My escape did not, in fact, involve a minotaur. I’d tried wandering around finding a quiet way out. I know, I know, me quiet? I could have bounded right back up the furnace and punched through the floor, probably. But I didn’t come all this way, play dead, play with fish, and spill pudding down my pants just to blow the stealth approach this late in the game. I made my way through the maze in the general direction of that distant noise I’d associated with a roar.
This wasn’t some kid’s menu with a nice top down view, so it was harder to get a sense of maze’s size. I took a page from Ricca’s augmented reality and left a glowing trail behind me for my eyes only. I corrected for dead ends and back tracking as well. The music in my head helped make the trip tolerable. For some reason, “One Night In Bangkok” felt appropriate. I even caught myself circling back around to a four way intersection and taking a different turn due to the process of elimination. Then I said “Fuck this,” and cranked up the armor. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, you see.
The maze ran out of walls between myself and my target before I ran out of power. I ended up peeking my head around one last corner from whence I heard the sound I’d been following. Despite it not sounding bestial, I legit expected to find a minotaur, or perhaps some genetic abomination. It’s not like it’d be hard to make a humanoid bull at this point. Hell, I’m banging a cyborg shark woman. Rawr.
I didn’t find one of the epic classic monsters, like a cyclops, hydra, or dragon. I didn’t even get one of the weak modern monsters like chupacabra or the skunk ape. I got… some people by an elevator with cleaning supplies. There were four of them, they all wore jumpsuits, but one had a vest over his. “Remember, if the Majordomo asks, remind him it is improper for him to address lowly staff directly. He will probably remember that, but he has been up my ass about cleaning down here the past couple of days. This is an easy job. Do you want to be reassigned to the war?”
“We heard you the first four times,” answered a subordinate of his with wild, uncombed hair.
“You are really nervous about this, boss?” asked another, a woman.
She turned to nod to the last of their group, but I stood there instead. “Yeah, what’s the big deal?” I asked. Under my arm, the original fourth mumbled something. I couldn’t hear him real well, so I twisted his neck around. I heard that one real clear, before the screaming started. Always with the screaming.
The maintenance elevator took me to a subbasement, but that turned out to be accessible to a sub-basement. Having gotten a good look at the uniform of these workers, I used the incomplete holographic field of my armor to mimic one. I wanted to keep my armor on. I was confident I could sneak in it easily enough.
Nobody really looked twice at me as I left the elevator. Once, sure, but I must remind y’all once again that sometimes the best way to sneak by people is to look like you belong there.
After that, it was almost insultingly easy to move about the palace. I was a worker. I was beneath official notice, and I was already in. Surely, someone else must have already checked me if I got this far. So curiosity met apathy, and apathy won.
One of the common themes among dictators is an over-inflated sense of self-worth. They get it into their heads that they’re the greatest instead of hiring someone to whisper sweet “Sic transit gloria mundi”s in their ear. St. Petersburg becomes Stalingrad, Saddam Hussein gets a painting of him slaying the hydra, and one of the guys who used to live here grabbed or invented 54 different titles to appear important. They’re all only worth as much as someone will pay to kill them. Everyone’s like that, except for the assassin.
And as the best killer around, I’d say I’m worth a lot more than the others. I’m like the big game hunter of heroes. I should add that to my list of titles. Maybe add an asterisk there that includes, “and villains.”
So the assassin swept through the palace, forgotten for dead, ignored in continued life. I wore no helmet, but no man remembered my face. I glided silently, a heavily armored enigma in the night. I was a deadly breeze that absconded with any life caught in my embrace. I left bodies when I had no choice. Their necessary deaths and disappeared corpses were the cobblestones that eased my approach.
My trail took me past a corridor where Buzzkills guarded a door. The bee people had segmented eyes, but I took pains not to be seen. I climbed further, to the largest and most luxurious of the personal suite. I found a trio of men outside in heavy armor of their own. The armor they wore looked unpowered, but thick and plated all over the place. Pads weighed them down from the shins, knees, thighs, waist, arms, and shoulders. Faceless helmets concealed their faces, finishing the work of their gloves and high-necked shirts to completely obscure their skin. They might have been tinted enough to mitigate some of the impact of a bright flash, and possibly a bang. I wouldn’t give them a bang. Even if I didn’t use one, the guns in their hands hinted at many loud noises in the future. They stood with two to the sides of the door and one across from it.
I set my hologram and readied myself. I checked the ceiling, seeing what I had to work with. Twenty feet or so. I’m still not th ebest at imperial measurement despite my own stint as emperor. I whipped out a chicken grenade. Instead of pulling its head off, I tossed it high. It hit the ceiling just above them, sooner than I meant, but momentum let it flip and flop over to the side of them. They all turned to look, but the one on the furthest side of the door was the first to turn.
My kick knocked the gun out of his grip, though a strap saved him from losing it completely. The one across the hall went down with an enhanced punch to his throat. With one hand, I grabbed the hand of the one on the closer side of the door. A hell of a lot closer, eh? With my other hand, I grabbed around his head in a one-handed twist. He went down. The one who had turned first tried to yell something, but was muffled by his helmet as he raised his rifle. I jammed my finger in there behind the trigger and chopped his throat. My hand went from his throat to the bottom of his torso armor and I lifted, swung him overhead, and slammed him down onto the top of his head. I figured that probably got him, but for good measure, I stomped down on the back of his neck after he finished falling over.
Some moments are too perfect to say anything. Others, you’re trying to silently assassinate someone.
I started to open the door when I heard a clicking sound from behind me. I turned to see two of the guards standing back up: the one I’d punched in the throat and the one whose neck I broke. That one twisted it back into place.
I sighed. From underneath my left forearm popped a blade. Where I normally install a Nasty Surprise, I had instead traded it out for a broken piece of the atom-thin blade I’d broken off the suit of my stalker from my home Earth. I figured it would make an even more fun surprise. One swipe later and the bodies of the guards dropped, followed swiftly by their heads. Strangely, they lacked blood. I removed the head from the one still laying down for good measure before checking the room.
The locked door put up more resistance than most human vertebra. The designer was good, but not good enough. I popped that lock like a 90s breakdancer, and entered like a smooth criminal. So did my friends out in the hall, in case anyone happened to pass by. I dumped them all on their sides on a sofa with its back turned to the door. Layouts being fairly standard, I figured I wouldn’t find his bedroom adjacent to the kitchen or main living room. There were guest rooms, but a good rule of thumb is to find the one separated from the others so that mommy and daddy can give you a little brother with at least a tiny bit of privacy.
That one didn’t have an electronic lock either. This one I picked with the help of my laser eye and let myself in. I’d come all this way and the Claw laid before me. With my eyes, I had enough light to see the inhuman visage of the thing laying in the bed. Humanoid, with a large yellow head, pointy ears, and a huge mouth barely hanging open over folds that hinted it could go further.
I’d pondered a bit of speechifying. Giving him a piece of his mind and making up some stuff about how I’m so much better than him. But that didn’t matter. Knowing why he would die wasn’t important.
I shoved first one hand, then another into the sleeper’s chest, tearing him in half before he could awaken and pulling out his heard. Then I squeezed his shaking head until it burst.
It felt ok. Not astounding or even great. Just ok. A bit of a let down. I thought I’d feel better about it all, especially after the guy tried to kill me and my daughter. I prefer letting people know I have a way to hurt them so they stay in line. His way was nothing but a last laugh to have. In this case, it was more of a provocation.
I checked over this much-storied villain. Just a man in a mask, as far as I could tell. Maybe he was super powered, but a bit of a letdown from the theories about being alien or fae. I pondered the oddity of it all over a late night snack. I grabbed his heart and gave it a nibble. Standard human heart, aside from a surprising level of physical fitness for a man his age.
Movement woke me from my thoughts. Shaking kind of movement. The sounds of warfare. In the middle of that, I heard a creak from outside. I walked out and saw Lu standing there. His eyes narrowed and halted. Silver Shark swung around in front of him.
“Hey babe,” I said, smiling with blood around my mouth and chunks of heart. It’s not a tender cut of meat.
“Did you murder the Emperor?” asked Lu.
I shrugged. “The Emperor is dead. Long live Emperor Gecko. What’s shaking out there?”
I walked toward them and out the door. Silver Shark kept up with me easily. “It’s a war out there. Bombs are getting through into Pyongyang. You sure waited long enough! The war’s going so bad, this guy broke me out to do what you hadn’t.”
I turned to look at Lu. “Since when do you turn coat?” When he opened his mouth to answer, I interrupted him. “Forget that, get me to whatever command center you have here, and have the other women who came with me released unharmed. They’re alive, right?”
Lu bowed his head respectfully. “I had them imprisoned in the dungeon. They are otherwise well cared for.”
I eyed him. He noticed it and added, “This course had become madness. I dislike that you made it happen. I realized also you could save the empire. You would not have made it this far if I had not learned of your voyage and cleared your path. I knew you lived, and knew you would survive the fall and labyrinth. When you took so long, I suspected I was wrong and recruited Silver Shark to take your place. I do not know what form the empire will take now as it continues, but it continues.”
“For the moment, it’s a totalitarian Geckocracy. One man, one vote, and I’m the one man. But all that isn’t going to matter unless we deal with this little problem we have vis-a-vis the whole world knocking on our door with nuclear weapons.“
“You there!” Lu called out to a scampering servant. He gave the man orders to release Wangi, Citra, and Qiang, and to bring them to us in the command and control center. After exasperatedly demanding the man hurry, he came back to me and smiled. “Let us hurry. Things go poorly.”
I was ushered into the place where all the wartime magic happens, finding it a crude attempt to stick 21st century equipment in a room designed for individual computers that barely fit on desks. There was a back portion with a set of chairs, one central. From there, the room moved down in tiers, with a long planning table on the next one down, and then desks with computers. On the wall opposite, a humongous screen was divided up to show multiple different views. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but there was a lot of white and red in places that looked bad for this half of the peninsula. “Sup, people. I need you to get me the belligerents on the phone. Everybody. The Russian asshole, the American idiot, the Chinese businessman, the German alliance builder, and whoever the hell the British have after their election bit their PM in the ass.”
“What about the Japanese and French?” asked some random person at a computer.
I pointed to him. “Good point. Get me all of them. Everyone. Anyone who has declared war on us, I want their face on that monitor as soon as possible. And someone bring me a chair to sit in.”
Lu motioned to a chair behind me. “This is the ruler’s chair.” He sure has cozied up to me. I’d rather he be as much an ass as before. I don’t think I can trust him like this, the way he set things up for me to supposedly waltz in and kill his leader. He never struck me as the type to do that. I better keep my eye on him.
And why didn’t he just do the job? If the Claw was just a regular guy in a mask, and probably an older one, why get me? Or Silver? Why not push him down a flight of stairs?
Lu put his hands on my shoulder to guide me around since I’d taken a moment to think instead of paying attention to the chair he meant for me to sit in. Some thick golden monstrosity. I pushed it onto its side and sat in it, at least confident it didn’t have a bomb hidden underneath. “If this is all you have, then it’ll have to do. Crap, we’ll probably have to wake up Beetrice sometime soon, won’t we?”
“If she hasn’t awakened already from the bombing. She is an important political figure going into the future of our nation. Her support will mean something,” Lu said.
Silver Shark just kinda stood around looking awkward. I waved her over. “Hey there beautiful. Am I dead? Because I don’t know if I’m seeing an angel or a succubus.”
She shuffled her large cybernetic flipper feet and looked down. “Ha ha. You think you’re funny.”
“I hear I’m a riot. That must be why people keep trying to beat and pepper spray me. But I’m not joking about how you look.”
“Stop,” she said, and a bit more seriously than because of my flirting. She looked back up and toward the entrance of the room. I saw the older and thicker Wangi, her waifish daughter Citra, and my Qiang. The little girl ran toward me with my helmet on her head. I caught her in a long hug, holding her until called out that they had representatives of Ricca’s enemies ready to present on screen for a visual.
I sat Qiang on my knee, keeping an arm around her waist. “You look good in daddy’s helmet,” I told her. She looked up at me and nodded, the helmet exaggerating the gesture.
“This is General-” started someone from the monitors. I looked up to see they were all lined up there on the big screen, this conversation taking precedence over everything else.
“Yeah, yeah, nice to meet you. How’s the war going for you?” I asked in English, smiling. I tossed the heart I still carried from the hand holding Qiang over to my free one so I could raise it and take another bite. I didn’t bother waiting for an answer before starting in, “The Empire of Ricca has made a grave mistake and is willing to correct course. As part of this, to you, the nations that have been wronged by recent actions, we offer unconditional surrender.”
“There may be repercussions for Emperor Claw for his role in recent events,” spoke the American General. “Do you have the authority to negotiate on his behalf?”
I wiggled the heart in my hand. “The Claw has faced his final repercussions. My authority comes from my standing as Emperor Gecko. Now, let’s talk peace.”