So there I was, flat on my back in the academy gymnasium, barely able to breath, with a face bound to bruise up as soon as it had time, the song “That’s Not My Name” playing through my head and into the gym. I was sweaty. I was hurt. My shorts had ridden up into my crack just enough to annoy me. I rolled over with a groan to fetch them out of the crack of Mt. Doom before they poked against my one ring.
As soon as I could, I rolled over and cut the volume on the song. I looked over at a stopped obstacle course that caused this. I’d wandered out of the library one of these days, well, been forced out. The official school year is closing up, and Master Academy is trying to be a normal school where possible. Parents are visiting the school a lot, and the heroes are trying their best to look responsible. Seeing as I’m officially dead, and the school would have every reason to toss me to the wolves if my identity got found out, I am reluctantly having to go along with it. So I wandered a bit and saw students using this thing. It beats getting dragged into some school concert by that pigtail-girl Chloe, or to a dance by Leah, or having Quincy ask for some combat tutoring.
This magnificent monstrosity rises from the floor in the gym if the proper settings are entered into a panel on the wall. It’s got rollers, pistons, swinging arms, and floors that seesaw. It’s a compressed Japanese obstacle course game show, with less padding. I just had to give it a go. I can’t use nanites to just whip my muscles and tendons into shape anymore. I used to have those things work on my body until I was as strong and flexible as Gumbie and Hercules combined.
The obstacle course had stopped when it felt a strong impact indicating it had potentially injured me. I know this because this wasn’t the first time. But then the floor opened back up and it began to lower. I looked up at the young boy who stood by the wall, looking at me with some concern. I stood up, coughed up some metallic-tasting spit, and told him, “No. Again!”
“You sure, mister?”
I nodded. He turned the knob, causing it to stop, then reverse until the entire course settled back into place. He stepped away from the controls and said, “Most people don’t sing while they’re trying to do it. And they start at an easier difficulty. You had it set to hard.”
“Make sure it’s still there. I want it hard.” Probably not the best thing to say to someone who might have made it to middle school at the most, but the heroes had already caught the predator in this case. And the added difficulty is why I once again started singing along to the song. My singing’s still horrible, but at least other people can tolerate being in the same room as me now. They threatened to use the fire hose on me when “Cotton-Eye Joe” came up on my playlist.
I didn’t wait to get all nice and comfy and be able to breathe perfectly again before circling around and diving in again. I rolled to my feet jumped over a swinging arm, ducked under a piston that shot out from my right, then heard the tell-tale sound of the machine swinging something at me from higher up and behind. I rolled forward again. They seemed to have a certain amount of time they kept going for, a distance limit. When I got to where it should have stopped, I launched myself into the air. The arm bopped me on the head and knocked me toward the mat, which shot upward as some sort of launcher. It should have splatted me into the ceiling of the course, but the ceiling opened up to let me fly out and land on the laminate floor of the gymnasium.
“It wasn’t necessarily smart of me to assume when the thingy would stop, but what really surprised me was the floor shooting me out. It never did that before,” I said to no one in particular, raising an arm up. I was about to bring it down to help me get some leverage when a large hand grabbed it. Minotaur dragged me squeaking along the floor.
“It changes a lot of things between tries. Now come on. You got a meeting with the Headmaster.”
“The Headmaster, Hagrid? Surely this won’t be yet another angsty adventure where I don’t do a lot of interesting tricks with my ability to warp the fabric of reality itself. Quick, get me a ginger and a hot nerd. Oooh, can we get Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton for this one?”
He didn’t have to be so rough about picking me up or pulling my shorts back up. He should have known the natural consequences of dragging someone in workout clothes along a floor. Didn’t have to pull them up quite so far, though. What is it with these Master Academy capes and my balls? I think it’s cover for them trying to vigilante a feel.
The way he tossed me down into a chair in front of Victor Mender and put his hands on my shoulder didn’t help matters. Made it much harder to squirm and free my balls from the tyranny of clothing.
“Gecko, we need to have a talk,” said Mender’s computer, digitizing the voice from the front of his wheelchair.
“Ok, ok… so when a man and a woman both love covering her face with baby-makin’ juice…” Minotaur’s thick fingers dug into my shoulders. I arched my back. “Ooh, a little lower?”
“Please stop provoking him and speak respectfully to me. We are owed this much for the liberties you have taken with your confinement,” Mender said. “By the way, I heard you found the obstacle course. How do you like it?”
“I’ll beat it yet, front and back. Then, I shall disembowel it, reach into its oily innards, and rip out its still-beating heart of steel and circuitry. After that, I shall consume it to gain its power. But since power has a lot of calories, I’ll probably stick a finger down my throat and purge it in the bathroom. I got some body issues I gotta work out. These thighs don’t need more fat on them.”
“It’s a machine, it doesn’t have fat,” Minotaur growled.
I rolled my eyes and, without looking at him, responded, “It’s got oil, right? Lipids, same as fat.” It should be noted that I don’t particularly care about the accuracy of some statements I make. “Now that you’ve led us off on a tangent, though, I think it’s about time we get back to the meeting at hand.” I looked to Mender. “I’m not meeting them.”
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Nah. But you just want me to go so you can raid the meeting and catch everyone red-handed. Except you already know the when, where, what, who, and even why. You could go all on your own, and I don’t feel like doing any extra work for my captors along these lines. You don’t need me there. If the only darn thing I can do to show my dislike for this course of action is to stay clear of it, then I will. It’s despicable the way you’re going after them just for a little bit of theft. I mean, come on, theft is what Christmas is all about!”
“I can not think of one single, solitary way in which Christmas is about theft.”
I didn’t even need to think. “Guy in a costume breaks into people’s houses all night and helps himself to their food. Plus, I think there’s a story of him having a helper who kidnapped naughty kids. Probably made them work as slaves in his secret fortress in the Arctic, where he spies on everyone and assembles a secret list based on whether he thinks people acted right. Ow, big guy.” Minotaur’s fingers had dug into my shoulders a bit there. Since I figured I was annoying him, I also threw in, “Also, this chick got knocked up by a dude who totally said he was a god, then used someone’s barn as a maternity ward without permission or payment. Like, ‘there’s not much room in my apartment, but I have a storage shed, just don’t get afterbirth, blood, poop, and placenta all over the place. Aww, Mary. You had ONE job.’”
“Stop,” Mender said to both myself and Minotaur, who had raised one hand and balled it up threateningly next to my head. I saw it, but I had kept on talking regardless. I was going to go into detail, too. A hologram would have worked even better. Watching a woman give birth is an easy way to promote abstinence, at least for anyone sexually attracted to women.
He went on. “We can not make you do this, but we hope to avoid violence while recovering the nanites you stole. You would be doing a lot of good for more than just us.”
“Blah blah, getting dangerous substances off the street. Save the speech for drug cops. I am a dangerous substance. I bleed dangerous substances. I do other things to produce dangerous substances. Wanna see?”
“There are always men, women, and children who will need the advanced medical aid your nanotechnology can provide. When you first told us the goal of your theft, I knew we could use it to provide several Christmas miracles for people you missed before you used them to take over the world. People do not trust them now, but we can still use them.”
“Appealing to my sense of goodness will never work. I want to be changed back from human. Human sucks. Human blows. Human works the shaft,” I told him.
“You will be human for the rest of your life if I have any say. Instead, your cooperation with us will prove we do not need to keep you on a psychic leash.” Now that got my attention. It’s not as good as turning back, but even turning back without getting rid of those compulsions would only do me so much good. Plus, it’d be harder to clear those out.
He knew he had me, I think, when I leaned forward and asked, “I do this, and you get Psychsaur to let me out of it?”
“Among other things,” he said. “I want you to listen to our plan. You will be surprised.”
Which is how I wound up in that office with a bunch of other nervous criminals, getting my pay. I think I was the only one without a gun or knife in the room. To try and set us all at ease, Butterfly had offered some wine, and I was even the only one to take that. I only pretended to drink it, though. I don’t trust him. I just don’t get that much of a say in how I react to him.
“I did what I did for a reason. You were going to betray me, so I betrayed you. Now, the Ukrainians are out of the import/export business thanks to the heroes, I have the goods, and you are all alive. It worked out for all of us, and I want it to keep working out.” He gave a sly smile and stood up from his comfy leather chair to indicate a table to the side of the room. It had five open cardboard boxes and five large thermal canisters. “Feel free to inspect them and make sure I am not shorting you.”
Nobody else jumped up to it, so I stepped over first. As expected nothing blew up in my face when I opened any of the boxes. Each one was the same: packed with $100,000 in cash. When I survived looking, Mr. Blue Sky hurried over to grab a box and head for the passageway out. Hail Mary, Billy Jean, and especially Sgt. Pepper took their sweet time. They checked the cash over themselves while I unscrewed one of the canisters and reached in.Yep, nanites. But, I figured I’d prove it.
I held my hand out. “Anyone got a knife on ’em? Just nick a finger for me.”
Billy Jean pulled out a switchblade. “You sure?”
I nodded. He shrugged and grabbed the middle of my pointer finger, opening up the tip with a slice. I put my thumb over it and applied pressure while reaching that hand into the fluid below that I knew consisted of harmless filler and useful nanomachines. It felt different, feeling them seek out the injury and close it off as a human would. I normally get more of a connection to some of them. When I pulled my hand out, the finger was healed back up, which confirmed that method of payment to the group. I held on to that canister as Hail Mary and Sgt. Pepper both went over to check on some of the others.
Billy Jean took the cash, nodded to us, and left. Hail Mary got herself some nanites. Pepper looked at the cash for a long time, then shook his head. He said something to himself that I couldn’t catch, then grabbed his own thing of the nanites. When I saw he’d done that, I palmed a pebble-sized tracker that wouldn’t show up as anything to consume or destroy to the nanites and dropped it in. I closed the lid and instead grabbed a box of cash before leaving.
Yeah, it actually went well. No double-crossing, at least on Butterfly’s side. And no raid by the heroes. That was explained to me by Mender when I agreed to listen to their plan. Because, instead of raiding the place and potentially not finding where the rest of the goods are, they want all of them. They did make me turn over the $50,000 I was paid for the job though, wink wink. But I have a great deal of leeway in helping them come up with the specific plan to manage the next step.
They used to have someone they could rely on to help with this sort of thing, but she’s out of the country on holiday at the moment. And while the Master Academy’s hero education is supposedly top-notch, they don’t necessarily train their people to be thieves and burglars.
So, in a turn of events, I get to plan a heist with some of the heroes as my crew. And this isn’t just some job stealing from a warehouse or meth lab or something. Uh uh. According to that tracker, I get to use heroes to break into a bank. Ha! Serves ’em right. They want to make me do good deeds, I get to make them rob a place. Something tells me this one’s going to get loud.
Hmm. And they’re going to have a Santa show up there. Time for a little ho-ho-hold up, I think.