A few things changed since I’ve been gone. I half expected to come back and see another crisis going on that needs me to fix it. It’s October. A zombie uprising wouldn’t be out of place, especially with the High Technolutionary working with the U.S. Government. Or maybe evil clowns. Those are slightly less used, and I probably wouldn’t get some obscure Romanian or Sumerian version that barely resembles the fun ones.
Heck, even when I save a bunch of aliens, the only reward I get is being dropped on a cow patty with a new mask for my suit and a long-ass hike back to almost-civilization. But the air smells right. The animals sound familiar. And the food is made of less crap. Ah, I’m hardly back and I’m already complaining. I don’t know if that means I’m glad to be back, or I’m just an asshole. A bit of column A and a bit of column B. If the only thing people at that diner have to worry about is me being a grouch after so long without my meds or knowing anything about my family.
I think she’s doing ok. There’s stuff about me being deposed, me gaining godlike powers, and me invading my own country that was trying to establish a Constitutional Monarchy. It’s foreign affairs, so most of the world’s coverage was sketchy, but at least the BBC had some articles and video on the big fight and the effects show of Omega being banished. I got to watch as I got tossed through the same hole in reality. Captain Lightning tried to fetch me before it could happen, but it was closing while I went through. At least it’s clear I’m in the correct universe.
Afterwards, it went pretty smoothly. No talk about my heir, though. Ricca decided it’s going to drop the monarchy part and trust in democracy. Bold choice after the past few years. Queen Beetrice of North Korea formally separated from Ricca and relations with South Korea are friendlier than ever. Most of the colonies on Mu are friendly, but a community of supers and aliens has sprung up calling itself Godland. That’d be the Three Hares colony. The Bronze City recalled its soldiers peacefully and has also separated while they explore options related to more distant relatives of the king I replaced. All of it handled relatively peacefully.
It’s hardly a utopia. There’s lots of rebuilding to be done, and that portal that sucked Omega and me up was followed intermittently by smaller portals all over the world that dropped off junk and creatures that had been lost between universes. Nothing too disruptive, it seems. Nothing like the White House coming back.
In fact, the government under their current asshole is throwing together some Department of ExtraNormal Affairs to handle any of that transdimensional detritus and special superhuman threats to “the country”. I’ll guarantee that last part’s going to be abused. This is the guy who assembled his own gang of faceless superhero bodyguards, then ignored California. Which is in all kinds of interesting legal shape after that mess.
With an ok burger and fries down the gullet, I sat back and let it digest while I looked into Medusa specifically. She seemed like the most obvious one to look for. A quick search later and I found I was right. She’s been busy. She pulled a jailbreak in Hong Kong, stole a bunch of oil from a pipeline in Canada, and destroying a bunch of land-clearing equipment in Brazil. She didn’t do it alone. Some of the soldiers were in repainted Riccan power armor, or costumes. She’s got herself a team.
The latest thing they pulled was wrecking a bank IT center, with some stories saying she stole from it and others claiming she just data. And after that, she left a message that was quickly taken down off Youtube, but not before various news agencies reported on it.
“My name is Medusa. I was a hero. I still am,” it started with her wearing her mask but not her armor. She made eye contact with the camera, which is something her armor’s visor prevented. “I realized the world needs saving in a way most superheroes can’t. You can’t punch climate change. Dirty cops protect each other and put heroes in jail. The rich and powerful take what they want, and sometimes the criminal organization is our government. I thought I did more good as an exemplar for the world to come around to. I was trained to be that model hero, but I can’t do it anymore. I have to save the world. Sometimes, I have to save it from itself. I’m still a hero, but now, I am Medusa. Some call me a terrorist. Now, we are Exemplar.”
Eh, not the name I’d have gone with. I would have picked something like Nox or Dusk, personally. It was a solid piece of monologuing, though. And the name did lead to a handy bit of wordplay when she was referred to as an ex-hero turned exemplar. It gave me a name to search for, too.
On VillaiNet, I was glad to see my old access still worked. I was old news by now. That happens in such a fast-paced news cycle, though there was something of a betting pool on wondering when I’d return. Their logic was sound. I’ve either faked my own death or nearly died enough times before that it’s not confirmed until the body is seen publicly. Others thing it’s a waste of time because I might change my appearance completely and hide as someone else.
Medusa’s not on there. Mix N’Max has an account, but it says he hasn’t logged in for a couple months. But a little look-see revealed that some villains claim to be working for Exemplar. My lead came from one named Core who supposedly got arrested.
Core got nabbed in Louisiana. Some town called Belle Blanc. The Freedom Legion had been there, and he’s currently being held in some specialized super jail in Shreveport. I ordered some applie pie to go as I made up my mind to help him with bail. I didn’t know if his talk of working with Medusa was just boasting, but I’d figure it out a lot more quickly after I got him out. He was a lead, one I knew how to find.
I walked out, across the street to a two-story motel, and looked at my options. On the one hand, there was a trio of motorcycles crowding a parking space. Tempting. Another had an autumn red Plymouth fury in it. I’m kinda sick of that color at the moment. The only other occupied space held an RV. That really narrowed my options down.
I made great time, like many people do when traveling through the early hours of the night and ignore all those pesky signs about speed limits. That meant the guards at the William J. Lepetomane Correctional Facility For The Differently Criminal got one hell of a surprise when, a little after noon, an “Aoooga!” horn heralded the RV crashing through the fence and then wall of the facility.
At first, I thought I landed in some forsaken and forgotten series of back rooms they use for the hidden torture, but the supply closet and printing room clued me in to having crashed the Administrative section. It wasn’t a full-blown prison, and it was shockingly cozy. Everything was some shade of sickly yellow or shit brown. But not the kind of rich brown you think could grow a mighty oak from it. The kind of pale brown where you wonder if you’re getting sick. Listen, I normally keep a weapon handy in the bathroom. Of course I’m going to check to make sure nobody’s trying to assassinate me up the shit shute.
Speaking of shit shutes, the people who responded did not look like they’d seen their best days. The first one bounced off of me, made easier by me being invisible. The one after him skidded to a stop to help their comrade up. They left themselves wide open and their shirt untucked. I’ve heard the sounds of the dead on the battlefield and the rattle of murder victims in damp alleyways. The ripping noise of grabbing somebody’s underwear and tugging it up onto his head is one of my favorites. Throwing him onto his back and hearing his head bounce off the linoleum is a bit of a letdown by comparison.
I tried to have fun with it. I mean, if I can’t, it’d make this miserable work. Medusa has to like beating people up, too, otherwise it’d be really miserable for her and any other heroes pretending to be villains. Like, take this one woman who rounded the corner and smacked into me. She didn’t go down like the other guy, but did bounce back slightly. I grabbed her chest and the bra underneath her shirt and undershirt. Setting a boot on her belly, I kicked her, knocking her into another couple of guards and bowling them over even as I removed her bra right through her tops.
Nah, guards and the desk workers were easy. I made it into the holding area before too long, and the doors seemed to be built to mundane security specifications. The reason why became apparent when I got into the main holding area and found the rooms there where people were stacked four deep. Each one had a power dampening collar on. I became visible again, looking like an indistinct figure in a black robe and hood that completely hid my face. I tore began tearing open doors, asking, “Anybody seen Core around here?”
The first bunch stayed where they were. The second group scurried out without bothering to answer, but this guy with a teardrop tattoo under his eye nodded his head toward a second-story room across the cell block. “He’s in A27.”
I flourished a bow. “Thank you, my good dude.”
I still tore open a few more doors on my way over there. Not all of them would try to escape. Most had to realize they couldn’t get too far with their powers turned off. Maybe some weren’t thinking, or some had plans in case something like this happened. But enough of them began running for it that I thought made for useful chaos.
I tore open the door indicated by teardrop tattoo. “Hey, y’all? Is this 2B or not 2B?”
“This is A27,” said a guy in a radiation suit. Couldn’t get a look at his face through the blue glow from inside.
“I’m looking for Core,” I said.
Behind him, the other three inmates silently pointed at the guy in the radiation suit, who raised his hand and pointed at himself with a thumb. “That’s me. Did Medusa send you?”
“Not exactly, but I’m a friend,” I said. “Do you need that suit? I didn’t have a plan for that much conspicuousness.”
“I can’t control the nuclear core without my powers. I have to have it with the collar on.” He pointed at his neck. I felt around through that section of the suit and found a bulge. I got both hands on it. “I’m going to need you to tone down the glowing and irradiating as soon as I tear this off. You ready for this?”
Core nodded. The other three inmates behind him shook their heads in rapid disagreement. I tore the collar apart, tearing Core’s suit open in the process. The blue light quickly faded and he pulled off the suit to reveal a man in pale, sickly brown poo-colored pants and a chest with shifting metal armor plates built into it that closed over a core.
I stepped back so he could follow me out, catching the sounds of fighting and the crackle of electrical discharge. Core followed me out. “Do you have a way to get us out?”
Behind me, somebody who had gotten their collar off let out a trumpet as he transformed into a bipedal elephant man and jumped through what had been a reinforced window just prior to his impact with it.
“Depends,” I responded. “You need to recover anything they took from you?” When he shook his head, I pointed up to the hole. “Then that’s how we’re getting out.”
He actually paused to raise his face to the sky and smell the air. The guy got caught like a week ago. I had to grab him and drag him along with me. “Escape now, sniff later.”
In the paraphrased words of deceased cyborg president Richard Nixon: “Gecko’s back!”
“But Gecko,” my dear readers might wonder, “What about all those other marines getting ready to shoot the audience?”I asked much the same thing after I got back into a good frame of mind, eventually.
Concussions aren’t good for your ability to think. I tried to hang on at the time, but I got really sleepy all of a sudden. I jerked awake, remembering I had more people to kill, and smacked my head on something. That was easy to do since the room was so dark, even if I seemed to be in some sort of fluid that slowed me down. By my HUD clock, I’d been out long enough that I had brain damage now. I tried to open my mouth to speak, but then I noticed a mask strapped close to head. The portion at the nose provided me breathable air. The tube down my throat better be giving me food. They were even portions sticking into my ears.
“You should be waking, Arthropod. We put you in a medical coma to help heal your brain injury. You will stop feeling sleepy momentarily,” a voice said.
“Where are the people I need to kill?” I tried to ask. I tried to blink through the complete lack of light and realized from the way my eyebrows no longer hugged my eyes that I just didn’t have any eyes. I’m down two arms and two eyes. Even if I didn’t need my medicine, I’d better quit this vacation before I’m a head.
“Do not attempt speaking until we have drained the regeneration chamber. Ordinarily, we would provide a way for you to vocalize, but it lengthens the healing process. Your ship’s physician has incredible data on you. Inter-species relationships are so strange to me. The bestiality element alone… no, don’t try to speak.”
By that point, I was trying to make it clear that Varook and I are not a couple, and I do not know how he got biological data so intimate as to feed into that misconception. The container I was in drained, leaving me feel… goopy. Just goopy, all over. I needed a shower. And maybe a pipe snake for my crotch.
I was yelling as soon as they pulled the mask off but found someone hugging my arms close to myself. Alu was there, whispering in my ear. “Shhh, quiet.”
My first response was to tell the crazy alien woman to get away from me, but I didn’t for some reason. I tried. I went to push her away, but my arms somehow lacked the strength. No matter how much I tried to push he away, my arms shaking from the effort as they fought my will.
“The controller works. Accept it. Do not fight. Hey, let me go!” I guess whatever controller she was using didn’t work off vocal commands, because I actually had trouble letting her go. I managed to, which prevented me from being dragged away with her, kicking and screaming. After a minute, I heard an oddly-familiar swooshing sound and someone pushed me back down.
The doctor from before spoke up. “I apologize. She tampered with you, but we know how to properly remove a Kitonian probe.” I didn’t even feel like I had anything in me, even after they pulled something long and soft out of my nose.
“I could have done that with my pointer finger,” I told them. There was that swooshing sound again.
“Good news, you do not have to,” the doctor said.
Varook’s voice broke in then. “I have more good news. While you were out, the ship’s decker reviewed the navigation data from the vessel we salvaged and found what we believe you are looking for,” he explained.
“What’s up with all those other guys I didn’t kill?” I asked.
“They left. There was a mutiny as they saw the opera and the defeat of the Headman in charge. Station security intervened in spite of the Chief’s orders because of the Headman’s firearm and rounded them up. The Chief is grateful to have his children back as well.”
“I thought the guy said he cut the Chief in half?” I asked.
“That species can survive that. He’s back on his clitellum already.”
“Really? I’m surprised. Humans males have a real tough time finding the clitellum,” I responded.
I felt him take my hand. “Let me help you up. Both of your eyes were beyond repair.”
I let him guide me to my feet off of whatever I was on. “I can get by if I can find my armor. What did you do with it?”
“Alu insisted she get it off you for repairs. She left it here, but I will check it for any more probes first.” I stood there while he gave it a going over, then handed me what felt like my armor.
I checked with my hands. It felt pretty good. The gap where my second arms had come out was indistinguishable from the rest of the side now. I could stand to change the design on the front that looks like Omega’s, but they wouldn’t know anything about that. It didn’t stop at the neck, though. There was some sort of hood there. I felt in there. “You’re sure there’s no goopy things that’ll crawl up my nose?”
“We both checked,” the other doctor said.
“Pardon me for asking. Everything is wrapping up too neat. I’m used to things going horribly wrong, usually because of my actions.” I slid on the armor and closed up the back, then slipped on the hood, more like a mask. It didn’t feel as rigid as the rest of the armor, nor did it have eye lasers. Linking up, I could tell it had plenty of compatible cameras and projectors. There was really only one program, in a very simple language that left me with a binary choice. It was off. I turned it on. The mask adhered more closely to my skin and the opening on it sealed. I could still breathe. Nothing fancy, but hopefully something that’ll take a bullet.
I flashed through a few holographic disguises, as well as projecting the environment around me to hide myself as invisible. Seemed to work. “Seems to be pretty good,” I said, then projected myself as a tanned woman with blonde hair, modeled on a thief from back on Earth. I suppose Dame might object to me appropriating her image. My armor adjusted to look like some sort of generic jumpsuit. There’s always a jumpsuit in space.
With my sight restored through the armor’s cameras, I finally checked around to see Varook eyeing me with a smile, and a doctor who looked pale white, with a large, bulbous head. He wore a crinkly, see-through mask over his face, and a robe that could have been made from a plastic sheet. I nodded to him. “Nice to meet you, doctor. Thanks for fixing me up.”’
“It is what I do,” the alien said.
Varook pointed up and down along me. “A disguise?”
“I’ve done good deeds before. I’m going to bet that there are a lot of people pissed off at me and thinking I caused the entire thing.” Varook nodded once at that. “And that the Security Chief still hates me even knowing that what I did was right and knowing I fixed his mistake.” Another nod. “And that people want me gone.”
Varook nodded one last time and said, “Affirmative. I must inform you, because of your mistaken classification in the system as an arthropod foodstuff and the beings you have killed, interstellar livestock regulations require you to be cryogenically frozen for transit.”
I shook my head, muttering, “Only damn one of you aliens that got anywhere near the right taxonomy, I went and killed.”
Varook put a hand on my shoulder. “Chimelda said she would help you with transport.”
As I found out more than an hour later after a last wellness examination and being led to where she was prepping a vessel, Chimelda’s idea of transport turned out to be a rectangular ship with a front that narrowed to a small living quarters. The living section was painted with flames spreading back from it. It was a space semi.
“What do you think?” Chimelda asked.
“I didn’t realize you held that much of a grudge against me,” I said.
She trilled. “No, it is perfect. I am setting out on my own. Tell me what Earth likes!”
I started holding up fingers as I listed stuff off. “Guns, sex toys, alcoholic beverages.” That sounded cynical as fuck. I thought for a moment. “Safety and security. Food. Clean water. Shelter. The feeling that someone gives a damn about them. That’s what regular people want, but they don’t have anything you want in return.” I shook my head. “If you want to make money, what you want is gold, titanium, plutonium, heavy metals like that. They probably don’t have anything you’d want.”
“I should evaluate it for myself. You may be surprised,” she said. “Even if I find nothing, I owe you for what you did for me and my people.” She walked over to me and hugged my head to her chest. “I regret we can not afford to get you new eyes.”
“What? Why?” I instinctively looked down as she pressed something into my hand and stepped back. It was some sort of device that-
I looked around suddenly at the changed landscape and the sudden onrush of digital noise. I stood in a pasture, a pair of curious cows watching me from afar. I looked up through the suit’s sensors and saw nothing but a bight light growing dimmer as it retreated into the night sky. I squeezed the hand that held the device and felt little resistance. I opened it to see a note. “I apologize for this treatment, but it was believed you would not leave the station so readily and the authorities viewed you as a potentially hostile invasive species. P.S., they will love this beef substance. Anything is better than recycled ration bars made from feces.”
I snorted and tossed the note aside, then began to tromp off. Thinking about it, though, I had to laugh.
No way is anyone going to believe the story of being probed in my orifices by aliens who stole cattle. But, damn, I could really go for a burger. I hope I don’t get pink eye from all the alien food rations. Or some other weird disease like boneitus.
It’s the event of whatever way they measure large units of time out here. We’re orbiting some sort of planet, but I’m still clueless as to what their equivalent of our month or year is. Anyway, we put on our opera. I know the crew who were helping out were happy to finally be getting it under way. It got a bit unpleasant for them. I got… twitchy. Felt like I was in a fight, like people were out to get me. Plus, I nearly stabbed Alu for touching me.
That’s on her, I think. I mean, yeah, if she cleaned some of that gunk off her, I think I’d enjoy being touched by her in spite of Medusa. But she presumed too much, and she’s been suggesting things. I’m used to people wanting to stick stuff in my holes, but that doesn’t usually mean my ears and nose.
A lot of them avoided me after that, though the captain checked in. With me not even knowing what I’m on, if it’s even something they can recreate, I didn’t bother bringing up my laundry list of problems. But I can tell from the way they look at me that my vacation isn’t lasting too much longer.
Lucky for everyone involved, my job amounted to “standing there and looking pretty.” Pretty sure I can do that without killing someone for no reason.
The opera “house” was really just a large bowl in a depression on the level below where I’d stolen the Security Chief’s baby worm ball. It didn’t look anything like what I expected of an opera house. The audience portion of the “bowl” was like a series of large steps, bigger than you’d use for stairs. So those curved around, with padding on them. There was a small open area lower than everybody else at the base before a stage rose opposite of the audience. The back of that looked like a large clamshell. There was a whole backstage area that most people couldn’t see, and the roof of that clamshell was difficult for some to see. It had trapdoors to help with props for other uses. One thing I found really cool is that they had these super-thin, transparent rafters stretching out over the audience from the top of the clamshell. Really tough to see. I kept intending to take a sample for my own possible use.
Now, I fully admit to not being the best at architecture, acoustics, or the design of buildings for musical enjoyment. It doesn’t look like what I’m used to, but then again these people didn’t have a crew of singers because they programmed things in for holograms to perform.
I watched, invisible, from the roof of the clamshell as aliens filtered in. Our special performance is all kinds of hyped. This is a play the Kanate is hunting people over. People died to make this happen. Newborn worms were kidnapped. A bunch of people wanted to find out what this was all about, and to make their own personal recordings to go along with the official one the publishing house was making sure to broadcast.
As excited patrons of the arts descended into the bowl, I received a message. I’d been given a communications device by the captain. I tried connecting to it so I could handle all this through my brain, but there are some weird parts in it and I couldn’t figure out how to reach that channel or frequency or whatever. However it works, it’s in a way my terrestrial parts can’t duplicate. “Arthropod,” the captain’s voice said. “Station security has issued an advisory that several of the Kanate embargo ships are on approach.”
Chimelda cut into the channel. “They will have only a small detail of marines on each vessel, and no armored battle vehicles.”
“Nobody’s going to shoot them down?” I asked.
“The station will not,” the captain informed me. “Neither side is at war. I know someone in the station traffic office. The Kanate has informed them they are here only to prevent the opera. The Security Chief agreed. He has not banned the opera, but he will allow them onto the station to do whatever they want to do to the opera.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What makes a worm turn neutral? Lust for power? Gold? Or was he just born with a heart full of neutrality.”
“His species do not have hearts, and you kidnapped his young. I believe he is eager to see you harmed,” the captain said. Dry translation or not, I’m pretty sure he’s snarking at me now.
“There’s a saying on my planet. I invented it, actually. ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig…’ hey, how many soldiers do they have altogether?” I asked.
“Fifty to seventy-five if they are fully-loaded and all of them land,” Chimelda answered.
“Right. ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig 75 graves,’” I finished.
“That is an oddly specific piece of advice,” Chimelda said.
I shrugged. “As my world’s primary spiritual leader, I try to have advice that covers a range of subjects. Remind me to repeat my ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech sometime when we aren’t in danger. Now I just have to figure out how to hold off a bunch of soldiers coming right at me while I defend this mess. I’m not gonna lie, I might need a second sword for this one.”
Truth was, I didn’t know if I could protect this system if they rush me with that many. I can survive a shitload of stuff. That’s not even bragging at this point. But I could see this thing falling apart with one good shot at the equipment. “Hey, guys? Can anyone tell me what kind of range we get on this place’s holographic equipment?”
I tried to keep an eye out, but the urban setting made it hard to watch everything. The station’s systems were closed off to me, too, and I didn’t have the time spend worming my way through that code. As a result, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the approaching marines until I saw a team of twelve advancing, covered by another thirteen behind them. They looked a lot like Chimelda, but in light body armor that looked heavily segmented, like they had giant roly poly shells strapped to their chests, backs, and heads.
I appeared in the middle of them in full on Opera Ghost costume, looking transparent. One quick-thinking marine pulled a short, serrated knife and tried to stick it through me. He stumbled right through the hologram. I stepped in, invisible, and thrust my borrowed sword through his neck at the same time the hologram did the same. I moved on then, leaving the impression that the Opera Ghost could touch them, but they couldn’t touch her. Aiding my deception was a soldier who aimed a large-barreled weapon at the specter and fired a blast of energy that went right through it and took off one of his comrade’s arms.
That was more the reaction I wanted to cause when I appeared, instead of the professional trying to knife me. The rest of the team didn’t follow up. Four of them were busy, two each to a wounded man. They slapped patches on the wounds: one to cover the stump of an arm and two to secure the punctured neck. The Ghost disappeared while I figured out how else to vex them.
Unseen, I grabbed the panicking marine’s weapon and adjusted the aim before forcing down its trigger. I got a couple of them before the marines tackled that guy. And while they did that, I took my time and went in for thrusts up under the helmets and trying to scramble their brains. One of them was the fellow trying to see to the wounded marine. His compatriot tried to support the dead weight of the amputee on his own before my blade punctured his thigh.
And then I backed off. Two definitely dead, three wounded, one detained for seemingly turning on the rest. They retreated toward the bigger group, who covered them. They lost half their manpower fighting a phantom they couldn’t even touch.
The second team decided the only way to deal with ghosts were a pair of grenades. That’s what I took them for when two of the men pulled these canisters out, pushed a button, and then pulled a trigger on each one. That’s why I appeared in front of one of them and stabbed him in the hand before disappearing. The other one didn’t get his off before deciding to turn and run along with everyone else. I jumped clear, and made it out before a big cloud of flame exploded outward, catching a bunch of them. Most of them seemed to survive, but were dropping, rolling, and hoping whatever they filled their pants with wasn’t flammable.
“I don’t want to set the world on fire,” I said because it was cooler this way. “I just want to start a flame in your heart.”
“By the gods that was exciting,” someone said.
“Y’all were watching?” I asked.
“You know how you tapped into the opera’s holographic system because you thought you’d need it to trick the marines? The link goes both ways. We saw everything.”
“Huh.” I turned and began to head back toward the opera. “At least the patrons aren’t panicking over it.”
“They thought it was part of the show. They saw everything. It was recorded and broadcast with the rest of the opera. Oh, you better get back here. They are here.”
I rushed back, flying through the air with the greatest of ease. I tried briefly to glimpse through the photoreceptors of the holographic system back at the opera. It was a jumbled mess that didn’t tell me anything. I dropped that link and waited to assess the situation visually. Twenty of them were spreading out on the edges of the audience section’s semi-circle. Five were on top of the clamshell and the scaffolding, apparently blocked from sight by the show that went overhead.
I shorted the landing so I could make a smaller dropkick jump that sent the closest marine flying and me landing on the scaffold next what was clearly a bomb. A quick check showed it wasn’t armed. I picked it up and threw it at the sapper to my right, then jumped in a high arc and smashed down onto the shoulders of the next. His bomb was another projectile to smash the sternum of another marine. That left one, at the center of the other four. At the edge of the clamshell, as it happens.
And he was looking at me with a visor over his eyes, and much more extensive armor. “You are the Opera Ghost? All I see is a dead woman.”
“I don’t even see a victim worth naming,” I responded, at least putting on the right image when I became visible and drew my sword. He did as well, pulling a saber that’s edge was a shifting prism of light. He raised it toward me, then quickly pulled a handgun. Instant headache, and I fell back.
Of all the fucking. If I hadn’t hardened all my bones and had a prosthetic eye in that hole, that might have done more than probably concuss me. And that was my good eye! It had the laser in it.
He walked over, sword in one hand, gun in the other, while I groaned and raised my hands to my face. “You live still. Tough primate.” Well, it’s a step up from arthropod. “Not tough enough for this. The Security worm did not want me to bring this.” He raised his sword. “This convinced him. I heard his halves will grow into two of him. Do you think you will, too?” He stepped forward, then aimed for my throat and turned the blade to the side. “I will not risk it.”
His little monologue wasn’t particularly good, but there was one thing I really liked about it. Like how it gave me time to pop out my remaining eye. Or how wide his mouth opened as he talked. I tossed my eyeball into his mouth. He stumbled back, choking. I rose to my feet and brought the sword up, seeing as best I could through my suit.
The marine raised his gun again. And then, he caught fire. He threw the gun in all the flailing, then threw himself off the edge of the clamshell. More fire chased him on the way down from some alien welding tool in the hands of Alu, the head of the salvage vessel’s engineering. She twisted a knob and shut the thing off, then strutted over to me. Wow, she even looked clean. She grabbed me by the back of my head and planted a kiss on my lips.
She did save me from getting shot, so I let it go. And that’s the only reason why I kissed a hot space babe with antenna coming out of the side of her head.
The only reason. If Sam is still reading this back on Earth and telling Medusa about it, that’s why. I was shot in the head. There are excuses!
Based on the reaction from the opera pit, they enjoyed themselves almost as much as Alu did.
Ah, the opera. Musical theater with class. I’ll admit to never having been a fan, though I love musicals. I’ve even used some of that theatricality in my work. Now, I’m swiping from the Phantom of the Opera, but merely the non-musical versions like the book and the film.
I’m not really going to do things according to the Phantom of the Opera, which is my way of saying I haven’t read the book or seen that movie. I just wanted to make a scene. And now, there’s a scene. It seems the aliens of outer space like outrageous stories as much as humans do. They want stories with violence and masks and sex appeal. Yep, extraterrestrials love boobs for some reason. And my boobs are dangerous.
All I really needed to do was show up and look intimidatingly sexy. The heavy lifting was being done by that birdman agent, with some assistance from Alu the Kitonian. I think she complimented me, actually. I was digging around in this dump they stuffed us in to lay low. I’m not kidding. Chimelda knew someone on the station from her salvage job and we hid in the back of his reclamation shop while things were arranged. At least Chimelda got to keep entertained, and I had my run of broken alien junk while I looked for a weapon. Alu stopped by, having every reason in the world to visit such a shop due to her job, and I caught her looking at my ears. So I was like, “What, something wrong?”
And she was like, “This was smart thinking. Have you ever considered being probed?”
“I have a girlfriend,” I told her.
She reached out and put one of her fingers right near my earlobe. “My people could find out such fascinating information with a probe in your ears.”
The captain interrupted us then to bring me something wrapped in a cloth. “Arthropod, if you have not already found a weapon, this would be acceptable.”
I took it and unfolded the cloth to reveal a rapier-like sword. The handle was long enough to accommodate both of my hands, and the guard was like a small shield. The blade consisted of a long, thing rod with no edge on it anywhere. I looked that part over and nearly ran my finger over it, before instead picking up the cloth again and pulling it against the rod to test. For all I knew, this was some sort of advanced weapon where it sensed if something was coming close and created a molecule-thick diamond blade to intercept it.
“That part is a dull edge,” the captain said. He indicated a button on the hilt, just under the guard. “Press that to create an edge on the tip.”
“Just the tip?” I asked.
The captain waved his hand down once. “Yes. It is designed to fight in cramped quarters.”
I took hold of the sword’s handle and gave it a wave around where nobody was, then adjusted with what little I knew of swordplay to try out a few moves useful for it. Even a rapier has an edge. When I felt I had its measure, I activated the tip. The rounded edge of the rod grew into a metal point that looked fuzzy around the edges, suggesting the blade got really fine. “Is the rod sturdy?”
“It can deflect blows and bludgeon opponents,” the captain answered. “You have used a sword before.”
“Yeah, though never one quite like this. And I’m not the best with them.” I prefer more elegant weapons, like poison gas and things that go boom. The kind of sophisticated killing technology that couldn’t be wielded back during the Bronze Age. “Swords, knives, why am I seeing so many old-fashioned weapons among advanced species?”
“Old-fashioned?” asked the captain. “Some beings die easier from decapitation or amputation. In addition, stations restrict directed energy weapons and firearms. You do not want to puncture the hull.”
“What about those things the catchers used?” I asked, remembering how those splattered one of the crew.
He watched as I played around. Chimelda stood up from a hot plate-like device and tossed a ball of something resembling dough. I stabbed right through it. No lasers or electricity or anything, just a stab. She retrieved the dough and tossed it on the hot plate, fixing something like a bagel or a donut. And while she did that, the captain explained about those weapons the feline aliens used. “That was a high-dispersal energy weapon. High power at short range to minimize the risk of depressurization.”
“I can’t get one of those things instead?” I asked.
“I have a sword. Do you want the sword or not?”
I stopped pressing the button and watched as the blade collapsed into a rounded tip again. “I’ll use it.” I looked down at my power armor, though. The only part of my costume that was real was the mask. I wanted an actual costume, but Chimelda began to talk about how my armor could create projections through clothing and I realized the flaw in that. I should still probably keep a practical one, but that’s much lower priority than having a weapon for dramatic purposes. The captain stepped up behind me and tied the sash around my waist. It had a little excess length, but I can work with that. “It is traditional to wear it through this loop here,” he said while indicating part of a knot on the side.
“Thank you, captain. You are a scholar and a gentleman,” I said, sincerely meaning it. He didn’t have to do that. He’s seen how good I am at killing people without a sword. And that was a useful rundown on space weaponry. It makes sense. If I had to keep tearing off limbs to kill something for good, I might resort to a sword, too. As for the gun regulations, it must be pretty damn strict when the wrong shot can kill a whole section. They’re going to freak if Earth ever imports some .22s out this way. “I wonder why they didn’t worry about my armor.”
Alu took that as permission to rub her hands all over my armor, especially my abdomen and then up close to my boobage. “Some races need encounter suits to go out in mixed society. Can it punch through a hull?” She put her hands on my arms, as if she could feel muscles through the suit’s flexible armor.
I mean, I didn’t stop her from caressing me. But Pigpen here wouldn’t get to stick anything inside me even if I was single. Sure, my girlfriend helped depose and exile me, but all couples go through rough spots.
Ok, I have to stop here and point out I’m still a little bitter, probably because I see the similarities to the one that tried to kill me in my original universe. But I’m making a choice to try and hope. It’s hard, especially with all these feelings racing through my head of how great it’d be to steal the data I need, blow this whole place up, and fly off in a stolen spaceship. I’m not doing it for her. I’m doing it for me.
The agent stormed in and deactivated a holo-disguise that made him look like a slugman. “Stupendous! That egg-sucking worm is putting a moratorium on all opera, even for a one-time showing.”
“Who?” asked Chimelda.
“The Security Chief!” the birdman said, waggling his neck in what I took to be frustration or annoyance. “The Kanate blockade has his testes in a tool that holds objects immobile.” That last bit came out really weird. Darn translator program.
“What next, we get authorization and then the singers all send me on separate fetch quests?” I asked.
The agent gave me a look like I got his goose. “We don’t need singers. We’ll upload the score into a holographic array that will generate the appropriate likenesses and sets.”
“Seems a bit impersonal,” I commented.
“Like I’ll bend over backwards for some arthropod coming in here and mocking my people’s precious mating history by suggesting trained singers be used for mere entertainment,” he said.
I held up my hands, wondering if the same mix-up in cultural mores that led to this situation might mean I’m giving him his species’ equivalent of the finger. “Sorry, dude. I think there’s a lot of subtext I’m missing here. But I’m glad it’s going to all be over more quickly, as soon as we deal with this. So, how do we deal with it?”
The agent looked me over, thinking. “How good are you at playing the bad guy?”
I somehow managed to hold in the evil laugh.
The Security Chief’s residence was in the upper layers of the station, which I was informed was actually the innermost layers. I didn’t get a good look at it on the way in, but it seems it’s rounded. I don’t know if it’s spinning, because they keep me pretty isolated.
They unleashed me to sneak up to the inner layer, past a whole ‘nother layer of security checkpoints. Up in this layer, the lighting was much better. The entire roof section was lit up with a video of the sky of some distant world. The violet sky gave this layer much less of a used fluorescent feel. The air smelled off, though. Cleaner, but with some weird gasses in there.
The Chief’s place was on the 20th floor. I took the scenic route, leaping high into the air with the power of my armor and the invisibility of my armor and the ability to survive impacts of my armor. The exterior plating was harder to put a dent into without good footing. I splatted against the wall and slid down to a window. So that was the 19th floor. I kicked in the window and headed in.
From there, I took the short stairs. I jumped straight up, punching through the ceiling and landing on the correct floor. I shook my head off and brushed the insulation out of my hair. Note to self: don’t jump through a ceiling without a helmet.
I ignored this weird gooey, squirmy ball in the corner of the room and headed out, projecting the Opera Ghost disguise. That proved fortunate as I passed a worm that held itself upright as tall as a person, with a bunch of arms. It didn’t scream or anything, instead flashing bright yellow as I passed. I ignored her and kicked my way out of the front door into the hallway. I looked right. Close to what I need, but not there. I looked left. The same. Curious, I picked up the door and looked at the number on the door.
Looks like I found it. I headed back in, waving hello to the flashing worm, and back to the room I started from.
I unraveled the bag I’d been given by the publisher when he suggested I kidnap the ball of alien worms that the newborn baby worms curled into. Putting the Security Chief’s ball in a vice, as some might say. In place of the Security Chief’s babies, I left a note pre-written by Chimelda, with the image of my mask on it.
“Dearest Chief ”’cLun, I am most looking forward to enjoying an opera soon. Your ban inconveniences me. I hope you can see yourself to reversing the ban for me. Think of the example you set for your children by hindering the arts. Think hard about it. Signed, The Opera Ghost.”
And that’s how we got opera back.
The alien publishers had the one thing every publisher needs: a nigh impenetrable vault. They hid us away next to actual hardcopies. There were books, manuscripts, and scrolls. I almost ate my dinner on a stone tablet. They locked Chimelda and I in there for a day or two to let things die down, bringing us the occasional meal. It gave me and Chimelda time to talk about a potential solution to the situation. It made a break from me rewatching some stuff I had stored in my brain. This space opera business had me humming the theme from Phantom of the Opera, and that made me want to watch it again.
She wasn’t optimistic. “I’m dead. There is no way out of this where I live. I want to be brave standing up to them. How can I, knowing my death is certain?”
“Our fate is fixed. It is our destiny that must be seized,” I told the alien female with the weird flesh hood in place of hair. Still, I didn’t think the situation we were in was unsalvageable. “You’re scared right now, in theory. You won’t know who you really are until that moment when you face it for real. I’m supposed to keep that moment from happening.”
“Why? You have a home with a family to return to.”
I shrugged. “Back there, I’m a villain. Took over the world once. Killed lots of people. A vacation from that won’t hurt me. Might even be good for me, with some weird realizations that happened lately. Nobody back home has to find out about a little altruism while I’m on holiday.”
Things were quiet for a little bit. I don’t know if long silences are a common thing with her people or if she thinks they’re my thing. I’m sure there are a ton of intricacies to interspecies communication that don’t normally come up unless they’re stuck together in isolation for long periods of time. That led me to watching Enemy Mine, a movie so named because of this guy fighting enemies at a mine. The bit where a human and an alien cohabitat and one of them has a baby makes it a bit more awkward. I’ve seen worse than Chimelda, but I’m not feeling it. She doesn’t have sexy muscles of Medusa, the animal magnetism of Silver Shark, or the raw sexual hotness of a Deep One stripper. And after a couple of days locked in together, she didn’t smell as nice as a Deep One stripper, either.
But it did give me time to think up a plan that I revealed when one of the publishing agents stopped by to give us an update on the situation.
“The initial frenzy is over. We have holo-disguises we can trust. One of our editors is owed a favor by someone in the port authority who can give us a place you can stay. Someone blabbed to the Kanate, and they are adamant that we cannot publish that opera. After I confirmed your species’s reproductive cycle, I told him to mate with himself. Unfortunately, that means we could face the same fate they have in mind for you,” the bird man explained to both of us.
I like him.
“Lizard and I think I need to fake my death,” Chimelda informed him.
The bird guy scratched at the feathers under his beak. “That does not solve the entire problem.”
I held up my hands. “Let me lay it out for you.”
A couple of hours later, the publishing house had a hell of a story for everyone. The station’s news service were eager for any information, and a few of the newsies had camped outside the place after the bodies had to get cleaned up and it leaked out who had been in there. The fact that I told the one survivor to talk about it didn’t help keep things a secret, so that’s my bad.
Bird people began to flee the building, some of them splashed with blood. Suddenly, the crowd gasped! There, high up the building, was Chimelda, hanging out a window by a noose. The reporters wanted the noose, and they got it.
I gave them a couple of seconds to see her apparently-lifeless corpse dangling there before I stepped out. I wore all black, from boots to my gloves and cloak. The exception was the bone white mask that covered the upper half of my face. Some of them had to notice the way the light shown through parts of me, which was much easier to make out with the black clothing. I sneered at them as best as possible, then tossed down the cylinder Chimelda had been keeping the opera score inside. Much of the crowd looked to see what it was and missed when I jumped down after it and faded away in mid-fall. That was all smoke and mirrors, though.
Chimelda was hauled down and helped into the space station’s equivalent of an ambulance. It was a three-wheeled vehicle painted bright yellow and blue so it would be easily seen. I snuck onto it as well, and reappeared only once the doors were closed and locked. The paramedic took off his cap to reveal the avian agent who had the balls to help us. He went up front to drive. “We must be swift. My friend needs this back soon.”
Chimelda opened her eyes and asked, “How did it go?”
“I thought it was good, but we’ll have to see. There’s still the fake medical reports to leak. You sure that little note back there says what I told you it needed to?”
She put a hand on my shoulder, feeling the power armor underneath the illusion of a shirt and cloak. “I did as you said, Opera Ghost.” Now that facial expression I recognized. She smiled. It was wide enough to fit my head in there, but it was a smile.
“Good. Did you and the agent find someone to handle the fake death certificate?” I asked.
She had begun tugging the noose off from her neck. I helped her unhook a harness on her back that kept her perfectly safe while hanging. “I know someone who can help.”
I noticed the vehicle we were in had stopped. One of the doors up front opened and Varook climbed into the back with us. “Somebody order a doctor?” he asked. Chimelda wrapped her arms around him for a hug he returned. After their reunion, he turned to me. “You did not waste any time getting into trouble. We are grounded because of you.”
“I’m entirely blameless this time. It’s almost refreshing,” I told him.
“Chimelda, you said you needed me to forge documents? What’s going on?” he asked her. We explained what we needed from him when the agent passed a tablet back for Varook to look at and start working on, muttering to us that “I hope this works.”
“You’re our fake doctor, so that’s really up to you,” I told him.
“I mean faking Chimelda’s death. It will be hard to find a replacement if the Kanate wants the body,” the alien doctor said.
“That is my concern as well,” Chimelda said.
I held up my hands. Still only two hands after my recent injuries in battle. “Theatricality and deception are powerful tools. While this deception is going on, the Opera Ghost deception is hard at work, too.”
And that part of the explanation is what caused him to scoff, especially when Chimelda’s wrist implant pinged with a major news update. The station was abuzz with the latest in the saga of the Kanate’s open bounty. Story after story discussed the sudden death of Chimelda at the hands of a mysterious stranger that evaporated and a note behind.
“Opera was not written to exist only in the imagination. The final work of Urdan Uhlan called to me across space and time. I will see it respected. To that end, there will be a performance, broadcast far and wide for all to see, such that the glory of such monumental work never be lost to the ages or distorted. Any who seek to prevent this glorious occasion best be brave enough to pursue their conviction to death, for death is what they seek, upon my honor.”
The flower bunch of nonsense was signed “The Opera Ghost”. The sentence structure and wording was a bit odd, but I had to convey the message to Chimelda for her to write down, and a lot of translation programs work better with formal language that most people don’t use. I figured I’d make it part of the Opera Ghost’s character. There are so many different species out here with views on the undead, but I figure it has to fit someone’s idea of a spirit, even at a stretch. Hell, we can’t even settle on a single form of vampire or werewolf on Earth, let alone a ghost.
Bleh. Remembering that it’s October and I’m missing a chance to spoil my daughter with candy wasn’t fun. Yeah, I see this all as a vacation, but there are people back home who probably think I’m dead. It’s not like I can rush back at the moment. I don’t know where Earth is, and I don’t think I have to do this like a monster this time. Really fucking hope when I get to Earth, I’m not in some alternate dimension. See, the vacation excuse is doing double duty as a coping mechanism or my uncertainty in the same way that some of my viciousness when killing aliens does.
Now, back to the real story going on here. In case the Kanate needed even more convincing, I had another little prank to play as part of this. The next day, the publishing agent made it a point to talk to some journalist and assure them that they had a contract to publish the opera and would rush to do so before I could put together a grand performance.
“The rights to that opera rest with us now!” he quacked, pounding a wing on his desk. Underneath it, he pressed a button on a communications device that told Chimelda, in disguise as an avian alien herself, to flip a switch in the power room that plunged the entire floor into darkness. The journalist heard the sounds of a struggle, including a strangled honk by the agent. When the lights came back on, the agent hung from a noose, eyes bulging as he died. The journalist started over to lift the agent’s legs and help him, until he saw the noose hung from the see-through form of the Opera Ghost that hung on the ceiling.
With a sudden yank and a snapping sound I put together from my extensive knowledge on the subject, the agent went limp. He and the noose both fell to the desk as the journalist fled.
The Opera Ghost had made good on her word. The opera would go on. The Kanate would have something else to focus on rather than having Chimelda hunted down. Something they couldn’t publicly oppose, since their story is that the opera favors them anyway.
The agent, for his part, got to take a vacation of his own. Lucky son of a duck.
I had much less work to do after all that mess last time. I’ve been nice and polite, despite them deciding to kick me off at the next port as a way to force me to bodyguard that Chimelda person. I think the captain figured that, even after losing a crewmember to those catchers, they didn’t want to trust me to root around in the rig’s systems.
But they got most of their engineers and mechanics back shortly after the fight. And they supposedly got the Fluidic navigational data, too. I went ahead and connected to the ship’s computer in the doctor’s office. Varook was busy filling some little bottles with supplemental vitamins or something. I guess the stuff they call food around here doesn’t provide for everyone’s nutritional needs perfectly.
So while I checked out the ship’s network to hunt down that navigational data, in stomped an alien that resembled a human female quite a bit, except for the curled antenna sticking out where her ears should be. The strips on her cheeks and the markings around her eyes could be mistaken for makeup, as could the green lips. The pink eyes could be contacts, and the teal hair could be dye. The main way she’d stand out on Earth is being so filthy and stinky. She glared at me and brought in another alien, a different slug person.
“Varook,” she addressed the doctor, “Lguals injured his pod while we were on the last trip. Heal him.”
Varook slid his chair over to the examination table and motioned over the slug person. He raised his voice and said, “Alu, this is our new crewmember.”
“You ruined our salvage dive,” she said.
“The catcher cats did that,” I responded.
“What are you doing?” she asked, looking at where I had my hand pressed to the interaction panel on the wall. “You should not have an account to the system.”
“Relax, I’m just checking to make sure the data I’m being bribed with exists. I would find it very rude to be rewarded with a heaping plate of shit for all my work.”
Varook looked at me when I said that, but kept his commentary to himself. Alu said enough when she mentioned, “We don’t download strange applications to our ship network. It is in quarantine in the big hold. If you break anything, I’ll throw you off the ship.”
And with that, she was gone, thankfully taking her smell with her. I turned to Varook. “She doesn’t like new people, does she?”
Varook let out something like a laugh. “She does not like any people.”
“What is with the smell?” I asked.
The slug on the table snorted. Varook looked to the doorway to make sure Alu wasn’t around still. “Kitonians have strong immune systems, so most of their cultures do not place much value in bathing.”
“Lovely,” I said, wondering if the sarcasm would translate.
Instead, Varook went with a different area. “You do not like plates of shit. Has anyone discussed with you the ingredients in the base standard ration you have been feeding on?”
That was a whole ‘nother conversation no one, least of all I, wanted to hear.
I never got a good look at how the vessel traveled long distances. Keep in mind, in space, the eight minute journey light takes across the 92 million miles from the sun to Earth is a relatively short distance. Getting from a derelict fleet randomly dumped in random space to a large space station orbiting a moon put that to shame, but it also took a couple days. At least on my time. Everyone seemed to have their own schedules, and it doesn’t help that there isn’t an actual day or night on the vessel.
I actually enjoyed having time to just chill and read stuff, listen to my podcast backlog, and play a few games. I did it all from the comfort of my bunk hammock, or while just casually checking out the rig. It’s like a vacation, in a way. I even projected a gaudy button-up shirt with colorful palm trees over my armor. And it’s a good thing I was so relaxed. It took a couple of hours of docking before they called me to the small cargo hold. I found Chimelda already there, along with the captain and Varook.
At least Varook seemed to want to wish me well, probably because he got plenty of fun samples to satisfy his curiosity. The captain made a show of handing a small case to Chimelda before addressing me. “I acknowledge my cold demeanor to you, Arthropod. I was right to suspect you of being dangerous, but you saved the life of my crew. On my honor, I promise that Chimelda has the data you need. I request you protect her on the station until she finds her way forward.”
Varook stepped forward. “Thank you for allowing me to study you. It is fascinating to be one of the first to examine a species new to the interstellar community.”
Finally, Chimelda. She was such a tiny, thin, looking thing, especially as she hefted a round container. “I promise to deal honorably, if you agree.”
I shrugged. “Eh, why not? I mean, I want to get back, but it’s also nice to have a break from all the usual conflicts.”
The captain looked around the cargo hold where I’d recently killed some felines large enough to fight tigers. “You see this as a vacation?”
“I’ve killed a LOT of people,” I assured them. I suppose I shouldn’t really use the word “assure” there based on the reactions of the trio to that admission. “But, really, I’d like to get home to my family. So it’d probably be seen as a good thing if I had the means to do so. That’s my way of hinting that I hope that is the real navigational data and I hope it tells me what I need to know. Can’t fault y’all if the Fluidics tried to scrub it.”
“Do you know how that fleet got destroyed?” asked the captain for the first time since I’ve been onboard.
“Horribly,” I answered. I held an arm out for Chimelda. “Shall we be on our way?” Chimelda was a bit slow following, so I helped her with a hard-shelled luggage case as we stepped out into the station. Their version of Customs didn’t take long, once I lied about having any weapons. Chimelda’s luggage got looked through, but my broken power armor was all I had on me, and I guess they didn’t detect the Nasty Surprises I had in there.
The station itself came across as pretty cramped. It had an open area that resembled a city to me, except they had a roof about 30 stories up. When Chimelda saw me staring, she pointed out, “The next floor is above that. Some of the buildings go into the next floor.” She pointed to a few of them.
Lights were strung on the sides of some buildings, lamps next to the walkway, and some strips that hung on the roof. It seemed dim in there once I realized that, but whatever.
As we walked, I cut to the chase. “What’s your plan for the thing they want?”
“I guess I need to publish it. It should spread far and discredit the Kanate.” She held up her arm and pushed back the sleeve of her top to show a watch-thing embedded in her skin. A holographic display appeared, which she played around with until she pointed off to a building next to us. “This way. It should not take long.”
It took twenty minutes to find our way there, with Chimelda oblivious to the trio of beings that started following us when we reached the next level of the station, but we arrived at the digital publisher. “Why do we need this person? You couldn’t type it up on your own?” I asked.
Chimelda looked at me. “Digital publishers have better distribution networks and interstellar transfer equipment to spread it far and wide. A typed copy would be unverified and the Kanate could say it is fake. I am going to pay for the publisher to create a full copy that verifies the authenticity of the original. There.”
We headed in, with her going to talk to a bird-person standing at a desk-high desk. I waited next to the door while Chimelda had herself a conversation.
It didn’t take long for two of the three to run in, stand next to each other to cut off the door, and pull knives. I grabbed the knife hand of the one next to me and thrust it into the face of the other one. I grabbed that one’s knife and put it through the throat of the one closer to me.
The third one was looking in and saw some of this. I pushed its compatriots aside and grabbed him to drag him in. “Hey there, buddy. Who do you work for?”
This thing, which was a bald, blue-skinned humanoid with lumpy, rough skin, expelled a liquid from the lower half of its body and uttered a series of squeaks. “Them!” It pointed down to the two aliens on the floor bleeding out, who seemed to be the same rough blue species as this one.
“And who do they work for? Or, to put it another way, why are they hunting her?” I nodded back toward Chimelda. The avian was typing away, probably alerting some sort of emergency service or security personnel.
“The Kanate are paying a general catch bounty.” It said. I nodded and tossed it back out onto the street.
“Run along and let folks know they don’t want to pursue it,” I advised him. Leaving a trail of liquid behind him, he did indeed.
Back behind me, though, the avian alien pounded on something. I turned and saw it was looking at its desk, frustrated. Chimelda raised her embedded watch-thing, which was projecting a holographic face similar to hers.
“I am Headman Ulster of the Kanate Armed Forces. This station is under official Kanate blockade. We are searching for this individual.” Here, the face of the Headman was replaced by an image of Chimelda. “Until she and her possessions are turned over to us, nothing enters or leaves this station from this moment forward.”
The avian alien and Chimelda exchanged a look, up until I butted in. “Good news! Controversy is great for sales.”
The avian buried its head in its feathered claws. “Blood, blood everywhere!”
“Are these people actually going to help us, you think?” I asked, looking to the frightened bird person.
Chimelda did a sort of shrug with her eyebrows. “They can and make money, or they can refuse and there will be a lot more blood.”
Another avian alien stepped out of a side office. It was thinner than the one that had been out here, with a dark brown coloring to most of its feathers. “Blood is terrible for our flooring. That is why we will need to get you and your shelled edible pet a disguise.”
I held a hand up toward that one. “I am Darth Ropod, and I find your lack of faith… disturbing.”
“Faith is what you’ll need for the funeral if we don’t disguise her,” it answered back. “Come on, we’ve got an empire to defy.”
I walked into the bridge with a purpose. “Get me a sensor lock and ready the photon torpedoes. Ensign, patch me through to the enemy captain. Hold onto your anal fat, everyone. The shit’s about to hit the space fan.” I stopped by the captain’s chair, and the person occupying it.
The captain did not appear to be amused at the translation he received of what I said. He looked like if a slug became a person someday, with perpetually moist skin that you could see the shapes and colors of organs through. It made reading emotions difficult, but he had ridges above his eyes that sometimes adjusted their positions. In humans, they were about where you’d expect for someone that was annoyed. For all I know, he could be really horny while looking at me. Or hungry, I suppose. He swiveled his chair around and pointed to a panel on the side of the rather cramped bridge. “Fix that photoindicator that will not stop.”
I nodded and stepped over to it, opening the panel underneath the light that kept flashing every couple of seconds. I ended up not needing a new translator once I touched one. It took a bit of doing while I was being checked out by the craft’s doctor, but the software was meant to be easily understood by a multitude of languages and even had a few Earth ones in there. The English samples must have been from a bunch of Australians, though, as the aliens all sounded like they were from down under to me.
I checked and found they had bothered to disconnect the alarm first. A lot of things on the ship seem to be modular, where you can slide them out and replace them with different ones. Alarms like this seemed to have a switch you could flip to disconnect the circuit that lets signals arrive from sensors in the appropriate place. The fact that it wasn’t spewing out a warning of the exact type of danger was one indicator it was all just faulty. I figured they actually checked around to make sure, too. It was up to me to earn my keep with a bit of troubleshooting.
It’s not the kind of maintenance I thought they’d have me doing when the captain first met with me and asked what I could do to offset the cost of rescuing me, getting me back on my feet, and finding something for me to eat. Perhaps he could sense my desire to connect to the ship’s systems and take it over. It’s also possible he just thought I was too primitive to understand better.
The alarm ended up being a problem with a wire that came loose. A quick and easy enough fix, then a test. It worked as it was supposed to, and I was out of there. Without anything else to do for awhile, I head back to the infirmary.
I walked through the door to see the doctor in the dark, cramped office, sitting at a table with his fly eye mask sitting next to him. He had the same purple skin I remember from those “visitors” who crash-landed on Earth and ended up as part of the Three Hares. He gave a long nod to me. “Slow day, Arthropod?”
They based on how my body was bonded to my power armor, they mistook it for an exoskeleton. It turns out the crew thought I might be some form of exotic food animal, like a lobster, until the doctor’s species database suggested I could be a sapient being known as a human. The doctor seems to like the designation they gave me, which translates to “Arthropod” to me. It’s a terrible space adventure name. If I meet anyone from Earth, I’m going to tell them they call me “Darth Ropod” instead.
“A lot of little issues, inconveniences. Nothing serious.”
“Alu takes good care of the major systems. You will meet her when we have the salvage sorted out,” the doc, Varook, said. He swiveled his chair around toward me as I lowered the examining bed to sit on it. The ship was made for a species with an average height a little shorter than humans. Most the current crew seemed to be better suited for that size, but the doctor had to have some flexibility. The fact that the visitors are about the same height means Varook wasn’t going to skimp on that part.
His chair’s track brought it over to the table along with the attached tray. “Do you mind if I give you an illumination exam?”
“What is that?” I asked, still remembering the needles they stuck in my head’s holes when I first woke up.
Varook picked up a light attached to a ring and turned it on. “I want to examine your aura. It would be helpful for understanding your species.”
I shrugged, not bothering to tell him I’m technically homo machina instead of homo sapiens, but whatever. He seemed to be the friendliest E.T. On this rig. Could just be standard xenophobia, or they don’t like taking in strays. Especially strays that have no clue how to get home because they have no useful data for understanding the position of their home solar system in the galaxy. Or even if they’re in the same universe. Last I remember on Earth, I was getting sucked up into a portal out of the universe. I’ll be lucky if all I am is lost in space.
And when it came to paying my way, it’s not like the rig needed someone to manufacture poisons, rockets, or kill people. I’m hopeful that last one might come in handy. So unless I want to use those skills to kill a bunch of people who know a hell of a lot more about trekking through the stars than I do, I’m stuck doing whatever odd jobs and repair work I can. At least the captain said he’d get me a copy of the data off those ships’ navigational logs.
So I’m sitting tight on a ship, giving the occasional samples to an alien doctor who shone a bunch of different flashlights on me as a medical test.
When a different sort of warning light and tone went off through the salvage rig, I thought I was finally going to meet this Aju engineer and anyone else who keeps this place running. Varook appeared startled. He looked to me. “Stand up, against the wall, hands where anyone coming in can easily see them.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, sliding off the table.
Varook set his instruments down and tried to keep them in some sort of order before standing against one of the walls as he instructed me. “Someone is going to board us.”
“Who?” I asked.
The captain came over the intercom. “I have been contacted by an independent catcher. They did not inform me who they are looking for or what system they operate out of.”
“That is unusual,” Varook told me.
“What are independent catchers?”
“The galaxy is too big for any one force to effectively patrol it, so independent catchers are contracted to check make inspections for criminals who are highly desired. The captain is warning us that they did not say who they are looking for or where they are from because that can tip off the people they are after to hide.”
Hmm. Just in case, I checked over my armor’s camouflage systems. My armor had seen better days, but it was in a solid chunk. The healing goo they stuck me in and the nanites in my armor settled for closing up my arms and then building the armor back over that section like I’d only ever had 2. My head is still exposed, though. I still don’t have my fangs back and I’m not sure if I’ll bother with that. Most importantly, my camo systems read as all-clear. Which means nothing if they can just see through the illusion.
After about five minutes, I asked the doctor, “Are they here yet?”
“Be patient. They are authorized to kill beings who flee or fight back while they search the ship,” Varook said.
“Huh, so they codified that part of being a cop out here,” I said.
I heard a loud clanking sound, then the sound of a lot of scrabbly footsteps making their way through the ship. The door opened, and on the other side stood a pair of green felines. They looked roughly the size of tigers, one spotted and one plain, but with an extra pair of limbs jutting out of the same shoulder as their front legs. Those extra limbs were arms that ended in hands that resembled their four-toed paws, and they held what I assumed to be guns.
Varook looked to me to gauge my reaction and raised his eyebrows at my absence. I disappeared when the door started to open.
“We have one here. Follow us,” said one of the cats. So I guess they didn’t see or smell me.
I followed along to see what they were up to and found they were gathering all the crew up into the personal cargo hold. I’d been told most of the vessel was meant to haul cargo, but the section the crew lived in had a more limited cargo space. As cramped as it was, it seemed to be the only space someone could line everyone up at once. Interestingly, I saw one big guy, orange-skinned member of the crew glance at me briefly, and a smaller, grey-skinned one with a nose that looked like gills took a deep breath after I snuck by.
One of the crew, a thin little thing with big eyes and a cobra-like hood in place of hair, cried out as a bigger cat entered last. That one walked over to her. “You must be Chimelda T’son.”
“Captain, these aren’t catchers,” the waif said to the slug in charge.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked the captain.
The cat let out an amused mewl. “A member of your crew stole something very important from us.” The cat turned back to Chimelda. “Where is the opera?”
“You’ll never find it!” she spat at him defiantly.
“Second, search the database for any violations of the crew we can sell them for, then evaluate the others for slavery.” One of the other cats stepped forward, slinging his rifle and pulling out a tablet.
“No!” yelled a member of the crew, another slug-person. Two of the cats fired their guns at him, loosing a pair of wide cones that splattered slug guy against the side of the hold.
“Anyone else disagree?” asked the lead cat. Then his mouth was forced open until his upper head tore off. I flung the top of the captain’s head at the second while jumping up. I tried to land as hard as I could on the back of another cat and heard a snap as it fell under my weight, then rolled off. I came up near another cat and brought my fist up, knocking it onto its back. I grabbed the feline by its tail and swung it around, knocking more of the cats over.
While I went to town on the catchers and they tried to figure out who or what was attacking them, the salvage crew helped themselves to a few of the fallen rifles and started blasting. One of the cats tried to get a bead on the captain despite its panic, but didn’t manage it before I sliced his paws off with a Nasty Surprise. Another bounded right at me while trying to flee. I dropped to my back and swung the Surprise overhead. The cat fell in halves to either side of me, the rain of blood finally giving everyone a glimpse of me.
“Arthropod?” asked Varook, wide-eyed.
Several of the crew turned and threw up, which prompted others in the crew to also have nauseated reactions. It left me time to walk over to some of the wounded and put them out of my misery.
A couple hours later, after some clean-up and check-ups by Varook, the crew crowded into the cargo hold again. Several of the aliens around me were clearly uncomfortable coming back to the site of the massacre, but they put up with it. The captain and Chimelda stood in front of the rest.
“Crew,” he said. “Many of you came to me hoping to get away from your pasts. I do not care about the past as long as it does not affect our present or future. With that in mind, we are going to expedite. Alu is on her way back. When she arrived, we will travel to the nearest trade station, where Chimelda will leave the crew. Anyone else may leave as well.” His eyes traveled over me, but I just shrugged.
After the meeting was over with, Chimelda came up to me. “Excuse me, Arthropod.”
“My name is Gecko, actually,” I informed her.
“Excuse me, Lizard,” she said. I guess it didn’t translate. “Will you be leaving at the trade station?”
“I dunno,” I answered. “I don’t know my way around all this, and I’m just trying to get back home.”
“You don’t only know how to fight, you have fought wars,” she said to me. “I need someone to protect me now that they know I have the opera.”
“This is all over some opera? What’s so important about it?” I asked.
“It is the greatly anticipated final opera of Urdan Uhlan. He was a famous statesman and artist on my world. The Kanate are trying to take power. A voice from the stars convinced them to cleanse impurities from our people. Urdan was sick when they took power, and they claim his silence as approval. The opera was written in his waning days and shows his opposition. If the Kanate obtains it, they will rewrite it for their purposes or burn it.”
The captain ambled closer. “I would prefer if you both left. I don’t need the trouble you two are worth, and Chimelda can use the help.” He put a hand on the waif’s shoulder. “She can probably find a seller that will pay well enough to get you back to your backwater home, Arthropod.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes and wondering why I had to get caught up with this space opera business.
With a cry of Machine Man’s machine voice, Mr. Omega appeared. He floated in all his glory, but in my body and my armor. He looked over the sight before him: one Medusa bound and gagged on her knees, another standing free behind her in a street packed with cars, the odd planted tree, and even a person watching from behind a stoop with their dog on a leash next to them. Oh, and a hog-tied Qiang laying next to the bound Medusa.
“Behold,” said the free Medusa, who was clearly Machine Man and nobody else. “I have succeeded.”
“Where are the others?” Omega asked.
“They went their own way,” Machine Man responded.
Mr. Omega stared at Medusa, Medusa, and Qiang. He raised a hand that exerted a cone of red light, because red is really this guy’s jam. The Medusa that had presumably been Machine Man, surprise surprise, was shown to be standing in the same place as an invisible Dudebot. Who could have predicted this turn of events?
Omega frowned and squeezed his fist. The Dudebot crushed in on itself. “A childish gambit,” Omega said. “Did you think you could fool me?”
My voice echoed out of somewhere. “What, you’ve never played a game of Three Card Monte?”
“Three…” Mr. Omega muttered. He gestured toward the Medusa tied up on the ground. Another scan revealed another Dudebot that was quickly blown to smithereens. “You, then?” He turned toward the Qiang. She began to cry and squirm, which stopped around the time she was also exposed as a hologram covering up a Dudebot.
“What is this, Gecko?” Omega asked of me. “How can you do this?”
“You talked about me not being able to use your powers as well as you. Turns out, you can’t use mine as well as I can, either.” The Qiang Dudebot stood up. As she did, a car disappeared and a Dudebot appeared in its place. The tree in the planter did likewise. More Dudebots revealed themselves, including the huddled onlooker and his dog.
I felt Mr. Omega’s anger as he zapped robotic doppelganger after robotic doppelganger, causing a shitload of damage to a neighborhood the Reds had cleared out for me ahead of time.
“Where is Machine Man?” Omega asked.
The Dudebot that had pretended to be Qiang pulled out the head of Machine Man out from behind it, dropped it on the ground, and crushed it. Omega didn’t seem angry about that. He didn’t seem much phased at all. Then he tried to blow up that one and missed, and that got him mad. He began to fire furiously at the multitude of Dudebots that appeared all over the place. When one bonked him on the face, his fury came from the fact that he’d been so overwhelmed. It sure didn’t hurt him.
While he did all that, a Dudebot in Ricca kept close eye on the group who infiltrated the island. They’d arrived via the Cape Diem relief camp. Mix N’Max had tossed several canisters of a smoke that was making the patrols they came across fall asleep. Medusa led the group, having assured me when we last spoke that she hid my daughter somewhere safe. With her was both of the Captain Lightnings and the bravest few of the Extradimensional Studies team.
They had ideas, you see. They figured, with me having joined forces with Omega, it was only a matter of time before the Telechamber got built, so they figured out a plan that used it. I’ve been assured it’s much better than the one I came up with using it, which is the reason I didn’t stop the Telechamber from being built. Yep, the nanites kept working and it’s ready. Mr. Omega just didn’t realize it because he’s tech-illiterate.
The heroes, and Mix N’Max, had the scientists they snuck out of the country work on a device to help them out. They didn’t tell me what it does, but they believe it’ll work so long as Omega doesn’t show up and blow up.
I was more than happy to distract him. I’m great at it! Besides, nobody else needs to take the risk. I’m stuck with this guy. And I should probably be more sympathetic to him. He reminds me way too much of myself a few years back. And maybe this didn’t have to go this way, if I’d been better. Nothing doing now, though, than to stick a dumpster on his head.
Indeed, that’s what I had a Dudebot do, which made it even harder for him to keep up with what was happening. He tossed it off and let out a blast that spread out in a circle tossing cars, melting the road, and trashing the four Dudebots actually around. That a bunch of others seemed to be around and unscathed alerted Mr. Omega to the con. He closed his eyes and did something with a gesture of his fingers, then opened them. “These are illusions, created by your mechanical eyes.”
The flashing 12:00 in our shared view adjusted to read “Fuck You” o’clock as the fake Dudebots disappeared.
Back in Ricca, Shockley came by to visit the Telechamber site. The old Dusk Priest-turned young Dusk Priest had picked out some new robes to match his new loyalties. With the city now under Omega’s martial law, few were inclined to outwardly oppose him. He used that to have himself a fun little holiday, so long as he didn’t think about any extras added to his food or drink too hard, but I guess he felt a big enough twinge of duty to show up and check on the Telechamber.
I had Dudebots on automated patrols, too, but I only spotted him once he sent up a magic flare. The Dudebot landed just in front of him. His fingers flew as he did whatever things he does with them to make the magic happen. The Dudebot punched, knocking the breath, and back, out of him just as his reverberating voice called out “Omega!”
I heard it in stereo. All the way over in Empyreal City, it jumped out at Omega. Suddenly, we were there, in the air over Ricca. Omega traced the flare down to the dying Dusk Priest. He crashed to the ground, smashing my robot double under my own boots. He pulled the arm free of Shockley’s body and pressed a hand there to close the wound.
When Shockley could speak again, the Dusk Priest told him, “Something is wrong. They are at the chamber.”
I could feel the anger bubbling up in him from the back of the mind where I’d been exiled. Despite that, Omega didn’t tear the place apart indiscriminately. At least, the roof he tore off was meant to be retractable for larger portals. I don’t know if he knew that.
The assembled heroes and scientists gaped up at him, everything seeming really quiet. Then he tossed down the Dudebot’s gauntlet. “The fool has failed. Know that your plan will fail. I will- agh!”
Mr. Omega clutched at his eyes. That did nothing to clear the image of the goatse.
“Go, go, go!” I heard Medusa call as she realized they had an opening. “Chu, where are we?”
“Buh, I don’t know! I needed five minutes to test!” the scientist called.
The older Captain Lightning spoke up. “Test time is over. Put your pencil down and do it for real.” Wow, he’s really getting into his role as a teacher.
I didn’t know how much time I could give them, but I knew I could try. Omega used his magic to clear away the goatse, only to find a bigger ass there waiting. Rick Astley began dancing, singing about his desire to never give Mr. Omega up, to never let him down, to never run around and desert him.”What trickery is this?!” Mr. Omega cried out.
I heard sounds from around, like the thunder of lightning and the whoosh of fireballs, but they didn’t seem to be aimed at Omega. Instead, Mr. Omega was concentrating on getting rid of Rick Astley, then a looping video of three guys in a car listening to “What Is Love?” What that disappeared, he got to see Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger clasping hands set to Guile’s Theme from the Street Fighter series. Next was a stripper named Ricardo Milos, but he eventually figured out how to turn off my wifi connection.
I had to resort to the music player, which didn’t do anything to obstruct his view beyond a brief notice that we were listening to the song “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway & Black Caviar.
“I got you now,” Mr. Omega said, aiming for Medusa, who rested against a piece of wall she’d dragged between Shockley and the scientists modifying the Telechamber.
“No,” I thought coldly, swinging that arm up into the air. He yanked it down, I pulled it up. Not her.
“She betrayed you,” he said.
“I love her,” I responded.
He growled as he spoke aloud, “You side with those who betrayed you to fight someone just like you!”
“I said I loved her. I didn’t say it made sense. And you’re not hurting my family ever again.”
He tried the other arms. Somehow, I managed to force them to aim away.
“Hey Gecko, catch!” called a voice. Omega and I both looked down to see where Max had hurled a closed beaker with a handle at me. I caught it. Omega crushed it.
“Did I just ruin your plot?” Omega asked, ignoring the sizzling from the substance dripping out of my fist. It spread over us, catching purple flame. Then came the screaming.
Forget popping out Medusa’s baby. It felt like I was squeezing an entire person out of every pore of my body. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, my armor showed what looked like me splitting in two, except the second half of this mitosis was a humanoid flame with eyes of brilliant white, and I was myself in my red Omega armor.
As soon as we separated, I fell to the ground. Everything Omega had deferred in my body hit me at once. A week of hunger, a week without sleep, even a week without shitting. That last part got… messy. I didn’t want to get up. I only hoped he felt as bad.
Mr. Omega howled. “Shockley, the device!”
Shockley was pinned against the wall by the younger Captain Lightning II. Still, the Dusk Priest managed to a telekinetic flip of the switch on the main control board. The lights dimmed as it drew enough from the power core to create the first portals, tapping directly into the energy reserves of stars. Lighting II zapped Shockley and left him a convulsing mess against the wall. He rushed to try and cut Omega off as the entity rushed to guard the controls personally, some of the fire burning off and leaving him just a tiny bit smaller.
Medusa rushed over to check on me, though, so that was nice. “Gecko, are you alright?”
“It only hurts from the hair down,” I reassured her. Max joined us, as did Chu and the other scientists.
“It’s done,” Chu said.
“Ow,” I commented.
“Good,” Medusa said. She looked to Max and smiled. “It worked. She’s back.”
“I didn’t know those muscles could hurt,” I added, about my kegels. I don’t think I want to know what all Omega was up to while I was remote controlling robots.
Max reached over and patted my arm. “It’s good to have you back.”
Overhead, the sky turned red, except for the growing portal that opened up and showed the same burning red fire that made up Omega’s corporeal form. The flames reached the edge of the portal and formed into fingers that held it open as Mr. Omega’s smaller form regained the size it lost after separating from me. “It is too late for all of you now,” he said, stepping closer to this group. He spared a glance to the Captains Lightning who were instead forming a magic barrier around the device Chu had connected to the Telechamber.
Omega stepped close to us and knocked one of our brainiacs out of the way who stood up to confront him. He ignored all of them and looked at my helmet, trying to lock eyes with me. Max held up a syringe gun but was thrown against a wall and held there by a red band of energy. Medusa tried to stand, but sank into the floor up to her waist as it transformed into quick sand. The rest of the eggheads scampered off to avoid being killed. “A deal is a deal.” Mr. Omega addressed me, “For your role, you will be rewarded with life eternal. For turning on me, you will spend immortality watching everyone you love die.”
He held one arm out toward Medusa. I got there in time enough to grab his arm with my lower left and divert the blast to miss her, though it did turn a fleeing scientist into pink mist. Mr. Omega grabbed that lower arm and ripped it off. Armor, flesh, bone, all of it. My legs wobbled, and I was distinctly aware of both the immense pain and my suit having to compensate to keep me from hearing my scream. Omega slapped me lightly and I tumbled to the ground. Then he aimed for Medusa again.
I jumped up and blocked his view, trying to embed my lower right fist in his junk. He still fired a magical bolt at Medusa, but she had managed to duck down enough that it missed her head and fried another scientist. And I lost another arm. So that was wonderful. Instead of falling immediately like I wanted to, Omega grabbed me by the helmet. When my lungs reminded me I needed oxygen to scream so much, he told me, “I think I won’t let you live.”
He tore my helmet off. I dropped the pair of fangs I keep hidden in my mouth and tried to bite his flaming hand. He pulled the hand back, holding my fangs, and let me drop, bleeding from the mouth. I stopped at my knee, crying and spitting up blood, and forced myself back to my feet.
“Why keep at this when you can find only failure?” he asked.
I pulled myself together long enough to laugh at him and answered, “Sisyphus smiles.”
Omega frowned, and raised his hand to my head. I grabbed his arm and tried to push that arm upward. This time, he concentrated and stopped me. And then, I was flying through the air as that form was yanked up into the sky. I let go and dropped as that part of his form turned and tried to fight the pull of whatever was going on.
The portal in the sky revealed not just the crimson Omega and the absolute void of nothingness between universes. It also showed something strange. Like a glowing planetoid, floating orange and blue in the perpetual darkness of that void. And Omega was being drawn into it. The hands gripping the portal to hold it open now tried to hold themselves onto it. They got a burst of strength as the smaller Omega disintegrated and joined the rest of it. That’s about when I passed out from blood loss.
I awoke with a jump and banged my face on a clear tube I was in. I didn’t feel it, or any pain. I couldn’t feel the arms I had, or the holes where I used to have arms down below that. I couldn’t even feel my face, in part because it was really cramped in that tube. I didn’t even know what the hell they’d stuffed in my mouth, as I couldn’t feel much of that either. Fuck, dentists could learn a thing or two from this shit.
Whatever device the tube was a part of was seemed to be padded where I couldn’t connect to anything. Or my nerves were so numbed by the solution I floated in that I didn’t realize it. I tried my wireless connection before remembering Mr. Omega had turned it off, and that gave me some hint as to my predicament. I couldn’t find myself on GPS, because I was apparently not the G. The only thing around me were vastly different networks, some of which were the wreckage of Fluidic ships whose logs showed they were the ones to try invading Earth when I tossed them out of my universe.
This was not something I enjoyed learning until I managed to download a scan of the area based on some barely-functional sensors on the nearby wreckage. Based on the position of the stars, I was nowhere near Earth. Based on the nearby ship and smaller drones it was using to carve off pieces of the Fluidic fleet and bring it back, I appear to have been rescued by scavengers.
And based on the thing who walked in to stand outside my tube wearing a mask that looks like a fly’s compound eyes, with a tool in hand that has a lot of sharp points, I may be in line for a probin’.
Out of the frying pan, one into the stink.
Shit’s gone slightly apocalyptic. But just slightly. The heart of the whole thing is Empyreal City, of course.
People are getting sick all over that place. The boils and vomiting is cruel, but Epidemic’s just being mean with the anal leakage. I suppose I might find it funny if I was behind it, but they think my kid’s there. As far as he’s concerned, he’s inflicting that shit on my family.
While he’s doing that, animals all over the fucking continent are freaking the fuck out. They’re all acting more aggressive, even the prey. Herbivorous or not, most people don’t do well going head to head with a mad bull. Sheep and goats are devouring the crap out of stuff, too, feeding themselves to bursting in places.
Next to all that, Machine Man’s little army of followers is almost quaint. I guess Venus still has plenty of cred worth trading in on. The robot disguised as her has gathered her own gang, even including some supers. They don’t have the Master Academy supers, though. That place is sealed up tight, with heroes heading in and out with some sort of secret entrance.
A lot of other heroes are staying away, or trying to face threats around the country, like the animals gone wild. Or the plague. Or the roaming groups of people with guns. From what I understand, the government’s Freedom Legion doesn’t have as much manpower as it used to, what with Omega and I killing a bunch of them.
You know, with a better idea of the bigger picture, I can understand why Captain Lightning decided not to continue the fight against me. He and his apprentice have their hands full enough without dying.
Thing was, they could tear Empyreal City apart and they weren’t going to find my people. I don’t know if I gave myself some sort of subconscious programming or if Omega’s ignorance of technology was really that big a hindrance while we were mentally merged. Either way, when I was working with him, I didn’t think to hunt down any concentrations of my nanites outside of Ricca. There’s Belgium, North Korea, and some Cape Diem bases. And then there was a small concentration in Las Vegas.
Vegas doesn’t like me, but it seems to like Mix N’Max well enough. He spent a lot of time there. I think he invited all of them there.
It’s a smart idea. Las Vegas has its own protectors, who don’t like me. I’m pretty sure they don’t like any cyborgs hanging around there without getting into all the trouble I cause. And I haven’t had much reason to go to Vegas. I can eat buffets anywhere. Or I could. I can’t even pick my own nose at the moment, let alone my friends’ noses.
As felt appropriate for a city that far west, the Dudebot I sent to Vegas rode in on an automaton horse. It’s like a real horse, but it can run indefinitely, doesn’t need to eat or shit, and is less of an asshole. I stopped short of the sign welcoming visitors to Las Vegas and waited. This is not the time for me to be stepping on these folks’ toes. It also gave me more time to get things in position in Empyreal City.
I had a few Dudebots in that area already. Knowing they were heading there, I set some to make their way. That gives me some backups, or a chance to double team one of these Omega Minions. I’m tracking them, too. Epidemic and Stampede still have to sleep sometime. It’s easier to track with Stampede, because animals calm down whenever she’s out. Best of all, none of the three are working together. I don’t have to beat three supers remotely. I just have to beat one three times over.
The Dudebots are heavier than me, not so good at being stealthy. They were based on a bulkier design of my armor that emphasized durability over stealth. I managed to keep up with her, staying at a distance and maintaining invisibility. She liked to run with the animals. In the city, that mostly meant rats, raccoons, and pigeons. She’d taken up a grudge against the Greens, circling their territory, nibbling away at it with pests.
Whatever the Greens are on that’s giving some of them animal features and powers, it hasn’t made them susceptible to Stampede’s power. Which is a weird one. Animal control should work on humans, too, but it doesn’t. I’m interested to see how much it works on other primates, or other intelligent animals like dolphins and octopi. Could be she’d get pissed when trying to boss around an octopus and the cephalopod does nothing but gives her the tentacle. For that matter, raccoons are pretty smart, too.
After a night of pestering the Greens, Stampede and her flock of furry and feathered friends flooded into an old apartment building. A lot of people came screaming out, some with rats biting at them to encourage their flight. After a half hour, when she didn’t come back out, I headed in after Stampede.
Critters were everywhere. Roaches and raccoons and rats, oh my! If any of the people who lived there saw it like that, they probably wouldn’t want to move back in. Without the ability to levitate, making it through there without some crunching sounds was impossible. There were plenty of heat signatures all over the place, but the source big enough to be her was just a couple floors up. I could jump to the landing, minimizing the amount of bones and exoskeletons I broke.
I detached a power collar from the Dudebot’s belt and readied it. I was sure she’d already come down with that little illness being here. Then I proceeded into the one-bedroom apartment.
I crunched up to the bed as quietly as I could. With an elephant’s trumpet, Stampede opened her eyes, shot to a sitting position, and punched me through the wall and living room/kitchen. All these little pests swarmed the Dudebot, crawling all over it, trying to bite.
Stampede walked over, beating at her chest, her body bulging with muscles. “You smell wrong.”
I generated the sound of a raspberry through the Dudebot’s speakers. Outside, a second Dudebot got into position, invisible as well, and jumped. It crashed through the bedroom window, jumped through the hole in the wall, and snapped the collar around Stampede’s neck.
Snapping her neck would have been easier, but she’s a kid.
Immediately, the noise level increased as animals went nuts and tried to flee or eat the roaches. The two Dudebots stood up, secured a deflated little Stampede, and tossed her over one’s shoulder to secure elsewhere.
Epidemic, meanwhile, had been targeted by the Reds and was retaliating in turn. The Reds are trying to fight disease with fire and gas masks, to mixed results. They’re also using the situation to distribute medicine and supplies, making themselves look better.
Epidemic preferred to keep to the shadows, even the sewers at times. The guy still came up to eat, and people still called him into the cops. He offered to spare people who made him a good meal, so he didn’t keep it that secret he was behind all the outbreaks.
I showed up while he was eating at a barbecue joint. This being Empyreal City, it looked like they only got as far as some sort of light sampler, but that could just be the entree around here.
The Dudebot was invisible again, but he called out to me as soon as I entered. “This is a private function!” When I kept approaching, he turned, didn’t see anyone, then snapped his fingers. “Another boring super cop.”
He frowned then, and snapped his fingers again. I lifted him up out of his chair, turning visible, and snapped a power collar around his neck. “You’re not even human, are you?” he asked.
“More than I thought. Less than you’d think,” I said to be all cryptic.
Behind me, the waitress came back into the room, then ducked down. Epidemic snapped his fingers again and her body jerked. She began to scream. “Let me go, or I kill her,” he said.
“I don’t care about that,” I said. I checked over the collar. All functional. “You can’t convince me to leave you alone, and you can’t infect me.”
He laughed. “I am the Master of Disease. The Emperor of Illness. The Lord of Fungus. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
Ah, right. He probably stopped his own self from becoming infected by the same disease that allows the power collars to work. Behind me, the waitress stood back up, her head swollen with something green and black. Her eyes looked weird, glass and black-veined, as she walked toward me. Some sort of zombie plague, then.
I casually grabbed Epidemic’s chair. Still holding him up, I smashed the crap out of the waitress, beating her head in. Black ichor dripped out as a toadstool poked out. I stomped it and ground it out. Then I slammed Epidemic on the table, took a broken piece of wood, and slowly pushed it through his chest. Guy looked like a vampire, so I figured I’d stake his ass.
He screamed and cursed as I forced the chunk of wood into his chest. He kept at it briefly because I didn’t get the heart, though it quickly turned to squeaking. I grabbed another chair, broke off the leg, and used that one to pin his head to the table, right through his brain. I pulled off the power collar and gave him an answer as I walked away. “I am death, and hell to pay.”
Compared to them, it wasn’t nearly so difficult to find Machine Man, and I was confident such an outdated piece of machinery would be easy pickings.
But, finally, a delegation from Las Vegas came out to meet me. They pulled up in humvees and technicals, with a wide variety of firearms and energy weapons aimed at me.
“I come in peace!” the Vegas Dudebot said, raising its arms in a gesture of surrender.
“You mean you come in piece,” Medusa said, hopping out of the back of a humvee. “That’s a robot double. Why shouldn’t we destroy it now?”
“Because Omega and I aren’t really working together anymore. Listen, I got upset and I made a mistake. A big one. I’m trying to make it better, but he decided to lock me away. As far as Omega knows, I can only watch. It’s… not fun. Seriously.”
Back in Ricca, Omega laughed as he binge watched Friends as a way to become acclimated to this new world.
“In fact, it’s downright torturous,” I told Medusa. “But I’m serious. The people he sent after you in Empyreal City? They’re being handled. All I have left is the one pretending to be you.” The Dudebot projected clips of my confrontations with Stampede and Epidemic.
“Face-stealing son of a…” she drifted off. She pulled out her phone and started checking in on things, texting some friends, trying to get the low down. I didn’t spy this time. I let her do it. The fact that animals were calming down and staying that way were easy to come across, but we ended up waiting several minutes while she got outside confirmation. “Where’s the kid?”
“Locked up somewhere she can’t hurt anyone or herself. I didn’t want to kill a kid. Tried to give Epidemic a chance, but turns out he kept that thing from infecting him.”
Medusa nodded to me. “Let’s say we trust you to help again… what’s your plan?”
In Empyreal City, a crowd of Machine Man’s gang, hunting down some of the Q group, came across one of my Dudebots standing there. It raised its hands as well. “I come in peace! Take me to your leader.”
It didn’t take long before the False Medusa stepped up, her movements more smooth now, but almost seductive. Still nothing like how Medusa herself walks. “Who are you and what do you want?” she asked.
“Let’s just say I plan to give Omega what he’s asked for,” I told both of them at once. “But I can’t do it alone.”
“We already have our own plan,” Medusa told me.
Machine Man cocked its head to the side. “That is an unusual way to phrase it. What is your plan?”
“…anyway, they figure since birds are the traditional vector for the spread of chili pepper seeds, it’s useful to start the seeds with it. Just get some seeds, maybe wash them down with a tiny bit of bleach in there, then stick them in a mixture of bird poop and water. It’s supposed to be pretty good, and chilis need slightly more acidic soil anyway.”
The world passed by underneath my body as Omega checked the Empyreal City. The being that controlled my body hadn’t blown the whole city to hell. Mr. Omega figured out he would have to confirm a kill for it to mean anything to me. It would be difficult enough for him to search the entire world, but I’ve made it even tougher for him.
“Would that I could sew your mouth shut with a scorpion trapped within,” Omega muttered.
“You trapped me in your head, buddy. You don’t want me yakking away, feel free to let me out and give up this body,” I said. “If not, we can move on to another fun subject. Tell me, what do you know about snail husbandry? Because, let me tell you, it’s a slow fucking process.”
“Quiet down. I am hunting your daughter,” Omega said.
“You’re doing a shitty job of it,” I said. I know where I would have looked first, or the things I could have done to try and find Qiang. Evidently, our recent schism keeps him from accessing my brain, which is a handy thing to know. Omega’s got plenty of power, but he’s not tech savvy in the least.
Case in point, he asked me, “Why is there a twelve and two zeroes appearing and disappearing in my vision?”
I reset the HUD clock to screw with him. I wasn’t sure he’d still see it, but that confirms it. I’m a little worried he might be altering my body. Not in the good way, either, like when I planned to use his powers to zap myself pregnant by Medusa the next time I saw her.
While I mused how to take advantage of this and continued to try talking his head off, he decided to try using my technology. He stopped in Colorado, which is 99% composed of the middle of nowhere, and clenched his fist. An orb appeared in front of us in the sky and expanded out. My Omega power armor was inside. We floated toward it and passed right on through it, either us or the armor becoming intangible in the process.
“You know, if clocks are too complex for you, I’m not sure power armor is going to work as well as you’d like,” I teased.
“Armor is beneath me,” Omega answered. He raised my lower limbs, showing off the gauntlets that were equipped with portahole technology. It was similar to the Telechamber, but less powerful. “I have acknowledged your machinery can achieve that which I cannot. Now, it will.”
There wasn’t a lot of fancy programming work put into the portahole gauntlets on this end. Most of it is a matter of location and size. The difficult stuff was handled by Chu, also missing these days, who handled power management that was delivered using more portals. Omega didn’t have to worry about delivering power remotely. Omega had all the power these things could want. They still won’t do him any good getting through. They can deliver something person-sized, like me, but the power required to bring through someone the size of Omega’s ego would damage their hardware. “Can’t get through with those, Mr. Impatient.”
“I do not intend to,” he informed me. Omega lowered us to the ground. There, he created a portal and expanded it, but to about people-size. Out of that one stepped a robot, with limbs that looked like girders and a conical head flanked by radar dish ears. The head had a facsimile of a human face carved into it.
The robot swiveled slowly, taking in the scenery. Mr. Omega conjured an image of Medusa in what he’d seen of her costume without her power armor. He explained to the robot, “This is who I want you to find. She already has reason to want to find me first, but I want you to take her appearance.”
The robot’s body pulled in close and the radar dishes raised to the sky. The center of them lit up with blue light that shot out and expanded into a halo. The halo then fell over the robot’s body, stopped at its cupped feet, and rose again. The sequence repeated itself, growing faster and faster, until the Medusa faded into existence where the robot had been. It didn’t seem like a hologram, but I didn’t know what it was. Something as old as that automaton shouldn’t have been able to do that.
Fake Medusa nodded stiffly and said in a voice that sounded nothing like her, “As you wish, Moloch.”
“You will need allies,” Mr. Omega added. He created another portahole. Out of that one stepped a man in an all black coat, black pants, dark red shirt, and a wide-brimmed black hat. His eyes glowed red in the shade of his hat and he had wrangled his facial hair into a messy goatee.
“You rang?” he asked, smiling yellowed teeth. With the 360 cameras once again connected, I had a better range of vision and could see that that grass died off, radiating outward from where his shoes touched the ground.
Mr. Omega didn’t address him just yet. Instead, he opened one last portahole. From that emerged a little blonde girl with pigtails, dressed in yellow and green superhero tights.
The man in black looked her over. “I better not be here for child’s play.”
The girl stuck her tongue out at him and blew a raspberry.
“Silence!” Mr. Omega said. He conjured the image of Medusa again, and one of Qiang. “Epidemic and Stampede. I summoned you from the void to this Earth to aid me. I require you to bring me this woman and child. I believe them to be within this nation-state, in a city known as Empyreal City. Machine Man has taken the appearance of the woman to wreak havoc in her image. You will assist Machine Man and bring them to me.”
“That’s it, we’re hunting down this woman? This has to be the easiest payment either,” said the guy I took to be Epidemic.
The girl raised her head and howled like a wolf, her jaw and ears briefly elongating as she did so. Howls answered her from the distance.
Mr. Omega nodded once. “There are many on this Earth with powers beyond mere man, and your debt, those that owe it, will be wiped clean by this act.” He created a new portahole, then waved them through. “Go. Call for me when you have them.”
Machine Man, as Medusa, tromped through the portahole. I don’t know what that one could do to anyone it wanted to hurt, and I have no clue if Mr. Omega’s ignorance of technology extends to 1940s-looking robots. I’m completely ignorant of the other two, too. From the way he talked, Omega didn’t think they were used to the concept of supers, so it’s unlikely they’re from this Earth.
Still, I couldn’t just let the guy trapping me in my own head just run around with the ability to summon his minions into the world. I adjusted a few of the parameters and fired off a pair of portals while Mr. Omega was zipping back into the air. They were designed to be way too big for the portaholes to handle. I could have initiated a safety shutoff, but I didn’t want to. Instead, I watched as the subtle wrinkles in the air started to form, then the gauntlets sparked and blew out when the portals got big enough. The portals vanished while the gauntlets caught fire.
Mr. Omega looked down at them, my face pulling into a frown. Neither of us felt the heat, nor did he bother to put it out before he started heading back toward Ricca. “That was foolish, Gecko. You lash out when you should be thankful toward me.”
“You stole my body, so don’t expect me to thank you anytime soon.”
“You came through and made a life you feel is worth living. To deny me the same out of fear shows you have not changed,” he said.
“Oh fuck off, grandpa.” Wow, we got over Mu pretty quick. Mr. Omega finally got the idea to look over our various colonies on the lost and restored continent. Most didn’t give him any trouble, though the Bronze City sounded an alarm. The arrows fired by the guards didn’t reach anywhere near us.
Mr. Omega stopped and descended to where some of those same men bowed apologetically. “Forgive us, Empress-King. We did not realize it was you.”
Omega glanced down at my armor, quickly grasping the benefits of co-opting my identity around the last group of people who still considered me their sovereign. “Tell the soldiers to gather,” Omega ordered.
It didn’t take long before Omega floated in front of the city’s army, all clad in the bronze armor the city was famous for.
“You will do nicely,” he said in my voice, looking around. His view lingered on one particular shield that had been polished to a mirror finish. The reflection’s fists pounded the shield, much like I wanted to do and might have if I wasn’t thinking. I experimented by giving Mr. Omega the finger with my upper hands. The reflection did the same.
This time, Mr. Omega thought to himself, his mental voice thankfully not a copy of my own. I think it would have really pissed me off if he had my mental voice, too. “I see you. Maybe I should simplify this by putting you in another body. What is the name of that girl whose body you envy? The blonde one, belonging to the tribe of god-pretenders.”
I didn’t respond because I was tempted. I think he picked up on that. If he knew me any, he’d know I’d resist on principle alone. If I’m lucky, he doesn’t realize I have more ideas on how to sabotage him. “I think if it were so simple for you to just possess a body without a mind, you’d have done it. There are plenty of mindless bodies around.”
“I think if you knew anything about magic, you would not have built your power on machines,” Omega responded.
Out loud, Omega announced, “What do they say now? You should get an upgrade.” Omega waved my hand, not that asshole’s hand, and the soldiers’ armor changed color to the same red as mine. Their swords, spears, and arrowheads changed as well.
Omega rose into the air as a sphere appeared around the whole of the assembled men and my body. Everything pulled inward and then spread out again, and the soldiers were now assembled around the Telechamber site.
Shockley had taken cover behind a low wall, zapping the occasional brick that came close to hitting him. He smiled in relief at the site of Omega and the army. Omega pointed to the crowd. “Go home, or go to the grave.”
The army let out a roar that scared off most of the people protesting the Telechamber. The rest ran away when some of the soldiers rushed to take up positions at the street.
Mr. Omega examined the Telechamber and could tell the exterior was done. The interior had to be close as well, but he didn’t have my skill with tiny little robots. “Soon,” he murmured to me. “Soon, a new day begins. A new palace is in order for the new ruler. Don’t you agree?”
The ground rumbled and wood cracked. Off in the distance, a ruby spire sloughed off the palace it had arisen from underneath and stabbed into the sky, the center of a crystalline keep that took over the palace courtyard and former Directory building.
Now he’s in trouble. The bastard destroyed the best toilet I ever owned. And he doesn’t even realize I have plenty of spare bodies I can use to help thwart him, including a few Dudebots in Empyreal City.