Everyone thinks about the benefits of being a world leader, but not so much the downsides. Yes, I can park anywhere I want, especially when people see the missiles and canons on the side of the Flyer. But I’m constantly interrupted by people wanting my attention, even when I’m heading off somewhere to deck someone’s halls and sleigh some people.
This comes up because, right when I’m waiting to hear back from my team and Baron Samedi, Intelligence Chief Pagan called me up with an update about the Paris Situation. It didn’t help he was confusing me with his facts and nuance. “What do you mean they aren’t entirely right- or left-wing? That’s the damn country that invented those terms!”
“Mommy, there’s a tree in the living room!” Qiang said from the doorway. Young Qiang this time. Not the future version that I saw reach down a man’s throat to pull his heart out. That’d be ridiculous. Her hands are too small. She’d have to use both, and a little kid can’t fit both arms down a human throat. Not sure how common of knowledge that is for you, dear reader, but it’s true. Personal experience.
“That’s for sticking shiny things on and hiding presents underneath it!” I told her.
“I know it’s a Christmas tree,” she said. “The movies are all over the TV!” She smiled at me. D’aww, she’s going to be a real heartbreaker some day. When her hands are big enough.
“You can go decorate it and stuff if you like. I’ve just got a call right now,” I told her.
She clapped her hands. “Ok!”
Back with the phone call, Pagan had invited someone from the France Office of the European Section on to give me a better idea what was going on. “Yeah, ok, so a mix, possibly hijacked, with some astroturfing and all. More importantly, did we get what we were looking for?”
“We retrieved the painting the Deep Ones told us about, and the casket from beneath the cathedral. We successfully masked the thefts. Proceeds from the artwork and gold we obtained are expected to more than pay for the operation. We can escalate the riots at your discretion, ma’am.”
“Nah, no need to toss weapons into the mix. And, hey, if this treasure hunt you’re on doesn’t work out, at least it hasn’t cost us anything,” I told him.
“In my eyes, the existence of the map confirms the Squamous Reaver’s existence. I will claim its power for Ricca.”
Either the guy’s developed a treasonous streak, or he’s just really into hunting this thing down. Some people get like that, you know? I think it’s a very old instinct, evolutionarily speaking, to fixate on a hunt. But I’m fairly good-natured as murderous dictators go, so I told him, “If you need a help, for any reason, feel free to let me know.”
After that, it was a nice night of tree decorating up, cookie eating, and movie watching. As it happened, it was nearly one in the morning when I heard from Baron Samedi. Well, first I heard from Skul. With that bunch of magic users, he was the only one who thought to take a cell phone with him.
“We’re getting’ real close, Psycho,” he said.
“Hand me the damn phone or I’ll shove it up your ass!” said Samedi in the background.
“I discovered, with no help from Baron Samedi, that there is a ritual going on. That was me. If he had wanted to dispute that, he should have brought his own phone and maybe shouldn’t insult my phone case’s bedazzling.”
“I am a god!” Samedi said.
“And I’m an atheist. I don’t believe you’ll do anything about it,” Skul said to the Baron. The next part seemed to be directed at me. “We’re attempting to disrupt whatever’s going on. You have a secret admirer.”
“Are there nudes?” I asked.
“There’s hair,” he answered.
Ew. Not liking the thought of how some hostile person got that stuff. “What do you mean about whatever’s going on?”
He responded more quietly. “We’re almost in. We’re bypassing wards to shield the building and alert those inside to our presence. It’s an old asylum. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Not really. I’ve messed with one or two before, but it wasn’t all that significant. I mean, I DID meet a girlfriend in one.”
“You dated crazy?” he asked.
“Worse, I dated a hero,” I told him.
“I have a bet with someone. Was it Venus?” he asked.
“Nope,” I told him. “What’s this ritual thing look like?” I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, wondering how I’d look with something more in the purple shade for lipstick.
“This is advanced stuff. They took a long time doing it. I see a ghost with sunglasses from my position. Blood. There’s a clock and blood, too. Wait, something’s… Baron Samed-”
Everything changed. The decorations, the tree, my daughter asleep in my lap… it all disappeared. “Skul, what the fuck?”
The response from the call wasn’t encouraging. “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.”
It didn’t look like anyone had lived in this place for awhile. I got a rush of weird notices from incoming data that confused me, too. Conflicts in scrapers. No access to the Institute of Science. Weird notices about the Empyreal City Nightmare Zone. Stories of the Fluidics in their remaining safe zones fleeing Mot and civil war. Eschaton the superhero burned down Moscow in the name of Ricca. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
There were three things I wanted immediately: my daughter, my armor, and a clue. My first guess was some sort of Ghost of Alternate History, but one didn’t appear. I checked outside the door and found a hallway. Someone didn’t get rid of the rest of the palace in this continuity. There was a servant out watering a plant in the hallway. She looked up when she saw me. “May I help you, madam?”
“You can see me?” I asked.
“Yes, madam. Should I not be able to?”
“I don’t know. It’s still 2018, right?”
She smiled. “Yes, madam.”
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Does the name Psycho Gecko ring a bell?” I asked.
She began to back away. “It does not. Perhaps I should fetch someone for you.” She set her water jug down and turned.
I put my hand over her mouth before she could call out. “Tis the season for me to give you a choice. You can either go sit in that residence for awhile and pretend you got knocked out for awhile, or you can call out.”
She made a sound, so I slammed her head into the wall, knocking her out. It only occurred to me after my percussive anesthesia that she might be trying to signal agreement with shutting up voluntarily. I left her safely locked in the residence while I made my way out of the palace.
The secret is to just be cool, dudes. Walk like you belong there. Seeing as it’s my damn country, I know I do. But whatever this is, they don’t realize that and I don’t have my power armor. Or nanites. The lack of my nanomachines is troubling in particular. Even if they for sure didn’t have my face on file after walking across the courtyard, there aren’t many people strutting their stuff with four arms.
Everything felt different in the city. It had that tension I hadn’t noticed until it was gone. The one where regular people know they can’t be too much themselves in public. I didn’t see any Deep Ones at all until I came across one with a cart strapped to him. He was bent over while the owner of the cart lashed him with a short whip.
The Deep One stood suddenly and grabbed the man’s arm. With a pop, he tore the arm out of its socket. The Deep One began tugging at his restraints amid spewing blood and screams. It was locked on, and he was trying to tear off the thick lock with his claws.
“Hold still,” I said, jogging over. My laser eye lit up and cut a line down the harness next to the lock. A couple seconds of effort later and he had the collar off.
“Thanks,” he said before booking it down a side street. I went the opposite direction, and didn’t trail blood after me. I had to find myself a liquor store, so I headed for the traditionally poor section of town. World leader 101: keeping people drunk is an easy way to control them. They can’t even organize like that because if you get enough drunk people in one place, they turn their anger on each other.
I slowed down and caught my breath before heading into one such store. “You have a marker?” I asked of the teller.
The pudgy, balding man with the goatee looked around and reached for something. Before handing it over, he stopped. “What’s this for?”
“Calling a ride,” I said.
He squinted curiously, so I nodded toward the palace and reached for the marker. “I’m on assignment.”
He went to hand it to me. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a headbutt, then grabbed his had and slammed it down on the counter again and again. I finished him off with a beer bottle to the back of the head. But I didn’t kill him. No, I just covered him in high-proof liquor and used that marker to draw out a figure of a man in a top hat on a wall away from the counter. “Ok, calling Baron Kriminel. You out there, Baron? I hope you’re not too picky about going through Papa Legba, but I know you do this stuff in Memphis. I got wine, rum, a whole damn liquor store for you.”
When that got no answer, it was time to resort to the bigger offering. I sighed and turned to shoot a puddle of moonshine pooling under the counter. The moonshine lit up with blue flame that climbed the counter and caught the cashier on fire. As expected, that woke him up, and led to screaming and flailing.
Kriminel didn’t show. Fuck. There goes getting out of this with magic.
I headed out the doorway…
…and found myself in New York state, standing outside an old, abandoned home for the criminally insane.
Standing before me was a crying young man, not even to his mid-twenties, with long hair and a beard that existed more for lack of shaving than actual effort. Purple light from his fingertips joined into an orb at his palm. “Come all the way through,” he said.
I looked at the doorway I was in. The other side showed the liquor store that was catching fire as the cashier ran around trying to put himself out.
“Maybe I don’t wanna,” I said.
“It’s the only way we can get back,” he said through tears and strain of effort.
“Back where? Who are you? Where are we?” I asked.
“I’m Douglas Blackstone. I’m the person who has been tormenting you so I could obtain the reagents I needed to get here. A world where you never existed.”
I was on him in a flash, throwing him to the ground. “You got rid of my daughter!”
He pushed a hand to my chest and said a word that threw me into the air. Purple tendrils appeared from thin air and wrapped around my arms and legs, holding me captive. Blackstone stood up, coughing and wiping himself. “You killed my family. If you care about your daughter, think about what you’d do to the man responsible. How you’d spend years preparing for revenge. The things you would give up. I’ve spent six years of my life on this… and I get here and they’re still dead. And things seem worse. What kind of fucking joke is this?” He ran his fingers through his hair to get a handle on himself.
I just raised an eyebrow. “The Aristocrats.”
In a moment of dark empathy, we both started laughing. After he calmed, he looked up at me. “As much as I would love to kill you or leave you behind in this world, I need you for the ritual. If that failure of yours is normal for you, you can’t manage magic of this magnitude on your own.”
“So… you tried to get me to die while you worked on your magic plan to somehow shift everything to a timeline where I don’t exist, and upon getting what you wished for it turns out not to be worth it. Yeah, sounds like a Christmas miracle.” I tried to spit on him.
Blackstone sidestepped it. He shook his head and glanced at a phone laying in the snow nearby. “I never thought you… listen, do you want to get back or not? I vow to work with you and not see you come to harm until we are back in our timeline, and may this vow be binding upon the spirits and the universe. Agreed?”
He made a gesture and interlocking symbols appeared in the air between us.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I already preferred a world where I existed, thank you very much.” The symbols shifted, then shot into a line between myself and Blackstone. I immediately felt the tendrils loosen and gently lower me to the ground. I walked over and tried to punch him, but my hand stopped of its own accord inches from his face. “You agreed to it, too,” he said by way of explanation.
Instead, I grunted my frustration and began to rub my arms, having not been dressed for snowy New York. “Ok then. What do we need to get back to a wonderful life?”