Maybe I’m just a stickler for a good story. Maybe I was struck with temporary insanity. Laugh it up, I said temporary. I stayed close to the Grocery World as much as possible, fully armored and fully stealthed. I had a feeling. It could have been from the FBI chatter not mentioning anything about capturing mutated superhumans. Perhaps my text message to Venus that I moved the time up to twelve hours also contributed.
The good thing about ambiguity and having crazy inventions is that detonation by conventional means goes out the door. A lot of the time, people disarm a bomb by moving it to the middle of nowhere and creating a controlled detonation. People used drones, robots with shotguns, even bombs of their own. Imagine if they couldn’t do that because they didn’t even know what they were dealing with?
I sat on the front row courtesy of a nearby building as a team arrived. The setting sun blanketed the black SUV in orange and yellow rays as it pulled up. Agents, two in tactical gear, rushed out. Two more agents were dressed in that fancy FBI dress code of a black suit. Venus climbed out as well.
I opened up a channel to Carl and Moai as I watched the team make their way around to the service ladder to the roof. Venus spoke to one who removed his jacket and waited by the SUV with a radio, then left to join the other three.
“Carl, things are about to get loud and then very, very quiet.”
“Uh, roger. I read you loud and clear, boss. You want me ‘n Moai to come give you a hand?” I grinned under my helmet.
“Nope. You might want to go spend time with your family. Grab some emergency supplies on the way, that sort of thing. Keep the radios off. As for Moai, I wish I knew a good place for him to go. See if he wants to hang with you, or maybe he’d like to drop by Rothstein’s Sports Bar.” If a magically-animated Moai statue fit in anywhere, it would fit in at Rothstein’s. Rothstein’s Sports Bar, where supervillains are welcome and all your problems get fixed.
Except a neighbor’s yappy dog. That requires a vet. Hey, if it ain’t housebroke, fix it.
“You don’t want us there?” he asked. I hadn’t let him in on this part of the plan. I hadn’t let a lot of people in on the whole plan, actually. Not even y’all, dear readers. That’s part of the fun.
“To be completely cliché, this is something I have to do myself. It’s time to take Venus down. Time to take her down to Chinatown.”
“Boss, Chinatown’s over in-“ I cut him off with something between a sigh and a laugh.
“It was a metaphor, Carl. See you around.” I cut the call as I edged myself off into free fall. I figured out the jump, put power to the muscle enhancers, and pushed off the side, all in less than half a second.
Then I reactivated the signal interceptors. Down on the ground, I caught a bare glimpse of the agent dropping his radio. I couldn’t stare, though. I had a ladder to catch.
Venus clambered up first and was near the top. Good. The others weren’t going to be so lucky. Not when I slammed into the one just under Venus and kicked him off the ladder. He screamed, then thudded. Humans make such a wonderful variety of sounds if you hit them hard enough. I reappeared, stealth unnecessary. In fact, I wanted them to panic.
Venus looked down, but kept hurrying up the ladder. I jumped again, this time from the ladder, and did a back flip. When I came down, it wasn’t on Venus. I dropped my boots on the shoulders of the bottom-most agent, who plunged to the concrete below, sounding more like fruit being smacked with a cast iron dildo. What, y’all didn’t grow up with that reference?
The agent who had been in the middle now climbed above me, cussing to himself. I grabbed his ankle, slid my legs to the inside of the ladder, and swung him off. I smashed him against the ladder below me, then jiggled him around a bit before tossing him to the side like so much bloody, crying, bone-filled detritus. That’s right, I’ve taken to littering.
Fear my evil!
With the others taken care of, I noted that Venus had made it to the roof. That’s where I wanted her. I hit the boosters and jumped up to the top myself, but I paused a moment to let her get some distance on me. Turns out, I didn’t need to worry. The last agent, the one without a jacket, landed right in front of me after a single bound.
He was transparent, though. A beam of light the size and shape of his body trailed back behind me and down past the edge of the roof, like some sort of man rainbow. I assumed it must have rained men to form a man rainbow. I threw a punch at the head of the transparent man, but it went right through. He turned and strafed to the side, but I kept up and shoved my foot through his knee. That was odd. However, if I couldn’t hit him, that probably meant he couldn’t hit me.
I stepped to the edge of the roof to check and saw the agent himself climbing the ladder as well. Almost as soon as I saw him, something flashed in the rainbow and he accelerated through the air like he super jumped, only in fast forward, leaving behind a transparent version of himself.
On my helmet’s rear view, I saw that the real deal replaced the clear copy on the roof. I pretended to scratch at my helmet as I looked down at the climber.
He’d swapped places with that other version of himself somehow. The natural counter to someone who has two chances is to make both of them into failures.
I left a holographic double of my own standing in my place as I dropped down. When the agent lunged to put me in choke hold, he stumbled through the hologram. I helpfully grabbed him by the belt and pants and gave him a helping hand off the roof. As soon as I let go, I whipped out a chicken grenade and an explosive throwing knife. I armed the knife, tore the head off the chicken, and dropped them both on the ladder. While the agent busied himself swapping between falling and exploding, I tore the ladder out of the side of the building and threw the twisted metal away.
In the end, the agent survived, though he chose to take the fall rather than the fire.
That left only Venus, at least in the short term. I whirled and spotted her head as she balanced on the storefront sign. I jogged over, hoping she’d do what I wanted her to do. The best way to fight me appeared to be the same method to generally disable whatever I used. I hadn’t even appeared to develop a counter to it all the times we’d fought other than hoping someone else could save my ass. A song came to mind…
“Reckless creatures, always want another find. Stealing features, each a diamond to be mined. There are facets at stake, and crooks in our neck; we’re like moths to the flame. Get ready and set. Now, tarry no longer, let’s burn one another, we’re one and we’re twain, now let’s play a game…” I stopped singing long enough to take a bow toward Venus. “Hello, hello, hello beautiful stranger. How fa-miliar the danger, slipping into the shadows.”
“Don’t come any closer!” Venus yelled as soon as she spotted me. She held up that fancy new EMP rod of hers.”Just give it up already!” As if to punctuate the point, helicopters swooped in overhead. I could practically feel the high caliber guns trained on me.
The tone of her voice brought up memories. For a moment, I saw cold, pale blue walls around me and a child standing before me. It was gone in a flash, for that’s all it was, though I had to stop myself from stepping back. “No, Venus. Even if you get me, that thing’s ready to go off any time. Think you have long enough to get it clear of the city for detonation? Are you sure that isn’t exactly what I want? This is MY game! You know it’s never as simple as it looks. That’s why you’ll stand right there and let me do…this!”
I rushed toward her. Close up, I glimpsed a moment of panic in her eyes. Just a moment. She acted decisively. She rammed that EMP rod through the sign’s casing and up against the modified electromagnet, setting off a pulse that shut me off. It shut the magnet off.
I’ll admit, I’ve never been quite as clever as I seemed. I’ve mentioned before that a big part of what I do is improvisation. I’ve frequently turned circumstances to my advantage not because I planned for every little thing, but because I realized how I could use things to my advantage. Awhile back, for instance, I wondered what I could do for a doomsday weapon. I also wondered what, if anything, I could do to stop Venus’s little EMP rod on my own without any additional help.
Then I thought, “What if I created a situation where Venus felt she had no choice but to use the rod on the giant electromagnet? And what if said giant electromagnet was something that would disable the EMP? No, even better, what if said magnet could amplify the EMP?” The fact that she had no clue what my little trap was made for all the better reason to try such a general purpose solution to a guy who traipsed around in power armor.
Yes, I skidded to a stop and fell on my face as my armor and cybernetics shut down. And the helicopters went haywire and shut down. Cars, power transformers, computers, internet, radio, television, lights, air conditioners, pacemakers, heart monitors, breathing machines, airplanes; they all stopped too. The EMP rod stopped as the resulting feedback destroyed it. Most of a city shut down, all at once.
Except, as I’ve previously pointed out, my suits and cybernetics can reactivate and reboot after a momentary EMP. A continuous EMP field, not so much. But the EMP rod was down. Not that Venus seemed to know that.
When she finally finished gawking where I couldn’t see her, she hopped back onto the roof and looked around some more. She froze up a bit. What to do, what to do? Grab her rod and hope my toy was permanently disabled? Keep it going and wait for teams of experts?
“Oh no…Gecko, what have you done?”
I disabled the suit’s speakers so I sounded muffled as I responded. “Me? I’m not the one who beat up a homeless man, robbed a bank, and then fried the city’s electronics.”
She started to walk toward me, then stopped. She turned back to the sign, fidgeting, then finally turned to me instead. She unsealed my helmet rather roughly, taking the time to bang my head back against the roof as she undid it. I just stared straight ahead as she removed it and set it to the side.
Venus teared up. Just a little. “Why do you always have to be such a massive, royal dick!” She grabbed the neck of my armor and lifted me up so my head kept hitting the roof again.
“Why did I make you do it? Why did I grab your hand and press a button and then jam that rod on there myself?” I asked.
She slapped me once, then twice, then stopped, hand held in midair. “Oh my god, you flinched.” She made me.
Odd phrase. It took me a long time to understand it. I couldn’t figure out what a person was made into. In the end, I took it to be some weird English phrase meaning someone blew someone else’s cover.
She sprung to her feet and backed off. I rolled up to mine and grabbed my helmet. I spun around with it in my hand, but a kick from Venus snapped it out of my grip. I tried to turn the spin into a blow of my own, but she got clear well before I could bring my other hand around.
I chuckled and rubbed my wrist. “Ready to go down to Chinatown?”
Venus stood in her stance, teeth gritted, tears forgotten, but she growled her response. “Chinatown’s over-“
I threw my hands up, directing power into the wires that projected sheaths of energy around my forearms. “Metaphor, people! It’s a fucking metaphor! Ah well, why not go down with a woman you’re mad for?” I lept to close the distance with Venus and brought my glowing arms down. Venus threw herself to the side, but the roof cracked under the release of excess energy.
Gravity worked to convince me that I should fall. Venus’s shin smacking into the back of my skull also made a good argument. However, I had too much to do to spend all my time falling. Instead, I jumped far enough to land with a stumble on the other side of the hole.
Bereft of my cameras, I swiveled my head to find her. Good thing, too. If I hadn’t ducked, that boot of hers would have got me right in the head. Much as I enjoyed the back and forth with her, I didn’t want my eyes to be the windows to her sole.
But since she had her right leg there, I figured I might as well stand back up, grab it, and tip her over onto her back. Still holding onto that leg, I kicked my leg toward her stomach. She blocked with her forearms and grabbed onto my foot.
I guess you could say neither of us had a leg to stand on. At least I still stood. Balancing on one leg, I jerked Venus to the side by hers. Then, with a little effort, I started turning her over. She let go of my leg to try and stop that, which didn’t help her much. With my leg freed and her on her belly, I hooked my right leg around her calf and lowered my weight onto it, as if sitting.
She tried to crawl along the roof to free herself, but I leaned forward, grabbed her left arm, forced it across her throat, and pulled it back like that. It really only choked her enough to panic her; most of the pain came from pulling her back while scissoring one of her legs and forcing it down on the ground. “Now that I’ve got a little quiet time with you, my dear nemesis, let’s have ourselves a little question and answer session, eh?”
I reached to my belt and opened a pouch that contained an airtight container of solid steel with foam padding within. I withdrew a plastic syringe full of a miniscule amount of amber liquid. Three drops of truth, Ethan Basford’s note read. I had one legitimate question to ask her, but what better way to make someone burn with hatred than to force them to give up two of their worst secrets?
So I lied to Venus at dinner about planning to kill her. Obviously, telling her I was going to kill her was the only way she’d trust that I wasn’t going to poison her at dinner. Simple logic.
“Now then, let’s see what three drops of truth can uncover. Someone paid me with this stuff. Can’t say I’ve tested it, but the person called it a double-edged sword. I think I’ll start by asking how much you knew about that attempt to kill me earlier this year by your old pal, Lone Gunman. Something about the last time we talked about it struck me as dishonest. This stuff right here, it’ll make you honest.” I barely pricked Venus’s skin when she cried out. I had her left arm trapped, but she threw her right palm back at an awkward angle. Really, it was all an awkward angle for her.
It became awkward for me, too, when the syringe stabbed into my nostril. “Fucking hell!” I yelled. My grip on Venus loosened up, something not unreasonable under the circumstances of having a needle just getting knocked into my fucking nose. It stuck in something back there.
Allow me to reiterate. A needle went into my nostril and stuck in something hard back in my nose and I couldn’t get it out.
I let go and tried to scoot back away from Venus while I assessed the nostril situation. Did I want to risk pulling it out of wherever it was in? Who nose? I didn’t get much of a choice in the matter as Venus got up. I tried to hold up my hands even as I focused on the end of the syringe hanging down from me. Venus didn’t call a timeout. Instead, she ran at me.
I braced for the blow, but instead she hooked her arms under mine, flipped backward, and landed on the balls of her feet. My upper body was forced down, making things quite uncomfortable in the spine, belly, and throat area. My arms weren’t in a good position to just power out. I needed my feet under me.
“Happy now?” I asked, wheezing.
“Not exactly,” Venus grunted. The hold left her head right above and behind mine. “I have a few questions.”
Holy mother of expletive.
She popped the end of the syringe with her hand. Something spread into my sinuses or whatever sinus-adjacent areas the needle stuck in. It stung like a motherfucker, too. In retrospect, that part made sense. On this world, I often heard that the truth hurts. It caused my whole head to feel flushed and warm.
“Why are you so obsessed with me being your nemesis?”
I wanted to lie. I wanted to bend the truth. I wanted to talk about how the time I got into an argument with a stop sign. It first! I didn’t. It felt like I spoke without any coercion.
“Because I want you to kill me. You’re one of the few who really has what it takes.” The flushing, warm feeling faded. About time.
She didn’t know how to react to that one at first. I slid my legs around under me, trying to get some leverage to lift myself up.
Finally, Venus figured out one response. She asked another question. “Why?”
I almost snorted, but things got weird with the blood from my nose and the needle tickling me painfully. Then Venus remembered to slap the plunger again and sent another wave of warmth through my head.
“I have done terrible things, Venus. It’s all been ingrained into me too much. I can’t stop. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live without these feelings. You probably can’t imagine what it’s like to derive actual physical pleasure, straight from the brain’s hormones, from eliminating another person.” I heard my accent slip to something not quite of this world. “Heh, the best I do is direct it. Mitigate the damage with inconsequential targets. Pick assholes for victims. I want to stop, but at the same time I don’t want to. Yeah, I’ve gone out of my way to spare some kids, but that EMP shut down the children’s wards of those hospitals, too.”
The warmth faded, though I rambled a bit before and after that. Considering the nature of the gunk Venus pumped into me, I couldn’t differentiate between willing and unwilling admissions. Ah, hell, I went ahead and threw her a bone anyway. “So, I guess you were right after all. I know wrong and right. I am sane.”
I shifted up onto my knees. The hold didn’t have a much to it now, though Venus stood in better position to pull and keep me off balance. Still, I slowly made progress easing the pull on my arms. “I’m not sure I was right after all. God, Gecko…” She grunted. “I don’t believe in it, but if you really think like that, why not do yourself in?” She pushed the syringe in more gently that last time, but it gave me an opening.
I stood up and lifted her up. To her credit, she held onto my arms and balanced like that, holding her body straight up above me. I burst out laughing now that I could breathe. “That’s clever.” I tried to whip her around and off me, but I did so with a bit of banter. “It’s the same reason I ever pushed myself to get through all that training and keep going. There’s only one thing I really fear: death.”
I readied myself to jump high into the air so I could slam her underneath me, but Venus dropped herself forward and let go of my upper arms. This time, she locked her arms around my throat with my head under her left armpit, wrapping her legs around my waist. I tried to jump anyway, but the pull on my head threw me off and instead we both crashed into the roof of the store. At least the needle fell out. In all that, the effects of the final drop of truth faded away.
“There’s no need to accommodate me, Venus. No hurry or anything.” Wait a second, I remembered I had arms. And they had vaguely-round things on the end I use to hit things! I drove my fists into Venus’s ribs. She screamed as something cracked, but held on. I keep using those fist thingies so much. Not with everything getting so dark around the edges and slow and hard to breathe. I hit a button and the growl of a chainsaw started up from under my left arm.
Then I took a nap.
I awoke to the sight of the stars above, groggy, with someone standing on my left arm and another person slapping me in the face. A pretty person. Noises came from the person on my arm. “…ve to wake him up so soon.”
I looked over and saw men’s dress shoes right there on my arm. The Nasty Surprise still chewed up the air, accounting for why neither one of them felt like locking handcuffs on me. How rude. Venus slapped me the rest of the way awake as she answered the man. “We don’t want him to die, that’s why.”
I attempted to speak, but Venus cut me off as soon as I opened my mouth. “Shut up, Gecko.”
Then I noticed she straddled my chest. Did I mention the camera in my eyes? I’m sure I’ve mentioned the camera in my eyes.
The agent on my arm ignored me. “We have teams down below. Another will get a ladder up the side here for us.”
I brought up my right hand and raised the pointer finger. “If I may interject, a short riddle. What is both everything and nothing at the same time?”
Venus looked me over for gadgets, at which point I noticed my chickens and knives piled up several feet away. That didn’t matter. I set my right arm back on the rooftop, planted my feet, and lifted myself up in a bridge that knocked Venus off. The agent tried to keep his balance, but a yank of my left arm sent him sprawling. I rolled to my feet and made a dash for the hole I’d previously made in the roof.
“Here’s a hint!” I yelled back. Then I turned, saluted with my middle finger, and let myself fall through the answer of my little riddle: a (w)hole.
Agent boy, or whatever his name was, told the truth. A team watched from below. I landed in the midst of them in a darkened store. Sure, they had glow sticks. And guns. And body armor. I had a jar of marshmallow goop, a bag of pecans, and several five pound bags of sugar. I left them sticky, white, sore, and covered with nuts.
Another team kept their distance as I hurried through to the produce section, but I grabbed an apple and thunked one in the head with it while they opened fire. They had me suppressed behind a cooler up until gunfire knocked a shelf down. Heads were going to roll. Heads of lettuce, that is. I chucked them into the air where free-flying bullets shredded them and gave me an opening to escape. I ran for the next aisle over, slipped, and skidded right past a wet floor sign.
This landed me next to a meat cooler. A man like myself can’t go anywhere in public without pulling out his loin, and this day was no exception. I wielded a pair of pork loins as I used the cooler to climb up to the top of the shelves.
The team down below moved to cut off my escape as one of them dropped his rifle. I saw him take out something that glowed red. The glow faded, but his eyes soon matched the color. I couldn’t watch him so much as a shot took me through the side of my armor.
The FBI came prepared. Strike that. The FBI came fucking prepared.
The red-eyed man grew larger, but hardly any slower given the way he lept to join me atop the shelves. I swung my pork to either side, hoping to catch my balance. Meanwhile, the Fed transformed further into this big monster shellfish man. He had the lobster antenna and giant claws grew around his fists.
I swung my meat like a madman as he snapped at me. Again and again I pounded them to the side, upward, or downward, but he gained ground on me and only grew faster. No wonder some holy books condemned these creatures as abominations. Anything that gave someone a chance against me was deeply wrong, especially from my perspective. I needed a change of venue. I tossed the loins at the lobster man, who caught them in his claws and mushed them with a snap.
Meanwhile, I dropped down, pulled open a freezer door, and went Captain America on his exoskeletal ass with a stack of frozen pizzas. “Special delivery! Hahaha! Wait, nevermind, it’s Digiorno!”
Then the shooting started again. Always with the shooting. I dove into the meat freezer again and came out with a turkey. One hard throw later, and the agent at the end of the aisle tasted giblets. He couldn’t help it, stuck to his head as it was.
I couldn’t help but notice how shitty the whole mess was going for me. The feds were shooting everything and I felt sure Venus and the other agent were around. Plus, that lobster man jumped down onto one of the freezers and flattened it, still growing.
I don’t know about valor, but discretion was the better part of saving my ass, so I cloaked myself with darkness. Even without my helmet, the project could cover my head. Unfortunately, working the system through my regular eyes instead of my helmet caused my vision to split up like a fly’s eye view.
The lobster man unleashed a roar as I disappeared. Odd, that. I never knew lobsters roared. I suppose the FBI could have used thermal goggles to catch a glimpse of me on my way out. Well, you know, if something hadn’t damaged electrical devices in the city.
Still, as I fled the scene of my crime, I couldn’t help but feel I’d failed. Failed in some huge, profound way, as if-
Alright, enough bullshitting. Y’all know what I failed to do. No need to make a big deal about it. If I wanted to cry over this stuff, I’d have turned myself into a bullied teen girl and surrendered like a chump. Tell anyone and I’ll gut you like a fish or a pig or a fishpig. Yeah, a fig. I’ll rain down on you figs with so much force, they’ll need Newtons to describe your deaths.
And nobody likes Fig Newtons.