt. Slam said. “You ready to get back to work?”
I slumped into a chair, mindful of the tender spot on my side where the nanites stitched me up. The night’s adventures. Reindeer doesn’t go for the nanites, I think some sort of magical interference. I don’t know how it all works, but there seems to be some sort of divide between magic and technology. Same reason my cybernetic eyes are somehow replaced by Reindeer’s organic ones. There’s a mystery there, but that’s not what I’m dealing with.
I’m dealing with DIE: the Directorate for Investigation and Experimentation. It’s boring name for a group that experiments with dangerous mutated diseases to do all kinds of shit. Like how they created a giant pink hulk with glowing lights under his skin who punched me through through a building. Vertically.
“What’s next?” I asked. “If we’re traveling, can we get a tour bus or something? I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“I had something like that in mind for Gates. Dr. Monroe, Murko, and Newburgh are busy following leads to make sure we got the job done. The way you chose to handle the building was messy, indiscriminate, and makes it harder to check everyone off the list. Bodies are still being dug out of the wreckage. That’s complicated by the basement levels, which we never got to check because you blew the place up after getting your face pounded in and then out your ass.”
For the record, I’m 75% sure that wasn’t literal. I’m pretty sure I can survive it, but that doesn’t mean I want to feel it.
Slam told me, “Recuperate. We’ll let you know if we need you.”
So I did. Zipped back to my body back home. Started decorating the yard. When you’ve got some skeletons in the closet, it’s easy to find a spare for the yard. Put out some plastic jack o’lanterns as well until we’re far enough along. Those things gave me an idea, too. An idea I had time to work on while my daughter was off at school.
It was nice. Having a normal day, working on my little pet transhumanism project. Even at my store, I managed to score a nice little win. Seems this kid had lost a hand recently. He and his mom weren’t comfortable with an organic replacement, and I ended up talking up the value of cybernetics. Took me little time to whip up a replacement hand for him, complete with tone-matched fake skin cover. The hand I gave him is better than the original, and that’s without all the extra toys I wanted to give him. His mom said “no” to the laser, grappling hook, hidden blades, smoke machine, and sonic weaponry. I told the kid to come see me if he’s getting bullied or when he turns 18.
The day didn’t require an AK, so it was a good day. The same can’t be said of the night. I got called back by Sgt. Slam who enthusiastically shook the body I had at the motel. “Wake up, dammit. We need you!”
“I’m here,” I said, jumping up and walking to my armor. It closed around me and together, we were both encased in a slimy nanite covering.
“What are you doing?” Slam asked.
“Updates,” I said. “What do you need me for?”
“Something’s out there. Multiple somethings. More of those pink things like you fought.”
“It’s a good thing I’m upgrading,” I said. Some of the nanites spread out, helping themselves to pieces of the lamps, TV, and wiring. “This won’t take long. Where do we go?”
“Gates is helping evacuate Monroe and some people who were attacked. Murko’s moving to overwatch for the neighborhood, but this isn’t secure enough to bring people to and he doubts his rifle’s up to this. Newburgh was at a hospital and is trying to assist with triage.”
“What kind of numbers are we talking?” I asked, the nanomachines flowing back into their tail configuration as they finished adjusting me and closing a few final cracks in the armor. Unfortunately, those repairs won’t be adequate. Nothing I grabbed was the alloy I use or even good quality steel. The nanites are also a bit depleted after everything they’ve done. I intended to keep an eye out for materials they could use to replenish their ranks.
“Newburgh said there were at least four. He says one’s wrecking the CDC, another’s tearing up the protest, and the other two are on the move. Wait, one’s wrecking a police station. You take the CDC. Murko and I will do what we can for the protesters. After that, we take down the third and try to find the fourth, got it?” When I nodded, he clapped me on the shoulder. “Good. Good luck out there.”
He’d need it more than me. But he also saw the aftermath. He knows what he’s getting into.
“One last thing,” he said before I left. “You might want to disguise yourself. You look evil. People will judge you.” Meanwhile, he slid on a brighter costume. Mostly blue and white, but with a red “Slam!” on the front. It looked ridiculous and cheesy. “People are more willing to run to a savior who doesn’t look like Sauron at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, and it makes it clear we’re good guys fighting a good fight, not jealous villains.”
My mind went to Reindeer, but I don’t want Herne the Hunter interrupting shit now that he’s vowed to take her antlers. I didn’t have the board for the Free Radical persona I’ve used before. There weren’t any rockets handy to call myself the Missile Patriot. And I… huh. Weird. Having trouble remembering some stuff, but that’s probably just some connections I’ll have to fix with the computerized parts of my brain. Must have missed something with the nanites is all.
My armor shifted, the nanite tail shifting to become a cape that colored itself purple. The armor itself went Tyrian purple as well, with bright silver accent marks. The helmet appeared to show my face in a metal cowl topped with a tiara. The holograms showed less mass to the armor, making it appear skintight and with prominent heels on the boots. I liked the look enough to queue it up in the armor forge back home. The cape might be a decent alternative to having a tail.
“If that’s the best you can do,” Slam said. “Code name?”
“Eminence,” I said. The name has been used before. “Because I rule.”
I saw him roll his eyes before he fixed a domino mask with white-out eyes into place. “I’d say it’s your funeral, but let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that. This is going to be hard enough already.”
One good thing about having a cape made of nanomachines, I can really Spawn this shit up. There were the tiny jet engines to help boost me, but I had the cape itself spread out and pull me along using buildings and street lights along the way. By the time I reached the CDC, the pink brute there had made a huge hole in the outer wall. There were a lot of dead and injured people outside, some in security guard outfits. I lowered myself down and managed to catch someone being tossed out. “Easy there, I got you,” I told the grey older scientist in my arms.
“I think I shat myself,” he said.
“Giant pink hulks have been known to cause anal leakage. If symptoms persist more than four hours, see a sex toy shop about a butt plug,” I recommended, setting him down. I jogged toward the building, my armor amplifying my voice. “Hey big’un! Uber Ass-Whoopin’s is here with your order! One boot up your starfish, special delivery!”
There was a roar from within. This big pink person who ran out looked a bit different than the other one. No glowing lights under the skin, longer hair, no penis… huh, it was a woman. Harder to tell as the muscle growth and the stretching of skin diminished the visual characteristics most used as shorthand for sex.
There were a lot of people around, both in the building she’d been attacking and outside trying to escape. And past the campus of the CDC was a whole city, so it’d be tough to wrangle this thing to a safe spot for a huge fight. I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t planning on a fair fight. Last time, this thing caught me by surprise. Now, it’s time to wield the mighty power of a brain infused with the might of a thousand suns.
My cape flew forward and formed a cone in front of me and I made some adjustments to my armor so as not to blow out the speakers. I let the brute get close. Almost waited too long. It jumped toward me, so I went ahead and unleashed the Paralyzing Note. Or Banshee Scream or whatever I’ve called it in the past. A tone I picked up during my captivity in The Cube, where they played a sound that disabled motor functions to keep me subdued. Naturally, I found a way around it. Unthinking pink giant didn’t, but I still had to throw myself to the side to avoid the paralyzed brute landing on top of me. There were folks around who were also affected, so it had some collateral damage.
Righting myself, I latched onto the big gal’s body and pulled us closer together. Up in the sky, I spotted helicopters, some medical and some news. The medical ones descended to try and help some of the wounded, so looks like I won’t be pulling this paralysis trick. Image-wise, it would have been better to contain this thing. I didn’t have that option. Instead, my cape flowed into its body. This thing was heavily infected with something that had warped its body shape.
I’d have use pretty much every nanite in my cape to have a chance of curing this thing. So I did. Extra armor plates, jet turbines, lasers, etc. all collapsed to the grass as the little robots flowed into that brute to start healing it.
Luckily, my 360-degree HUD decided to call special attention to the car flying at me from behind. I turned and acted on instinct. From my gauntlets grew laser claws, the result of upgrading my body with powers I have been able to copy from others. I dug those claws into the middle of the side of the car that would have hit me, cutting through and pushing it aside to protect myself, but also digging in to hold it and keep it from flying off. I finished tearing the car in half, but dug the claws in and ran at the new pink brute who was likewise charging me. “Touch Me And I’ll Break Your Face” began to play in and around my armor.
We ran at each other, me slowed down by the car halves wrapped around my fists, and him bounding. I landed the first hit, smashing the car apart as I put him on his ass mid-jump with right cross. He reached for my head. He lost an arm to the laser claws, then the other. A sweep at his legs left him on stumps as I wound up and gave him hell with an overhand punch with the left, smashing that car apart as well. While he was down, I leaned in close an gave him the Paralyzing Note as quietly as possible, putting an end to his thrashing. It didn’t stop his body from trying to heal but, it was taking him awhile.
“Hey Slam, I found that fourth one, I think. I got two down here. Both paralyzed. Nanites are cleaning up one of them of the infection doing this. The other one’s no threat at the moment.”
“Stay-!” I heard the sounds of effort, “With them!”
“Murko, what’s going on?” I asked, switching over to a private channel with him.
“I’m doing what I can to distract Target 2. Got some explosive rounds. Slam’s engaging with Target 1 and I’m popping off shots to help him out when I have them in sight. I know what he said, but can you get here?”
“Not quickly. Nanites are tied up at the moment. Might could commandeer a chopper, but that would leave one of these guys here where it can regrow some stuff and wake up.”
“Local law enforcement is busy trying to escape the police station, that’s where Target 2 is at. Nothing they’re using is any good against this thing, but the smoke’s making it a little harder for it to toss them around.”
“I don’t think these things are as tough as the one I fought,” I said, looking down at the one whose limbs I’d taken off. “That one could stop an atom-thin blade. This one, it was laser, but it still took the arms off easily. Still regrowing as easily.” The pink guy’s mass was diminishing a bit as they regrew, the muscles shrinking, but those arms were coming back as quickly as the other one at least. Maybe whatever they’d done to the other guy, implanted something subdermal, maybe that helped him take more initial punishment and stop the nanite blade. “Still, this thing’s healing too quickly. I can leave, but it’ll be back up. Try and take the limbs off.”
“That’s what Slam’s doing,” Murko informed me.
I decided to lay out something that could be used against me. It’s part of the downside of nanite-assisted rapid regeneration and part of the reason I’m less usually less-than-discriminatory about what they feed on to heal me. It’s also why I eat a lot. I let Slam know as well. “That mass doesn’t come from nowhere. You take arms and legs off, it’ll heal, but it has to cannibalize other mass on the body to do so. Common downside of healing that quickly and unnaturally.” Hell, humans just plain don’t regrow limbs at all do to the body not really doing regrowing that stuff after initial development in the womb. This infection they have has broken through that, but it’s still subject enough to the laws of physics that the mass has to come from somewhere.
My nanites consume from food and leftovers from the digestive system to help me regrow, with them transferring mass from elsewhere and gradually shortening me as a last resort if I’m in bad enough shape. Basically, skimming a little off my body here and there so I get smaller little by little, to help make up the difference. Fat reserves go first, which is another good reason for me to eat as much as I do. Just indulge the hell out of my tastes, since I’ll probably make it up healing. With some minutes to ponder and nanites sending me data, I had time to try and figure this out.
I knelt by the one I’d taken the arms and legs off of and saw problems cropping up. The wounds closed and the arms and legs started to come in quick, initially. Muscles atrophied as the body’s healing and growth processes, supercharged as they were, still needed to free up energy from somewhere. That tells me a lot, because while some energy is initially stored in muscles as glycogen, full-on consumption of muscle for energy usually takes days without food. The amino acids are then used for glucose. And it’s not just the main muscles we think of that get broken down. I called Slam back up. “Not all legs and arms if you can. Just enough to keep it from hurting anybody.”
I heard a grunt. “There. Let’s see you catch me without any legs!”
I swapped to Murko. “That one at the police station, is it eating anything?”
“It was trying to eat people before local heroes got here. It’s slowing down though.”
“It’s probably just a matter of time. These things’ metabolisms have to be going crazy with them healing like they do. This one I cut all the limbs off might die of starvation before I can free up enough nanites to stabilize it.”
Reluctantly, I pulled out an emergency chocolate pudding cup from a utility pouch on my armor and asked Slam. “We still want these things alive, right?” I mean, it was my last pudding cup. The others didn’t survive the first encounter with a pink brute.
He sounded like he was catching his breath. “If possible. We need to study this and figure out where these things are coming from. This is too big a mess to leave to the locals. We’re going to need a cover story.”
Of course, the splash of photos on the front page of the newspaper the next day left Murko more vocal about what we needed. “You need to go fuck yourself!” he said pointing at me. “And you need to get the press out of our grill!” he said to Slam.
“We Needed Heroes And They Appeared!” the headline declared, showing Slam guarding a legless giant, me standing triumphant near a pair of them, and the local costume brigade standing near one that ended up trapped under a pile of police vehicles the heroes had saw fit to pile on top of it until it couldn’t move.
We were still in Atlanta when the full moon hit. I’d already called Reindeer’s costume to me and contemplated taking a rest. I could have concentrated my consciousness to another body to monitor things or do other things, but I just didn’t feel like it. So I said goodbye to the crew, headed off on my own with Reindeer’s costume and gadgets, and waited for the full moon to catch my eye. As usual, my awareness ended before I realized it. Everything that follows is based on the cameras and other sensors on Reindeer’s costume.
She spent a little bit appreciating the night. The South is cooling down a little, and she seemed excited to look up at that big, yellow moon, then suited up to in her costume to go for a run. She was in the middle of Atlanta, though, so it wasn’t the sort of place used to seeing a critter with antlers gallop through. She moved like she was so naturally light, almost like flying. Before long, the needs of those poor, unfortunate souls called to her. A car crashed ahead of her at an intersection and Reindeer made right for it. The guy inside is going to be fine.
It was a quieter night. There were protests, but the cops were finally slacking off. Most of what she dealt with for about an hour was more mundane. She snatched someone up out of the road before they got hit by an inattentive driver. She found some blankets for a homeless guy and his pals who were sleeping under an overpass. She even helped find someone’s lost cat.
Then, shortly after handing it back over, a pale green star of light shimmered in the air down the road, then opened up to reveal a single headlight. The motorcycle that approached did so with the growl of a hungry beast, and the rider appeared to be holding a spear. I recognized the horn design on the helmet when Herne The Hunter got close, skidding to a stop. He didn’t even flip open the helmet to address me. “You’re outside your normal playground, Reindeer.”
“You got a problem with it, Herne?” Reindeer asked.
“I’m thinking I need a new trophy.. A special one, like antlers from a female reindeer that’s managed to keep them an entire year. Those would be special and rare. Know where I can find some like that?” the biker supervillain asked.
Reindeer gave him the “shove it” gesture. “That direction, keep going until you hit permafrost.”
“Funny. I bet my friend there thinks the same thing,” Herne said, pointing behind Reindeer. The other me turned to look behind her, then turned back toward a small bang that preceded her being wrapped in a weighted net. I’m not mad, Reindeer, I’m disappointed!
My heroic alter ego tried to toss it off but it caught in her horns. She tried to tear it open, but it was reinforced. She tried to jump over the spear when Herne rode at her on his bike, and she accomplished that one. The landing looked off a bit with the net caught all on her.
Herne skidded the bike to a stop and wheeled it around for another pass, taking the time to to move the netgun from the hand guiding the cycle to magnetically clip onto the bike’s body. Reindeer raised the arms of her costume and the sonic weapons, giving Herne a full blast. It knocked the hunter off, but Herne raised a hand as if to call for mercy. Instead, a pair of hounds made of light appeared and rushed toward Reindeer.
Reindeer jumped, using the assistance of the other sonic devices affixed to her legs, and landed on top of a nearby building. Figured she’d get the net off herself in peace, a notion that lasted only until the lighthounds started up the wall of the building after her. Reindeer took off, jumping from building to building, sometimes helping herself along with soundwaves. The hounds couldn’t keep up, or maybe they have some sort of range.
The net had gotten on her good, but it was still just a net. With a little bit of time to actually thing about it, she tossed it off and began contemplating her next move. I know because she narrated to me, “I haven’t heard from you, Gecko, so I guess you took the night off. I’d like to work with you, if you’re up to it. Trying to decide if I need to sneak around and get the drop on this guy, or leave him alone. I think he’s only here for me, so he probably won’t target anyone else. If he’s anything like you, he might get the idea to start hurting people until I turn around and show up. I think that means I have to go back. Good talk.”
She turned and headed back, circling around somewhat in case Herne was following straight behind her. She caught a glimpse of moving lights through some trees in the yards of a residential neighborhood and stopped to look around. After a couple of seconds, she dropped down to ground level and tried to stick to grass. She tried to stay close to a tree, but with the branches and then a swing, she had to take a bit of a detour around it. At least she had the advantage of sound to warn her if Herne was on his motorcycle. She turned the corner around the house and saw one of the lighthounds. The other didn’t seem to be there. She looked around, then saw the garbage and recycling bins.
She ran up on the hound. It detected her somehow, I don’t fucking know if those things can hear, and turned. It latched onto her arm while she swung the bin down behind it, lid open. It then lost its hold on her arm when she kicked it full-on in the chest into the bin and slammed the top closed. With a snort, she turned and swung the bin, smacking the second hound into the side of the house. “Sorry!” she called out, voices inside raising as people wondered at the ruckus.
Reindeer turned to glimpse a single headlight and hear an unusual roar and bolted. She stuck close to obstacles while she could; keeping trees in the way, staying on grass, leaping fences. Herne’s ride wasn’t a dirtbike, so it slowed him down a little to navigate these. He could head out onto the streets, but his hounds had been left behind and he must not have reloaded the net launcher. Surprisingly, Reindeer to the streets again briefly. She jumped, shooting up like a bullet over Herne’s tossed spear. She landed on a highway overpass and barely avoided getting squashed by a garbage truck.
Watching her running down the median of this highway made me tired afterward. The werereindeer has amazing stamina. Pretty good speed for someone on foot. But only she was on foot. It wasn’t ten minutes later a single headlight raced up the highway behind her, and the only obstacles Herne needed to avoid this time were cars going fifty miles an hour. Seemingly worse for Reindeer, she stopped and turned to face it, her breathing calming down.
Herne had his spear riding on his back, but his hands weren’t focused solely on driving. He did something, then reached back. He pulled out a pair of irregular rifles. Oh, wait, one of those is a grenade launcher. Reindeer spotted it first with her superior vision. That’s what gave her enough of a heads-up to jump the median when she saw something. Unfortunately, the cameras gave me an eye- and earful of a huge flashbang going off that probably did a lot more to her than it would a regular person. She stumbled around a bit, regaining her sense of direction within seconds and running out into the other half of the highway literally blind and deaf to the danger. Luckily, enough drivers had seen what had happened that people slowed down rather than risk hitting her. It sounded like some might have even been yelling at Herne, but I couldn’t get a good enough listen.
Something else lashed out at her from direction of Herne. A bola as near as I could make out, it wrapped around Reindeer’s legs. The hero faltered and tripped, but I think she’d had just about enough by then. This time, she tore through rope and cable like a male model through any shirt that might hide his abs. Herne launched another flashbang, but this time Reindeer got an assist from a semi. It slowed down and rolled right beside her, the driver popping his door open as he passed by. It hit and caught Reindeer at first before the effects of the second flashbang let her see someone has risked his livelihood to help her out. She climbed the open door to the top of the cab, calling down, “Sorry!” while stepping on the roof.
Herne jumped the concrete barriers of the median and started heading right for her, spear in hand this time. He came up next to a tow truck and struck, hitting something that forced the rear of the bed down to skid against the road. The truck and Herne both braked, Herne going up on his front wheel to slow down.
Reindeer started adjusting the output on her sonic gauntlets. Herne circled around, dodging a car that honked its way through the lane he’d been in, and gunned it as the truck neared the semi. Reindeer fired and cussed when she saw it wasn’t going to cut the motorcycle’s jump short. It knocked Herne off, though. Reindeer quickly lowered her arms and dug in, moving to the side as she grabbed the hand grips of the bike. She spun and jumped off the semi, whirling motorcycle in hand, bearing down on the villain who was still skidding on the road. Herne saw it and reached behind him for his spear, bending.
The spearhead punched through. Reindeer juked to avoid it. She also pulled hard on the bike, tearing off the seat and the whole steering column. Meanwhile, Herne tried pulling the spear back through but barbed edges of the head caught on the bike. Seeing an opening, Reindeer gripped the motorcycle and strained, tearing the remains in half. Herne caught her in the side of her chest with the spear, but she grabbed onto it and swung, tossing him and the weapon off the highway and down below.
The suit had a small first aid and trauma kit in the belt. Reindeer raised a thumb to hitch a ride and caught onto a truck that honked at her, swinging up onto the bed without it ever stopping. There, she tended her wounds, the hunter unable to follow if he was even willing at this point.
Two messages waited for me when I awoke back at the motel. One was from Reindeer reiterating that she wants me to transfer to something to help her out next time. The other was on VillaiNet’s forums and caught my attention because Herne was calling out Reindeer. “This isn’t over, Reindeer. In one month, it’s open season on you. I will have those antlers!!!!”
“Hey,” I told Sgt. Slam the other day. “I don’t exactly know how long this is going to go on, but there is a little bit of a time issue. Come the full moon, I’ll change.”
“You’re one of the weres from last year? How much of a threat are you going to be to us?” he asked. He was sitting there with Gates, having a PB and J while Gates cleaned a shotgun.
I shook my head. “Reindeer’s heroic.”
“You’re Reindeer? You?” he asked. “That’s goddamn tragic. Thanks for letting me know so I can plan around it.”
Walking away, I overheard him tell Gates. “I wish it worked the other way. I hear Reindeer’s a good one.”
Fuck you, too. Slam and Monroe have been doing all the planning, too. They either know enough what I’m capable of, or don’t care and expect me to die in the case of Slam, that they’re working it out without a lot of input on my behalf. What are they going to do, ask if I’m willing to blow up a building? I once played chicken with the moon! I killed a monster that ate gods by portaling it into the sun. From what I’ve seen, the biggest challenge they’re coming up with is a way to take out DIE while exposing them so this isn’t painted as a terrorist attack. Plus, Slam wants to be part of the attack for some reason.
At least they didn’t need much more time after my revelation about Reindeer. Good. There couldn’t be that much to figure out.
“The doctor and I have gone over this in case there’s anything more to it, but we can’t see many potential complications.” Slam briefed us all in his room again, using a projector and a blank wall. “Take a good look at the blueprints, everyone. Gecko, we have a copy you can download. These are old and pre-date DIE moving into the building, but the building’s layout should be fundamentally the same. According to this, we’ve got three basement floors, and twelve above. I want Murko covering us from the south, able to catch anyone trying to stage a defense or assault at the main entrance, catch any of the targets who try to escape that way. Gates will be north of the building in our getaway. Keep us appraised of the situation, and you might be called on to round up anyone sneaking out that way. Newburgh will be in the getaway with Gates to help pull lead out of our asses if needed. Otherwise, monitor communications to give us an updated view of the police response. Monroe’s staying back here. Gecko, you and I are going in. We disable the elevators here, here, and here, lock the basement stairwell and one of the upper stairwell doors, then take the other up. Pick off targets as they present themselves. We get to a computer with full server access, like one of the ones the directors use up here, we can plug these USBs in to give Newburgh access to dump everything incriminating on the web. Any questions?”
Of course my hand shot up. “I get why we’re not splitting up, but is there any chance at all at bringing in outside temp help here?”
“We don’t have the resources to pay for some gun-happy mercenary kill team,” Slam said. “And I don’t trust them. We make do with what we got. Anything else?”
Me again. “Ok, so you don’t want help for that. I can arrange a distraction to keep the cops away from us. No need to trust outsiders with anything sensitive. Contract some villains for a distraction job, keep cops and SWAT focused on that before we go in. I can pay for it myself.”
Slam thought it over, but Monroe was already nodding. Not that Monroe’s opinion mattered to this part of the plan. After thirty seconds, Slam nodded. “Keep our business out of it, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Set that up for ten to fifteen before we move on DIE. Anything else?”
The day of the job, Slam and I hopped out of the car we’d taken, separate from the minivan Gates had reinforced and modified. According to the driver, what looked like a soccer mobile could hold its own in the Indy 500. We’ll see if the situation calls for it.
Slam and I brought bags with us, containing the essential toys we needed for this mission: chains, locks, guns, and my spork. I moved on ahead, wrapping myself in invisibility so I could screen for Slam. Loaded down with the chains and locks, he was easy pickings for the guards they had. It didn’t help that, while they looked like standard rentals, the first pair of guards I encountered were packing some pimped-out pistols. I’m not talking nickel- or gold-plating; these had unusual barrels that adjusted in width as they were aimed at Slam. They didn’t even have time to issue an order before their necks opened up and they fell. I reappeared, one half of my spork still held where it jabbed one guard’s throat, the bottom half and the concealed serrated blade within where the other throat had been.
“Told you it’s tactical,” I told Slam as he approached.
“I’m still never taking that thing serious,” Slam said. He was about to open his mouth when I disappeared again. Soon, a lawncare guy kneeling in the bushes collapsed, spreading his own personal tomato soup from the wounds in his back from my spork, another of those pistols rolling out of his hand. I grabbed that one for later examination.
A foursome of guards waited inside, all taking cover behind counters. One of them had a plasma rifle like the ICE agents favored. They all yelled at Slam as he entered, then the guy with the rifle turned it on his comrade next to him before his own head smushed. At the same time, the other two’s arms came off. I appeared in the middle of the room, a metallic monstrosity with flowing liquid metal tendrils stabbing into two of the guards while gripping the headless body of a third.
“Get the basement doors!” Slam ordered.
We had the whole lobby area shut down in minutes, despite the alarms. We had a few people flee from the elevator, but none of them matched Monroe’s targets. He’d warned us there would always be lower level people, some deserving what they got, but others would be in the dark. Slam didn’t want us causing more casualties than necessary.
“How’s that distraction?” Slam asked.
“The Bingo Night Robbery is going swimmingly,” I told him as we started making our way up to the second floor. “Hey, how about instead of that, we just seal these- there’s one!” One of the targets, an evil neorologist, poked his head out of a door and got his mind blown by Slam.
“Seal them?” Slam asked.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling that body out of the way of the metal door so I could weld it with my tail laser. “Funnel them into the other stairwell while we head up. Handle the computer bit, then head back down and clear as needed.”
We made much better time that way, finally bursting into a laboratory lit with green and yellow lighting at the top. “I expected cushy offices.” I looked around, spotting some samples in protective cases with labels. I looked over them, looking for anything to suit my fancy. They had names like Mutated Anthrax, 245 Trioxin, Solanum, Zero Point Pathogen, Ecz-ecz-eczema, Spontaneous Combustion, and Moderately Pissed-Off Cow Disease.
“Found one!” Slam called out. I heard him calling out. “Newburgh, we’re plugged in. Tell me this is what we’re looking for.”
“It is,” I heard Newburgh call out over comms. “The distraction is holding up. No law in sight.”
“Murko?” Slam asked.
“CDC knows something’s up and some guards have approached, but they can’t get anywhere. One of them tried to shoot out the lock on the stairwell and injured himself in the process. Lock’s still holding and no law in sight.”
“Gates here. I keep wondering when one of them’s going to try jumping from the second floor, but so far they’re all inside. Like the others said, no law.”
“We’re about ready to- hey!” Slam called my fist bounced off the protective cover of one of the displays. Holy shit that thing’s tough. I turned around toward him, hiding what I’d tried to take with my body. “We’re not here so you can steal the next mega-disease. Come on, let’s clear the other stairwell and the floors.”
I nodded and followed him along, leaving behind a hole carved in that now-empty display.
We set foot into the stairwell and headed down one level, getting a good look at the mass of people crammed into the lower part. “I’m surprised the chain’s holding up,” Slam said.
“Won’t have to much longer,” I said, holding up a vial. I pushed him along into floor eleven before uncorking it and tossing the expanding white fog down into the stairwell below. I rushed in after him, pulling the door tight.
“What the hell was that?!” Slam demanded.
“Mutated Anthrax, apparently,” I said. “Should clear the stairwell no problem.”
“I didn’t want to turn this into a bloodbath! You’re ruining everything!” Slam yelled.
“I agree, you are ruining everything,” added a man in a labcoat. We were in another lab, this one dimly lit in blue. He stood next to a body shackled to a thick steel table. Rubber tubes spiraled around the body’s arms and plugged into the sides of his neck. Despite the colored lighting, his exposed skin was an unnatural pink, and lights blinked from beneath the upper skin layer in places.
“Kill me,” rasped the person on the table, his body seizing up.
“Get away from that table!” Sgt. Slam ordered.
The scientist raised his hands and moved to the side, toward a control panel. “Gladly!” I was already jumping, but he didn’t even try to hit the switch before I plowed into him, shoved my hands into his ribs, and pulled his body in two lengthwise.
I turned to the screaming subject on the table who grew rapidly with the sound of tearing flesh. I should know, I just made that sound with the scientist. He broke out of the table and grabbed me in a giant hand, then slammed me into the ceiling and floor. I was a bit dazed, but pried his hand open, having to break one of his fingers in the process. I landed free, and watched as this giant purple slab of muscle and fury grabbed his own broken finger and tore it off. I formed my nanomachine tail into a thin blade and went for his head. The tail stopped about halfway through. He grabbed it with his hands, opening himself up even more in the process, and pulled it free. The neck closed up almost immediately. He yanked me toward him by the tail and caught me even as I tried to kick his face upward and scramble free. He held me against the the floor and punched me so hard, I suddenly saw a hole in the ceiling above us. A hole with blue light. Oh shit, he punched me down a floor.
Something that hard knocks a few brain cells into slumber. I know I tried punching, kicking, and slashing, but he still clocked me more than I was capable of counting at the time. I think at one point the beatdown went horizontal and I went through a pillar. Take it easy on me, folks, punches that hard remove lots of skills. He knocked the reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic out of me. By the time we landed in the lobby, I’d even lost potty training.
I got pounded so hard, I got invited to a porn star union.
He stopped there, looking around at the daylight streaming into the lobby while I was on dream street. My conscious mind had checked out, but when this pink monstrosity turned back to me, it got to meet the instinctive me. It turned back to me and raised both fists. In retrospect, I could spot where the finger it broke off was growing back. Two tendrils formed atom-wide nanite blades as they wrapped around his elbows. They bit in as they wrapped around, then rapidly unwrapped, carving through the pink flesh. Hot blood splashed onto my armor and through cracks in it where I could feel it, and his fists fell to either side of me.
He roared in pain, right in my face. The tendrils shot into the back of his mouth. His eyes went wide just before I popped the top of his head off. His whole body thrashed and fell on me. I pushed him to the side, rolling over on top and pulling his chest open with the help of my lovely little machine blades. New meat was growing out of the bottom half of that thing’s mouth and I was going all Poe here trying to silence its tell-tale heart. I levered its chest open to see the thing still beating. My machines ate it, tearing atom from atom and staying there in a knot of metal that kept a new one from growing back until, finally, the body stopped healing at all.
After that, I got up, took a few steps, shat myself, and collapsed for a moment while tiny robots stitched my meaty shell back together. Pretty sure it had to knit some grey matter to itself, too. I nearly lashed out at Sgt. Slam when he came up behind me and helped me back to my feet and helped me limp out to the getaway minivan.
“Where’s your bag?” Slam asked me. I turned to him, starting to regain my sentience, and checked my HUD. Instead of the time, the clock showed a trio of birds flying around in a circle. There was a readout with the status of “Bag of Treats” asking “Boom?”
“Boom,” I told Slam. Behind us at the compound, the first floor went up. Between the rest of the structural damage, the DIE building began to slowly fall in on itself, throwing up a few remnants of white powder.
By the time our crew rolled into Atlanta, Monroe looked 100% better and I think the rest of us looked like absolute shit. Which is what the RV seemed to smell like before I turned off my nose. Of course I included the ability to turn off my sense of smell. All this transhumanism isn’t just for shits and giggles. Fuck, if I want a half dozen cocks, I’d do that. Already got one guy in town who’s had me give him a spare one.
So when we reached our destination, all of us were eager to jump out of the RV and take up different rooms in this motel. Except Monroe, again, though that’s because he still has some issues with his leg that Newburgh’s helping him with. Medic, hacker, and physical therapist. Guess there’s some reason Slam keeps a guy around who refuses to scrap. Before we skittered off, Slam called out, “You get an hour for refreshment, then meet in my room to figure out what we’re doing in Hotlanta, alright?”
We all made use of our time before Slam called us into his room to meet Murko, a younger guy with a thick jaw, wavy hair, and a pointy nose. “Gather up. Murko’s got something he needs to say.” Freshly showered, bowels emptied, some of us still with fast food bags in hand, we shuffled in to hear what had to be said.
Murko asked, “What the fuck? New Mexico’s fixed, but I’ve been waiting on you with my thumb up my ass while you go and leave so many messes around Houston they probably know what you had for breakfast this morning!”
I walked up and patted him on the shoulder. “There, there. Need a lollipop?”
He pushed me away. “My job is to protect you by making sure once you leave a site, nobody finds you again. I can’t do this if you go so far off-plan again.”
“Guys… really just Dr. Monroe and Gecko, Murko means well,” Sgt. Slam said. “Nobody covers an ass better. We’re operating independently of Exemplar HQ right now. That means he is part of our team if we want it to work well. Our adventure in Houston means we need to ditch the RV and find new transport. Gates, find us something that can hold all of us in a pinch. I have some more ideas for what we might need, but we’ll get together after Monroe tells us what we’re here for. Doctor, you ready?”
“A projector would be better, but it is what it is,” Monroe said as he got up and moved to sit on the bed in front of us. He held up a paper from the stack he had. “I’ll pass this around so you can see it better. Our goal here is to stop someone I once thought a colleague, like Dr. Pepperidge. The impetus for my list originally was uncovering evidence they were doing illegal human testing using ICE inmates. The documents retrieved in New Mexico confirmed it. I tried to take it to a friend of mine, Leonard Pepperidge, to find out about some of the group here. He used to work with some and I thought he wouldn’t approve of what they’re doing. I was wrong.”
He signed and looked down for a moment, then remembered to start passing around pages showing us a couple of buildings in a complex, and some of the people we’d be going after. “There is a private research group of scientists who work with the Centers for Disease Control. They are distinct from the CDC and while the CDC shares data with them, they do not share data back. They are the Directorate for Investigation and Experimentation, or DIE. I found out they have been keeping samples of Covid and other diseases to weaponize and hybridize. The outbreak didn’t start with them, but they want to modify Covid for use as a biological weapon. Leonard Pepperidge was former DIE, I thought from before they became about this. I was wrong, and now we know they’re working with ICE to obtain test subjects.”
“What. The. Fuck?” asked Gates. That seemed to be the general consensus of the room. He looked down at one sheet of paper. “It’s not just diseases is it. This reads like they try to take every innovation they can find and use it to hurt people.”
Monroe looked tired now. “They sell it to you as investigating the potential harm of emerging technologies so they can protect against it or turn it toward something good, like converting military drones to search and rescue operations. The newbies don’t know what they’re getting into until they’ve already got blood on their hands. DIE needs stopping. Destroying their offices at the CDC cripples them, if not mortally wounds the organization.”
Monroe gathered back up all the personnel files he had, laying them out on the bed in an organizational chart.
We all scattered after that, except for Newburgh who was set to break CDC, ICE, and DIE communications from the motel. They didn’t want my help with that, though Newburgh wrote a few items on the shopping list for Slam. The Sergeant, Murko, and Gates all went off to handle the shopping: cars, guns, ammo, material for explosives, and computer equipment. I was sent off to spy on the CDC. Not to go in alone and half-ass it. Slam must be out of his mind if he thinks I’ve been giving this half an ass. Twenty percent, maybe a quarter-ass at most. The entire CDC would be a smoking crater before I ever got to a hundred percent ass.
I slunk around the outside. DIE’s section of the compound stood out because their offices made efforts to control accessibility. Theirs was the section with way more walls, cameras, and an awful lot of landscapers and janitors with odd bulges in their clothing. I scanned the area, creating a digital 3D and augmented reality map with guard patrol patterns highlighted.
A call came in for me from Newburgh. “Gecko? I need your help.”
“I can speak,” I said, my armor silencing the conversation unless I want it to project.
“CDC emails are complaining about one of DIE’s subdirectors, Harold Gortz, taking a sudden holiday. I haven’t broken into DIE yet to find out more, but they’re talking about having to rush to the airport before he flies off in a personal aircraft this afternoon. Monroe says we should try to take him out, but I think we’re cutting it close. Can you get to the Atlanta airport?”
“Yeah,” I said, jumping small buildings in a single bound with my armor and hitting the ground running. “Find me more specifics, like the hangar or which strip he’s lining up for.”
“Gecko, this is Monroe. See if you can kill him quietly and take his credentials. That kills two birds with one stone, no pun intended. Even if you kill him, he deserves it.”
“Holy hell, Gecko,” Newburgh cut in. “I think whoever designed the Atlanta airport was trying to summon something. This thing’s a mess. The staffer sent out by the CDC was told to try and catch him at Hangar 37A-2C-48A.”
“Is that a hangar or someone’s measurements?” I asked.
“That’s what I said. Might be for the best you take him out before the CDC guy gets there.”
I had to make strategic use of speeding cars and trucks to help myself along, combined with the fact I can take shortcuts they can’t from time to time. Even worse was, upon calling up Atlanta’s infamous airport, trying to figure out where the hangar was. Newburgh was nice enough to send me an image with the hangar in question highlighted, so I guess there’s something to be said for having someone in a mission control capacity who can handle the computer work while I’m busy. He even sent me the registration for Gortz’s plane. And a photo of Gortz, who appeared to be a poofy-haired construct designed by aliens to mimic a human man but they never figured out how smiling works.
I spotted the hangar in question with a man walking away with soft leather briefcase in hand. His route took him back to… yep, Gortz’s plane. The man himself was still in the process of getting it ready, tossing luggage into the back of the small prop plane. I laughed to myself about the plane in question. They call that type a doctor killer. How appropriate.
I couldn’t let it do its job this time, though. Gortz dies in a fiery plane crash, his colleagues would know to revoke his clearances. I scurried down, mindful of the noise level and taking advantage of the roar of the occasional plane to hide any scrabbling sounds from my armor. Having it be so heavy with so many extra armor plates has disadvantages. I got there with time to spare but I had a small wait on my hands because he was on the phone. “I don’t care if they need to appoint someone new,” he said. “I’m going to go relax. Let them handle the hard work. Hey, once they find out what actually happened to Len, leave a report on my desk. I don’t want to hear about any of it until I get back. Uh huh. Bye now.”
He hung up and turned to get into the plane but found his foot stuck. He looked down to see a pile of translucent, metallic goo. I wrapped my glove around his mouth before he could scream. “Newburgh, cancel our friend’s flight plans.” I appeared as a woman in a skimpy flight attendant’s outfit. “In the case of an emergency, your ass can be used as a punching bag.” I reared back with a wild smile appearing on the face of the attendant.
A few bloody minutes later, I ended up leaping out of there with two pieces of luggage. Bags, whatever. One held Gortz’s laptop, phone, tablet, wallet, hands, eyes, voicebox… I wasn’t sure what we needed to get into the place. I’d hate to find out its retinal scans the entire way through and have to go hunting for the other piece of luggage. That contained the rest of Harold Gortz. They’d need a DNA test to piece that puzzle together.
“I got good news and I got bad news,” I said as I hunted for a suitable spot to dump the luggage with Harold in it. “Good news is, Harold’s dead and nobody is any wiser about it. I’m dumping the body now and even if they find it, it’ll take some time before they link it to him. I also have everything we could possibly need to get in that he had on him.”
“What if there are retinal scanners?” Slam asked.
“Everything,” I said.
“Thumbprint? Handprint?” Slam must have been trying to trip me up.
“Everything,” I repeated again.
“I’ll make sure to pick up a freezer,” Gates butted in.
“What’s the bad news, Gecko?” Monroe asked, finally moving onto the important businesses
I played the sound clip I’d recorded from the end of that phone conversation.
“What’s this mean for us?” Slam questioned.
Monroe answered him, “It means they’ll find out what happened to Leonard. If their chief of security is competent, and we should assume he is, they’ll step up their defensive measures and protocols to be on the safe side.”
A whistle came over the line, followed by Murko’s voice, “Fucking told you.”
Indeed. He fucking told us.
Houston, Texas. Site of our stopped crusade against ICE. It’s stopped because ICE captured Dr. Monroe, the guy who is technically in charge of our thing. And the site of pretty big airport. Newburgh, the medic, has an almost supernatural ability to figure out where on the airwaves these clowns are chatting. ICE has a headquarters somewhere in the city and he’s slowly figuring out where it is based on what their people are saying. We really spurred them into action with our bar brawl.
But they weren’t going anywhere. No matter how much Newburgh looked, they weren’t organizing flights or caravans out of the city. That struck Slam and I as weird. As much as Sgt. Slam hated it, we had too few people and he wanted someone in the hospital with him, watching his back. I tried to tell him he could take Newburgh. “As good as he is, I’m sure I can find them just as easily.”
“Why are you objecting?” Slam asked me.
I rolled my eyes. “You clearly don’t want to take me in there. Offering you an alternative that makes sense. You have the medic doing something I’d be better at.”
“I can’t have his back the way he needs,” Newburgh said.
Sgt. Slam held up a hand to silence the team’s medic. “I don’t like you and I won’t want to rely on you. You and Monroe are the only ones in this bunch I haven’t worked with before and know I can rely on. We’ve all worked together before, all devoted ourselves to the Exemplars. It goes down, we go down with it. You, I know I can’t rely on. You’re here for money and because your ex has a soft spot for you. If I take you in there, you might not have my back when the trouble starts. You might make the trouble.”
“Ok, Slam. Slam, ok. I’ll go in with you. Wish me luck.”
“Kind of wish you didn’t now, but let’s go,” he responded. He grabbed a paper with a name written on it and circled. There was a simple note underneath from Monroe, “Must discuss with Dr. Pepperidge.” At least Monroe told us what hospital he was going to.
We headed in to a fairly busy hospital, facemask on for Slam’s protection while I pretended to have one on to blend in. “You going to be fine riding the elevator?” the Sergeant asked about my armor.
“Hospital elevators can handle the weight,” I said.
“I mean width and bumping into people other ways,” he clarified.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. That’s part of the reason the hologram depicted me as a pregnant woman, too. Keep people out of my way in case I extend the nanomachine tail out or turn it into additional limbs. I’m tired of not having my armor around when I need it. The bar brawl wasn’t one of those times. I could have brought the armor into it if I’d wanted to, but it was just a little bar fight. I had it handled. Just like I had it handled when we worked our way up through the offices in the hospital toward where this Dr. Pepperidge was working. Pepperidge himself was out.
Sgt. Slam looked around, then at me. “Can you get us in without making it obvious we broke in?”
The nanites were good for that sort of thing, too. It’s barely even lockpicking at that point. We were in as if the door hadn’t been locked before.
“Either there was a struggle here, or Dr. Pepperidge is messy as all hell,” Slam said, pointing to piles of paperwork on the desk.
“Messy,” I said. “A struggle would leave a lot of those papers on the floor or mashed down.” I checked them over a little. “This is a lot of different stuff here. I wonder why he needed all the physical documentation of these.” Without waiting on Slam to say if I should or shouldn’t, I used the armor’s tail to connect directly to his networked computer and the systems it stayed logged into. Inter-office emails about this or that. “He doesn’t have any appointments right now, but he’s officially busy with something outside the office for a couple of hours.
“This isn’t good,” Slam said. I looked over and he had divided up the papers into a couple stacks. He held the file from Monroe in one hand while comparing it to another.
“Wow, you’ve got the same touch as Newburgh at finding stuff,” I said.
“I took a speedreading course to help me process faster,” he said. “These are the same files. This was Dr. Pepperidge’s patient.” He held the page up for me. Using the information, I tried looking him up in the system.
“Not according to this hospital. They don’t have records of that person.” Slam held up a few more for me, to similar results. With a specific angle to work, I checked back through emails. “Weird though, this guy’s not an OB/GYN. No reason he should be doing a hysterectomy.” I didn’t see anything from ICE in his emails at first until I found something tucked away in his spam filter, probably because instead of being from someone specific in there, it was sent from an official organization email account. I projected it out using my armor for Sgt. Slam to read along. “Networking meeting with other ‘patriotic’ doctors assisting ICE’s Purification Initiative. There’s a name that stinks of genocide.”
“Does anything say when he’ll be back?” Slam asked.
I shook my head. “Nopers.”
Slam thought for a few seconds, then started setting files back. “He didn’t leave all this out just to have it out. Close whatever you opened there and let’s get out of here. I want to watch this place. We see him, we follow him and these files wherever he takes them.”
Seemed reasonable, so I closed it up, made sure I hadn’t caused any sort of alterations. I’d have just waited there myself and caught the guy for some friendly interrogation, but Slam was doing things differently. The way to prove him wrong this time wasn’t to cause a big fuss that would inevitably get us noticed and ruin the whole thing.
Besides, Dr. Pepperidge came back that night, well after a dinnertime consisting of tacos from the nearest taqueria we could find, with me occasionally asking if we needed a better vehicle for surveillance than an RV.
“Gates has a plan for that,” Slam answered.
“I added special lights and panels. We’ll look smaller,” Gates explained from up in the passenger seat, taco in hand. “We’re cool.”
“I got him,” Newburgh said while peeking out the side window. “Dr. Pepperidge has entered the building.”
Slam checked his watch. “Late night for him.” He looked to me for a moment. “Follow him, quietly. Don’t let him see or hear you. Let em know if there’s anything hidden in the hospital.”
“Good call,” I said, slipping out of the RV and into stealth.
I’ll cut to the chase. By the time I caught up to Pepperidge at his office, he was walking out with a full suitcase and a clean desk. If there was a secret torture site under the hospital, he didn’t go there, just headed back out to his car. Then he went to the secret torture site. I followed along inside the RV in one of the most boring chases ever. This is… well, I’m showing I can be a team player. And for most mortals, my adventures would be less “exciting” and more “certain doom”. So I sat there all pretty like and didn’t headbang on the roof while listening to Dethklok.
Before long, though, the doctor pulled into a mechanics shop. It was 8 PM, and the roller door closed behind him. So when Slam told me to hop out and scout around the place real quick while they found a place to park, I did. Slithered on up the wall and over the roof, quiet as a slasher villain. Nothing stood out. No traps, booby or otherwise. Those big roller doors are loud, so checked the outside for entrances and popped into a side door that took me to the main car area. The doctor and his car were both absent, but one of the car lifts was missing and the floor underneath it had a hole big enough for most automobiles. I slipped down, claws digging quietly into the concrete as I spied down there. The car was down there, along with a guy in coveralls sitting in a chair. He was casually guarding the place with a pistol that looked a lot like the unconventional sidearm that ICE guy had in the bar. More of those blaster weapons.
Slam and I had worked out communications by now, so when he dropped me a text saying he was outside, I could direct him to the door I’d taken and that it was empty inside except for a guard down underneath where they work. I even asked him if he wanted the guard killed before doing so. “Yes, quietly,” came the answer.
I slipped down and behind the guard, putting one hand over his mouth and the other on his neck. If you’re strong enough, you don’t even have to twist and snap. “Death comes, quiet as a mouse. It’s done.”
“Do you have to be that way?” Slam asked in a text. After a second, I saw his legs start to stick down as he let himself hang from the edge and drop down.
“Points for good spelling and grammar,” I told him. “Anyone else coming?”
He shook his head, then pointed to the door. “What’s through there?”
“This is as far as I’ve gotten,” I said.
“Alright, you first. Stay quiet,” he said. So I took vanguard, pulling open the door. It swung open effortlessly, which speaks to newer construction that undermines whatever they’re doing. One of the benefits of a used base is that the doors might squeak, quite loudly in fact. That’s its own special warning system.
There wasn’t much hiding to be done inside there. The room had cages on either side of the doorway, far enough they couldn’t just reach out and grab a person passing through, and a few doors on the far wall. Hanging from the ceiling was a sign that read, “Welcome to Olympus” with a pair of lightning bolts on either side. There were a few people there, including one beat-up Dr. Monroe. In the middle of the room were a pair of gurneys with a table bolted down between them. They’d found a use for those car tools, too.
Dr. Pepperidge was just finishing strapping down someone down with the help of two men in black and purple, ICE-issue uniforms. The guys in the uniforms were looking at us, meaning looking at the open door and Sgt. Slam standing there. I kicked Slam back and pushed the metal door closed. The guards advanced, more of those fancy guns in hand. These looked more like SMGs. I slid past them on my knees, which drew their attention.
“There’s one in here!” Pepperidge shouted. I grabbed the tire iron on the table next to him and, when I used the tool to change one of their faces quite forcefully. He spun and fell. The other shot, sweeping from left to right where I was. Normally, I’d duck, but this armor’s capabilities let me cling to the ceiling and slash at the long fluorescent bulbs to either side of me, plunging us into darkness.
I dropped, my armor going into a combination low-light and thermal mode, and grabbed the cables from a car battery sitting right there. “Clear!” I shouted. The guard in front of me raised his blaster SMG. Then I hooked the batteries to his nuts. He squeezed off some shots before I got the gun away from him.
The room was then lit by a glorious angelic visage letting off white light. Yeah, that was me. The image floated over to where Pepperidge was huddled up to the side, feeling around for something to defend himself with. “Dr. Leonard Pepperidge. Your angel of death awaits.”
“Not yet, Gecko!” Sgt. Slam called out from over by the door.
“Aww… fine. But at least we got a good puddle out of him,” I said. I kept an eye on him, but instead went over to break the lock on the cage Monroe was in.
“Easy, we got you, doctor,” Slam said.
“Thank you, but you have to get the rest out,” Monroe said. He pointed to the other cage and to a series of doors on the opposite wall. Slam went over to open those while I got the other cage and Monroe unstrapped the man on the gurney and pulled a gag out of that guy’s mouth.
Then Monroe grabbed container of oil and a needle. “Lenny… how fucking dare you. The… the fucking audacity! These are people!” He plunged the needle into the top of the oil bottle and pulled the plunger until it filled up with viscous black fluid. “First, you’re going to talk. Then, we hold you… accountable.”
“ICE. Doing our part to ensure the survival of America!” The commercial said. It showed an American flag, then overlaid flames. The patriotic music that accompanied the imagery faded to the sounds of sirens, flames crackling, and people screaming. “Our way of life is threatened. Will you do what it takes to protect the republic?”
It cut to to video of black and purple-clad men in tactical gear, faces hidden and no badges in sight, marching against protesters. Wannabe-militiamen fired at the protesters, then were pulled back to safety behind the ICE lines, who flooded the residential street ahead of them with tear gas. One image in particular showed a protest medic with a big cross symbol on their back pouring water on someone’s face, only for a baton from an ICEr to come down and break his forearm.
“Anyone could be an infiltrator!” the voice said, throwing up video of bloody and beaten men’s mugshots with the word “Threat!” overlaid on them, next to photos of the same men in U.S. Military uniforms.
“Do your part today. Buy ICE war bonds and stay alert. Inform ICE of all suspicious activity. Do your part and ICE will save you. ICE: we put the fires out.” The final image of the 50s era Cold War reject of a commercial was the color coming back to that wave flag, only now it was a black and white flag with a single blue stripe in it.
Project Accountability was all sitting around in an RV, except for our driver. We were on our way to the next place on our list when Medusa sent us a load of data, including the latest attempt at cinematic art that was an ICE commercial. After a second of us all sitting around dumbstruck at how absolutely up its own ass that thing was, I spoke up. “It’s a wonder they ever have any kids the way they spend all their time jerking off onto a flag.”
Sgt. Slam snorted at that one. Dr. Monroe, I think, was still trying to corral his eyes. They’d just about rolled loose of his head, which is a lot more impressive when he does it because mine are cybernetic prostheses that can work independently of my body. His are hazel and contained behind eyeglasses.
“We have to stay aware if they make our actions public. I didn’t intend to make this entirely about ICE, but quite a few of our targets are connected to the organization, which is being ever more blunt about what it is,” he explained.
“Except for all the lies,” said another member of the team, Newburgh. He looked young, of Middle Eastern descent. Like one of the victims in the video, he wore the cross patch that marked him as a medic and, consequently, made it a war crime to target him on purpose. I looked him over, trying to gauge his nervousness level. I don’t think it was news to him that these guys were deliberately targeting him, and I didn’t see any sign he carried a weapon in response.
“What’s the itinerary?” Slam asked.
“Makin’ our way through Texas to the next stop on Monroe’s list, Houston!” our driver called back cheerfully. Gates, I think they said his name was. Guy’s been shot to pieces, looks like. He’s got an arm left; the rest of his limbs are cybernetic prostheses. The guy was supposedly an amateur racecar and demolition derby driver at some point. Must have been one hell of a derby. Looks like our advancing state of prosthetics did him some good.
We’d picked him, the RV, and our medic up after the business in New Mexico was concluded. They were part of Slam’s team, along with someone else who stayed behind to clean up our trail.
“Not all of our targets are so close to the border. I need to consult with a colleague. I would prefer catching up to the rest of you in Georgia, but Medusa asked that we operate independently. She can prepare supply drops with some forewarning.”
I shrugged. “I have a few things I can contribute if we need them. But what about that guy we left behind?”
Slam answered this one. “Murko’s a smooth operator and won’t raise alarms on a commercial flight, more than I can say for the rest of us.”
“Yeah, Monroe, if that is your real name,” I said, wagging a finger at him.
He started to say “Actually, it’s-,” but Slam cut him off.
“She doesn’t need to know what your name is. None of us in this RV are welcome on anything involving government scrutiny and that’s enough.”
“Well,” I said, trying to compress myself and my armor into as little space as possible. “Wake me up when we get there, or when September ends. Whichever happens first.”
I tossed my mind on back home to another body there to deal with some other life and death issues. My daughter’s a smart one, but she’s getting frustrated at her math homework. Unlike when she was the heir to her own island city-state, she can’t just have her homework put against the wall and executed. Also, she’s got a book report she’s procrastinating on.
That was followed with more secret cloning experiments in the basement lair. I’ve snuck a few more samples, but none of them are the ones I really want and need. Just like when I went to Florida, what I’m looking for is a way to move anywhere I want across the world. That’s why I went to Florida; Raggedy Man has re-retired and I figured maybe I could work out a deal for a sample. Turns out his grandson has the same powers and had a small issue he needed help with, but those powers, while hereditary, don’t work in my clone bodies.
On top of that, I’m working on the idea of a mobile power armor that can bring itself to me and be worn. Like the Dudebots I used to have, but with minimal robotic parts to take up space in the armor. The tricky bit is having a minimal, compact part to actually move it. Conventional robots are failing me, so I’m hoping for one of two other scenarios to pan out. Either a liquid metal body of nanomachines that then join with the suit’s tail or repair systems. Or I build these pieces directly into the suit.
And after all that’s said and done, Marianne and Adrian, the couple who let me borrow a cabin to get abducted by aliens at, are having Qiang and I over for dinner. Now to figure out how to make adult friends when common interests don’t include disemboweling superheroes. Especially because they used to be superheroes.
That’s why I didn’t notice we were there until late at night, when someone bumped me getting out of the RV. The thing was stopped and they had all piled out, so I went ahead and followed them a few roads over until I saw they were headed to a bar. That seemed fun, so I hid my armor nearby and headed in after them, cybernetic eyes flickering through until I looked like any human with natural purple eyes.
Slam, Gates, and Newburgh turned around from the bar with beers in hand, the Sarge cussing when he saw me. “Hey guys, what’s up?” I asked. It had a vaguely country theme to the place. Photos of famous country singers, Confederate flags, some old guitars and banjos on the wall.
“We’re just relaxing, having some beer. Nothing’s up,” Slam said. Seeing he was agitated I’d followed, I headed to the jukebox to put on something better than the country tunes these guys had on. I ended up dancing off by myself to “Friends In Low Places.” I got catcalled by some of this large bunch nearby, but I was prepared for if they got handsy.
The fun got interrupted when a couple guys in black and purple stomped in. One ran over and unplugged the jukebox while the other confronted that big bunch. “What the hell are you doing not listening to your radios? We have a situation at the hospital.”
I kept dancing, but the rest of the crew with me couldn’t help but conspicuously perk up. Gates in particular stood out with his replacement limbs. I should get a skin color match on him and see about fixing that.
“They caught an Exemplar with stolen files!” The ICE agent said, perhaps a bit too loud. I figured it’d be a good time to play it cool, get out, figure out where Monroe’s at, and get him back. But then one of the guys sitting down noticed all the attention Slam and his guys were paying.
“Hey!” said a bald guy with a goatee. “You with the robot legs. You got ID on you?”
Gates turned toward the bar, seemingly finishing his drink. The whole crowd of guys stood up to join the two already in uniform. Those two moved closer, the one in charge drawing his gun.
The sound of music cutting in distracted them briefly. “I told you to shut that off!” barked the guy in charge to his subordinate.
That one pointed to the jukebox’s unplugged cord on the floor. “I did!”
“Then what’s that music?” asked the bald guy who had been sitting down.
They hadn’t paid me much attention, so I walked over and tapped on his shoulder. “The Interrupters covering Bad Guy.” Then I grabbed him by the goatee and tore it off. The guy next to him, brought a beer bottle up meaning to hit me in the head. I blinded him by throawing the goatee hairs in his face, then grabbed the bottle and jammed it in between his legs. It stuck with a sucking sound, then cracked with sound of a man screaming at high pitch when I shattered it with a kick.
I scooted over to the wall and grabbed a banjo. The uniformed ICErs turned my way. The guy in charge caught a banjo to the arm but still didn’t drop his sidearm. I got a glimpse of Slam wrapping his arms around that one, as well as Gates swinging a bar stool overhead at the other one.
One agent got his arms around my shoulders. I stomped his toe, then ran up along the wall, grabbing hold of a picture of Dolly Parton. I landed with my shoulders free and swung the picture upward, stunning him. “Parton me,” I told him just before jabbing the pointed corner into his mouth and slamming him face-first into a table.
This put me between the juke box and that round table, my back to the wall. But they were already down two of these guys. A third came at me telegraphing a punch. “Protect me, buddy!” I called, pulling the jukebox in front of me. The magical musical machine shattered as the guy’s hand went into it, though I think parts of his hand shattered to. Or at least got nice and bloody from the glass. I kicked it on top of the guy, figuring unconsciousness would numb the pain, and ran up the small ramp it created to give the next guy in line a chance to have wonderful eyes like mine. Like grapes, ya know.
I landed with my back to the remainder and spun around to catch someone’s spitter bottle in my face. I know because, bad as American beer is, none of it smells as bad as the gunk that spilled on my face. I shook my head until someone popped me in the face. I started to fall over, so it seemed like a good time to open my eyes again. A bald man with a bloody face where a goatee would be raised a chair over his head, preparing to smash it on me. I wrapped one foot around the back of his head and pressed the other one against his throat. He swatted me with the chair, but it lacked the power he could have brought to bear. He didn’t want to lean in closer. I kicked him away, the damage having been done to his windpipe.
Another one came for me with a folding knife just as I was getting to my feet. I spun to the side and let him trip over the jukebox and his friend underneath it. He followed as I grabbed a guitar off the wall. That’s when another of these guys, one of the ones in uniform who hadn’t been put down yet, took a swing at me. I broke the guitar over his head, sending him to the floor but leaving me with a guitar neck and some strings. I tore one loose and held it between two fists. The guy with the knife caught up to me and I let him take a stab. I wrapped his wrist up in the string and slid behind him, twisting his arm up and jabbing the knife into his own eye. I let go and dropped down, grabbing his legs and pulling them out from underneath him so he came down right on the knife in his eye.
I hopped up to my feet and found none of the ICE guys were on theirs. Between myself, Slam, and Gates, we’d managed to kill or conk out the whole bunch. Mostly me. Newburgh was helping up Gates and checking him over. Meanwhile, Slam walked past to the door with handful of beer in his paws. “Come on, we gotta go!”
I grabbed my armor on the way back out to the RV, which Gates went ahead and moved a bit further away from the sight of our scuffle. Slam tried to call up Monroe but got nothing. “We need the doctor,” he growled. “First, we go see that doctor friend of his he was supposed to meet with. Newburgh, tap into local LEO channels, see what you can overhear. Help Gates stay ahead of any search patrols while you’re at it. Gecko… sit tight. Might need you to kill more people.” He took a sniff, then looked more closely at my face and the gunk smeared on it. “Wash up first. No use smelling like shit now we’ve stirred it up.”
I get up. Send my daughter off to school. Sell or repair things at my store. Maybe Check out some of the new businesses in town. I help my kid with homework and we have dinner. It’s routine and boring and I think I’m actually at the point in my life where I can accept this. I should probably see someone about my mental health, but I’m starting to appreciate boredom. At this rate, there won’t be too much of a reason for anyone to read this. I bet some unaware people like a gang could come to town and try to take over if we were part of a major city, but not out here where we are. You come to Radium because you need something from Radium.
There are some ignorant hooligans, with there being something of a divide between powered and unpowered. Plus, some of the teens know my history and occasionally try to come after me. Like at the bookstore, some of them thought they’d try to bully me. I overheard some snickering teenagers saying something about “Evil old bitch” and “tranny serial killer” while sneaking glances at me. They quieted down as I got closer to check out a history book. I know what everyone thinks of my temper, but I handled this the easy way. “Now what scares y’all more? That I’ve almost certainly recorded what you said and what you look like and could go to your parents? Or what I could get away with that doesn’t involve them?”
I smiled at them. They bravely shot me the finger while scurrying out. “Eager to get out,” I heard Medusa say. I looked over to see my ex-nemesis and ex-girlfriend walking in out of uniform.
“If they’d like to stay and keep being little shits, they’re entitled to that. And I’d be entitled to a little bit of revenge. Don’t worry, just a little bit.” I raised a hand to cut off her objections. “What brings you here?”
“This is where they said I’d probably find you this time of day. You want to get a coffee and let’s talk? This is about business, I mean, but we can address personal stuff if you’d like.” Maybe it’s the time spent apart or my own shifting views of her, but she looked older. Not old, and you wouldn’t confuse her for someone in their 40s, but there was more maturity there than my mental image of her had for so long.
I set the book aside for now. I can learn about The Medieval Ass another time. Medusa was impressed by the state of the town, though she probably knew it better than I did. We both stay gone for whatever messes we get into, but she gets regular reports back about it. I just end up kidnapped by redneck aliens. “Radium’s looking nice. Like one of those idyllic hipster Hallmark towns.”
“Yeah, but there’s some dark looks around,” I mentioned, leaning over my cappuccino. “The townies who’ve been here aren’t too fond of any of us, not just me. Kinda wonder what gentrifying superheroes moving in and starting coffee shops and building new homes are doing to their taxes and rents, ya know?”
Medusa thought it over through a drink of her coffee, then said, “Thanks. I’ll check on that and help them out if I can. We don’t want to drive everyone else out, which is ironic because I’m here to talk to you about getting rid of some bad people.”
“Starting with those shits back at the book store?” I asked hopefully. I’ll hurt ’em if I want to, but it’s more fun with official approval.
“No,” she slid a USB drive over to me. I grabbed it and started connecting. “A whistleblower is about to leak that the concentration camps are performing mass sterilizations. It’s the final straw I needed to give the go-ahead to Dr. Monroe. No fancy codename because he isn’t a super. He came to me with a list of targets for what he calls Project Accountability. We mostly try to help through direct action instead of assassinate, and I didn’t want to assume your cooperation.”
“Thank you for that,” I said, scrolling through. Some real winners in this bunch of guys to be held “accountable.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. The team she’s listed so far as helping isn’t too bad. Some Sgt. Slam guy to help coordinate with her Exemplar resources for anything that doesn’t strictly require me as a killer. Two-for-one deals in some of these: take out some asshole target while rescuing someone, or stripping resources, or stealing information.
“I understand if you don’t want to do it. You don’t have to explain if you have your reasons. But I’d have to be a fool not to come to you about this and I know you’ll get the job done.”
“Not a whole Psycho Flyer for payment?” I asked. They couldn’t offer me much money as far as operating expenses, but I’d have the right to steal valuables I run across that weren’t mission-sensitive and I’d get some spare Psycho Flyer spare parts for reassembling my own.
“You’d have to kill Godzilla to get a whole one of those,” Medusa said. “They’re still making them, but Ricca’s not prioritizing arms sales as much now that you’re gone. North Korea’s doing a few though. Part of them finding new sources of income to help modernize.”
“Good for them. So, Project Accountability… sounds like a noble goal. You know how I like consequences for one’s actions,” I said. “Not your usual style.”
Medusa sighed. “I don’t like it, but we can’t trust the justice system. We couldn’t about so many things, but now it’s not even doing the bare minimum. I’m not going to create a secret prison like Master Academy. Everything’s breaking down. I don’t need you because these guys are powerful. I want you because you’re the best. The better you are, the less risk on my guys.”
“I wasn’t objecting when I said it wasn’t your usual,” I sighed. “We both know something’s gone wrong when you need my help. I’m in. When’s the first go?”
The Exemplars had another ICE raid coming. Too many elements in position to call it off now without a real good reason, so they’d have to hurry up Project Accountability. First on the list is a doctor who gets moved around every time the Exemplars have hit a camp, and Monroe was the one who linked him to the whistleblower. This guy is one of them sterilizing refugee and immigrant women. That makes him of interest both for the files he’ll have referencing victims and other locations, and because Project Accountability wants to stop him from causing any more harm. I can pull off good work with little time, so I’m perfect here.
I met Monroe at the Exemplar base when they gave he and I a ride to Rio Rancho. That was a little area meant to be a staging ground for us to go after this first target. Rather than take up space on a Psycho Flyer and risk something going wrong if one’s shot down, our group was going to be placed ahead of time and head out by land.
Dr. Monroe was a middle-aged medical doctor. His skin’s dark enough he might get rounded up by ICE squads. He seemed nervous to meet me when we all stood around in the base, preparing to head out. He couldn’t even see my armor, wrapped as it was in an illusion of myself in normal clothes. “Hello.”
“Ease up, doc. We got this.” He didn’t ease much. First time murder jitters, I guess.
The Flyer barely let us off behind a gas station before it zoomed out of there. A stern-faced white soldier with tats and a buzzcut approached, eyeing me especially. He wasn’t in the usual Exemplar gear based on the power armor I had Ricca sell under my leadership, but he was a soldier. I could tell just as easily as I could tell he didn’t like me. That’d be Sgt. Slam. He didn’t wear a name patch, but after a moment, he pointed to himself. “I’m Sgt. Slam.”
“Hero name, or your last name really Slam?” I asked.
“Fuck you, that’s what,” he answered. Probably his surname then.
“Hey, I’m willing to play nice if you are. We’re all here for the same thing: killing some motherfuckers who aren’t getting what’s coming to them any other way.”
“I have guys who can do this,” Slam said.
I shrugged. “I can do it better.”
“I’m Doctor Isaac Monroe,” my companion introduced himself. Slam was a little friendlier toward him.
“Come along. I got us transport.” He led us to a plain little car and had me slip into the back, definitely noticing when the suspension had to compensate more than it should have for my size. He didn’t talk anymore about what was going on until we got in and on the way to whatever safehouse he’s temporarily rented. “We have your Neo-Mengele and his office under surveillance. He’s met with some ICE people the past few days but it seems pretty routine. Comes to work- hold up.”
He reached down for his phone. “My guys know not to call unless important.” He picked up. “Hello?” After a couple seconds. “When? Home and office? Where is the doctor himself? Slam out.” He turned to us, pulling over. “ICE showed up in a hurry. They’re moving him early. He’s at his house with ICE soldiers on guard while he grabs clothes. ICE is cleaning out his office, too. Gecko, you’re our assassin. You flatline the doctor. Monroe, you and I are going to meet my squad at the office.”
I hopped out as an answer and leaped into the air, cloaking myself in invisibility. My armor couldn’t fly properly, but with the malleable “tail” section forming into wings with jet turbines, it could glide with some style. I took the time along the way to shoot a private message to Medusa letting her know what was up. Seems a bit weird they knew to move him before the raid on the camp was going down.
Motherfucker had a lawn here in New Mexico. Nice lawn, bushes, armed black-armored guards and walkers marching around tearing it up, with a couple armored vans with gun turrets up top. The guns looked a bit different. I snuck in closer because violence may be the answer, but assassination’s the goal.
This fucking doctor walked out in a dark purple labcoat and black gloves like this was some Cobra shit. Behind him came several ICE soldiers in death’s head masks, one of them with an exoskeleton to help him carry this safe they were bringing along.
“I don’t care what the President says, we have every right to defend the fatherland from these atrocious attacks by the degenerate peoples,” the doctor in question said, just to make it clear to me I should kill him.
He stopped as a hole appeared in his chest courtesy of a vicious metal point that hooked around his heart and yanked it out. “Oh lordy,” I muttered toward him. “That’s a degen move, ain’t it?”
Well, he coughed up blood instead of giving me a straight answer, and that’s when the bright lights started flying. I pulled my tail back, flicking the blood into the face of one of the soldiers, and hopped behind one of the vans. I was trying to get a look at what they were using. Didn’t quite look like plasma, but wasn’t a laser as far as being held. Damage reports show it causes thermal damage like either one would. Could be a laser with a cut off so that, to everyone else, it looks like a laser bolt while saving on the amount of energy used up.
Regardless, they shot up all over the place, starting fires in this nice lawn and bushes, even hitting some of the cars in the street. The guy in the exoskeleton hurried up, trying to run the safe into the safety of the van. The only other sight they got of me was when I appeared behind him, tail wrapping around the safe while my armored claw wrapped around his face. I disappeared, his neck snapping hard and the safe tugged out of his grasp. Someone tossed a grenade at him, which I kicked his corpse on top of before heading off. I hid it as well as I hurried it out of there, letting them blast every which way
I got a message back from Medusa. “thot ther mite B a mole. Slam said u ran off. When u finish, meet at where we drop u off.”
I don’t miss Medusa’s texting grammar, though.