Of all things, it was the conversation with my daughter that did more to mess with my head last time than any Miser villain on a hidden island off New Hampshire. Makes me wonder if I’m doing all this for any real reason, or if I’m coming up with an excuse to go on wacky adventures this time of year. Like, what is the big deal if Miser does some bullshit? He’s probably just that old guy secretly alive and hooked up to a computer somewhere, trying to be an evil old asshole while shoved into a hyperbaric tube or something. A wildfire? Put it out and be done. Stealing vaccine? They’ll get more, but I could have solved this whole pandemic if I had forced some nanotech on people. I guess the soup was a dick move, but it got fixed. There are other people who can fix things.
I guess that’s why I decided to handle the Miser thing without a lot of fuss. No sleigh, no Qiang, no gimmicks. No answering when the half-brother I recently found out I had keeps calling because he hears this is a big holiday and family time and he wants to find out what Christmas is. No real risk to my own body. Just a rocket to blow open the roof of that island, which caused enough damage to the outside of the metal disguised as rocks that water began leaking in a little, every wave adding more water to the cascade.
I landed on the edge of it long enough for the nanomachines to reform from wings with jet turbines to a multitude of spindly limbs, once again sending Davilo to voicemail. Cameras took in the environment and projectors imposed that image on my armor and on the extra limbs. They reached out and dug into the metal, helping me half-climb, half-controlled fall into the darkness below. 50 ft. down, the secret base expanded out into a cavernous room, and the fall was less controlled. Had less distance to cover, though.
It was one giant room I landed in. On one side of me were various lit tubes of goo, some with bodies in them. Elsewhere was an assembly line. In another section looked to be a giant monitor and computer system. There were two things near where I was landing. The first was a massive statue or monument that was three rectangular pillars that twisted and began to intertwine like a triple helix. And right near where I landed stood the Cold Miser on guard with his cold gun, water all over the place. I’d have given away my location with a huge splash, but I landed with eight smaller ones and Cold Miser didn’t pick them out among the water streaming down. I made sure my extra legs landed me behind him, then they stabbed backward through his body and spread him apart. He landed in quivering chunks while the nanotech addition to my armor grabbed his cold gun and reformed around it. More lovely technology to study and steal.
A voice out of nowhere spoke up. “Who are you? I expected a visit from Jolly Saint Nick.”
“No saints here,” I said, looking around and checking my 360 display. “And not that jolly right now.”
“I can feel it,” the voice said again. A bit of movement near the monument drew my attention. I didn’t see anything until the voice started again and I noticed a faint glow work its way up the lines of the monument. “Your misery and self-loathing. You are a fine entree.”
“Really gross, Westmoreland. That’s who you are, right? They shoved your wrinkly old ass in a tube somewhere with nutrient goo?” I asked, checking the monument for more to it.
Where the glow was light before, they lit up noticeably when the voice laughed. The lights of the monument concentrated near the base, then drifted upward to the tips high above. I checked the bodies in the grow tubes, too. I figured the guy would want to keep me talking while he spawned a small clown army to throw against me in a last-ditch attempt to take me out or fend me off while he escapes.
“You have no conception of what I am now. How little you matter to me. I have escaped the reach of death.”
I decided to test something. I wrapped a nanite tendril around all three and let them eat through the material. I’d say an eight on the Mohs scale, maybe. Not concrete, but not the toughest thing for those little machines to tear apart bit by bit and send toppling to the cavern floor. When the voice next spoke, the lights only went so far as the stumps. “That was immature and pointless. I have built dozens of these avatars. So long as they exist, so long misery persists in the world, I will never die. Never!”
I tried drilling down. “I am surprised you’re not spawning your clones,” I commented.
“They are no match for you, but no concern. You can’t kill me. You can only momentarily annoy me, Santa pretender. Yes, you have the same taste, masking it with anger now instead of false happiness.”
There was nothing below, no wires or other connections. I already knew there were no wireless connections down here. Either the old man was somehow inhabiting a bunch of pillars too small for anyone to exist inside in one piece, or he figured out a way to trick me on this one. “You know, this is a neat trick. Mind if I ask more about it?”
I took the risk of decloaking, exposing myself in case an attempt on me led to Westmoreland. Nothing really was activating. I pulled out some explosive charges I brought to bring the house down. I packed a bit too much for the size of the cavern.
And Westmoreland was good enough to indulge me. “You’ve guessed my identity. I was born Geoffrey Westmoreland. I lost my family young and promised myself I would fight death at every turn. It would take me kicking and screaming. I would find a way to live forever. I failed so many times: cryogenics, hyperbarics, zombification, reanimation, and cloning. Nothing worked to my satisfaction until I discovered an text, written in the 70s by a mad programmer and architect. He theorized ways to attune to human emotion with structures and materials and harness the energies, ways to separate the mind from its requisite structure in the brain. What he began, I perfected. I discovered that the strongest of the emotions was that of misery. And misery, in 2020, is available in abundance. I transferred my consciousness earlier this year. My death was declared, but my undying life began. You weakened me, but even you can’t kill me.”
“Question,” I said, finishing setting the last charge. To y’all, it’s just one paragraph. To me, it was a whole speech. He even piped in music. Eleanor Rigby, I believe. “You said zombification AND reanimation. Can you clarify the distinction?”
“Astute. Zombification leaves the body dead, but mobile. Unfortunately, maintaining the same mobility level requires special preparation for the body and regular maintenance. Reanimation is restoring the body to actual life, but the procedure often goes wrong. Getting the proportion of the reagent wrong causes insanity or even bodily mutation. It was too risky.”
“And then with cloning, you have the telomere issue.” Telomeres are these parts of chromosomes that shorten a little each time they replicate, eventually leading to most of the effects of aging in humans. It leads to premature aging in clones, but not in the way where you pump out a full-grown clone in minutes. That sort of rapid-aging is the other big issue with practical cloning. Most people don’t want to wait 15 or 16 years for their clone army to develop.
“Exactly! Yes, you get it. The market on most of these methods fell out when that insipid Psycho Gecko brought his nanomachines. Now, everyone wants to use them as a panacea instead of focusing on the possibilities of the flesh. But I have surpassed flesh, and now-”
I jumped into the air, forming wings to lift myself far enough up to reach the tunnel out. I got out of there, well away from his voice, and detonated the charges. Behind me, I saw a plume of flame shoot up from the hole my missile had created earlier. Then the island fully collapsed in on itself and the sea began to fill in Miser’s secret lair.
Maybe he was bluffing about not being stopped that way. Maybe he wasn’t. I guess I can’t know that at the moment. Maybe this is some sort of metaphor for the never-ending struggle I create by refusing to confront my problems and seeking out violent distractions.
At least, that kind of thinking was heavy in my mind when Qiang and I skipped the theatrics that night. I laid my head down to sleep, then was immediately annoyed by lights coming on. I opened my eyes to find myself laying on a small, comfortable bed in a resort area. I saw some of those Luau-style tiki masks, but then I saw that was a person with streaked, brown skin wearing a mask. My view of him and my explanation of what was going on happened when Santa Claus laid down on another table on that side, clad only in a towel.
“You’ve been through the wringer. Still feel like taking my place?” Santa asked.
I started to get up, but slender hands pushed me back down. And I realized I was also only wearing a towel. I looked back behind me and saw blue-skinned alien woman with black hair. Like the tiki guy, she was getting the oil ready. I shrugged and stayed laying down, then addressed Santa. “It wasn’t about taking your place. It was about… I don’t know… the holidays mean so much to me. Even though I only really know that one made up by Coca-Cola. I hear there’s a pretty nifty Universalist variation on it that seems to have its heart in the right place.”
I thought he had an extreme reaction, but Santa was groaning from the beginnings of a massage. I did the same when the woman behind me dug her hands into my back and went to town on my muscles. We laid like that, groans of pleasure interspersed with the noise of a babbling brook playing too clearly to be real.
After a few minutes of this, Santa spoke again. “Where’s Dropo with my drink? I swear, he’s the laziest man on Mars.”
“Is there like a password to get in here, or some kind of teleporter?” I asked.
Santa ignored the question. “You learned a little something about yourself, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking of my own feelings and problems hidden by throwing myself into a situation that I always claim to hate. And making a weird connection in my mind to this other being who fed off sadness and depression to become something more than human.
“I know how I came across earlier, but I’d like to show my thanks for maintaining my position for me. I want to offer you a chance to stay with me.”
“Uh, what?” I asked. I mean, maybe if he meant underneath this hotty alien with the body, but living in a frozen wasteland with no one but an old couple and a bunch of pent-up reindeer for company doesn’t exactly appeal to me. Ew, I wonder if he means to use my wereform as a breeder.
“You’ve seen many others who reside in Winter. They live forever. I offer you freedom from mundane problems, and an opportunity to live forever. I could use another companion who shows your level of devotion. You wouldn’t have to put up with annoying faily.” I’m reminded of how sinister Santa can be. It’s like he read my mind and was trying to make a point. An emotional vampire, taking advantage of others’ emotions to live forever.
“You’re getting’ creepy, oldtimer. Damn, where is that asshole with the drinks, I could use one now, with you laying on all the implied lessons. No distracting myself from my problems, no running away from them, that sort of thing?” I waited for his answer, reveling in the fingers working their way into my shoulders.
His laugh was full of mirth. “You got it. Do you know why you don’t like heroes?”
“They’re humorless assholes who are often as bad as anyone they fight but have better PR because they serve the same system that murders Black people with impunity,” I answered.
“Yes… in the old stories, many heroes have flaws. Guan Yu his temper, Achilles his pride, Beowulf his desire to be a hero and have sex with a gold-clad Angelina Jolie.”
“That bad CGI movie hardly counts as an old story, but I don’t think wanting to fuck Angelina Jolie counts as a flaw.”
“It does if you say it near Mrs. Claus. These stories were often a way to teach lessons to people, and one lesson was that heroes can be great men and women and still have flaws that will destroy them. A person should not be one of those heroes. They should be better. They should even be forgiven for those they failed to save.”
I barely let him finish that bit before snapping. “You got a point here?”
“I’m sorry for upsetting you. I didn’t mean it. I was leading in to the idea of removing your were. I can remove that problem for you. It’s really the least I could do,” he offered.
And I nearly fell for it. This guy literally was just talking about not taking an easy way out of dealing with my problems, then offers an easy way out of a problem of mine. Or maybe not a problem. Just… something I have to deal with. A part of me, apparently. “No.”
He didn’t audibly laugh this time, but I saw him smile, so I followed it up with. “If she’s up for it, I might take a happy ending from this masseuse.”
“Just so you know, she’s actually a parasitic intelligent worm that infests and controls the bodies of non-sapient bipeds on her home planet.”
I looked up for confirmation and the mouth of my masseuse had split open to reveal the thin and segmented form of a creature that looked like a small snake with a head made up of wriggling tentacles. “No,” I said. “Wait, do you do butt stuff? No, nevermind, no. That’s too much of a stretch for me.”
I turned stared down through the hole in the table. A tiny voice close to my ear said, “That is the appeal of butt stuff, no?”
“Keep it classy until midnight,” Santa said. “Then, we do shots of Irish whisky, American whiskey, and Canadian rye whiskey.”
Well, no butt stuff happened. I didn’t become another member of Santa’s menagerie and end up some trapped, immortal thing. Neither did I let him enslave some part of myself I’m admittedly at a loss to deal with. Passed two tests there, I suppose. Can’t help but wonder how much of this whole thing was a test. Got a fruity drink served in a cup made out of the shell of an alien insectoid and a massage that was very nearly sex on its own. Woke up sore the next morning, on account of how rough the massage got, and remembered I’d made it to Christmas.
And my brother and his girlfriend, my former ward Leah, had arrived at some point and were sleeping on the couch. Santa was serious about not running.
Davilo and Leah looked up at me with a smile, even as they and Qiang watched unusual news reports about a conventional-looking Santa flying around in the Impala I’d been using as a sleigh.
Crap. Santa jacked my ride.
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