“Do you want them taken alive?” asked one of the magical bounty hunters assembled before me. I didn’t like the guy based on his armor being styled after a Crusader’s armor. He wore mail under the crusader flag tunic, and covered his face in a barbute-style medieval helm with such a small T-shaped slit that it was hard to make out very much of his features. It not only clashed from a historical perspective, but I don’t usually work with militant theocrats.
I shrugged. “There will be a substantial reward for whoever finds the person doing this. You are free to use any methods necessary, and I don’t care if they’re alive. Disintegrations are ok, as long as you bring back proof.”
Crusader Rex, as he styles himself, nodded and hefted his blocky rifle. The bunch saw themselves out. The others, including a mummy, a couple of mystics in official Faustus/Hephaestus business robes, a British guy with a 5 o’clock shadow in a trenchcoat, and a woman in way too skimpy of an outfit. I’ve seen lingerie that covers more. Magic is pretty much the only way that could stay on. The last of the bunch was a guy I recognized named Skul. Bald guy, in faded pants and jacket, with a mask fashioned from the front of a human skull. I remember when he used to mug people on street corners with a cheap pistol.
Well, if he manages it, he manages it. Some mages might be so prepared for weird occult attacks that they don’t expect a Saturday Night Special. If the guy prefers to dress like he’s about to hit a liquor store in the process, that’s his business.
The Institute having secured several clocks, we had figured out that the visits keep occurring at one AM. My alarm went off five minutes ’till, with both the witch and one of the Faustus people having asked to be nearby. The witch had to be close. With an outfit that amounted to little more than a strapless bikini covering a squat, chubby body with small breasts. Actually, pulling back the footage, I’m not sure my feelings for her were entirely my own, because she had this wonky thing with one eye and a chin with its own ass crack.
Having remained loyal to a woman who preferred me when I had dick for days, I woke up to my alarm clock and waited, armor ready to smack the straight out of the second Spirit. Everyone knows that’s the Ghost of Christmas Present, who doesn’t even bring a present. With a name like that, it should be mandatory. I waited for the Present to arrive. And how did I not see that mole?
It was very nearly 1:01 when I jumped up. “Anyone spotted anything weird yet?” I asked over the radio. Silence answered me.
“Not yet, Empress,” said Dr. Silence. “We thought we had a power surge, but it only lasted a moment. Have you checked with your mystics?”
I didn’t get an answer from them, so I cloaked and headed out the door. Maybe the ghost went after them first.
I stopped down the hall at the door to their room. Oh, look, a checkpoint that negates my stealth in my own facility. I knelt down beside the door and popped it open. When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man didn’t charge out for a couple seconds, I poked a hand around and let the cameras tell the tale.
What had once been a white lab room was now a warm, inviting study with wood floor and walls covered in bookshelves except for the fireplace. A crackling fire backlit a large man in a green robe laying on a couch where the back didn’t run the length of the whole thing. Along the floor was a small feast of ham, turkey, stuffing, roast beef, buttery bread, deviled eggs, and angel food cake among other selections. The man was as big as a pro wrestler, and not fond of covering his hairy chest. He raised a torch in one hand. “Is that you, Psychopomp? Do come.”
I began to charge three of my arms and grabbed a rubber chicken off my belt. I squeezed the head off it and tossed it into the fire, past the guy. He glanced at it, but seemed unconcerned. I came charging in as flames exploded out of the fireplace toward the unconcerned ghost, intending by the energy sheaths on my gauntlet to disperse the undead being that sought me out.
The ghost disappeared before I hit it, which left me hurtling into the fire. I came out on the other side, landing in a city’s roundabout. Around me ran crowds of people with faces covered, carrying their own makeshift torches. One of them was driving a bulldozer along, pushing cars out of the way and tearing down street lamps. The city’s lights were being replaced by torches carried by protesters.
Nearby, I saw the ghost again. He would find some isolated masked person and shake his torch over them. Instead of ash or sparks, water rained down. I watched one man put down a pipe he carried, pull off his mask, and walk away from it all. “It’s a shame to quarrel at Christmas time,” he said.
“This is Paris,” I said, standing up. I found my arms no longer glowing, the energy somehow having bled off. And though I could stand on the streets, my arms went right through the people living up to Paris’s longstanding tradition of revolting.
“Yes, and look at such ungrateful people who would fight instead of enjoying their food and their loved ones,” he said.
“Dude, they’re poor people who are getting screwed out of food for themselves and their loved ones,” I pointed out. “You would deprive them of their means of seeking justice and making their voices heard just because you don’t like fighting around the holidays?”
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” responded the spirit,”who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness, who are as strange to myself and all my kith and kin, as if they were inhuman. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”
I pointed to the torch. “You’re the one influencing them to stop. You’d rather have peace than justice, and instead of telling the guys screwing people over, you want to tell the victims to shut up and be quiet.”
“And you influence them to fight.” The ghost waved his torch over to where an injured man was being helped away from the fighting. His fellows set him down while another moved in and began performing some basic field medicine, trying to set his leg and wrap the bloody wound on it with medicated gauze laced with medical nanites. “Training, equipment. You have a hand in this conflict.”
“I offer knowledge and aid. They sought it out of their own free will and apply it the way they wanted to. You want to control their minds and force peace on them at the cost of their wants and needs. I offer enlightenment and empowerment so the powerful alone don’t control the course of the world.”
The ghost swept his arm across the darkened city, smoke rising in several places. “How many people are dead because of the knowledge you loose onto the world and then wash your hands of?”
I nodded toward the protesters. “My knowledge didn’t make their government tax the poor to bolster the rich. This fighting is out in the open and temporary, but there’s been more conflict, lasting longer, cold-blooded. This will kill, what, tens? Maybe hundreds in the end from fighting? How does it compare to lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? This is a momentary terror, but you ignore the older and more vast one, inflicted day by day, year by year, decade by decade, unseen because of its pervasiveness.”
What is it about Paris that makes people, myself included, want to give speeches?
“I think you could use a little Christmas cheer, woman.” the ghost said sternly. “I know what will help!”
The wind picked up and embers from the torch flew out. They came right at me and obscured my vision just enough that I didn’t notice the change in venue until the wind calmed. We were in a trailer now. A woman stood in the kitchen area, boiling rice and heating up canned vegetable beef soup on the stovetop. We stood in the adjoining living room area, where a threadbare plastic tree stood next to a stained couch.
“Even in these dark circumstances, there is hope,” said the ghost. He pointed toward the tree, but then walked across to the kitchen and sprinkled his torch water, whatever that’s about, onto the food. “A little seasoning of my own to help.”
“Ew,” I said. “Try not to put too much of your own ‘special sauce’ into that woman’s cooking, ok?”
“My blessings are felt more by the poor. The smallest aid helps them more.” He looked past me, to the door. A moment later, someone knocked.
The woman in the kitchen turned to the window and glanced out. She sighed. “Go away!”
The door opened anyway and one of my agents came in. I remember him as the one I extracted from Abnormal, Alabama. A local business leader who ended up leaving his family, including a son who was a sidekick to a local team of teenaged superheroes. It seems his family have fallen on hard times. “I heard about the accident. I want to see him,” my agent told her.
“You ruined his life enough,” she said.
He looked around. “It didn’t have to be this way. You keep sending back the money I send.”
“I don’t want your money and neither does he,” she said.
He set his jaw. “Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one in a wheelchair peeing into a bag. There are so many ways I can get our son back.”
“You already lost him when you chose some crazy tyrant over him,” she responded. She cussed under her breath and spun around to turn the stove down and stir the soup.
My agent turned and headed down the hallway while she was distracted. She noticed and called out, “Hey! Don’t go back there!”
I followed the father to a back room where his son sat in a wheelchair. The father hugged him. “I’m here, Tim.”
“Some fluid of my own making would be better suited to helping this situation,” I told the ghost who had followed me back. “But I suppose that’s evil to you.”
“It was you who created this situation. The son and the mother would not take it,” he told me.
“Yeah, well sometimes people don’t know what’s good for them. Same as those folks wearing government suits in Paris. They got themselves into a mess and are refusing to help themselves out of it. These folks here don’t have to work for me or anything like that. Now, maybe the son doesn’t like it, but I imagine he preferred being able to feel his penis and not living in a roach castle like this.” I looked around.
“You drove him to this and pretend good people have a choice,” said the ghost. “Taking children from parents and training people to be insurgents and killers. This is who you are in the present.”
I turned around to punch him in the schnoz, but found my fist hitting the bare metal wall of the Institute of Science’s hallway. I was back. “Fucker,” I muttered. Apparently I can’t even be philanthropic because nobody wants to take money from me and people want to pretend it’s evil to do so. Nothing but telling me to change my ways in some vague way that doesn’t held and ignores a lot of nuance. I shook my head and looked around as scientists armed with plasma rifles and mages with glowing body parts stepped into the hallway.
“Stand down. Y’all missed it,” I said. I shook my head and set off to go for a walk. I went ahead and sent my Intel head, Pagan, an email to both confirm the presence of that one agent in Alabama again, and to authorize the insertion of funds and medical nanites for his use.
They might live to regret it, but at least they’ll live to regret it.