When I first got home, Qiang, my dear daughter, clung to me. When I went to bed, she clung to me. When I woke up, she clung to me. When I took a shower, when I ate breakfast, when I set my machines to build a replacement armor. I had to enlist Buzzkill bodyguards to finally pull her away long enough to see to her schooling, though I didn’t want to. If every there was a learning curve to master, it’s the one that comes with her being the heir to a supervillain’s empire.
With the nation militarized and under alert to deal with the threats of extradimensional invaders, my government was able to limp along. They deferred to Qiang and Citra, my political wife, as much as possible, but we’re lucky no one cared that much to ask who was running the country while I wasn’t around and what authority their decisions rested on. They might have said Qiang, who was a vocal advocate of Ricca continuing to aid the heroes and other countries while I was away, but there should have been a regent with a better understanding of the circumstances.
A failing on my part. I already have an idea to rectify it, but after spending time sorting out an important piece of business.
“It wasn’t one thing. Maybe it should have been. It’s easy to know what’s right when you first start out. If there’s a hoodlum who snatches a purse, you stop them. A pedant would say there’s nuance there, but not really. You get experienced at it and you can handle bigger thefts and fights. I was so proud of the first headlines about arresting carjackers and robbers. One morning, I’m having my coffee to warm me up after a cold shower. I bumped a bruise on my arm and scatter the newspaper. I was on the front page for stopping the Privateers from stealing a microchip from a Defense Department lab in the city, but I was reading about murders and carjackings no one stopped.”
I reached out and put a hand on Medusa’s shoulder. We sat on a couch at the Riccan Institute of Science. We were waiting for the doctors to get done with Dame. I’d taken a huge risk the first time I messed with Dame’s brain because I didn’t care that much if she lived or died. Medusa would rather she live, so I had brain experts and nanosurgeons do the job right. The nanosurgeons use holograms and Homo Machina physiology to closely manipulate regenerative nanomachines to handle jobs that Riccan doctors think are too risky or delicate for machine thinking alone. I think it’s bollocks, but I handed the job over for them to do their way. They know a hell of a lot more about brains than I do.
Medusa wanted to wait on her. Dame had been her friend. I wanted to wait with Medusa, and we decided it was time for a talk.
My nemesis-turned-girlfriend continued, “I wondered how many people were going to be killed by the chip I saved. Maybe more than if the Privateers took it. That was a scary thought for me to have. Mercenaries and pirates might be more responsible with it than law-abiding companies and my own government. Law-abiding doesn’t mean they’re right. The Privateers were wrong and would hurt people with it, so why wasn’t it wrong when the private company does it?”
“We still keep criminals in those basement cells where we kept you. Mender wanted you to be our assassin off the books. And he was wrong to think that, but it means I’m not the only one seeing this.” She went quiet for awhile. “He used to tell me, sometimes, to drop investigations. I had reason to suspect this guy, a rich man, of things. He was a philanthropist. I wonder if the money he gave to charity eased the guilt of what he did or if he used it to fish for victims. I wanted to move in, stop it, capture him, and turn him over to the police. Mender…” She shook her head.
“He told you not to bother?” I suggested. I shifted so I was laying with my head next to her, running a hand absentmindedly down her leg. I like touching her just because. She shifted so her bare feet were over to the opposite side, so I just laid there.
She patted my head from behind. “He did, and he showed me an article from ten years ago. A woman was arrested for making false police reports. She was a private detective. Her business license was revoked. She was evicted. Then he showed me another, about a local superhero. Villains hunted her down and beat her to within an inch of her life. She once worked with the FBI. Mender wanted me to know there was no one who would legally do anything about it. The best result would be him threatening us.”
Her hands lazed over my back, her nails lightly scratching me through my dress. “I threatened to go after him off the books. Mender asked me what would happen to the academy once the FBI snoops on us in retaliation. He had to protect his students. He’s just as selective as the cops. That morning, years later, I think about how I’m not stopping the clear-cut crime. I never found the time to go after him. I’m not stopping the really big crime. I’m just doing enough to maintain the status quo and anyone it doesn’t work for is screwed. I had to get out, but I couldn’t do this on my own.”
“Mmm… I thought you had lots of hero friends.”
She sighed. “They all knew the Academy and I didn’t feel like I could trust them. I needed help.”
“Of all people, you trust me?” I asked, rolling over. I had to see he face on this one.
She laughed. “To let me be a villain so I can fight the good fight? Yeah, I can trust you for that.”
“I dunno… maybe I can’t trust you. After all, you’re so off your rocker, you picked me for a girlfriend.” I winked up at her.
“Stop it,” she leaned down and kissed my forehead. “You’re better than you think you are and you’re getting better. I think I’ve been a good influence on you.”
“You think you knocked sense into me so you’d try smacking it in a different way?” I asked.
She looked away from me with a smile on her face and lightly shook her head. “I think you’re fine and you can be endearing when you aren’t trying to drive someone away. I’ve watched a lot of Gecko because of my job.”
I scooted up to rest my head on her thigh, propping me up a little to look away from her. I didn’t say anything for about ten seconds, so she added, “Be honest with me, ok?”
“I just don’t see why anyone would love me unless they were in a fucked up situation. I killed your boyfriend that time. I’ve tried to kill you before. How do you forget that?”
She reached down and took my hand. “You don’t. Maybe you learn to forgive it.”
I held her hand, ran my fingers over her palm. “I dunno how you do it.”
“You dropped your attempted murder investigation quick.” She intertwined her fingers with mine.
“I wanted to come home and be with my family. That reminds me, Qiang and I made you a present.” I held out my hand and activated the little homing drone. About the size of a small flashlight, it zipped along toward me, carrying a small box. I untied the drone from it and held it up to Medusa.
I’d worked hard on it in my workshop, with Qiang at my side. If not for me forcing her to go to school (and assigning guards to make sure she stays), she’d still be with me. Can’t blame the rugrat. So she was there with me, both of us in power armor, as I swung a great hammer overhead, pounding out a hunk of metal Above me, robotic tendrils spread out and turned downward, great lasers refining my design. When I was done, I backed away. The tendrils grabbed a see-through case and set it up around my creation. An arm lowered itself, no thicker around than a pencil and opened up. Arms small enough to have an arm wrestling competition with a mosquito spread out and latched onto the gift, holding it up in midair. Qiang and I unleashed our barbaric yawps into a receiver that amplified the sound and the box reflected it inward on itself. The box shook as sound waves slammed into the metal and refined it further, helping to distribute the carbon and forge a strong piece.
Medusa held it up. “Is it a keychain?” she asked of the small piece of metal in her hand. “How sweet of Qiang.”
Hey, I put a lot of work into that bracelet. I said watched her reaction to it, the way her eyes shone looking at it. I think she was fucking with me. She slid it on and looked down at it, then smiled a brilliant smile up at me. “I love it.”
After a brief kiss, she had to point out, “I didn’t get anything for you in exchange.”
Lightbulb. Exchange… “You did a lot for me on the ship. The way you stood up to Warman really meant a lot to me. But if we’re talking exchanges, you just gave me an idea.”
“I’m not swapping bodies with you through a transceiver like Dame has,” Medusa said.
I grinned. “Way to ruin Christmas for me early, but no. I was just thinking about a fun time you could give me, involving your rich asshole and whatever nasty business he’s up to.”
“That’s my problem to deal with,” she said. “You’re already doing this for Dame even when you don’t want to.”
I grimaced. “I do have something you could do for me instead, but I don’t want to. You’re here to forge your own path and do your own thing, and it’s a little close to what you did before. What I… I don’t want us… I’m trying to figure out how to say this. I don’t want our relationship to be about what we do for one another like some kind of business deal. I want to help you, and I don’t want you to think it’s about getting things in return”
She bit her lower lip, then ordered me to “Sit up.” I did so and let her pull me onto her lap. “What are you thinking?”
The way I sat there, with her hands on me, what I was thinking isn’t fit to print. Mmm, the taut muscles under her skin… “I handle the bad guy who got away, you find the person who tried to murder me?”
She smiled and kissed me again.
The opening of the doors interrupted us. One of the surgeons walked in and bowed. “Empress, good news.”
It was a little blow to the ego how quickly Medusa set me aside to go run and check on her friend who, apparently, had made a full recovery. I didn’t care to interrupt. I’m the last person Dame ever wants to see in her life.
Instead, I sent off a message to Queen Beetrice, the bee-woman in charge of North Korea. I made sure it was a formal electronic invite. Perhaps it would have been less rude to call, but I knew the kind of high-pitched sounds she makes when she’s happy. It’s entirely possible that every dog in Asia heard her reaction to a formal invitation to brunch with me to discuss an important matter of state.
Like it or not, as childish as I see her quite often, she’s proven to be damn competent. If anything happens to me before Qiang comes of age, she’ll make a fine regent.