They didn’t try to hold onto Vietnam as hard as I thought. After I took down Universe Man, they began to pull back even further. Forget cullings in the countryside; they stayed to the cities, and then further to just few cities, moving north to try and extract from the country. The Vietnamese chewed them up along the way. They’re good at that.
They were less effective at dealing with the Praetors. There were still two left. One of them tried to cover the escape of a column with a premature winter. Fog, snow, and sleet bombarded anywhere but in front of them. Hail set off landmines in advance and made it rough for ambushers to set up or stay in cover. They don’t have winters like what he was doing to the place outside of Russia. I didn’t have to kill all the enemy myself. I just had to kill the guy keeping the Vietnamese away. He was a tough one. They told stories about trying to kill this guy. They’ve sniped at him and it doesn’t go through. They tried blowing him up with grenades and rockets, but he froze them. One brave son of a gun even tried to drive over him with a tank. The Praetor picked it up and threw it on top of an ice spike. Motherfucker impaled a tank.
Sometimes I wonder if all inhabited planets out there deal with this same shit, or if Earth is different like that. No wonder polite neighbors in the universe don’t stop by so often.
Sadly, the only well-mannered path to take involved a recent idea some of the Institute figured out. Smart guys. One fellow wanted us to have an accurate kinetic bombardment system that didn’t require orbital deployment. Another lady had developed a program whereby the nanites and autofactories based on nanobuilding could be used to clean the environment by extracting lead. Near as I can tell, they both went out drinking, him to stoke his creative side and her to celebrate successfully pulling lead out of stuff. There was a mixup with their papers, a bunch of papers tossed in the air, and someone ended up in the hospital after trying to throw an ash tray at a Flyer.
I only skimmed that incident report because I was eager to get to the good stuff at the time. The guy set about making updated versions of concrete bombs and lazy dogs. The first is a bomb that’s just a solid hunk of some heavy material used either for practice or whenever you need a non-explosive bomb dropped on something. Lazy Dog is similar, but smaller, meant for anti-personnel purposes. Imagine planes filling the sky with a bunch of lead spears or that are going faster than 200 MPH when they hit.
Now imagine the wonders of digital technology and miniaturization sticking guidance systems and rocket engines on lead spears 27 feet long. He called it the Dongyemochang. For our version of a better concrete bomb, there’s the Yong Ttong.
We’re going to have to get dedicated bombers and fighters someday, but I had a Psycho Flyer flew high above the blizzard moving through Vietnam and deploy the Dongyemochang first. I was keeping an eye on them from a safe distance away, spying through drones and satellites. The spears fell in a pair of bundles, a central one locking onto the target I’d marked. Fins adjusted where it pointed and rockets fired, increasing the bundle’s velocity. It finished quickly and unlocked, magnets spreading the spears apart a bit.
Most of the spears missed the Praetor, but some of them folded the retreating soldiers in on themselves. Vlad of Romania would be impressed at the way it put a man’s face through is anus. One caught the Praetor as well, but not lethally. It took his foot off. He created a dome around himself to guard against any other spears. They’d all landed by then.
I made a note that this really isn’t the best setup for spraying a bunch of enemies from above. It can be improved. As a method of assassination, it almost worked. Emphasis on almost, and then on the launch of the Yong Ttong. The Flyer loosed the bomb, which adjusted and aimed for the dome before accelerating to 18,000 mph. If it had been pointed the other direction, it could have escaped Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, the Yong Ttong made quite an impression on our invaders and the Earth itself. But, hey, no need to bury him.
I sent off my recordings to the Institute while pulling the Dudebot out of the dust cloud. The blizzard faded, but it’d still be a cold day under that cloud.
With the death of the second Praetor, the occupiers kissed an organized retreat goodbye. They were running. They were also looting. One village the Dudebot walked through had been robbed of as much food and valuables as they could carry. Women, too. Fortunately for that bunch, the Vietnamese insurgency caught them before I could.
I knew I had another Praetor to deal with. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the hysterical retreat meant we’d get a gunship soon, so I ordered in an escape rocket. That’s the rocket with a second rocket inside it that can get me out of a rough situation. I let them fight while the Dudebot waited in the escape rocket, set to fire and home in on intense light sources with an exception made for the sun and moon, if need be. Thus, the first I knew of the gunship’s appearance was when the rocket took off. I figured I didn’t have long for the ship to fully transition to our world. Lucky it wasn’t my actual body in the thing. Humans and homo machina aren’t meant to exist at the speed it reached.
I activated the short timer on the D-Bomb the Dudebot carried. Wouldn’t do me any good if it got over there and I couldn’t set it off. Almost as soon as I did, the, rocket smashed into the hull of a fully-transitioned gunship left behind when the breach disappeared. I cussed to myself back in Ricca and deactivated the timed bomb.
I didn’t have a way to stop the gunship myself and minimize damages to Vietnam. The rocket wouldn’t move it enough. So I kicked the Dudebot out of the rocket and checked around. It landed in some sort of compartment. I started to tear my way further inward, but alarms went off. “Attack Incoming,” a feminine voice said in a neutral tone.
They were really on the ball there. I’d barely set foot in there like that. The Dudebot carved through the wall with its Nasty Surprises and stepped out into a corridor where some young-looking guy in green coveralls skidded to a stop and fell on his ass. I grabbed him through the Dudebot and lifted him level with the helmet’s triangular “eyes”.
“Where is the bridge?” I growled.
The ship’s lights dimmed momentarily. In one ear, I heard Vietnamese chatter about Ho Chi Minh City. I pulled back a bit to spy on the situation from space and found the gunship had fired on the city. And a part of Hanoi was floating through the air.
Well, crap. At least the Chinese missiles would be impacting any second. Time to 3D print another robot copy, I thought. The view of the gunship was disrupted when a new breach opened up and surrounded it with bright light. I plunged back into the Dudebot, reactivating the timer, then got the fuck out. I’m pretty sure I won’t be tossed into another dimension with my mind inhabiting a robot body, but I’m discussing this during an invasion from another dimension where a giant bee-woman suplexed a feathered triceratops. Maybe the medicine Max makes me isn’t working; maybe the rest of the world made me sane by comparison.
The gunship disappeared. The nearest missile detonated itself. I know, I know, “The Chinese just set off a nuke over Vietnam?” Fun fact: blowing them up is a decent way to disarm a nuke. They have to undergo a specific process to initiate the fission process.
People talked on this frequency, yelled on that one, cried on another. Hanoi was still floating. Ho Chi Minh was a smoking wreck. It was getting hard to make sense of everything as a disembodied digital watcher, so I tried pulling back. My confusion remained when I blinked and looked up into a smoke-filled sky next to a car. I pulled myself to my feet, looking this way and pulling my hair out of my eyes when I did so. Blonde hair, two arms, and a gadget on my forearm.
Oh, wrong body. I must have been pretty discombobulated to end up in Dame, of all people. She was something of a thief who was pretty good at finding me and not too fond of bodycounts. She also turned out to be part of the Three Hares conspiracy, and played a part in my capture and memory wipe. When I got my hands on her, I “cyberized” her brain so that I could slip in and take control any time I wanted. It did come with the side effect of her memories popping up, though.
Something else popped up though. Some bird-thing that opened a fan of colorful feathers around its neck as it opened its mouth and hissed. The thing was only about the size of a dog, but it somehow reminded me of that thing from Jurassic Park that kills the hacker who messed up the security system. Instinctively, at least as far as Dame’s instincts went, I used her device to phase into non-solid form. The dinopeacock spat at me, the spit going through me harmlessly. I walked over and unphased long enough to grab its neck with one hand and ring it. I remember one of my boyfriends taking me along hunting once, showing me how to finish off a bird. No, Dame did. I learned that trick a different way.
I tossed it aside and turned, phasing by reflex when I caught a glint of light. A raider’s sword passed right through where my neck had been, and there were two more in two more hands waiting. With a trio of raiders right in front of me, I figured I’d keep Dame’s body for a little bit. I ducked, pulling the raider’s metal skirt up. I headbutted, solidifying just long enough to make contact, then phased again and rolled through him and his friends. I spun once I got past him and went solid long enough to reach up the skirts of the two in rear who were also turning around in a circle. I held my hands, and their balls, in one place. They didn’t react so quickly and did most of the damage themselves just by turning to face me.
A sword passed through me, but it meant letting go of their balls. I backed off while one of the pair doubled over along with the one I’d headbutted. The other’s must have been fucking brass because he swung wildly while advancing on me, teeth bared. I kicked at him, turning solid just long enough to make impact. I did the same when I grabbed for his sword arm, becoming solid only once I’d taken hold of it. I slammed his forearm down on my knee. Dame’s not as strong as me, though, so I think I only sprained it. I grabbed for his sword with both hands and pulled it free, leaving my back to him. He threw his free arm around me.
I slammed my head back into his nose while bringing my heel up between his legs and calling, “Tenderizer!”
I spun the sword around and stabbed it back next to my neck. Blood splashed on the back of my neck and into my hair as the man gurgled. I quickly pulled free with the sword and went insubstantial again. The other two raiders were starting to recover and rushed me. One tackled through me. The other tried to stab me in the head. I ducked again, and thrust my sword into his belly. He gasped and looked down, then laughed at the ghostly blade that stuck in him harmlessly.
He stopped taking it lightly when deactivated my gadget. I tried tugging the sword out, pushing it along, sliding it from side to side. Finally, with a great heave, I pulled it loose with a spray of blood and the stink of opened intestines.
My hair was yanked back. I went off balance, the third raider raising his sword to my throat. I threw myself back onto him and knocked him down. The blade shifted in the fall and he slit my forehead. Fuck, Dame didn’t have my tolerance for pain. I grabbed the sword’s blade and pulled it away. I’d dropped my sword in all that, so I turned and slammed his hand into the ground. I straddled the raider, who reached up to squeeze my throat with his free hand. Meanwhile, in Dame’s weaker form, I had to use two hands to keep his sword hand where it was. I growled, leaving that to one hand. The other reached in and pulled one of his eyes out. He screamed and weakened from the pain. I shifted around, shifted around, and stomped on his sword arm. I finally pulled the sword free and used it to saw through the arm he choked me with at the elbow.
I coughed and crawled away with the sword. I kept an eye on him in case he tried anything else. He cared a lot more about the bleeding limb. The difference between us is that I recovered more quickly from choking than he did from losing half his arm. He isn’t recovering from the blade in his brain he got when I felt well enough.
While resting after that one, I looked around and found a weird little power control collar like the one I’d so recently used against Universe Man. That one didn’t look like a smaller choker, though. I laughed and slice through it with the sword. After that, I wandered around, trying to look for a safe spot to let Dame have control again. A couple streets over, I heard someone call my name. Her name. “Dame!”
A man in an elaborate black and white outfit came running up, his chest two rows of black spades. He panted, but said, “You look like shit. What happened?”
I pointed with the sword toward the direction where I’d taken out the raiders. “Bad run-in with a one-armed bandit.” And all the better I was in control when it happened, too.
The Intel people have been working on a way for us to strike back, but it’s not turning out to be as easy as they hoped. This Earth lags behind in getting the hang of interdimensional travel; it’s pretty much just been me controlling it. The rift to my home Earth wasn’t intentional. I didn’t even know about the one in Empyreal City until the darn lab blew up. Those guys were trying to build such an interdimensional rift. They succeeded and probably wish the thing had an off switch. Unfortunately, the same thing that destroyed the lab did a pretty good job taking out their lab materials and the servers they stored data on.
The people at the company have gone to ground. If it wasn’t the shitstorm over the dimensional breach they created, it was the evil versions of our heroes, the paramilitary group hunting them, the cops, or whatever federal response was mustered to look into it. Oh, and the invasion. Lots of stuff they could be hiding from when fuckers with swords could appear out of nowhere.
As nonsensical as this war is, we really ought to figure out a way to end it beyond killing whoever they send at us. That’s something I should have done something about during that waiting period we had. This guy can keep sending stuff at us, probably more wild animals from various other dimensions like the weird dinos, and it’ll wear us down over time. Whoever’s doing this doesn’t have to worry about retaliation or losing infrastructure. They can tear up our fields, destroying trees, poison the waters… admittedly, all things the humans have done here anyway… and we can’t even touch them.
Venus might have contacts in the hero community, but she was away from the island when I went to look for her. Her phone put her in Egypt, around that prison we’d discussed her breaking political prisoners out of.
She wasn’t there to see the Dudebot I threw together to help me out with all this. I gave this one four arms and a couple of power cores. That’s more than enough to power the robot body wearing the armor and the bomb built into its back. It’s like a Dimension Bomb, specially made to encompass an area on a much greater scale than its size would allow. The main restriction on the area of effect has to do with how much space the device can transition through whatever puncture it makes in the fabric of universe. Try any more than that and things get dangerous.
I never could get my hands on the research notes from my home universe on exactly what happens in that case. The first few times that occurred were deleted entirely from the notes, with accompanying emails warning the research administrators that any release of the information would get them all executed. The only other ones to address it were hidden behind probably the strongest encryption I ever saw, in the servers of the same military ingelligence type of folks who made me the woman I am today.
This would lead me to believe that such an interaction would be dangerous for anyone around it, especially if the field it was encompassing was roughly planet-sized, but the device couldn’t manage all of that. I don’t expect it’ll be the same effect as when it successfully pulls half a planet through. This lack of knowledge could be a bad thing… but I think I’ll let the people on the other side of the portal deal with the consequences of this decision.
For my next trick, I needed a country still fighting these guys where we could easily turn the tide. That’s one reason not to go after China, for instance. They’ve flooded the countryside with these little machines. Fragile, rolling things, asymmetric things, they roll over animals and tear them apart. Some in the more isolated areas have been observed tearing up grasses and cutting down trees. Which is going to fucking blow for China given their desertification issues.
Vietnam’s still got a fight going on. They might have been overpowered in a straight-up fight, but they’re holding on and making the invaders pay. Our ambassador went into hiding with one of their cells and is a point of contact, collecting information for us and giving the Intel folks an idea of where to drop off arms, ammo, and food. Our military’s busy assisting in Japan at the moment, with a lot of help from the Buzzkills. They don’t need as much of our help there, though.
The armored raiders in Vietnam were taking heavy casualties on their own, so they called in more of those Praetor things to assist. There’s at least three of them running around and wrecking the place. The most noticeable is the one that grows 50 feet tall and makes things explode.
It’d be easier if we could just unleash a disease or some sort of chemical meant to only kill those things. The scientists analyzed the DNA of the one I captured and a few more of their wounded friends, and found that they’re basically human. Hell, each one’s about fifteen different humans in one. The oddities of their phenotype arise from some freaky things done to make the hodgepodge work and some weird chemical markers that indicate they might be getting drug treatments to bring out superpowers as well.
Anything that kills them en masse would also kill humans en masse. Not that I care so much about humanity, of course, but some of them belong to me and my own daughter is half human. There are even some friendly humans. While some folks have been converted to homo machina here, it would still be a rather lonely and boring world with only them for company. The humans stay… for now.
So, we can’t unleash a disease on the grey guys without also affecting humans. The reverse of that is true as well. Any diseases that, say, spread aggressively throughout all of homo sapiens are also spreadng among them. We confirmed that with our prisoners, too. All of them have that little disease the Three Hares gave all of us. The false gods sent it out to make allow us supers to be depower us if someone put the right collar around our neck. It messes with the brain, keeps it from accessing anything beyond standard human abilities.
Creeper showed me where they asked my prisoner to put one on and try to do his little weak blasts. Poor guy broke down crying when it rendered him impotent. We have a few of these collars around, salvaged or stolen, but functional. I had a few shipped off to Vietnam with the new Dudebot. That thing could handle them as much as I liked without risking accidental loss of power.
First thing’s first… a shot at the big guy.
The Psycho Flyer flew in over a haze of rising smoke from the jungle. In the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot turned down rock music to comment on the co-pilot shooting down at something with the Flyer’s guns. “How can you shoot someone who can’t fight back?” asked the pilot.
“Happily.” The co-pilot laughed. “They would kill you if they could.”
The Flyer lurched to the side. The pilot called out, “2 o’clock, thunder rifle!” The co-pilot fired, then launched a missile to be sure.
“Thunder rifles neutralized,” the co-pilot said. That would be the term for those flintlocks that hit like an anti-tank rifle. “Oh my exclamation,” he added after a moment. “Empress, do you read?”
“I’m listening,” I assured him.
“The big one just grew at 11 o’clock. Ready to drop the crate on your mark.” He pushed a button, opening the loading ramp on the rear of the Flyer, below its third engine.
“Drop me, boys.” The crew in back did as they were told and pushed the crate out the rear of the Flyer. It burst open when the Dudebot flew out, riding a board with a rocket engine on the back of it, calling out “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!” along to a song I was listening. It was better than putting on Particle Man and reminding myself of the odds. The robot double carried a power collar in each of its four hands.
The giant guy, who would be more like Universe Man from that song, turned his head to track the Psycho Flyer that began to throw off chaff and smoke and everything else it could to distract the guy and block any attack. Universe Man’s forehead glowed and the Flyer exploded on its own.
I dove for the jungle below before he could look at me. That probably would have fucked me up. They don’t call them jungles because they’re full of wide-open spaces. I didn’t have to stay under long and I brought the board above the treeline close to him, practically right up under him. It was still close enough that he snapped his head down when he sensed movement. That’s why I angled to fly right between his legs and move in a spiral up so that when he turned, I was behind him.
I jumped the Dudebot off to land on Universe Man’s head. I controlled the board separately and flipped it around to head downward. It missed myself, Universe Man’s head, and the hand that wrapped around me. Universe Man, Universe Man, size of the entire universe, man. He lowered me in front of his grey face and grey eyes and grey smirk. What I’m trying to convey is he’s grey, da ba dee, da ba di. I tried to slip one of the collars around his finger. It did nothing.
And before he could squish me in his grey hand, I rammed my rocket board into the grey nuts of Universe Man. The smirk turned into a much funnier expression when the fuel exploded and Universe Man singed all the little grey hairs on his universe balls and his universe can. His grip loosened and he grimaced, shutting his eyes.
Laughing, I pulled free of his hand and hopped from his wrist to his shoulder. I’d left the one collar on his finger, but I still had three more. I held them up, trying to form as much of a collar against his neck as was possible in the situation. His body started shaking and I noticed we were moving lower to the ground. His neck grew smaller and smaller, and when it got low enough, I tossed one collar into my hand and closed one around his neck.
The momentum caused me to fall back when we hit ground level. Universe Man held his balls but looked at me really hard. After a moment, he reached up to feel his forehead, then the collar around his neck. By then, I was on my feet and I didn’t feel like exploding. I ran up and punched him in his grey jaw. He grabbed for me, but my doppelganger locked up with its lower arms. The top two grabbed Universe Man’s ears and pulled them out, then yanked his head down to drive his face into the copy’s knee.
I slipped those hands into the grey guy’s mouth and pulled it wide open. “You were big enough to swallow me whole a minute ago. Let’s see if how far I can get this time.”
I pushed the upper arms into his mouth and pulled it to the side, then tried putting the Dudeboth’s helmet in there. His head separated before I could. When I stood the Dudebot up straight, it wore Universe Man’s body as a grey hat, the collar forming the base of the whole thing. On the ground, Universe Man’s eyes began to glow until I stomped it into mush.
Around me, a bunch of soldiers in old-timey wool uniforms ran up, raising thunder rifles. They surrounded me in a circle, so I thought I’d just jump up when someone looked like they were firing. The scene went from tense to intense as gunfire and explosions started. I jumped up and tried to catch a branch from one of the trees that moved back into place overhead after Universe Man had shrunk. It snapped from the Dudebot’s weight and I fell, landing in a clearing that now houses the dead bodies of the thunder riflers and a bunch of paranoid men in camouflage with Riccan-made rifles.
I raised the Dudebot’s arms. “I come in peace so that I may kill these fuckers,” I said in Vietnamese, nudging a loose head on the ground. “See? I’m good at it.”
One of the men held his hands up and stepped out, turning to the others. “This is Empress Psycho Gecko, here to assist us. See, my empress has already slain the large one.” He turned to me and bowed.
I returned it.
Well, that’s one of these guys down. Shouldn’t take long to eliminate the others in the country and destabilize the whole offensive so that they send either a gunship or reinforcements. I guess if my timing’s off, I’ll have plenty of opportunities. Besides, how long could it possibly take to win in Vietnam?
Sometimes, I spend too much time in front of a mirror. It’s not vanity, not exactly. I used to really avoid it. I used to avoid the mirror for a long time. I wasn’t happy with what I saw there unless I wore my armor. Sometimes, people need masks to be who they really are, and sometimes people need them to keep from seeing what they are without one. I used to see someone I wanted to kill, interspersed with who I could be. A flicker of imagining what a bit of makeup would do, or thinking of what a lack of hair in the right place would do. Or worse changes. Ideas that burrowed into me because of a teacher once, and again thanks to Venus’s tenacity.
This time, I was waiting while she ran and got my medicine. Maybe being off kilter like I am helps deal with some pretty fucked-up situations. I’ve tended to think of it as an advantage, but the danger sense kicked in at Qiang’s birthday party. I was trying an appetizer and everything just became more focused and… there. It’s like when the bullets start flying but you know where everything is, but I only felt like someone was after me. Qiang came running up to me and lunged to meet her, but I was able to recognize her enough to turn it into a hug. She loved the clowns I got. Good girl. This world discriminates against clowns too much as-is.
And they’re sexy as hell.
But at that moment, I was looking around, tense. “I want to learn to juggle and do balloon animals like he did!” she insisted. I patted Qiang on the back and kissed her head. Venus came up and patted her as well.
“That sounds great! I’m sure your mom will teach you all she knows, but I need to speak to her, alright?”
Qiang wiggled free of my hug and jumped up and down, clapping. Then she saw one of her school friends and ran off to that part of the palace courtyard to go play or something. I dunno, we had bouncy things all around.
Venus held her hands up, looking at me. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
I checked around. “I just need my medicine.” I said, looking around. “It’s like they want to kill me, but no one is.” I laughed and added, “At the moment.”
Venus put her arm around me and guided me to a bathroom, then went to go get my meds from Max. And just me, looking in the mirror at a pretty face with runny eyeshadow, wondering if that’s even me. If this is just me playing pretend. If I’m too fucked up to know what I am. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m just a warped, sick man who hates the sight of himself.
I smashed the mirror. It didn’t even have the decency to cut my skin. Be a hero? No, never. I’ve made sure of that. I shouldn’t be saving the world. It’d be so much better if I molded it. Wash clean the corruption and all the people who aren’t the madmen. Because a madman’s a loner. If it’s a group of them, a government of them, then they aren’t madmen. Mass delusions are perfectly acceptable. I could use all this chaos to my advantage. Let this invader wreck the powers that be for me, so I can swoop in and set a new order.
Nice sentiment. It disappeared when the door swung open and my nemesis stood there. The woman I thought would kill me. My perfect hero, who let me down again and again. The grin fell off my face. When did it get there?
I hugged onto her. She hugged me back. She stroked my hair. “You’re ok. You’re safe. I will not hurt you.”
Even though I’ve lost a damn limb to this woman before, I believed her. She held up a glass of water and a couple of caplets. “I’m not sure I want to take them now,” I said. “I can do so much. They’re so corrupt out there and I can fix it. You can too. You were going to save political prisoners. You have to hate what they did to your country.”
She nodded. “I do. I didn’t want to defend that anymore. I want to make the world a better place.” She looked me deep in my eyes. She set the water and caplets down on the counter by the sink, then grabbed a towel to dab at my eyes. I let her clean me up. “Your head is not in a good place to do that right.”
“No, it’s cool. There are so many possibilities I hadn’t thought about. I could fake evidence of traitors. Let them bomb the biggest threats to the stone age. All it takes to improve the world is to remove the bad ones from it.”
She shook her head. “You would leave the good ones to die. You’d kill them too, to get the bad ones. Look at you. Look what can happen to good people having a bad life.” She picked up my pills again and held them up for me. “This is what you asked me to get you. You know you need them.”
I closed my eyes and sighed, then held open my mouth for them. It’s a good thing Max’s stuff kicks in really quick. That left me in considerably better mental state to give my daughter more presents, like a beautiful Damascus steel shortsword. I went with more of a straight, thin jian design. It works better with what I’ve taught her, though I plan on having her tutored by people a lot better than me. She needs to know more than 1,001 ways to aim for the crotch. Way 322: turn your back to the enemy and stab between your legs so as to miss your own junk.
I was going to give her a large birdasaur, but it died.
The party was a welcome distraction. It helped ease tensions on the island, which was especially good for the refugees. A lot of free nations are taking in people. As much effort as boats are for people, Riccan waters are known to be safe. Deep Ones make awesome marines.
I have no problem giving them bread and circuses. Keep them fed, and keep reminding them their life hasn’t become fight, flight, or freeze.
Even the villains are feeling it. Ouroboros has the drinks and shows flowing at his casino in for the villains who are having difficulties with everything. It’s something of a safe zone. He’s announced on VillainNet that he’s using the weather control devices around the city defensively. He’s not that theatrical of a guy, but you’d never know that from the video of him holding a fucking hammer while it zaps the bastard child of a triceratops and a hedgehog. If it were me, I’d add a fake beard.
The day after Qiang’s birthday party, Ouroboros dropped me a message about needing some help. Someone showed up at the casino, a villain from Tallahassee named Carnivore. “Tallahassee is occupied. They have separated out everyone with powers. They’re being held separately and experimented on.” He attached an aerial image of the place, a hospital, with scribbled annotations. Guards here, a fence around the whole thing. Carnivore’s typed-out notes said they were being drugged. His heroic rival, a man named Snakecharmer, resisted whatever they gave him enough to grab Carnivore and try to escape.
“He dragged me through half the hospital until I could move on my own. At the last gate, he drew off the guards so I could get away and tell everyone. Said I was in no shape to fight. He took a sword to the back so I could get away. Why would he do that?”
A lot harder for a hero to run away and get help. Who would he get? Ouroboros arranges for the guy to get medical treatment and as many joints as he wants to clear his head, but he can’t go see to anyone.
This looks like a job for Psychopomp Gecko. I suppose it’s a decent enough reason to waive my “no breaking you out” rule.
Security matched what Carnivore had to say. The remote-controlled cameras of the closest Dudebot around took it all from behind a projection of the environment around it. A fence around the place, with eight-person patrols marching along it. Raiders, the guys with a facial hair fetish and pale, segmented armor, handled the perimeter. A foursome of robotmen stood in the parking lot relatively near the entrance of the hospital. There were more over by the parking garage that I could see. I headed off after one of the patrols in that direction.
I stalked up behind the rear two, wishing I could move faster. The heavier armor isn’t optimal for moving as stealthily. I tapped the one on the right on his right shoulder. When he turned to look, I punched through the left one’s throat. When the other turned toward me, I put my fist through his mouth.
The rest of the unit turned around at the sound of dropping bodies. They drew their swords all together. I grabbed the heads of the ones who had just been in front before that turn and smashed them together hard enough to send bits flying. The remaining four turned to that, which is when I grabbed the arms of the ones in back and pulled their swords into the backs of their friends. I took the wounded mens’ swords then, one in each hand, and lopped off their heads. The ones behind them pulled their swords out and might have raised a cry of alarm if I hadn’t tipped over the headless guys so that the blood sprayed into their faces.
I impaled one of them on a sword. Right up through the taint. I picked up the other and beat him down onto his friend until the impaled one’s back was bent back at a broken angle and left my unwilling weapon impaled on the same sword still embedded in his friend. Then came the boring work of carrying them all off to dump behind some bushes before the next patrol arrived.
I did a pretty good job thinning things out before I headed inside, looking for the fifth floor. It was quiet. Not too quiet. The fluorescents and air vents made plenty on their own without people there to hide it with coughing and talking. I didn’t see anyone though. I wouldn’t until I made it to floor five, when I heard the sound of loud pumping. The door to the pump noise was left open, so I let myself in.
It had been several rooms until someone knocked the walls down. Now, it held tum a bunch of people in tubes, clear tubes with people squeezed in with pale green fluid. Some wore regular, everyday clothes while others had costumes on . I’d say it was two dozen, easy, and probably way more than should have been in a place like Tallahassee.
Standing in front of them was a man in a white suit. Next to him and slightly behind, a woman in a black lab coat scribbled notes as the man dictated. I got closer, enough to hear him finish, “You got that last part, Cupernia? The measurements are precise. If you have a question, ask now.”
“Are they did?” I asked, a hologram of myself appearing behind them. The man turned and reached into the white jacket he wore over a sky blue turtleneck and pulled out a ray gun with a bulging body and a thin barrel with a large fin on the end as a sight. He fired it through the hologram. I grabbed the gun away from him with one hand and lifted him aloft with the other. “More importantly, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here?”
“C- Cupernia,” he said.
The woman next to me flexed and grew larger, punching me through a wall. Considering how far she had to hit me to make that happen, that was a hell of a punch. Good thing the Dudebot can’t feel it. When I recovered, I looked at the man in my hands. He went through a wall without armor. He was missing the top half of his head.
Cupernia came walking in, a bulging muscle woman. She glared at her dead boss, then picked up a piece of the wall I’d gone through. She raised it over head. I launched the Dudebot toward her and rolled beneath her legs a she slammed the wall down on the floor. I turned and raised the ray gun I’d taken, squeezing the trigger. The bent device sparked once, that’s it. Cupernia smirked, then fell when the floor opened up from her careful attempt to smoosh me.
I tossed aside the dead body and the broken ray gun to see what other weapons I could harness when the big bad assistant came back for me. Oh look, a room full of supers. I began to smash open tubes. “Bring out your dead! Up and at’em, Atom Ant!”
They were lethargic, slow to stand up. I didn’t know how long I had until Cupernia got back up there. I had to think of something. Luckily I had plenty of sleeves to pull tricks out of. When Cupernia peeked in the room, she saw me standing in the middle of a good dozen supers all standing and eyeing her. I held out my hand and gave her the “bring it” gesture. “Still want to stay and play?”
She ducked out of the door. I heard a crash that sounded like an external wall. I had to let the holograms that hid the recovering, blinking supers who couldn’t stand on their own yet. That changed by the time the robotmen stomped their way out of the elevator and were promptly sprayed with lava from a vengeful captive villain.
Snakecharmer wasn’t with them, though. Carnivore seemed to figure that out fairly soon after we all arrived at Ouroboros’s casino. The others, heroes included, had a pint in celebration. Carnivore had one in mourning for the hero that saved his life.
Ugh, terrible. See how horrible war is? Heroes saving villains, villains saving heroes. It’s like cats and dogs living together. It’s just not right.
With the destruction of the Directory building, it’s a good thing we still had the tent originally used instead. Just had to bulldoze some rubble out of the way, haul in the half-melted remains of my throne, and we were good to go. We packed this one with communications equipment and monitors, to keep anyone in there informed of the situation. There weren’t so many of us sticking around to watch events at the moment. The Rangers had insisted they help guard Ricca, a message they communicated through Venus. I think she realized the volatility of the situation, so she stayed with me.
I wanted to go help out, but my underlings made the case that I shouldn’t go out and risk my life. Me, going out and risking my life for others? Preposterous. People would get a warped impression of me if that happened. Arachnoid, Shark, Rhino, and Raptor accompanied my forces over to the Korean peninsula to aid Beetrice and her Buzzkills. A lot of the intricacies of strategy and tactics were out of my hands. I have military officers for that sort of thing. That’s why I had the freedom to slaughter at my own discretion. The people trained to direct people did so, and I killed folks. They’re handling the situation in Korea better than I can.
That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. I stayed active instead. Intel was working over our prisoners, except the big birdasaur. That thing had a negative reaction to Max’s anesthesia. Something about the size of the heart. It ended up comatose and brain dead. “Would you like me to put it down for you?” he asked me as he showed me the cage we had it secured in.
“No, no… I can do that myself,” I told him. I stepped up to the cage. “You’re an ugly son of a bitch and you smell like rotting fish carcasses. We’re an island. We have a fishing industry here, and you still stink. Do you just roll around in the things? Do you fuck fish? Is it their sexy gaping mouths and glassy eyes that does it for you? You a fish-fucking egg-sucking dinosaur?”
Max put his hands around my shoulder. “That’s enough. I’ll put it out of its misery.”
“Put it out of my misery. Its face is killin’ me, Max.” He nodded along as he guided me away. The next time I saw him, at the command tent, he had a fancy feathered coat with him like he’d raided Elton John’s closet.
Note to self: see about selling Elton John a dinobird feather coat if he survives the invasion.
“How’s the war?” Max asked.
I shrugged. “Too much border to try and secure, especially with how useless border protection is. They can come in by air or sea that easily. Instead, Beetrice’s forces are divided up in either a defensive group to handle incursions from the north, and an offensive group coordinating with the South Koreans to push the invaders toward the DMZ.” I pointed to a map which showed most of the two countries in green. Red marked enemy concentrations. As they’d gotten closer to the DMZ, the two main concentrations in either Korea began to pull toward the western shore.
The Missile Command folks were on the edge of their seat. It was a three-way joint taskforce ready to deploy nuclear assets right down the damn barrel of gunships if any more showed up. Ricca wasn’t the only place where the invaders had decided to be sore losers. With a little bit more time for us to see what was happening, the invaders were withdrawing from most countries they couldn’t achieve a quick victory. They teleported in, caused chaos for a bit with some quick destruction, and were either defeated or left to consolidate with victorious groups or aiding the fighting in countries they found it more important to fight for. Withdrawal tended to be accompanied by the arrival of a gunship to blast concentrated defenders or important cities before disappearing.
In the case of Iran, it turned out the exterior was pretty well capable of standing up to a nuclear attack, but one shot right up the pipe did the trick. I didn’t think they had the ability to make that work, but I suspect they’ve got their own homo machina by now. The High Technolutionary, who I worked with to figure out how to transform folks into the same offshoot of humanity I belong to, is still out there somewhere.
The Koreans let the invaders withdraw, easing up. Most of them took to the water instead of the air. A pair of gunships came this time, facing each other but adjusting their aim to fire past the other. They were making the shot more difficult on us, especially because most tend to go off upon close enough proximity. This kind of shot is way more exact for a missile to make. For all their furious activity leading up to it, Missile Command was incredibly calm in making quick calculations and calling out orders. I suppose most of the work had already been done by then. In the end, North Korea launched a nuclear missile into South Korea, and South Korea into North Korea, destroying the gunships.
As soon as it was done, Missile Command broke out the beer and the cheery girl group pop music. My military are suckers for some bunch called Mamamoo. Let them have their fun. They’ll be helping deal with the liberation of our Belgian allies soon enough.
I called up Beetrice first. “Congratulations on victory, honeybee.”
She laughed. “We owe a lot to the South Koreans. I think this war might secure further reconciliation. It will be a difficult process because we are loyal to you, Empress.”
“Something to figure out through the rebuilding process. What’s the damage? We got plenty of nanites, and Cape Diem might be able to spare some people. With the bulk of the fighting over, we can get more medical personnel in. We’re mostly stabilized on our end.” I sat forward in my deformed throne.
“Pyongyang has two of those flying machines downed in it. They destroyed every hospital they came across. The agricultural expansion was going so well, but the fields are trashed. Anything you can give us would be appreciated, but I will make any aid you give us available to the South Koreans,” she told me.
“Deal,” I told her. I suppose I should be more conniving of an evil ruler, but I hardly think this is a situation for settling petty grudges that aren’t mine.
Emphasis on “that aren’t mine.” For a lot of leaders at this point, there’s not a lot they can do as individuals to contribute to the war effort. Most of it boils down to making sure the people fighting can do what they need to, or keeping morale up. Most leaders aren’t one of the world’s best assassins. A lot of these breakaway factions some of the other countries have are likely to crumble with a sudden loss of leadership. We send in an swarm of Buzzkills or a Psycho Flyer, it could look like the government’s beholden to me. Sometimes knives are superior to guns.
Thing is, the Rangers want to stay on my ass. Sure, they break off in one or twos to go assist other countries, but there’s always some of them here. I don’t think Pink’s ever left. I had a pretty good idea how to get around that problem when I left the command center to have lunch with Venus and Qiang. Just the three of us, sitting around, eating food, my daughter and I getting into a chopstick fight. “Obi-Wan lied. I am your father.”
“Nooooo!” she yelled, letting herself flop to her back on the carpet. She laid there like that, not moving.
I poked her belly with a chopstick. “Well, she’s dead. Guess I get all her stuff now.”
“Nuh uh!” she sat up and tried to fake a glare.
“Are you finished eating?” Venus asked. When Qiang nodded, my nemesis added, “Isn’t it time to get back to school then?”
“Mooooom…” she begged, looking at Venus. Venus giggled and ruffled her hair. Qiang turned to me then, “Do I have to?”
“School’s important, dearheart. Lots of fun things to learn. There’s a story behind everything.” I helped her straighten her hair out, then ruffled it for her again. She did a better glare this time.
“Fine!” she huffed and put her helmet back on. The ability to leap small buildings in a single bound and run faster than normal help with a lunchtime commute.
When she was gone, I scooted over to sit beside Venus and sat my bowl down. “She’s adorable,” Venus said. “You should tell her I’m not Citra. We have to be honest that I’m not her mother.”
“Citra isn’t either. Wouldn’t be surprised if Qiang knows. Mmm, but I need a nap.” I laid my head in her lap and looked up into her face. Her not objecting is still wild.
“I have places I need to go too.” She didn’t push me away though. “Promise me we’ll talk about it later.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I wonder if I should use her pet name. I learned it way back from her interactions with her boyfriend at the time, The Human Sloth. I’ve killed him twice, which is one reason I don’t think she’s over her hatred of me. And I really ought to check on Psychsaur. The scaly psychic heroine and I made a real connection when she was playing around in my head for awhile there, then she started dating Venus. Now Venus is over here, trying to be a conscience I can snuggle with.
Over in Georgia, a Riccan agent delivered a weapons shipment to Tbilisi. The President of Georgia, unperturbed by the devastation in the country, got into an armored SUV with his personal security detail. The SUV stalled, and shut off. Cursing, the driver popped the hood and got out to check on it. A drone flew into his open door. Someone in the rear popped a door open and threw the President out just before the drone detonated. The one at the hood was knocked off his feet and slow to stand back up. The President tried to crawl and call for help.
My Dudebot appeared in front of him, holding the severed arm of an invader robotman. “Who are you?” the man asked.
“I’m an awesomesauce enema. This is gonna get messy.”
I punched the arm through the President’s spine and neck. A couple of bullets ricocheted off my robot double’s armor from the surviving bodyguard. I jumped over the President’s corpse and shoved the robot arm through the man’s chest. The Dudebot’s invisibility measures activated again, letting it blend in and leaving the appearance that a man who intended to side with the invaders had instead been murdered by them. I’m sympathetic with their desire for revenge, but I’m pretty sure they could just help themselves to Russian-occupied lands at the moment without turning on everyone else.
Over in Georgia, meanwhile, a bunch of separatists with Punisher patches on their department-store camo jackets met with a Riccan agent who assured them this shipment of weapons could keep the tax man from ever treading on them again. The agent had backed a truck with a large crate in it right up to the gate of their compound. They raised their ARs and fired into the air, whooping. One of them with an exceptionally big cross around his neck even added a, “God bless you, son.”
The agent unscrewed the crate and pulled the lid off, then dove behind the truck off the bed of the truck to hide away from them. The Dudebot inside jumped out, taking the head off the one with the cross with its Nasty Surprise minisaw. I jumped and spinkicked the head into the face of one of his buddies, who dropped his gun. I grabbed one out of the hands of a nearby man, spun it upside down, and ran it through is stomach. “Time for a shishkebob!” I lifted him up and pointed him toward one of his palls who was shooting at me, jabbing it through him next. “And a shiskeRandy.” And on through another one. “ShishkeDaryl.”
The whole compound scrambled to investigate what was going on while my agent drove off. All I had to do was keep the Dudebot hidden with the help of its active camo and wait until I found the self-styles commander of the bunch, who went from hiding in the rear to marching in front when he realized all the fighting had stopped. The bunch not being particularly careful with their arm, all I had to do was slip the safety off one guy’s rifle, point it squarely at the commander, and squeeze the trigger. The shot the soldier, too. They almost found out I was there from all the bullets flying, but I got out of the way and let the paranoia take over. When I left, the survivors were all pointing firearms at one another.
I awoke in Venus’s arms. I once heard a man say that a power nap is when you sleep on someone who is weaker than you. I prefer to think it’s what happens when I kill a bunch of people while catching some Zs. There’s a war on. I’m just being efficient.
You could cut the tension as the invasion day approached, but most people were saving their knives for the invaders. We got most of the civilians rounded up. The old geothermal power plant had space, as did the tunnels for the underground high speed rail. Others took shelter in old black sites. Anyone who wished to leave the island was allowed. I’d have pushed for a general evacuation, but there’s really no telling where all will be hit. That’s the same reason I didn’t recall all my agents or my wife. Informing us of the invasion ahead of time may be of questionable strategy, but it created a lot of uncertainty and confusion that can work against us in the initial strike.
Those who wanted to fight were given the opportunity for that as well. The training kept my soldiers ready and helped them focus. We could always use the manpower. Beetrice didn’t stay, but at least we have VelocityRaptor back, mostly healed from that business in Africa. He failed to kill Velociraptor. We’ve also still got Silver Shark, who decided to take up position near the beach with the Deep One militia. Bronze Rhino, another Claw creation, was pulled out of his homestead in the wilderness and sobered up to help defend the city. We needed him to fight, and his alcohol for Molotovs.
So the clocks tick-tocked away, bringing us closer and closer to a clash. I finished doing what I could to my armor. Plenty of integrated nanite-holding quilt on the inner layer, spiked blades on knees and elbows, and as many chicken grenades and explosive throwing knives as I could pack.
Venus watched me as I worked in my study. “Are you ready?”
I laughed. “Is anybody truly ready?”
“Did you have one of Max’s brownies he’s passing around? You shouldn’t have dulled reactions right now,” she said.
I shook my head and turned to look at her, “I am fully in control of my own faculties. Razor sharp, you might say.”
“You look tense.” She walked over and ran her hands through my hair. “How do you feel?”
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. “A little tense and excited. You?”
“The same. The big fights don’t announce when they’re coming. I had the Academy send me my exoskeleton through Cape Diem. Don’t worry, I repainted it in my new colors.” She stopped running my head and I reached up to hold her hand.
We stayed like that for several seconds, then I smiled and made the situation worse with singing. “It’s an emergency, call the police, you left me and abandoned the lease.” The guitar, bass, and drums started up when I put on the actual song to cover up my disastrous singing voice.
Venus giggled, then started dancing when I stood up. I heard a squeal from the doorway to find Qiang dancing there to “Gave You Everything” by The Interrupters. I pulled Venus over so I could grab Qiang and lift her up. Further down the hall, Sam rocked out, then hopped on something and played an imaginary guitar.
It was just stupid fun to music. It was right. It was what we needed and it broke the tension. And it was just in time, because pretty much everything we were using to detect an incursion went off at once. I didn’t know whether to expect a portal or a craft of some sort. We got both, but the portals were temporary and the craft were floating and flying. The things in the sky had hull like ship with a narrow angle. Could have been some sort of floating battleship or destroyer for all I know ship designations. The ones in the water were wider and more round, like if someone made a circular aircraft carrier and loaded the deck with guns.
Some of those ended up cut into pieces when the barrier went up. Explosions rippled across it from where the flying ships had fired already. Some were inside the dome of the shield already when it went up.
I dropped everything and began to suit up, sending out an address while I did so. “People of Ricca, the invasion is incoming. Stay in the shelters unless they’re compromised. If possible, we will evacuate you to areas of the world not under attack. I will not leave you. I’ll keep fighting. You might doubt me as a benevolent leader. Honestly, I don’t think any good leader can be a good person. Ha! By that metric, I’d be an excellent leader. Don’t trust me because of morality. Trust me to be a monster unleashed on your enemies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set a new world record for most bowels perforated with a single fist.”
This is why people hire speechwriters. More competent speakers give these events a certain gravitas.
I flexed my armor and reached for my helmet. Qiang held it up for me, in a smaller, less spiky version of my armor. She didn’t have her helmet on either and smiled at me. Mindful of the spikes, I grabbed her for a hug. “I love you.”
“Love you too, mommy,” she said, setting it on my head. It sealed into place and she walked over to the desk where I’d left my helmet, grabbing her knife and helmet.
“I want you underground, staying safe,” I told her. “And keep your armor on.”
“Yes mama!” she yelled, running off with her helmet past Venus. The heroine rested against the doorway, a smile visible underneath the chrome visor obscuring most of her face.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“Yeah. Time to fight the good fight,” she said, as if that line wasn’t designed to make my eyes roll.
Sam and Holly stayed behind, so it was just the three of us setting out from the palace: Max, Venus, and Gecko. Max twirled a syringe gun in one hand, a spray gun in the other, careful of the bandoleer full of smoke grenades. Venus scanned the area and pulled out a staff that extended. I called over a larger drone that attached underneath the armored battery pack on my back, adding a large pair of lasers designed for heavy use hanging off each side of me, and a stand on my shoulder on which a pair of my normal-sized drones settled with their smaller beam weapons.
Out in the waters, Silver Shark and the Deep One marines had capsized a trio of the invading ships, which shot a lot of empty buildings on the waterfront. Some of those inside tried to swim to shore despite segmented armor, but I had more Deep Ones than they had exceptional swimmers.
The seafaring ships outside the barrier had pressed against it. They were glowing some orange color and slowly easing through. I contacted my submarine, who assured me they had everything in hand. The message came through about the time I saw the explosions tear through the ships. My admiral figured that the natural compliment to a shield around the island is a minefield around the shield. There weren’t many living invaders left to argue the efficacy of that.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t even get to use my armor when white portals began to swallow the battleship aircraft outside the shield. New white portals opened in the air over the water, spitting them back out. They began to adjust targets.
The Intercept team was on it with surface-to-air missiles and drones. The first shots of the battlecraft crashed into the Directory building and probably wrecked my favorite chair. They turned to adjust aim once the first of our missiles began to blow holes in them. My guys focused on three of these things equally for way too long before concentrating fire on the closest. Whatever kept the battlecraft afloat in the air didn’t compensate for the hits and it rocked back and forth until something gave out and it crashed into the water. The other two focused on the military base. Note to self: when rebuilding the military base, include its own shield. Same for the new Directory building and the Palace.
The next craft to go down was dissected in a fucking grid pattern by laser drones. It was beautiful. It swung and dipped, just barely missing the remaining battlecraft. Gotta give them points for trying. That craft ended up smacking into shallower water, part of the hull crumpling on the beach.
The invaders changed tactics. Four portals began to open up at ground level and stayed open for thirty seconds. “Anyone left at Intercept who sees where these things are coming in?” I asked over my command channel.
“Affirmative, Empress. Intercept Field Unit is deployed. We have eyes on rifts and are passing the locations on, triaging per your orders.”
All are equal under the Empress, but some places are more equal than others. The base’s capabilities are reduced, but we need the power plant and the shield. We need the people in the shelters if they threaten any of them.
After that, more opened. I wasn’t paying so much attention to those, because one of those first sets of portals opened right in front of my group. The ones most eager to die were a bunch of guys who must have interrupted their beard-growing contest to get killed being the most prominent group. There were a few others mixed in. It was a pretty diverse bunch.
I giggled and began to dance, pumping out the next song on my murder playlist, Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage. I spun and slid onto my knees, hands in the air, waving like I just didn’t care, while the heavy lasers and the laser drones I personally commanded went to town on them. The first wave just died. Whatever segmented armor they had wasn’t that good at handling light. Some of the ones to survive were grey guys in tights and vests. A small blossom of light appeared where they were hit. Max tossed one of his grenades and hid behind me. They didn’t come out the other side of the thick blue smoke that spread all over the edge of the courtyard. The stream of enemies came around the sides, but something did walk out of the smoke. I caught a glimpse in between mowing down their buddies.
There were three clunky robots. Heavy metal plating and bolts on the torso chest, head, arms, and legs. It had a thick support connecting the chest to the legs, but didn’t bother with all those delicious parts of living critters. These were some old school robots, staring out at us through slots in their heads that glowed with red lights. Venus stepped up in front of myself and Max. She held her staff in her right hand, angled to avoid the metal spike she extended from the gauntlet. Electricity arced from it, then up along the staff which she swept over the robots. Ball lighting flew forth, throwing off smaller tendrils on its way into the middle of the robots. The others who got too close didn’t take it any better than the miraculous metal men did.
We were barely done with that group when another portal opened behind us. The future corpses who ran out of that one included some in old wool outfits and flintlocks, of all things. I held out a hand and gestured for them to bring it. Venus grabbed my arm and tugged me to the side when one of them fired at me, with Max diving behind me. Behind me, a person-sized hole appeared in the wall around the courtyard.
I targeted the flintlock shooters first after that. Max ducked beneath my legs to fire into the crowd with his gun and called out, “Thanks Venus!”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, a bit grumbly. Ugh, my nemesis I’m in love with saved my life. Time to go write in my diary about how unfair my life is and how I’m so embarrassed I’m just gonna DIE. Wait, is this not the teen drama portion of the narrative? Oh, right, I was murdering folks.
Intercept contacted me for an update after we’d finished with that bunch. “Empress, we have reports of dinosaurs loose in the city. The food growers are under siege and summoned a giant demon plant for assistance. Additionally, VelocityRaptor has responded. The Institute is under attack as well. Dr. Creeper, Bronze Rhino, and Arachnoid are defending. All fronts are holding. The sea battle is over. Silver Shark is bringing the Deep Ones ashore to flank the enemy.”
“Anywhere look like it could stand some reinforcement?” I asked.
“The skeleton crew at the water treatment plant reported an attack. We have dispatched a Flyer and squad to take it back, but we are low on available manpower.”
“I thought we told them to evacuate with the rest…” I looked to Venus and Max. “We’re heading to the water treatment plant to expel some waste. Don’t let them touch the water there if you want to keep them down for good.”
Venus nodded, but I caught something moving toward us out of the corner of my eye. By the time I turned to look, one of those grey fucks was right up in my face, pushing me. The wall we passed through stunned me a bit. You know, like they do. Wrecked my big drone, I think. The grey speedster let me go and I crashed through another wall, and another, and into a small refrigerator in someone’s kitchen. The family left a pot on the stove and rice in a bag nearby. And a superspeedster coming through a hole to stop right in front of me and punch the crap out of my armor. He grabbed my throat. I tried to put a spike through his eye, but he dodged it. I sent a straight at his gut, but he was elsewhere the moment it would have hit. I brought my arm down on his elbow and instead he was choking me with his other hand.
I looked him in his blank eyes and raised my arms. “Really dude?” I asked, despite the tightening grip that threatened to shut off my air supply. But you know what’s faster than super speed most of the time? Light. Guess who has a laser built into her helmet? This bitch. I fired the trio of lasers in my helmet into his eyes and face, for just a moment. The speedy fucker clutched his head.
I laughed my ass off and grabbed him. I pulled open the refrigerator door and pulled him in, smashing the door against his head. He stumbled back away, pushing at me. I caught a beer before it fell out and smashed it over his cranium. I put my heel into his crotch, grabbed him, and threw him against the stovetop. I didn’t need to be a speedster to stick the pot on his head and hit the lasers again. I fried his noggin in the pot. I’d have done it slow, but he was fast. Now he’s a past tense person.
I stepped out, checking on the situation. Venus and Max were on their way to the water treatment plant. I figured I could rendezvous with them, or I could turn right and see why it was suddenly a shady day. I looked, and there stood a sixteen foot tall bird staring down at me with hungry eyes. It opened its beak and roared, showing off a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth.
Command channel time. “I might kill this one, but if we happen to have a spare giant dino bird after this is all over with, I would be happy to have a new pet.” Its beaky maw snatched me up. “This one wants to play already!” It tried to chew me. I put my hands up and stopped it, then stood up on its tongue. I cut the comms channel and addressed the bird directly. “You need to remain calm and stop trying to eat me, or this relationship is never going to work. And it can work! Just look at how things turned out with Venus! All I had to do was change my life, kill fewer people, medicate, have a kid, take responsibility for a bunch of people I don’t know, set up rules for supervillains, and save the world like a dozen times.”
More crap for the diary, in between talking about who I have a crush on and what I want my prom dress to look like, like ohmigosh.
I punched the top of the birdasaur’s mouth. It opened wider and tried again. This time, it caught an elbow blade. It roared and shook its head. I fell out. I hopped up on the birdasaur’s beak and stared it in the eye. “Hey there, critter. I’m your new best friend. I’m gonna hug you and clean up after you and ride you to slaughter my enemies.”
The bird shook its head, then smashed me into the side of the building. I pulled myself up and flipped around to sit on its neck. It hopped and flapped its tiny arms, trying to get rid of me. It rolled over in the street. I don’t crush so easy. I stayed on and gave a “Yippee-ki-yay!” when we came up.
On the street below us, scaly emu things ran along, hissing and growling. I pointed down at them. “Chow down!”
The birdasaur tried to shake me off, but it knew a meal when it saw it. It snatched one up for a meal. At the end of the street, a group of the bearded soldiers and grey men stepped out. They swiped at the emus to chase them off. A soldier raised his sword to point at me. One of the grey men stepped up and raised his hands. A purple ray shot from his hands and singed the feathers on my mount.
I laughed. “Kill, my pretty! Slaughter every last one of them and feast on their bones!” It didn’t seem to need much encouragement after those pitiful attempts to shoot me. It ran into them and started biting. I even hopped down to go after that one grey guy. “That all you got? I killed a guy with super speed earlier. I’ve seen some of your buddies fly and take missiles. ‘Sup?”
He tried shooting me and all the blast did was leave a dark mark on my armor. He tried again and still did nothing. A raider sung at me from the side. I caught the blade and pulled it free from his hands, flipped it around to take the grip, and shoved it through his mouth. I grabbed the blade again and pulled it free, then kicked the body up into the air where my new pet chomped on it. When I turned back to the grey guy who shot at me, he was running. I jumped over him to land in his way. He skidded short and raised his hands in front of his face. “Please-!”
I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over. “I like it when they beg. You want me to like you? Beg more. Tell me things.” I laughed and grabbed him. “Why are you so weak when some of you things are so strong?”
“We are clones,” it told me. It shook as the birdasaur roared.
I slapped its face. “Don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. You’re clones, right?”
“We are made. Some of us have strong powers. If we are loyal and strong, we are promoted to serve the masters. If not, we serve with the vassals from the provinces.”
I brushed off his tights. “There you go. Good guy, telling me things.” I punched him and knocked him out. I saw a car nearby and carried him over. He fit pretty well into the trunk. My new pet roared at me, read for another go, but then squad of robotmen rounded the corner. I yelled back, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran for them. They raised their arms and shot bolts of molten metal at me. I could feel that, whatever it was. I could also turn invisible, and did so. Shooting like that didn’t make the birdasaur happy, and it couldn’t even eat these ones.
I watched it have fun with them from a rooftop nearby. I glanced up to look around, seeing Psycho Flyers all about. Some of them fired down on hotspots, like one over by the water treatment plant. “This is the Empress. Status update?”
“The portals have stopped, your eminence. The enemy is divided, but most large groups are breaking off to concentrate on the shield building.”
“Reinforce the building as best you can to make sure it doesn’t fall. Let them gather,” I said. I hate that kind of wait. The Institute, farm, and water treatment detachments never made it to the rally point because they got fed pavement with some serious velocity with the help of my guys. The Deep Ones and soldiers used the big gathering to start clearing sections of the city. The weird dino-bird things were the main trouble there. It’s like someone opened up portals to an alternate dinosaur era and let the wildlife run through.
And then, with more than a thousand people banging away at the power plant’s gates, water rose from manholes and drains outside of it. The army might have taken it for a minor inconvenience until the itching started. Being taken apart piece by piece will do that to you. Some tried even harder to break in, but the Psycho Flyers massed to drop my people in there and to concentrate firepower on that front. The ones who tried to run found out hard that is when your feet are falling apart. Whoops, then they fell into the water.
I guided my new feathered friend as best as I could to watch, making sure the nanites knew not to eat this one. Sure, it still tried to fight me and throw me into things, but I think we were getting used to one another. It was a good enough place to watch as the invaders found out that I am quite literally the master of this island.
When the screaming was over, I called up Max. “I got a big boy for you to tranquilize. Or girl. I don’t know how to sex a bird.”
“Come now,” Max said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I was drunk that time,” I reminded him.
“Hey, butting in here, what’s going on?” asked Venus. “Did we win?”
I added Command to the line. “Well, did we win?”
The voice on the other line gave a rundown. “The enemy is no longer a coherent force at anything but the squad level. The city has been 24% cleared. The portals are stopped, the craft are in retreat. The Battle of Ricca appears to be over.”
I clapped my hands. “Very good. I’m guessing, not everyone was as lucky?”
“The United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were all invaded by significantly larger forces of differing effectiveness. In addition, the United States and Russia are fighting traitors. There are other nations fighting, including North Korea. Some have surrendered. We are assembling a list of others who repelled their invasions.”
“There’s your answer then, Venus,” I told her. “Today, Ricca. Tomorrow… the world!”
My ambition blinded me. It lit up the sky, though Intercept broke in with and explained things differently. “Large rift opening outside the dome.”
The image I saw was basically a giant gun with engines on it to keep it afloat. And maybe something loose in the water way behind it, but the big weapon might just do it for me here. The huge barrel pointed at us glowed, then shot what looked like a miniature sun at our shield.
“Brace your sphincters, everyone,” I told announced.
The energy blast blinded us as it approached, even though the tinting functionality on my helmet’s display. It struck the shield and lashed out like it was releasing solar flares. The shield went red in a ripple that rolled out from that point, audibly crackling loud enough to drown out even the communication device sealed to my head. The shield and the sun both disappeared at once.
“Casualties at the power plant!” I heard someone call out. “Evacuate and triage!”
I didn’t tell them not to bother. I patted the birdasaur and pulled at its neck feathers until its head turned in the right direction and it began to run for the gun. “Status on our D-bomb stockpile?”
Creeper answered, “It appears an infiltrator reached Bomb Storage with an incendiary device. We have no functional D-Bombs.”
“I’m moving to intercept,” I announced.
“That’s crazy,” Venus said.
“Looks like I’m perfect for it,” I told her. I saw the gun’s barrel glowing again. I knew perfectly well I’d never make it, and never be able to do anything to it. But when there’s nothing left but death, might as well let it know you’re not afraid of it.
I had regrets, though. Plenty, including for my daughter.
A beam from high in the sky struck the rear of the gun, pushing the barrel upward. The enormous energy blast it fired went well overhead, but close enough we felt the heat. I couldn’t tell if it was going to angle back to Earth and make someone’s day infinitely more shitty, but it missed us. The gunship began to slowly turn to face whatever hit it.
A blue satellite with a barrel of its own in between a trio of large solar panel arms lowered from the sky. Below it, a yellow aircraft carrier carried a humongous green tank. A pink submarine broke the surface with a jump, and a red fighter jet soared overheard.
“Oh no,” I said.
The aircraft carrier rose up like it was flipping forward. The tank backed up it while its deck split apart. The tank reached the end and fitting onto it. A fore section of the carrier bent at a 90 degree angle as it finished becoming a pair of legs attached to a green tank torso. The sub leaped into the air again, splitting apart. One half attached to the upper left of the tank. The other caught on the upper right and swiveled around. The jet flew up and curved back down, aimed at the rear of the tank. It somehow slowed, the fighter shifting to reveal a metal face as it slid into the rear of the tank, slotted in. Finally, the satellite. The giant robot reached for the tank’s cannon. The cannon split off easily, as did the barrel of the satellite as it came down. The satellite attached to the back of the robot, two of its panels forming wings that hung down behind it. The other panel arm broke off and attached to the barrel that had come undone from the satellite, then that section fitted into the end of the tank’s cannon to form a sort of sword.
“Venus, what did you do?” I asked.
“I asked them for help, like you said,” she informed me, a hunt of smugness in her voice.
The gunship fired again, this time trying to destroy the Justice Rangers. The robot batted it away with its sword, then raised it high. The sword glowed as bright as the sun. The robot went into a stance like it was taking a step to sprint toward it. The robot flew along the surface of the water, kicking up a spray of water to either side as it closed on the gunship, then past it. The sword stopped and the robot straightened up, standing in the shallow water by the beach. Behind it, the gunship fell apart into halves that exploded.
I was saved by the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers.
Praetor M didn’t come alone. I counted five like him. I don’t know if Praetor’s a title or part of a name. He and his buddies flew around the world, stopping off in every country and in places important to supers. Master Academy’s campuses got their own visit, as did Paradise City, Cape Diem’s headquarters, and so on. These people are amazingly well-informed for people who claim to be from another dimension. I hope they don’t read my blog.
VillainNet was abuzz. Some of the bars were being visited. Kingscrow’s Low Earthy Bar burned when someone tried to take one of them. Most didn’t fight, at least then. So while Venus called in to double check on the Master Academy and some of her friends, I called up Ouroboros, out of Paradise City.
“Empress Gecko, I’ve expected you to call,” he said. I paced in my personal office.
“Yeah, I imagine a lot of people are calling around now. Somebody’s flying around, telling the world it’s going to be invaded, and asking people to pick a side. Those low enough down with nothing to lose might just take that offer. We villains are known for our ambition occasionally overcoming our prudence. I guess because heroes don’t normally have much to do with ambition,” I said with a laugh. It had come to mind as a funny thought that could disarm him a bit.
He shared a chuckle with me. “Heroes, and others, could be so worried about protecting those they’re responsible for that they’d take that deal. Betraying the rest of the world for power and protection? Who does that sound like?”
“Crap, they probably have visited the government over there already, haven’t they?” I asked.
“There are rumblings from state governments that they don’t know what side they’ll be on when this starts. Everyone’s calling up armies and militias, but they’re not coordinating. They’re pointing guns at each other and asking ‘are we on the same side?’” He put a lot of emphasis on the last part, the question.
“It is the official policy of Ricca that the only person allowed to invade this dimension from another Earth is me. You side with them, maybe they’ll play fair with you. You better hope they can protect you from me, though. Well, not you. You’re too smart to fall for this divide and conquer cockwax. But people on the desperate side, people with grudges, they might be willing to catch bullets for some laughing interdimensional bunch.”
“What do you have planned?” he asked.
There was the rub, as Shakespeare would have put it. The phrase probably originated from him trying to discuss difficulties masturbating, the ol’ pervert. Pretty sure that’s how he came up with the ending to Romeo and Juliet, at least. “They’re watching us somehow. The places they’re going, they know a lot more than they should. Planning for an enemy that sees everything you do is tricky.”
I expect plenty of casualties, so the nanites are being cranked out as fast as we can get the materials. We’ve started taking payment in the metals we need. China, Russia, and the South American bloc give up some fairly common ores and get plasma and laser small arms in return. The power armor’s less popular. People are throwing together militias, and it’s more valuable to have a weak target with a gun to fire back, than someone who can take a couple shots but can’t do anything back.
“Do you have anything that can find out where they’re from?” Ouroboros asked.
“I’m afraid not. Maybe my old world would, but myself and that Earth aren’t on speaking terms,” I said.
“Have the heroes talk to them,” Ouroboros said. From elsewhere in the residence, I heard a familiar squee of happiness as Beetrice arrived. The Queen Bee of North Korea would love me to death if I still had a cock to let her try. Switching to the V-brand didn’t stop her from laying hundreds of eggs with stored sperm. Hundreds of humanoid bee people who serve her and me and I have no clue what to do about having that many kids. I try not to think about them. Or her. I… readers, do you think they all expect birthday presents?
“You better break out some of the toys in that vault of yours. I gotta go. Probably oughta be me who calls up Spinetingler,” I told him.
He laughed. After thirty seconds, I stopped waiting on him to get over it and hung up. I ran to the door and pushed a chair against it. Then I dragged a bust in front of it. It’s a unique one, the only stone depiction of Queen Victoria’s boobs I’ve ever heard of, but sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. I grabbed a nearby bookcase and started to pull it down, but I had to stop. Because how will my enemies learn to fear Psycho Gecko if even I’ve forgotten?
I pushed the bust aside, determined to give Beetrice, Citra, and Venus all a part of my mind, the unwell part. I tossed the bust and chair aside, then pulled the door open. Stepping out, I yelled, “Beetrice! Enough is eno-oof!” The giant bee woman hug-tackled me to the floor, then lifted me up like I was some snuggly kid. I get a size thing every once awhile, but I’m an Empress, dammit! Not a cuddle toy!
She hugged me tight. “Are those pigtails? So cute!”
“Put. Me. Down,” I ordered.
“Not until I get kisses!” she exclaimed, pressing her mandibled mouth close.
My follow-up to the order was quiet. “Now.” She stopped and looked at me, then set me down.
“Good. Glad you’re here. We need to coordinate a response. Follow me,” I headed down the hall for the main living area. Sam and Holly watched the news while Max sniffed a bottle and set it in a centrifuge. “Max, that better not be more of my medicine. This is no time for sanity.”
The edges of his smile retreated, but he saluted all the same.
“I’m so glad to-!” Beetrice started. My hand shot up to cover her lips.
“You can be glad to see me alive. Shit’s a little more important than you treating me like a cat. This disrespect ends here and now. I am not a toy. I’m not someone fun to prank. I am the Empress. Someone has threatened to invade. I need us to get everyone and everything,” I said.
“What’s everything?” she asked.
I smiled, glad she was focused on the important questions. “Any nuclear weapons, MOABs, artillery, experimental weapons, doomsday devices; anything North Korea’s been packing to cause the apocalypse, I need it as a resource.”
She pouted. The mandibles dip a certain way. She nodded. “Tell you what, give me a couple hours to get things rolling, we’ll spend time together. Just send the orders, let’s start prepping everything.”
“Want me to bring it here?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No, keep it spread out. Maybe I’m being completely foolish, but I’d rather not have everything on one little island that could be taken out.”
I had to rush around to meet that deadline. Dr. Creeper was so excited at getting permission to ready everything they could find left in the archives that it was hard to keep him on task. Securing The Gralz was making more adjustments on Arachnoid. I had my armor loaded up in a new maintenance pod to be upgraded, if I could find anything else to add to the thing. Plus, I had to schedule things for my daughter’s birthday party. It’s coming up. It’d be nice if I had everything wrapped up in time, but sometimes birthdays happen when people are trying to kill you.
In the middle of rushing around like this, I stopped to go out with Beetrice. She met me outside the residence and picked me up in her arms, cradling me against her gently for someone with her strength. It occurred to me I might be as strong now. I had the arms to match her. The giggle slipped out a little more easily than I’d have expected.
She rose into the air and took off with me over the city. “Where are we going?” I asked over the flowing of the air and the flutter of her wings.
I felt her mandibles trace over the skin on the back of my neck as she whispered, “Shush. Relax.” She shifted and “Take One Me” began to play from a speaker between our bodies. The Ninja Sex Party cover. I howled with laughter as she carried me over the dark waters of the Pacific.
It was nice. I don’t like her obsession with me in ways that suggests problems with intimacy and relationships with insects in human shape, but I can trust her. I relaxed in her arms and let her carry me, knowing I had nothing to fear from her and her gentle kisses on the back of my neck. When we were far enough out, we arced up into the air. There was a lovely moment where she turned me around and held me. Just held me. I was the on who kissed her.
Then the entire internet focused on one thing and brought me out of it. The Praetor and the others stopped. Safe in Beetrice’s arms, I tossed my consciousness elsewhere. Wasn’t hard to find satellites focused on them high in the atmosphere over either Istanbul or Constantinople.
The order went out. The missile was loaded, then fired. Contrary to popular media, those things fly pretty fast. One noticed it and flew to intercept before it could detonate over them. He rammed into it halfway down the fuselage, so I set it off early and released a giant puff of nanites into the air. The other four were nowhere near it, but the one who ruined my little plan got drenched.
It was less a kill, more an autopsy. Working little by little, the nanomachines transmitted back data about the material of the grey man’s uniform, tissues, and organs. Fast enough to stop a missile? Sure, whatever. Able to survive being taken apart, cell by cell? The answer was no. Just imagine all the fun answers my Institute or Mix N’Max will have to their biology.
The others arrived behind one spewing flames from his hands. It cleared away the nanobot cloud and took out some on his infected friend’s skin. The one with the fire powers focused the gouts on the infected grey man and held it there. I lost most of the nanites, but myself and everyone else spying got data on the heat tolerances of our enemies. When the flames stopped, the man floating there shivered and clutched at himself, skin and clothing completely burnt off. Another floated toward him, eyes glowing, then reversed course suddenly. I lost the remaining nanites when the herald incinerated his compatriot down to the skeleton. It plummeted to the Earth, now nobody’s business but the Turks’.
It was just one. But it was blood in the water. Instead of doubting and waiting on some enemy to bring the fight to them, the world’s powers launched. Missiles flew in waves. The grey men tried to scatter, with one heading into space and another diving to the ground. The other two died in fire.
On the other side of the world, Beetrice held me. The world was silent except for her wings. She asked, “What are you thinking about?”
I smiled. “I think I needed this. This has been such wonderful fun, and it’s just beginning.”
I feel like Venus might be a reality warper. Somehow, she slid into the whole group with ease. I know Qiang likes her. They have some good history together from Qiang’s time at Master Academy. I didn’t expect Max to be cool with her though. Even his assistants, Holly and Sam, are more accepting of her than they were of me for a long time. I pulled Max aside to talk about that, “You were a real asshole to them at first.”
“I don’t see how,” I said.
“You were an asshole to me too,” he said.
“You said that was cocaine, too,” I reminded Max.
He looked around, “That’s neither here nor there. Besides, the erection went away eventually.”
“After four months. You told me I had to bone guys,” I said. It wasn’t all bad. I still have some fond memories. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier with guys. You never have to wonder if they’re in the mood, for instance.
He shrugged. “I said it had something to do with being the same gender, and I’ve learned new things about you since then.” He motioned to my boobs and crotch.
I folded all four of my arms across my chest, unamused.
I remain unamused. And confused. Maybe it’s her plan. Maybe that’s just how messed up I am. At least, that was Sam’s take on it. I was asking her about her thoughts on Venus. “Why are you so interested in what we think of her?”
Next thing I knew, I was laying on the couch. “I suppose I’m seeking outside confirmation that she’s untrustowrthy and this whole situation is fucked up. Because even though I want her to like me, I recognize that people actually liking me, or even loving me, usually means they want something from me or are so messed-up that I don’t bother them.”
Sam nodded. “I can see why you’d believe that based on everyone I’ve ever seen in your life, and that includes your daughter. I’m wondering why you jumped on your own couch and started talking when I asked you a question?”
I wiggled into the cushions to get comfy. “I can’t really say what started it, I guess. The first real romantic relationship I ever had followed this pattern.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sam asked. “I don’t care.”
“The fact that you don’t care is why you’re the perfect person to tell,” I informed her.
She facepalmed. “Fuck, that makes sense.”
“After everything I went through on my home Earth, the fights and my own government cutting ties with me, at some point I ended up involved in a revolutionary movement. The pay sucked, but I was doing it for the art. Killing someone with a pencil is easy; it takes an artist’s soul to murder someone with a crayon. Or it takes slamming an artist’s head into a crayon over and over again. It helps that I used the brick color.”
Sam cleared her throat, eager to be done. “Ok, fine,” I continued, “I got involved with a woman who was my number two. She had it all… boobs, ass, legs, a pretty mouth… in retrospect, I might have been a bit shallow. Smart, too. Looking back, it might even make more sense. I really didn’t think I was unclear on my goal to use the dimension bomb to pretty much end all life on Earth. You wouldn’t even need to take half the planet’s mass away. It’s really more a matter of location. She betrayed me right at the end of it all and stopped me.”
“It’s my expert opinion as someone who doesn’t care that one of the things Max and Qiang get from you is that they care about you and people who care about each other act certain ways. If they’re fucked up people, that means they need it even more. Speaking of which, Venus isn’t like that. You used to go on about her being your ideal hero, the one destined to kill you, and then she was too good a hero to do that. Take a hint. She likes you even though you’re only person weird enough to run the show on this island. Enjoy being with her while she still puts up with you.” Sam stood up and headed for the office door, unlocking it.
I raised a finger. “You seem to be under the impression we’re dating.”
She raised a middle finger before she left. “Yeah, figure that out, genius.”
I didn’t have time to, as Venus attached herself to me pretty quickly and asked, “What are we doing today?”
“Oh, just a demonstration of a science project. Anything new on the hero front?” I asked.
She cocked her head. “Yeah. Old friends told me about some political prisoners in Egypt.”
“Oh? Is Venus dipping her toe into villainy for realsies, not as undercover work?” I asked.
She laughed. “This is how I’m making this work for me. I have an opportunity to do some good I don’t normally get to do.” She kinda swung her shoulders forward and back, looking cute and excited. “Mind if I come with you? I need to grab something to eat, so I can split off from you when we get to where we’re going if you don’t want me there.”
I shrugged. “Sure, we can pick up something on the way. There are some good street food carts near the Institute if you don’t mind spicy food.”
“Any taquerias?” asked Venus.
I shook my head. “Not a lot of that here, but plenty of spicy food if you’re a fan.”
“Sure, let’s make it spicy,” she said, taking my hand as we started walking.
We went over the prison in question. She had access to the city’s augmented reality network, so we were able to go over a 3D blueprint of the prison she had. When she saw my surprise she’d somehow slotted into that so easily as well, she told me, “Citra set up clearance before she went back to college. My friends sent me the blueprints and Qiang showed me how you find programs to do this.” She spun the image around, then stopped it and pointed to a basement section under one corner of the rectangular complex. “They only hide it enough to satisfy the Americans.”
“The world is built on open secrets as much as real ones,” I observed. “Floor looks kinda thin there. Could blow the place open on that side and blast a way through, but that risks damage to the staircase. Carve your way through, I guess.”
“Any ideas that minimize danger to the inmates?” she asked, as if that was a ever my major concern.
I shook my head. “Not if you want a big opening. You want to protect anyone, you’re going to have to take your time. Or, and this can be somewhat riskier, you need to blast your way out, not in.”
By the time we got our food and were approaching the Institute, we’d laid out a plan to use her local contacts to smuggle her. They think she’s food, she pops out and starts handing out asses like she’s on the campaign trail for chief butthole surfer. Plastic explosives are cheap enough coming through here and we get stuff from all over.
At the Institute, Dr. Gralz was more than happy to show us the progress made on the Arachnoid exoskeleton. They had a full-sized model ready with a volunteer, a fellow of African descent in a wheelchair he pushed along using cybernetic arm prosthetics. “Empress Gecko, this is Cassius Isaac. Mr. Isaac will be piloting the armor for us. Mr. Isaac, this is her Imperial Majesty Psychopomp Gecko and her wife, the Empress-Consort.”
I shook hands with our Arachnoid user, faking a smile at Gralz’s introduction. “Someone certainly did a number on you.”
He smiled. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m here because of these legs. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have my spine healed and to extract revenge from the people responsible.”
“May I ask who that is?” Venus asked.
Cassius bobbed his chin up at her. “Routine traffic stop. They didn’t even charge the officer. Insurance company refused to pay. I thought I had a way out when your majesty,” he nodded to me, “took over, but my brother and my mother convinced my wife to keep me from the hospital when healthcare was free. I finally got the money to visit here.”
“You must feel it’s pretty extreme circumstances to put yourself at the mercy of Gecko,” Venus said. See, that’s what gives me trust issues. Statements like that.
“All due respect, ma’am, I faced possible execution every time I went to get groceries. This is my chance to be made whole, physically and spiritually. I’d risk death for that,” he said.
Dr. Gralz motioned us toward the elevator. “If you please, I have a demonstration room set up. We can talk further on the way.”
I lagged behind with Venus for a quiet conversation as we walked., “I didn’t tell people you were my wife.”
She gave me a knowing look with a little smile. “Lots of people think I am. I understand you had Citra look like me?”
“She did that on her own to appeal to me. She thought it would help us as a couple,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows, but instead of commenting on my marital issues, she said, “Irregardless, we talked about it. She’s fine letting me borrow her identity.”
“The question is more whether you can stomach agreeing to be known as my wife,” I told her, stopping so we wouldn’t walk right into the elevator where Gralz and Cassius Isaac waited for us.
She winked at me. “You forgot. I’m not locked this with you.” She brought her forehead to mine and spoke in a faux-gravely voice. “You’re locked in this with me.”
The Arachnoid exoskeleton was beautiful. Gralz showed it to us while lab techs prepped Cassius for it. It rested on gleaming limbs that looked more than capable of impaling a human body. The antigrav system had been integrated into the thorax, which made the bottom more vulnerable. “The arms are capable of reaching beneath it,” Gralz assured us.
“What other weapons we got here?” I asked.
“The rear contains a grappling hook and line. We built them with the possibility of being fired into people to pull them closer. We have a webbing spray system on the front. It fires a net of foam that hardens and constricts movement. The original design called for the spray system and a pair of modular mandibles that could serve as bladed weapons or be replaced with other mission-specific loadouts: machineguns, flamethrowers, rocket pods. However, the prototype was built when we were working on the integration of plasma-based weaponry. It will be more precise, but space and power requirements forced us to leave off mandibles and have the plasma cannon mounted above the net system.”
“You up for running this bad boy?” I asked Cassius.
He had a custom-built suit with armor on the back and a helmet. He had waved off the pulley system they had and used his arms to climb up the thing and set his legs into slots, then removed the prosthetic arms. Underneath were stumps that stopped a little past the elbows. He looked down at me. “Ma’am, my country trained me before it threw me away. In addition, I have passed multiple qualifications and other tests with the Arachnoid prototype exoskeleton and integrated weapons systems. I can say with 100% confidence I am the most-qualified person to pilot this armor.”
I nodded to him. “Have at it, then.”
He dropped down into the groove where his body was meant to lay, arms sliding into their slots. The armor on his back blended with the smooth edges of the exoskeleton. As it powered up, four pairs of lights on the top of his helmet began to glow, one pair at a time.
“We’re going to remove the lights,” said Gralz. “There’s no need for a visual indicator of the system’s activation to anyone who isn’t piloting it.”
Arachnoid rose on its hind legs in the small gymnasium-sized room we were in. Arachnoid pawed at the air with his front legs. The weapons were shown off first. The legs punched through a cinderblock wall to impale a mannequin on the other side. Another was dragged from fifty feet away while wearing a set of plate mail, the barb on the hook having penetrated the armor. When it got close, the cable detached and he fired another into the mannequin’s helmet, then detached it as well. A third mannequin was sprayed with net spray, the gunk net clinging to his front and legs before hardening. A fourth got picked up, sprayed with the net, then wrapped up entirely like spider with a fly. It was then set down in front of the third one and Arachnoid fired its plasma weapon. It left a flaming hole through the chests of the dummies.
Cassius put the armor through its paces, scrabbling around the floor. After a bit of experimenting, he even found a way to do it without gauging the floor. It got up to a pretty good speed, too. For as big as it was, it jumped hurdles with ease, and he pulled off a nifty move taking a corner using a grappling hook to maintain speed and swing around.
They didn’t have room for the climbing test itself, so he squeezed it out through the door, down the corridor. We ran after and watched as Arachnoid pried open the maintenance elevator and began climbing the shaft. I tapped Gralz on the shoulder, “Is that thing below or above us?”
“I made sure it would be held at the top floor,” he informed me as we approached the shaft. Looking up, we watched him climbing the shaft with ease. Then a grappling bolt shot down and stabbed into the floor by us. Arachnoid let go and started pulling himself down the line as if he had to climb it. “That is the antigravity on now.”
“Was it on for the climb?” Venus asked.
“No,” Gralz answered, pointing to gauges in the wall. “It can be much gentler with the antigravity on, but it has to be more careful in its movement. Imagine taking a step and not being able to put your foot back down.”
An alert interrupted me. Some sort of unidentified super that appeared in the skies above the island. “I need to go,” I told.
“What is it?” Venus asked.
“I have to go deal with something. My island, my responsibility.” I told her, walking over to Arachnoid’s cable. I called up to him. “I need a lift to the surface.”
“I’m coming with you,” Venus said.
“Well, I can’t stop you from following.” I grabbed hold of the cable and kicked the barb loose. I just sorta drifted up slowly for a moment. Looking up, I saw Arachnoid still getting its footing underneath it on the sides of the elevator. That left plenty of time for Venus to run up and wrap her arms around me, beaming at me even when Arachnoid pulled us up quickly. He pried open the ground floor’s elevator and swung us onto it.
He followed us outside.
There, a grey man in a simple white leotard floated above the city. “Intercept detected something screwy, then this guy came flying in. Hasn’t done anything so far.”
Way off in the sky, the grey guy surveyed the city, head shooting around in quick and jerky motions until he got to me. He turned his whole body in my direction and begin floating down. “Well, crap. There goes sneaking off and grabbing the armor.”
“Can’t you use nanomachines to form a personal armor around you?” Arachnoid asked.
I snorted. “That’s not armor, that’s just a bunch of tiny robots surrounding me, and it’s not like nanites magically form different computer systems or lasers when they fit together.”
By then the grey guy got close enough where I was pretty sure he’d hear us talking. I stepped forward. “Hail, visitor. As Empress of the great Empire of Ricca, I would like to extent my greetings and ask you what the fuck you’re doing here.”
He was an odd duck. His skin was grey, as I said, and he was hairless. Not one piece of fur on his noggin. His eyes seemed normal brown, though they stared through me like he wasn’t really using them. “I am designated Praetor M. I have been dispatched to inform you of the imminent invasion of your universe by my master, Chief Executor Paldrin.”
I waved him away dismissively. “I’m not home right now. Shoo. Tell him to come back another time.”
“You may surrender now and see yourself spared. You will be given position in the new order. Or you can die when my master lays waste to your planet,” Praetor M said, still not looking at me so much as through my head.
I laughed. “Like I haven’t heard that one before, pal. Nobody’s laying waste to this planet but me, you hear me?” I paused as Venus whispered something in my ear, then added, “And climate change. I mean to get around to that too, I’ve just been busy fighting for my life for six years on a near-constant basis.”
“Your answer is noted. Be warned, my fellow Praetors are extending this offer to those worthy. It is doubtful your defiance is as unyielding, their ambitions so checked. You have five days to prepare.” Without moving, a bubble appeared around him with little waves of blue moving over its surface. It expanded quickly, knocking Venus, Arachnoid, and myself back, and cracking the ground beneath the Praetor. He flew up quickly and turned at a sharp right angle to speed out of there faster than a locomotive.
Venus raised a fist at his fleeing form. “Yeah, we don’t negotiate with terrorists!”
I helped her up, but had to correct her. “What are you talking about? Of course we negotiate with terrorists: always money down, no financing.”
We interrupt your regularly-scheduled broadcast to bring you more of your regularly-scheduled broadcast, only slightly different.
I had an urgent message on VillainNet. With recent events being what they are, I was all too happy to have something suddenly require my complete attention. Shit’s just been too weird, even for me.
It was a rush from Ouroboros. The villain who’d managed to take over and run a city in the United States before the country started shooting itself still maintained his position as one of the villains who adjudicates disputes that require intervention. I am considered the ultimate intervention. If I’m getting called in, they expect someone to die. I have shown leniency before, but I know what they call on me for.
On Valentine’s Day, the civilian wife of a villain had been kidnapped. Cordial fancies himself a gentleman thief in a costume, but he’s yet to pull a heist outside of Kansas City. He’s not big time by any means. The guy can shrink anything he can hold up between his hands, which would be great for a thief. It’s just not the best power for violent confrontations. That’s part of why he came to us.
His wife is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy in regards to nuclear weapons, specializing in studying the effects of nuclear weapons on disabling countries and as existential threats to civilization. I suspect she looks at more than just “What happens if you hit all the cities with one?” I imagine you could engineer quite the crisis just by setting a couple off in the right states and allow the nuclear fallout to ruin prime farmland. It’s come up as a possible way to deal with enemies.
Speaking of enemies, the wife called her husband in the middle of being abducted and was able to tell him who had done the deed. Asset Protection International, a private security company with ridiculous yellow uniforms. It was obviously their guys she mentioned. When Cordial got home, he even found her discarded phone, left behind with photos of the yellow bellies, but also images going back two weeks of them in various locations around Kansas City. Cordial took the info to VillainNet, who uncovered even more things.
API had steadily been closing out its contracts. The yellowbellies were being seen less and less guarding celebrities, looking after valuables and compounds of the rich and famous, or working with U.S. Soldiers around the world. Then, they lost a major contract with the Department of Energy and got fined by the government. Something big went missing and nobody talked about what it was. After that, API built a plant in North Dakota and announced they were going into the ammunition business. The owner, Chris King, had himself a friggin’ castle built outside the same town and has had a small army of yellow bellies guarding it.
Ouroboros and the others are betting on nukes. Me too. This guy’s got a scheme of some sort going on and that got the judges involved. The lines between super and civilian can get blurred at times. Give a martial artist a mask and let him fight crime, you could consider him a superhero. Have your own mercenary company, build a castle in the middle of nowhere, and stock up on weapons of mass destruction? Yeah, you might just be a supervillain. And VillainNet would have been more than happy to go to town on a civilian, but it’s a different story if the conflict’s between villains. Complicating matters is that Chris King has nothing to do with VillainNet to help settle the dispute. They sent an envoy to meet with him and invite Mr. King into the fold. They lost contact with the envoy six hours before they sent me the message. At the four hour mark, he was officially overdue. Two hours prior to my involvement, they sat down to deliberate and settled on me. Fifteen minutes after I got the message, I left a note putting Qiang in charge until I get back and threw my armor on.
It was the wee hours of the morning when the Psycho Flyer flew in high over North Dakota. It was just me, the pilot, and a small squad of my guys in power armor in case I needed backup. I had a little info on what the outside of the castle looked like, but nobody had gone inside. It got turned into a villain vs. villain matter too quickly for that. It’s possible Cordial’s wife, April, isn’t even in there. But she almost certainly is. If not, someone important is, likely King himself. If I can’t find her, I can find him and convince him to turn her over to us.
The target was the castle in the middle of North Dakota. Once you slap down a castle in the middle of nowhere, subtlety is an afterthought. I opened the deployment trapdoor in the bottom of the Psycho Flyer and hopped out, parachute on my back. As heavy as my armor is these days, I had to pack one hell of a chute. When I pulled the cord, it started deploying, and it just kept on going, slowly revealing ever more of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. I don’t know if it ever really stopped before I landed and it draped over the entirety of the castle’s courtyard. Guards on the walls and down on ground level were yelling, trying to figure out what was going on. I lost the element of surprise, but I gained fond memories of guards crawling under parachute, trying to find their way to freedom.
I followed one of them into the castle proper. The thick wooden door unlocked using a blue-colored keycard. He opened it and I stepped in behind him. He realized something was up and turned on my, but I shoved his head in the door and slammed the wood against his neck until the door closed. I grabbed his keycard before I left his body jammed there in the door way, telling the corpse, “Don’t mind me cutting ahead here.”
The side rooms had a blue stripe on the card readers. One swipe opened them, and let me check. There was a reading room with paperback novels and magazines stacked up. There was a game room, with bean bag chairs, TVs, and video game consoles set up. There was a bunk room with a lot of corpses in it after I tossed in a handful of chicken grenades, which set off an alarm to inform the corpses there was danger about. And there was the dining hall, where a bunch of other corpses had overturned tables to use as barricades. The .50 cal rifle was a surprise. When he took a shot at me, I ducked beside the door and hid the cloak. I also dropped the drone hidden under my cape and strafed it just under the roof of the doorway. The .50 cal rang out again, followed by a lot of smaller bangs. The drone made it to the other side safely. I pulled out an explosive throwing knife, primed it, and tossed it into the chaos caused by the anti-tank rifle’s magazine being overheated by the drone’s laser.
The drone folded up under my cloak again and we continued on, but the bottom level looked to be low-level stuff. I didn’t find April or King in the bathrooms, though it would have made my job easier if that was the case. Even the stairs required a keycard; the entrance to the second floor had a card reader with a blue stripe on it. Instead, the doors up there had purple stripes and the blue card couldn’t open them. They didn’t even have the decency to label the rooms, possibly for security purposes. There were five rooms on the second level. I peeled off a glove and set to work. The first room I opened was a coed bathroom. The second turned out to be the maintenance closet.
The next one was an arboretum, which I thought was about as useless to me as the maintenance closet until I heard someone call out. “Who’s there?” It was a man’s voice, but I figured not a guard.
“I’m looking for April,” I called out.
“I knew it!” said a woman, who ran out of the bushes. She matched her picture, with her distinctive auburn curls hanging over the standard face humans have. Dimples, eyelashes, eyeballs. Everyone seems to like having a face. She wore a set of coveralls, though, and nobody could have liked being stuck in those ugly things. “I knew my husband would arrange a rescue.”
“Score one for the supervillain,” said a middle-aged man with a slight paunch as he followed her out.
A third person came out rolling his eyes. Taller, older, and with a prominent hook nose. “Shut up, Greg. You didn’t believe her.” They were dressed the same as April.
Oh, this is gonna be neat. “He said you didn’t know.”
She let out a quick laugh. “Of course I know. I didn’t know he had connections though. I thought he’d come for me.”
“Well, dance around naked for him, he’ll come for you all you want, but we’ll settle that after the rescue,” I told her.
“No!” said the guy with the really noticeable hook nose. I think he’s been in a few fist fights. If not fights, then one-sided beatdowns. “We have to stop King’s evil plan!”
I looked to April, “I’m only here for you, ya know.”
She shook her head. “He’s right. He has to be stopped. He’s going to kill millions.”
“I don’t care, as long as they’re not my millions,” I paused. “What kind of millions?”
Greg, the one who had been told to shut up, disobeyed orders and cleared his throat. “He’s going to activate three EMP devices in the upper atmosphere.”
April nodded, “Decades ago, the DOD tested the effect of nuclear devices in the upper atmosphere and found out they widen the area of the electromagnetic effect. He’s going to cause chaos and death. He wants people to die off from the collapse of the digital age to try and halt the spread of climate change.”
“Ok, I’m in,” I said. Something like this was going to mess things up for my people. More importantly, it would hurt me, too. “Where do we need to go?”
“The third floor,” the taller fellow said. “That’s where they’re being calibrated. I know where the stairs are, but we’ll need a keycard.”
“I got a better idea. Where’s an exterior wall?”
They pointed to the rear of the arboretum. I sent a message. The Psycho Flyer blasted a hole in that wall, and a hole in the wall higher up. I headed for the rubble. They followed, coughing their way through smoke. One of my soldiers hopped down onto our level with the cable in hand. Another slid down after him. One stood guard while the other helped the captives onto the cable.Outside, a few shots rang off the outside of the Psycho Flyer. Side guns turned to fire down on the culprit without jeopardizing the rescue.
I jumped to the next floor. It took a little angling, but I landed on a ledge outside the hole we’d made. A yellow-clad guard looked out at me. I grabbed him and tossed him off to the side, where he wouldn’t disturb the people climbing the cable.
It looked like pretty much the entire third floor was taken up by a large lab. Yellow-clad guards stood around while people in coveralls worked, either on a section of what I recognized as a missile, or on the EMPs sitting on wheeled carts off by themselves.
Two of the guards stepped forward while the others gave them space. One pulled out a sword with an edge that glowed bright yellow. The other undid his yellow top, revealing a pair of turbines through his chest. This guy had turbines instead of lungs and they spun up, blowing a computer monitor at me. I swatted it away as the guy with the sword jumped with his foot landing between turbine guy’s chest turbines. He kicked off, the turbines ramping up to blow him at me. I thought for a moment, then ducked.
Sword guy dropped his sword right in front of me, the blade dimming to look like normal metal. Sword guy himself tried to grab the wall I’d come through, but instead was blow off into the night sky, headed for the ground.
“That blows,” I said, pointing back to him with a thumb.
Turbine guy tried sucking again. I pulled out a rubber chicken, tore the head off, and let it get sucked up into the guy’s chest. It actually jammed one of the turbines briefly, before it exploded and sent everyone else running for the door. I didn’t care about them so much. I had to go ahead and completely wreck the EMPs. Since I was out of rubber chickens and the exploding knives weren’t quite going to do it, I picked one up and beat the other two into scrap metal using it.
“You aren’t going to ruin my plans!” yelled a voice over the intercom.
“Get fucked,” I told him. “You can have all the plans you want, just not ones where you hit me with EMPs.”
This guy clearly misjudged me and my intentions. “You think you’re saving the world? Humanity must be culled. And by humanity, I mean everyone not in North America or Europe. All the other parts of the world have to drastically reduce their development and population or we will suffer.”
“Imagine if you spent as much time and money on improving things in ways that don’t involve murder. I mean, I get it. The shortest distance between two points involves shoving your hand through someone’s chest. But you’re targeting my people,” I said.
“You’ll regret this, whoever you are. The whole world will regret this!” he said.
I gave the room the finger as I walked out to where the Flyer’s line dangled for me. By then, even the slowest of the captives had made it inside the aircraft, quickly followed by my soldiers. I gave one last pithy remark to the room before swinging out into the night, my part to save the planet done. “I’m Captain Planet, and the only one around here who gets to fuck Gaia is me.” I jumped out and caught the cable, holding myself there long enough to get a look at the wrecked castle and all the people struggling to find themselves out from under my parachute in the courtyard. Off in the distance, I saw a sports car, some old Aston Martin, come racing up the lone road to the castle. Someone else to investigate or mess with whatever’s going on. None of my business.
I was only here for a love story, after all. Like all good love stories, it involved a shitload of murder. Nothing warms the heart more than tearing out someone else’s.
I’d cue the spinning newspaper headlines, but a supervillain kidnapping a superhero isn’t that big of news. And who reads newspapers anymore? Ricca’s moved to an all-digital format for the news. For those who prefer a hands-on approach, a digital ghost copy serves just as well. So, aside from the heroes at the Master Academy, there weren’t really too many people giving a shit about my love life or capture of Venus.
That’s probably a condition you share with the rest of this world, dear reader. Hey, trust me, I feel stupid too. I got played, in the seat of my own power.
I held off on visiting Venus until I had answers. It’s a good reason. It has nothing to do with any confusing feelings that I might have left over which, once again, nobody wants to hear about.
Answers came thanks to Pagan. The Intel chief was enthusiastic about understanding the events of the past couple few weeks. The weak point turned out to be a foursome of spies in particular.
Pagan had the footage for me and everything. Yeah, cameras saw what happened, but nobody watches all the cameras. I can’t, that’s for sure. An AI might manage it, but I’m the last person who should be programming a brand new mind. On the day in question, Medusa visited a tailor. One of the better ones, too. The man in the playing card shirt walked along casually behind her as if he wasn’t a superhero.
Medusa went into the building. The guy did too, briefly. He came out a couple minutes later, texting away, looking like he was feeling his pulse. He must have had the same type of transceiver we removed from Venus. We gassed her one night long enough to have it extracted from her neck. It’s got the range for a city, but what made it so clever and undetectable is how it’s built. With no pressure applied, no power reaches the transceiver. The battery can only power it up to send and receive messages when someone presses on it. It keeps me from detecting it unless it’s actually in use, and they have very simple programming meant to try and keep them communicating only to one another.
Venus appeared soon afterward, as did their larger friend who resembles a minotaur. Both were being tailed by agents. Here’s where the mistake happens, and it’s a big one. The first team of spies spot the second team of spies when they’re stopped watching the heroes talk outside. After an argument, video shows the spies and the spies who are spying on the spies got into an argument. The argument turnd into a fight, spy versus spy. This attracted the attention of the heroes who beat the snot out of them, stole all their clothes except for underwear, tied them up, and tossed them in a dumpster. Then they used cable ties they happen to keep on them to tie the dumpster closed.
After that, the heroes had time to go into the tailors. When they left, Venus had taken Medusa’s place and costume. The minotaur carried out a lumpy black garment bag like you’d use to hold a costume or suit. The spies didn’t see it because, again, they were beat up, tied up, and laying in a dumpster. Unfortunately, my spies are competent enough to free themselves upon waking up from a beatdown. They untied themselves and sawed through the cable tie on the dumpster lid before they could end up added to the biochar.
Biochar is part of our waste management here. We turn a lot of our waste and food trash into this stuff called biochar. Really good for plants and stuff. The cult that grows so much of our food loves it, along with anyone else growing stuff around. We’ve got shitloads of the stuff going to Mu, and we’re trying to open up the Americna market. The only people who want the stuff over there are people obsessed with organics who keep wanting the really crappy stuff made from only wood.
The reason for the big fancy explanation is that the heroes almost accidentally arranged to turn my spies into a nutritional soil additive. It would have been better all the way around. When we didn’t hear back from the spies, Pagan would have known something was up and we might have uncovered the whole mess. Even the spies would probably be better off.
See, it wasn’t great that they let themselves get caught and beat up, or that they had their squabble between spies. The real issue is that none of them informed anybody about it. They agreed to keep it among themselves. Pagan is at least as unhappy as I am. He didn’t give me all the details, but he requested a large number of medical nanomachines. When I asked what he had in mind, he graced me with a lovely explanation,“I trained in the Japanese branch. The Yakuza know how to make amends.”
“Going to make an example of them?” I asked. “I’d very much like if they are not an issue in the future, but it’s crucial that nobody repeat their mistake. I care more about getting the job done than embarrassment. I’m more merciful toward the latter than I am the former.”
“That is completely understood, Empress. I think you would enjoy what I will do. Four rounds of bidding. The loser is the one who bids the fewest fingers. If they fail to provide all the fingers they bid, or all are provided and someone has less than the others, that person loses the round and is punished. The winner of a round gets to sit and watch. The punishment of the final round is truly final.”
“Aren’t you worried everyone will just bid all their fingers each round?” I asked.
He laughed. “I doubt everyone will manage to part with all that they bid. And if they do, it will be a memorable experience for them.”
“You’re an evil bastard,” I told him. “Keep up the great work.”
I mean, I may be slightly toned down as an Empress, but there’s really no moral way to lead a country. I have responsibilities and I don’t like it when people fuck with them.
Which leads me to my own interrogation. I sat there, across the table from Venus, glaring at her. She smiled at me. “It looks delicious,” she said.
Citra, sitting next to me, spooned an extra helping of the broccoli and mushrooms onto her noodles and turned to address Venus, “It is wonderful to have you join us for this formal dinner prepared by my wife, but I am afraid I do not know if we have met.”
“We have,” Venus said, folding up her napkin into her own lap. She’d been provided a dress for the occasion. “I was impersonating Medusa, but I helped you with the gifts. I’m known to Gecko and everyone else as Venus.”
Citra smiled wide. “You’re the hero my wife is in love with!”
So fucking glad I sent everyone else out of the palace for this confrontation right about then.
Venus looked at me, then laughed at my expression. I can only imagine what such a glare looks like with a bright red blush going on. “No, I’m not,” I said slowly.
“This is wonderful,” Citra said, taking my hand. “Are you two going to stay together?”
“We’re not together,” I told her. “She was lying to me and playing with my trust.”
Like I wasn’t even fucking there, Citra continued, “I want to thank you for your advice with the First Lady of Peru. It was the perfect gift. I think we will have a trade agreement soon.”
“What’s all this trade agreement and gift stuff?” I asked.
Citra turned to finally address me instead of the elephant in the room. “I have the Foreign Director keep me aware of the birthdays of wives of other heads of states. I send them gifts you can only get from the island. Venus helped.”
I closed my eyes and rested my head on my elbow. “Dear, you can’t go letting my nemesis handle the duties you took on you as my consort and wife.”
I heard her lean closer as she teased me. “Oh? You had no problem with her taking on those duties then.”
“Dear, I’m trying intimidate my nemesis,” I told my wife, opening my eyes to look into the foolish grin of the troll I apparently married.
“The Empress Gecko does not wear glitter on her lips to intimidate people,” she responded.
“Wrong!” I said, looking to Venus, who was getting dinner and a show. “I’ve killed people set to Celine Dion. I can wear glitter makeup if I want to!” I totally can. I can leave my friends behind. ‘Cause my friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine.
Venus coughed away from the table, and took a moment looking down to gather her thoughts. “I’m glad that worked out, Citra. Gecko, relax. You know I know you’ve had a crush on me for years, and you know I’m happy to help.”
Citra held her hands up, palms together like she’d clapped. I held up a hand, “Don’t expect any more help. Venus is the enemy.”
Citra, having gained some sort deathwish, continued her defiance of me. “Last week she was your snugglebunny, this week she’s the enemy. Next week, she will be a part of our family and you will call her snugglebunny again.”
I pointed a finger at Citra. “That’s enough.” I pointed with another hand at Venus, who was looking down into her own lap, hair falling over her face so I couldn’t see her reactions. “She’s not part of our family. She hates me. I kill people. I killed her boyfriend, twice. I annoyed her, stalked her like a creep. The only reason she hasn’t killed me is because her morals are worth more to her than my life. If I wasn’t some stupid villain for her to pity and throw in jail, she wouldn’t even look at me. I’ll never be good enough for her!” I blinked, thinking back over the last part of that and explaining, “In her eyes.”
I looked between the two women. Citra bowed her head, hiding her feelings behind the neutral expression she’d long since mastered. Venus looked down still for whatever reason. I didn’t know what she was thinking. And, fuck it, at that point I just didn’t care. Even just being here, as herself, she was kicking my ass. I stood up and stormed out, plate in hand because I was hungry and wanted something to do with my mouth right then.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far down the hall before growled and smashed the plate and its contents onto the floor. How DARE?! And then to come up and hug me from behind, to nuzzle into the hair at the back of my neck. Well, check out the ovaries on the former maid-turned-Imperial consort, daring to come up behind me and cuddle after that shit in there. After a deep breath, I took her hand and squeezed it for comfort, trying to explain. “You might think it’s cute, but it isn’t. Venus doesn’t like me at all. This is just toying with me. Tempting me with ideas like she does, because she’s happy to put up with her nightmare if it means saving someone. That’s all I am. She’s my weakness, because I love her, and I’m just another random person. I just wanted to get rid of the obsession. Great Jupiter’s sphincter piercing, woman, after what you pulled in there, I’m glad she’s probably escaped and got halfway across the island by now.”
I went ramrod straight when the woman holding me spoke, because it wasn’t Citra’s voice. “I’m not going anywhere yet, snugglebunny,” Venus said, holding me tight to her.
“Fuck you,” I responded.
“That’s no way to talk about your new partner,” she told me.
“Stop it,” I said. “Why are you saying this?”
“Because you need someone to be the angel on your shoulder,” she said.
“I should lock you back up,” I told her.
It was her turn to squeeze my hand. “I think I can get out, and you know I can beat you up. Being here, I’ve seen how much you changed.”
I scoffed, still not turning around. “You want to do this for yourself. Feel good about setting some other lost soul on the ‘right’ path.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the vacation and other benefits, but I want to do this for you. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal, but if I am, I can lift you up here with me. I couldn’t do that as Venus, but I think I can as Medusa.”
“You’re just a hero with a plan,” I said, turning around in her arms, my fingers tracing over her soft skin.
“If I wanted to run, you think I would have run to you?” she asked, gracing me with a sheepish smile. “What do you say? Medusa and Gecko, partners in crime?”
Medusa’s come a long way. I gave her a couple of daily quizzes on Venus and some of the events on this world, even if she didn’t realize it. We had a lot of time to talk. We talked over dinner, while walking, and while watching Qiang play with some friends she made. They’re having a hell of a time on the obstacle course.
I paused for a bit, just looking at Medusa. Then I put my head on her shoulder. “Hey. I wish I’d spent more of this time learning about you. I’m just… planning shit. I get caught up in things, and it feels like I’ve nothing but exposite all over your pretty little face.”
Medusa nuzzled her cheek against the top of my head. “Oh no, I love hearing how obsessed you are with Venus. It never gets old.”
I shut up and watched Qiang hang by her legs from the monkey bars, swinging back and forth. It felt nice like that. You know how hard it is for things to feel nice that don’t involve hurting someone?
It was Medusa that broke the silence between us. Plenty of non-silence with kids around, what with their bodies’ natural cocaine production keeping them active and loud. Medusa said, “It’s good that we can find peace like this.” She must have felt my body tense a little at that. “You don’t like peace?”
“It’s always only temporary,” I said.
She patted me on the cheek. “Just shut up and enjoy it.”
“Noooo,” I whined. “I can’t enjoy things. I’m too much of a bitch.”
“A little bitch or a big bitch?” Medusa asked, forcing a grin out of me.
I sighed in contentment. “The kind of bitch who hates someone for giving me hope.”
“Here we go again,” she said. “You’re sitting here with me. We’re fine. This is peace. You can have peace with me. You have to have some hope from that.”
“I guess,” I said.
“When I first came to the Master Academy, I saw people with powers and costumes. It was amazing. I thought there was no way I could measure up. I found out that they weren’t better just because they had power and saved people. A lot are messed up. I know some shitbag heroes because that’s who they are and I know some who make bad choices. Like dating a supervillain.” She took my hand.
I squeezed it back. Her skin still feels so soft, despite the layers of bulletproof nanoweave added inside her skin. More than that, I could feel the engagement ring. I had to make the whole lie look good, and I guess Medusa approves. “Then you became a villain yourself in the coup. Now, someone gets to say superheroes make a mistake if they date you. Even if you wanted to change, you couldn’t. Too much punishment over any past mistake. Can’t even get away from it by going to a whole new world.”
“You did,” was her laconic answer to our little conversation.
From there, things got significantly lighter. Turns out they have The Orville over there, too. Or she’s caught up on our version of it. It made good filler, if nothing worth going into depth about here. Nor was our night out worth going into all the detail. Especially when those details involve me looking up at the stars and trying to compare Medusa to a distant ball of flaming gas and sound smooth while doing so. My understanding of English doesn’t extend to the notion of poetry. Then again, I consistently mess up haiku, so I’m incapable of being poetic in multiple cultures.
And there was talking, about movies, podcasts, books. She heard someone claim there’s a universe where time moves backwards. I suggested we invade it to get Game Of Thrones spoilers. We could make a fortune off them, but more importantly, we’d get to see the Cleganes go at it. Despite all the early difficulty, it was easy to talk to her. And I like her.
The next day, though. Ugh.
I was having a spar with Medusa. I didn’t even plan one, but she insisted. Me, I thought we were ready. I just had to figure out where they all were. The nanites showed nobody in the housing I’d so generously dumped them in. I was frowning to myself and calling up the spies I had on them when I walked into the gym area and took a kick to the face from Medusa.
“Fucking hell,” I said, holding up a pair of hands to my face.
“Oh, I thought you’d block it!” Medusa said, grimacing.
I waved her off and tried to keep the blood from dripping too much. “It’s fine. Just let me get under the shower and get some of this loose blood out. I’ll be fine after that.”
So while I shoved my head under some water to get the nanites to close off a wound, I finally got through to the spies in a conference call. “Where the hell are the superheroes?”
“They are still present at the villa,” Intelligence Chief Pagan answered.
“Why can’t I feel any nanites in any of them?” I asked.
“That is revealing,” said another voice. “There was a temporary power outage the other night.”
“EMP,” Pagan commented.
“So they fried the nanites within themselves,” I said.
“That explains the excessive purchases of prepackaged foods and water,” said the other voice on the line.
“Venus is there, right? We have a count on every single one of them?” I asked.
“It is a large group and they stay spread out,” said the other voice.
“Empress, give me five minutes and I will confirm for you their locations,” Pagan said
“Thank you, Pagan. I’ll be expecting it.” I hung up, my nose good as new, and dried off my hair. I could use the time waiting on them to hit my girlfriend. It’d be fun!
I walked out there, giddy at the thought. Not about the hitting, not entirely. Just about the thought of Medusa as my girlfriend. She was even supposed to marry me.
“You want a free hit?” she offered as I stepped out.
I raised my hands. “Now, now, I don’t know why we might have to res-” I hit her in the ear.
She stumbled back, holding her ear. “Ah! Crap, that hurts! Ow.” She took a minute to recover from my vicious ear bashing, then got into a defensive stance.
It was close, but I ended up tossing her on her back, smiling down at her with sweat already building up. I straddled her and pinned her arms down, upper arms ready to smack her. She winked up at me. I looked down at her then, wondering at the plan I had to force this wonderful woman to try and be Venus. I shook my head, stood, and helped her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I sighed. “Just thinking how much I’d miss you if we do this. Getting second thoughts.”
“We should really sit down and talk,” she said.
I got a call earlier than expected, though. “Hold up on that. I gotta take this. Important call.” It was a direct call from my Intel guys in Empyreal City. I told them to get me on the line if they saw anyone entering or exiting the portal. I sat on the mat to take the call. They’ve sent me updates about the pace of the lab cleanup over there, and what they saw of Taskforce Manticore’s activity on this side of the portal. Some of their actions showed up in the news as the otherworldly law enforcement acted as vigilantes. Villains who tried to probe the portal grounds were particularly prone to getting an crossbow bolt in a sensitive body part.
“Empress, heroes from the Master Academy have arrived with a prisoner. They are handing over one of their own. Venus.”
I don’t know about y’all, but those words caused a series of strange reactions. Anger, for example. Rage. I detected a hint of fury as well. Cold blood and ears with a heartbeat. “What kind of manpower do you have available?” I asked.
“Eight agents with small arms and bulletproof vests. We are not an assault team. The Manticores outnumber us, and there are five hero besides.”
I closed my eyes to get a better feel for things. Satellite imaging confirmed that some sort of meeting was taking place, but I couldn’t get a good look at the person they were carrying in some sort of secured sleeping bag. I had a Dudebot in the city. I sent a notice to the Intel guys that they were going to come up at least one person short in their survey of the heroes. And I was going to want answers.
A kick leveled me just as I attempted to activate the Dudebot, coincidentally reminding me that there was someone present who had a lot to answer for. I blinked and looked up, checking to see if I needed to roll. Who I thought had been Medusa stood there, fingers pressed to her neck. “I’ll be fine.” She met my eyes as I stood, continuing. “Just go.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.
Too late? I laughed in spite of everything. “The first thing you did when I walked in was hit me.”
“I’ve been waiting to get back at you for that tattoo you gave me,” she said.
“How long?” I repeated the question. “You were the one I had enhanced, but…?” I left it hanging in the air, looking her over. She had no active nanites in her system as well. It’d… how… she’s played me magnificently. This beautiful hero I’d spent so much time with and grown comfortable with, and the whole time it was just a game.
“We captured my doppelganger when she went to get a costume,” she said. “I’m-” she stepped toward me, hands up, but stopped when I moved back away from her. “I’m sorry.”
I scrambled everyone: Security officers, Intel agents, the Riccan military. I did it while looking into her eyes. “Nothing personal, eh? Gecko’s obsessed. Gecko’s creepy. Just use it. Makes sense. Good job, Venus. Fantastic job tricking me.” I gave her a thumbs-up.
“You were going to replace me and dump me in another universe,” she said.
I laughed. “I was doing it to finally be rid of you. You think I like you living in my head rent-free?” I pointed to said noggin with a finger gun. Instead I had to watch as Medusa was carried through the portal. What made it worse was knowing I didn’t actually care about her. “You were the turning point again. I didn’t get along with Medusa until you took her place. I actually thought you cared.”
Curiously, she wasn’t in a stance. She stood there wide open. I snarled and launched myself at her, throwing a punch. She redirected it to the side with strength I gave her and shifted her body to avoid a follow-up from my lower left. I aimed my left knee at her belly. She locked her leg with mine and shifted around to stand next to me, then elbowed me in the stomach. I hopped to keep standing and grab onto her. My upper left grabbed her hair. She growled and stomped her and my legs down to the mat and ducked, pushing her back against me. She lifted me up on her shoulders. I tried to roll off when she threw herself back in my direction but I landed on my side with all of her weight on top of me.
We separated and I spun as I came up, throwing a kick at her head. Instead of waiting to get my feet under me, I used my four arms to push off and throw myself at her. I straddled her again and punched her in the face. The second punch sounded like it broke her nose. Still, she slid her legs up between my pairs of arms. She grabbed my upper arms and pulled them across one at a time, using the momentum from pulling my left across to the right side of my body to roll me over and come up on top. I tried to kick up with my legs to catch her neck but she leaned in close. I winced preemptively for the headbutt, but she stopped short. “Does this mean you’re calling off the wedding?”
“What?” I asked. As fight stopping moments go, it’s better than “Martha!” I growled up at her. “You were throwing our sparring sessions, too.”
She smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and told her, “I’m going to kill your friends.”
Her smile turned into a grimace of effort as she held me down. “I know you’re hurting right now. I’m sorry. I had to stop you. We were supposed to meet up and fight our way out together. Now they’re screaming in my ear wondering where I am. If I let you go to tell them I’m not coming, will you be cool?”
“I think we’ve established I can’t trust you,” I told her.
“Fine,” Venus said. She let go of my arms got up off me. She held her arms up, backing away. I took to my feet again and got into a stance. She pressed a finger to her neck. “Go, team. Leave me.”
I checked to see what the score was. There were heroes all over the place. This wasn’t an organized retreat. They were spread out. I saw one group near the power plant. Another had gotten close to the Institute of Science. But, wait a minute… I switched between cameras in both places. Heroes were in two places at once. As I watched, I saw a power-suited Riccan soldier grab one of them, Ball Boy. He slid a sword into the kid under his ribs. Instead of blood, playing cards fell out.
I pulled back to the room where Venus finished telling them, “No. I made a deal. I surrender and you go free.”
She looked to me. “Why?” I asked.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. Venus held her free hand out to me.
“How do you know I won’t destroy their plane out of here?” I asked.
“They aren’t taking a plane,” Venus said. “You already lost. I’m trusting that you don’t want revenge, but you have me if you do. I hurt you. I lied to you. I messed with feelings you try to hide and I truly am sorry. I owe you this.”
It’s so easy to believe her.
I reached out and… took her hand. In my head, I passed along new order: disengage. See to the wounded and any destruction caused by the conflict. Begin the disaster relief protocols. Also, Pagan’s number one priority was to debrief the people I had on the heroes and find out what went wrong. I don’t wanna have to put spies on the spies I have on my spies, but I’ll do it.
Venus squeezed my hand, which made me wonder how much she was playing me again. My thumb wandered over her hand as I tried to figure her out and came across a metal band on her ring finger. I turned her hand around. She still wore the showy, shiny engagement ring I’d first presented to Medusa.
“You’ll be held in our highest-security prison,” I told her, keeping my face calm because I was a mess of emotions at this time. I hated her. I had some very un-hate-like feelings toward her. She hurt me and deceived me in a huge way. She gave me hope. She’d defeated me, twice. If I wanted to, I could kill everyone she cares about. “I’ll make sure you’re comfortable.”
I looked back down at her hand again before adding, “We’re going to have to talk about a lot of confusing shit, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” she told me. “But today, nobody dies. I’m ending this the way that’s best for everyone and relying on your mercy.”
Ever the hero.