Empyreal City welcomed me home with indifference. It may not sound like a good welcome, but it’s better than getting off the plane and staring at a firing squad of superheroes.
I’m sure they had plenty of stuff to deal with on their own. Checking the local news once I got off the private jet, newly re-Norma-lized. I kinda miss Mr. Dangly down there, but it’s how I’m known. And I did build the boob space into the armor already.
Amazingly enough, this city has plenty of trouble without me. Organized heroes versus organized villains would be bad enough, but now there’s a damn serial killer hanging around. Well, counting me, another serial killer. But one without any superpowers. And without natural abilities that qualify as superpowers. Probably without any power armor or gadgets, but they don’t know that for sure. All they know is some guy’s been wrapping people in bubble tape and shooting them in the head.
Well, they assume it’s a guy. Same reason why they assume he’s white. They didn’t even realize he was out there until I left and they had enough time to properly check over the statistics. See?
So they’ve had their own distraction, and nobody noticed Norma’s absence thanks to Crash. Dear Crash. My put-upon personal assistant left me a bunch of unchecked emails documenting her descent into near-insanity and subsequent harebrained plans to cover up my absence, including an incident where she may have stolen one of my cars. I’m so proud of her.
When I got back to Double Cross HQ, I found her in my office, checking between the computer, her tablet, and paperwork while talking on the phone. “No, I’m afraid Ms. Mortenson isn’t available to speak to you today, but if you leave your email, she’d be happy to contact you at a better time.”
I held my hands out for a hug, “Miss me, Crash Test Dummy?” She got the nickname after I first wrecked her car. The replacement vehicles rarely fare any better.
“I’ll call you back, have a nice day, buh bye!” she said to the phone, then jumped up and ran around the desk to me. She meant to stop, but then I stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug, bringing my mouth toward hers. She got her hands on the front of my face and pushed me away. “Stop! No! You kill people!” She finally slipped away by dropping to the floor and standing back up a ways away.
I set my hands on my hips. “Don’t I deserve a bit of welcome-back lovin’?”
“Get it from your girlfriend,” she countered, sounding annoyed. Then she remembered who she was and who I am. “Um, sorry. I don’t want-…if I absolutely have to, I’ll kiss you, but…”
I waved her off. “Don’t worry about it. The moment passed. And speaking of girlfriends, has Wildflower been around?”
Crash blew some hair out of her face. “Yeah, she broke into the penthouse shortly after you left. She watches the building from time to time. Sorry, but it’s hard to keep her out…” She lowered her eyes, her body shifting toward the door. Ah yes. The price of failure. You have failed to accomplish an impossible task, otherwise competent person whose expertise in no way relates to that task. Now you must suffer eternal consequences for momentary weakness!
“Yeah, I’m aware of that. By the way, nice hair. Growing it out and letting it go black? Can it go back?”
She twirled a finger in her hair. “I needed to look more ‘in charge’ around here. So, did you do everything you needed?”
I raised an eyebrow, wondering how out of the loop she must have been. Then again, I know how hard it is to keep up with any news that doesn’t personally affect me. “Yep. Registration won’t be happening any time soon. You might go look up on WikiLeaks, see if anyone you know is on the small list they had already gathered. After you give me the rundown on things.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out. “This is going to take some time.”
Crash caught me back up to speed, but it did indeed take awhile to catch me up on the numbers. On the plus side, the EC VA is loving us. Prince Pomerania, the former sixteen-time World Champion in various wrestling promotions and current head of my Marketing department, used his autonomy to work out a discount for veterans that saw prosthetic limbs fly off the shelves. We already had a good reputation, but it helped us on several levels to not charge an arm and a leg for an arm and a leg.
Carl’s security teams aren’t doing the best. Carl, my former henchman, is some sort of Vice President, but I put him in charge of our personal security force after the last guy had too many of his own cronies and launched a minor coup. Unfortunately, lots of people are complaining about harassment, laziness, tardiness, and at least one claim of defecation on a hallway plant. While I talk that over with him, I better check their backgrounds, too. I’ve pissed off at least two different private security firms; I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to infiltrate my own ranks. Or worse, if one or two of them might already be in here, which would explain how someone managed to plant a bomb under my hotel room.
Over at the labs, Wonder Harrison, the stoner-in-chief, has created something he calls “Looking Glass” to help defend people’s minds if the aliens happen to be the some of those telepathic types. We didn’t have a captured pet psychic anymore, but he’d been selling it on the side to some supervillains who like to buy from Double Cross, and they reported success in avoiding psychic intrusion. From what I read of how it fucks them up, I almost wouldn’t believe them. However, they reported all that while coming back to buy more, instead of testifying about it at trial.
Over in Financials, one of my guys invested the company’s money in enough tickets to guarantee a win in the Powerball, then tried to abscond with the money. The nerve of that asshole, trying to abscond! What, fleeing was too low class for him? Remembering how I’d fired his predecessor out of a cannon, the head number cruncher caught him personally. It was apparently an epic battle of paperwork that left my guy’s pinkie nearly severed.
I’ll have to get him a medal. Maybe something off the black market, like that one for vampire veterans where lots of blood loss is involved. The Medal of Pallor.
Might make up for him losing some money on the football playoffs, but what would really make up for it is if he wins big with Superbowl betting. Double Cross has a very high-risk, high reward investment strategy.
The minutae of all this burnt me out in no time. Even hearing that Technolutionary had grabbed a few more homeless people off the street for further experimentation didn’t seem that interesting. You’d think he’d aim higher after we turned a Senator’s daughter. Ah well, what’s the worst that could happen? You know, aside from a hobo with the power of technopathy?
We could call him “iBum”.
I suppose it’s a slightly better fate than what the cards normally hold.
Almost brain dead from going over reports and updates with Crash, I awoke in my office, wondering who was tapping and why I had a blanket over me. The chair part wasn’t so bad, in case anyone wonders how I can sleep at night. I can sleep on lots of stuff less comfortable than chairs, up to and including the mothers of those I wish to insult.
The tapping noise turned out to be a man in red, white, and gold tights, the chest resembling a retro jacket with buttons above the nipples, wearing a cape that fluttered as he floated effortlessly in the air, backlit by the rising sun.
Fucking sun. One of these days, I’ll come up with some new massive source of hot gas and destroy that thing for all the trouble it has caused me. Maybe someone’s mother…
But first, I raised a finger toward Captain Lightning, my visitor, indicating I needed a moment. Then I calmly walked to the elevator, got on, and tried to escape. Well, that was the plan, except glass shattered right after the doors closed and then they were pulled open again. Captain Lightning got on beside me. “Going my way?” he asked jovially.
“Venus can’t keep a damn secret. Here to bring me in?” I asked, slurring a little as I tried to get the proper feeling back in my cheek. Bleh. Must have drooled all over my desk.
He looked me over, barely looking his age. Sure, he looked a bit older, with lines on the face and some grey in the hair, but this was a man who fought the Nazis. “I don’t think you’d do so well in a rematch.” He smiled, but shook his head. “No, I came to talk to you about this.” He held up a stack of photos showing the charred remains of Senator Powers, then the remains being autopsied, then a weird round growth at the base of his skull where it met his neck.
“Side effect of those FBI powerballs, maybe? Is that a tumor?” I held the paper close, then reached up to wipe some eye boogers out of the corners. Without some point of reference, even a banana, I could’t tell how big it was. I don’t know if Powers kept growing or shrunk after death, or any of that.
“No, it’s not a tumor. According to FBI medical examiners who were extremely pissed to know that restricted and experimental equipment had been stolen by a politician, that is some sort of communication device. Do you know anything about this?”
I smirked and handed the pictures back. “Sure, now you believe me.”
“I think it’s a lead. You uncovered some troubling information with potentially widespread ramifications. I want to know why.”
I thought back to my confrontation with Powers and stepped out back into my office. Then opened my mouth and did an audio replay. The voice of Senator Powers came out of my mouth. “Pinkerton told me you’d find a way to survive that bomb, and I didn’t believe them. They said you’d come for me too. I was going to make this world perfect! They showed me…”
“Senator Powers…” mused Captain Lightning, who had followed me.
“I do what I do for the good of everyone. To make the world a better place,” I finished off with, from when I met with him in my current guise. I took a seat back at my desk and used some sexual harassment summaries from the Human Resources Department to soak up a puddle of drool I’d left behind.
Then I backed it up further, to the conversation with Max Muscles, now sounding like the Jersey hero, “I started losing time. Blackout, man. Not cool, bro. I got out of control, just too much fun. One of my bros recommended AA, so I went there. I started talkin’ to God, and he gave me this feeling. He guided me. He told me I could make the world a better place. Like, a heaven on earth. He brought me here, and then he said I needed to make a sacrifice for the good of everyone.”
“Who was that?” Lightning had taken a seat across from me. He had pulled out a cell phone and was tapping on its screen. A quick attempt to sneak a peek revealed some pretty hefty security measures, especially for someone as tired and lazy as me.
I rolled my eyes. “Max Muscles. I got him out quietly for an interview. I had a hunch from that last bit Powers said, which is from earlier than the ones where he’s referencing a ‘they’ that might be the Pinkertons. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary Malady said something similar.”
“She attacked him out of the blue and made him look good. That’s worth checking.”
Searching through my recorded memories, I spouted out another audio playback: “For the good of everyone, we must break their laws and drag them to utopia. They require a strong hand.”
Lightning frowned. “And that one?”
“Oligarch. He spouting that kind of stuff, claiming The Order was for everyone’s good. His goal was to wipe out the heroes and villains of Empyreal City, I’m sure.” I woke up my desk computer and started looking for a video from my time in The Order.
“Didn’t he only imprison the heroes?” Lightning asked.
In response, I swiveled the computer monitor around and showed him Oligarch’s use of a miniature nuclear missile to destroy an asylum. “That building is the one he imprisoned the heroes in. As far as he knew, they were still stuck in there when he blew it up. At least until a certain badass broke in to rescue the heroes…” I muttered the end of the sentence quietly.
Lightning heard and laughed. “But they broke out first?”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “They still wouldn’t have gotten out in time if not for me and my help. But he gathered all the villains into a union, captured a huge chunk of EC’s hero population, and tried to kill them. He probably would have arranged a neat accident for most of the villains, too. All while spouting utopian nonsense. Probably an accident involving the military retaking the city, I bet. Poised to exploit the tragedy, a prominent Senator, and you wouldn’t believe how tired I am of that word now, uses blackmail and minor coordination with a hero and villain to push through a bill which would have involved obtaining identities and power information on the nation’s superheroes and incarcerated or reformed supervillains.”
Lightning leaned back in his chair, contemplating. “So far, this is just a conspiracy. The not-a-tumor fits, but it isn’t conclusive either, even if we find one on Mary Malady or Max Muscles. When you said it was aliens, I thought you were joking. Were you?”
I shook my head. “Nah. No joke. I had an adventure earlier this year in Europe. Was recruited by a clairvoyant named Fortune Cookie because I’m an evil, murderous son of a bitch and sometimes you need that to keep someone from freezing time and effectively ending the world. I guess time sort of…wrinkled, maybe? I saw stuff from the past, and I saw a bit of the future. Alien invasion. I died. Or will die. Or I was supposed to have will died, but now I will only maybe die because I saw I died, which hasn’t happened yet.”
I couldn’t resist adding to the confusion, but I clarified it by adding, “This is all about preemptive self-defense for me.” Sitting back in my chair, I crossed me arms. Only, I sat back too fast and almost toppled backwards. I had to catch myself by my toe on the desk and reel myself back in.
Having worked all that out, Captain Lightning looked up at me. “Preemptive self-defense. Are you from Florida?” He chuckled at his own joke. It faded in a hurry as he said words he no-doubt never thought he’d say. “I’d like to see if we can find the same…structure… in Malady and Muscles, but I think I believe you.”
Raising an eyebrow, I appraised him, and the building’s cameras, for any signs of deceit or people waiting to arrest me. “Why is that?”
“For the same reason you don’t need to blame Venus for my visit.” He held up his phone and showed me a one-sided text conversation. “This phone is supposed to be damn near unhackable, tech boys say, and less than a half dozen men and women around the world have the number.”
He’d scrolled up to let me see the first of the messages. “Hello, my name is Fortune Cookie…” it began.
She pulled him in. I figured he wouldn’t go the same way as Oligarch or Powers, but that confirms he’s clean for sure. “So, Captain Lightning and Psycho Gecko team up to fight an alien invasion. Who’d a thunk it?”
It was Lightning’s turn to shake his head. “Any number of heroes, villains, politicians, soldiers…regular citizens…anyone else could be involved. I should be able to scan someone and tell if they have one of these tumors-”
I interrupted, “Not a tumor.”
He laid the photos on the desk and stabbed at them with his finger for emphasis as he talked. “Whatever they are, I can find them. Without cutting them open, mind you.”
Aww. “Well, I can keep doing what I do to try and help the city, but time is short. I have a guy empowering people, my company has a few things going on to that end. Can’t say there’s much for me to do on a personal level other than help build some weapons.”
He pushed the photo of the tumorous communications organ thingy toward me. “Find a way to kill this that won’t hurt someone.”
I looked at him, then picked up the photo and tore it in half. “Done.”
“No, smartass, I’ll bring you the Senator’s…whatever…and Mary Malady’s if I can get it. Can you kill it?”
Can I kill it? Can I kill it? Can I kill it?
He acted like he hadn’t told a hilarious joke when my office echoed with unconstrained evil laughter.
Though he did lay a firm hand on my shoulder, look me in the eyes with orbs that glowed like plasma globes. “And that better be all you kill,” he said, the sound of distant rolling thunder punctuating his words.
Every party needs a pooper, I guess.