“I deserve to go after these bozos. They killed my friends,” Gavel demanded when I was headed out of the casino.
He wore a costume that was two different shades of purple, with an oversized metal gauntlet on his right hand, carrying a huge hammer with him. Warhammers don’t have to be as oversized as people think, but this one’s head was the size of a cinderblock, with a handle as thick as someone’s forearm. Gavel’s hands couldn’t wrap around it, but the large gauntlet he had on could. He had a buckler shield on his left forearm as a nod to defense, but he still looked like he hadn’t had much sleep.
“And I’ll kill them. You’ll just have to make peace with that being the only justice you’re capable of.”
“I-!” he started to yell, raising his hammer overhead to swing down on me. My nanites surrounded his neck with three jagged shards of metal before he could even let gravity drop the hammer.
I turned my back on him and walked out of the casino, past O-sec. Gavel sheepishly lowered his hammer.
“They were ICE inside. We fought with them, but they held us off maybe five minutes. Then, more ICE were on us. We were in the middle of nowhere. They came up on four-wheelers and jetpacks.”
That’s what he’d said when Ouroboros and I paid him off. They were off in rural Alabama, between Mobile and Paradise City. Five minutes into the heist and Icers were on the scene. They were able to get away with armored truck they were using. Makes sense to me, sure. ATVs aren’t the fastest thing around and most people really don’t want to try and keep up with a speeding truck on the land equivalent of a jet ski. The main problem with jetpacks is their lack of range. So ICE was close and that seemed to be their shipment of gold, not Mobile’s. I did a little bit of cross-checking with satellites and nearby roads.
The guys jumped the gold shipment at what was just about the halfway point to Mobile. Usually a pretty solid strategy, they just happened to do so right near some weird compound that seems to be right where the ICE agents would have come from if they traveled through the woods to reach the road. Gavel and his friends just got unlucky. And look at that, a string of helipads. For a agency tasked with handling immigration, that’s a hell of a lot of firepower to have in rural Alabama.
If it was up to me, I’d have handed over the info to the Exemplars, but Ouroboros made a good point. “Think of all the gold in it for us,” he said. Which was somewhat persuasive, but the thing that really gained my sympathy was him saying, “Besides, they attacked and killed three villains. Our community has the right to avenge itself upon them before you call in the heroes.”
I told him to be ready to go for whenever I’m dealing with the fake. And so, after leaving the casino, I spent days with my robot armor pretending to be Gavel doing a shitty job laying low in Paradise City. Ouroboros even put out the word through some of his guys about how Gavel had been expelled for causing so much destruction to the casino. The young villain instead got comped one of bunker rooms under the casino
I was a couple days into it when I got a call from Ouroboros himself. “We have contact. My men saw ICE performing recon on the Pea Ridge safehouse. Head there and they’ll know where to send your double.”
“Weird that they’re looking there,” I mentioned.
“Heh. I was curious how it got out that the villains were staying at the casino. I told men I thought I could trust. This time, I told them I was secretly hosting him at a safehouse, but I told each one a different address.”
“Looks like whoever was told about the Pea Ridge house is about to take a long swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Some surprisingly strong currents out there,” I noted.
“He swore on his life he was loyal to me. I’ll collect this one myself. You worry about your well-dressed friend.”
The armor pulled up outside the Pea Ridge safehouse, in a neighborhood behind a movie theater. Depending on the city, it can be cheaper to rent a place to lay low, even if it’s just paying to use someone’s garage or back room. This area, the real estate’s so cheap Ouroboros can buy multiple neighborhoods for employees or to subsidize housing for the poor. That last one helps him look good and distracts from when he buys random homes that only ever seem to get used when someone needs to lie lower than the casino can manage.
I went into the house as Gavel and turned invisible once I passed into a hall where they couldn’t see in from the outside. I waited for anything to happen while going through the motions, like turning on a bedroom and bathroom light, and starting to run a shower.
A text from Ouroboros alerted me: “They’re bringing in a few vans. They really want Gavel gone. We’re ready to move on base on contact.”
I’d have smiled if I wasn’t inhabiting the body of a robotic suit of power armor. The head didn’t have eyes, a nose, or a mouth, just the suggestion of them.
“Contact,” Ouroboros said. It was a minute later the bathroom door swung open and that fake fucking Gecko walked in. He walked up to the shower curtain and pulled it aside. Seeing nothing in there, he stepped back. His reflection in the mirror turned toward him and shrugged. Fake Gecko smashed the mirror with his fist, returning it to normal.
I fell on him from above, cracking the tile floor beneath him. Looking down him, though, I pondered what I’d learned in recent days and recent years. “You know you don’t have to fight for these dipshits, right? Let them spill the blood themselves. You can step back from it. Maybe be a better person than I am.”
An invisible force pulled me through the wall and out onto the front lawn. Out there were a squad of those henchmen in the orange and grey, along with another costumed group.
“I detect no mental activity. I don’t think it’s alive,” said a woman with a top knot hairdo in a green and black robe.
A mechanical orb the size of a beach ball floated up next to her, unfolding a set of small arms with saws, blades, and an arc welder from underneath where a human face stared out. “I call dibs on the pieces!”
I jumped up to meet another shape heading right for me, a man with a war club. I caught the club and kicked him in the chest. He flew back and unfurled a pair of bat wings from behind him. Next came a woman in Venus’s costume, but not her power armor. I just stared at her after the punch. “Another fake.”
“Real, just from one planet over,” she said. Sounded like my Venus, who now went by Medusa. Even grunted like my Medusa when I smacked her away with the club that then flew out of my hand to meet the diving bat guy. I went to punch him, but top knot’s head glowed and suddenly my arm wouldn’t move forward. I took a club to the gut, but the armor didn’t have anything important there. The bat guy landed and turned for another strike. My nanite armor rose up off my back and formed into a humanoid form of its own, then ran for him. He raised the club to strike when the nanites turned into a liquid flow that went through him, leaving a hole eaten in through his chest and reforming on the other side.
“What is this thing?!” yelled one of the henchmen.
“Death. And hell follows after,” the armor said. I charged Top Knot with the liquid metal self. The pressure on my arm failed as she mashed the nanites down and encased them into a spherical shape. That let my swap back into the armor and toss a flash bang into her eyes. She dropped the nanites then, but they didn’t even land before the orb lit them up with a flamethrower. I think it got all of them.
I tossed a regular old grenade his way and cloaked. Venus cartwheeled and kicked it back toward where I’d thrown it from, but I had run to the kneeling bat guy. Went to grab his club away from him, but he looked up, the hole in his chest closing. Regeneration’s a really unfair power when people other than myself have it. He pulled me in close and wrapped me in a bear hug, calling out, “Here!”
Behind me materialized Fake Gecko, with a glowing fist that punched through my helmet. They all stared at the space where it was, then the robot armor’s joints reversed themselves. I grabbed the Fake by the leg and elbowed Bat Guy in the face. I tossed my double into the air, where he went invisible, sure, but I just swapped vision modes. I settled in, charging up my own armor’s gauntlet for a punch. Even Bat Guy still being wrapped around me wasn’t enough to keep me from adjusting to get underneath Fake Gecko.
He stopped in midair, fifteen feet up. Top Knot’s head was glowing again. I pulled free of Bat Guy’s grasp and kicked him backwards, throwing up a line of dust. The orb tried to shock me, giving me a boost of charge that I used on the next person rushing me. Fake Venus’s chest, mushed and goopy, sprayed over the ground behind her. She gasped, squeaked, dropping some gadget she held in her hand. She still sounded like my Medusa. I grabbed her by the neck and slid her mask off.
She looked like my Medusa, too. I faded into invisibility, wanting to take a moment to examine her face despite the whole situation. I dropped her when my right arm wrenched right. My left leg went left. Top Knot held me in midair telekinetically by the two opposing limbs. Bat Guy walked up, checking on the dead Alternate Venus The orb flew in, spraying some foam onto the robot armor. Without my cameras, it was difficult to see or project, but I knew I looked like a poofy mushroom person. Like a headless Gozar the Gozarian. “Easy, Zotz, this thing’s a work of art!”
“I don’t care, Lister, we’re destroying it,” Fake Gecko said, uncloaking.
“Nooooo,” the orb guy wailed.
“Give me a clear line of sight,” Top Knot said. “I’m tearing this thing apart.”
I went for a grenade with my free left hand. Fake Gecko pulled it free and tossed it to the orb, who caught it in tiny robot arms hanging out of the bottom of his orb. I checked around for anything else to use and didn’t see a lot of options after they burned the nanite cape.
Well, almost all of it. There was a tiny bit of it that I realized I could direct. Considering distance and personal dislike, I directed a droplet of it toward Top Knot. The metal on the robot armor’s body strained. I kicked the bat guy away and reversed my joints again, punching Fake Gecko in the throat. He knelt, gasping I went for my belt again, setting off a flashbang. She didn’t drop me. Instead, all four limbs were now being pulled in different directions. Things started to come undone. Screws, bolts; it was nuts. It was like every separate piece of the robot armor telekinetically disassembled itself, leaving behind a power core that was beginning to go unstable.
“Wait! We must be careful with this!” Orb said. It swung in close, opening a black cube with those tiny arms and snatching up a power core that now refused to respond to any signals whatsoever.
“Is that going to work?” Bat Guy asked. Then he looked to Fake Gecko and knelt to check on him.
I had sources in the area, still. The nanites couldn’t hear or see any of that in the same way. They were almost useless at that point, I figured, until I got a different idea that could save face for me. Because I could have just struck the whole spot with a missile, sure. I had plenty of bombs. But now, after I dared give Fake Gecko a chance and had to watch someone I still actually care about die, they were rood enough to tear one of my bodies apart. And they’re trying to do a bunch of sneaky shit.
The nanite droplet slipped onto the robed, top knotted woman’s shoe and began looking for a nice, subtle opening. A cut, a sore, something like that.
But I figured I’d give Ouroboros a heads-up. “Turns out Fake Gecko has a team. I’m going to find out where the next hole they hide in is and kill them there. Sorry about the bathroom wall.”
After a few minutes, Ouroboros got back to me. “Most people die when their heads get torn off.”
“Most people aren’t me.” And the only other me isn’t getting a second chance twice.
Then it was up out of my comfy long-distance chair to vacuum and cook dinner, like a supervillain homemaker does in between murders.