Mischief! Treason! Exclamation points!
These things greeted me as I awoke one night during our siege. We’d spent the day blasting music at the chateau. In particular, a song well known to the people of Empyreal City called “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom”. The commander approached me at one point to express his confidence in his men to take the chateau given the power of the inhabitants they faced so far. I figured we’d just wait it out to be cruel, but he’d recommended caution with the new soldiers and the unusual opponents. I might need to put in for someone more bold, but that he showed plenty of boldness when he stated that one reason to attack was that, “The men are tiring of the siege. They believe we are engaging in torture at this point.” Then he pointed to where the speakers were stacked up to play music.
I had myself a chortle at that one. Soldiers for a dictator being squeamish about torture? See, this is why it’s important to have a chief interrogator. “Heh. Go ahead then.”
He bowed. “Thank you, Empress. We will attack at night. I will have you informed so that you may ready for the assault as well.”
So when I woke to the sounds of gunfire, I thought maybe we’d been overheard. They had a big wolf, with big eyes the better to see us with and big ears the better to hear us with, up until some red, blood splattered woman took his head off.
I jumped up and caught a burst from a microgun. The person holding the other end was one of my Riccan Dragon soldiers. He wore bulky power armor and held a rotating, fully automatic 5.56mm miniature minigun plugged into the suit’s power supply. A mini minigun, hence the name microgun.
The bullets didn’t do jack shit, but that’s really beside the point when it comes to me being shot at. So long as I’m in my armor, the most important part of being shot at is who’s doing the shooting. In this case, my own guy. I was just about to kick him in the figgin when another soldier turned and shot him. And then another soldier shot that one. And on and on. They just kept shooting away at themselves. I got up and looked around and the whole camp was firing away, like the world’s most hardcore game of paintball.
“Empress almighty,” said a voice over the comms that I recognized as my commander. I’ll admit, I was flattered. I couldn’t see him in all the commotion. The muzzle flashes and scattered fires made it hard to keep track of everything.
I cracked my knuckles and looked around, knowing I’d have to quiet this shit down to get anything done.
It wasn’t five minutes after I finished laying them out next to each other that the welcome committee showed. A flash of light lit up the sky and revealed a circle of all sorts of weird looking folks surrounding me. There was the guy with the bow, now sporting a tanned line. An Asian fellow twirled a guan dao and ran a hand down a magnificent straight black beard. The iron-pierced man was there too. I could spend way too long talking about the menagerie in front of me, though the old bearded man with long hair and a tie dye shirt stood out for sheer hippieness alone. Socks and sandals? Clearly a man of great cruelty.
It wasn’t just them, though. All around me, blue-clad men stepped out of the woods, like a special operations team. From the numbers they brought, they clearly saw me as extra special.
“See, dudes, I told you, uhhh, yeah,” said the sandal-socked hippie, turning to the folks and waving his hand around at all the people. “Yeah, man, told you I still got it.” He looked to me and flashed the peace sign. “Make war, not peace.”
“Dammit, Ares,” said the bowman. He stepped up and shoved hippie back. Then he turned and pointed at me with the bow. “You are our prisoner, Psychopomp. I have a bottle with your name on it,” He pulled out a glass snifter.
“Offering me a drink?” I asked. “Hemlock or something with the ancient Greek name?” I pointed to the hippie.
Ares stepped forward again, “My man, hey, I had this amazing acid trip back in the Summer of Love. Mind,” He pantomimed his head blowing open. “Blown. Changed my entire outlook on life. I hear you could seriously use some, man. You gotta mellow out.”
“Shut the fuck up, Ares,” said the archer, who glared at Ares, then turned and walked to me. He held the snifter out for me.
I looked down at it. “Brandy? Gin? Bourbon, maybe?”
“Touch it,” he insisted.
I projected a raised eyebrow on the outside of my helmet. The archer was not amused and held his bow hand toward me. I doubled over as something felt all freaky and twisted around in my lower abdomen. I had to pee really bad all of a sudden. Plus the weird ache and tightening there and in my lower back. While I was incapacitated, I saw him approach, press the snifter to my head, and-
I saw a bright light at the end of a long tunnel. But there’s no way I could be dead. Even if I granted the light at the end of the tunnel, we all know there’d be crackling flames and the eternal screams of the damned instead. Of course, when I looked down, I could see I was in a weird room with sharp angles and weird lights off in the distance. My view from the drones outside showed the guy with the bottle still standing there. Only I was gone. My armor was left there for some reason. Of course I wouldn’t get my nanites in here to figure out what that one guy did to me. Last time it was cancer. This time, it’s a smaller bladder or something.
They left the bodies of my men laying there, but a woman in a skintight black outfit stepped out of the darkness. Dame. Fucking Dame. She got quite the friendly welcome for someone supposedly on my side.
She said something to my captor. He said something to her and slung his bow into a holster on his back before raising the free hand to work his weird cancer powers. She doubled over, then screamed like a little bitch. Her body bulged and slimmed in places. Blackness shot through her hair. Whatever he was doing, I was glad it hurt her. I was significantly less happy when she stood up as a copy of myself. Down to the arms, which flailed around as Dame tried to figure out how to work them.
By now, one of the spec ops guys had popped a flair and called down several choppers. Some were helping the gathered Hares up into them. I got photos and video of as many faces as possible, but none popped up in an initial quick scan of my database. I got distracted watching Dame wiggle my beautiful body into my armor. Ya know, taking turns looking down, comparing. The areola were too wide, and I’m more of an inny between the legs. Where I was bleeding. Internal bleeding.
Dame, in disguise as me, left with them all. Likely going to hitch a ride to Ricca, just not on that chopper. Not enough fuel capacity. It gave me time to send out a warning to certain parties, including Venus and Titan. Didn’t have time to edit all the video evidence down, so I hope Venus enjoys the view of my boobs.
I jumped up and down a bit while looking at them, and sent it as a supplemental video to her. The hell with it, I sent it to Psychsaur as well.
The only one left was the guy who held onto my bottle. He turned and walked back to the chateau, and the propped up doors. He burnt and image into it and knocked. I don’t know what he said, but the door glowed and then swung open good as new, pushed by a man in a black coat and top hat, wearing shades. The man’s face seemed to glow white from underneath the skin in contrast to the orange glow of the cigar in his mouth. This one I knew even without the facial recognition database. Baron Samedi had, among other things, been the gatekeeper for the Back Alley Voodoo Bar in Memphis for decades. I always figured he did other things than let people into the villain bar.
Before I was carried over the threshold into wherever my captor was taking me, I sent another order and video message. This one went to my men, all laid out.
My soldiers get first priority on nanites over prisoners. They help them recover from injury in the middle of a fight, and can restore stamina after a hard day of exercise. They can even be used to cut off blood flow to the brain exactly enough to put someone to sleep without harming them, and then maintain that sleep. And from the calm manner in which they awoke, the bellicosity Ares imparted upon them had ended. That means they didn’t want to fight anymore. Not each other. They really wanted to shoot the Hares, and I included the last vectors of the non-Dame choppers. I gave them orders: open season on the rest of the Hares, but leave my cuntdouble alone.
It’s a good thing I did that. I lost consciousness after my captor passed through the door.
I awoke in a dark room, sitting at a bare wooden table. It was cold, despite the robe now covering my body.
A man sat across from me. A bald black man with weathered skin and a soul patch. No iron or chainmail here, just a business suit. “Good morning, Tripura.”
“Is that supposed to be a name, or are you just trippin’?”
“Your confusion will pass,” he said. “I have been asked to debrief you.”
I looked down and motioned toward my crotch. “Clearly already done. I need to have a word with someone about my crotch, by the way. What’d he do this time? More cancer?”
He smiled. “Please allow me to conduct my psychiatric evaluation. Give me the first answer that comes to your mind, please. If your house was on fire and you only had time to take one thing out, what would it be?”
I shrugged. “The target.”
He furrowed his brow. “Second question. While walking along in desert sand, you suddenly look down and see a tortoise crawling toward you. You reach down and flip it over onto its back. The tortoise lies there, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs, trying to turn itself over, but it cannot do so without your help. You are not helping. Why?”
He disappeared as soon as I threw the table at him. They had left my legs and all of my arms unbound. The man appeared again from the darkness behind me. “You must calm down, Tripura. You have been undercover for far longer than we expected.”
“I’m not your Yama, and I wasn’t undercover,” I said, turning toward him.
“You are and you were. You are Tripura Sundari, a member of our order.”
“That’s a Hindu goddess. Kinda. Sorta. It’s a little confusing,” I said.
“We disguised you as Pyschopomp Gecko, the notorious killer who tried to rule the world. He died two years ago when he fought with a giant robot in Empyreal City. You were given much surgery and placed in the wreckage to be found. Your healing scars were excused as injuries. But in order that you may serve as a part of our apparatus, we had to strip your memory from you. It is time to come back to us, Tribura Sundari.”
Well that’s just bullshit, plain and simple. “Yeah, right. Good luck getting me to believe that.”
The man smiled and raised a hand full of yellow powder that he blew into my face. I coughed and swiped my hands. Blinded and hacking, I needed a moment to get my bearings. Someone pressed a glass of water to my lips and I drank. Then I was helped up and the water was poured over my face. I shook my head off and looked to the man standing there. “The fuck was that?”
“Tripura Sundari,” said the man in front of me, whoever he was.
“No, that’s that thing you were saying was my name,” I said. I tried to think back. He’d just said something about two years ago… and I KNEW he was lying, but I was thinking back and I couldn’t remember why I was sure. The more I thought about it, the more he seemed right. I was found in the wreckage, a little hurt.
The man kept talking. “Welcome back to your home, Tripura.”
“I don’t remember you or this place. I showed up here all of a sudden and I hated you from the instant I saw you,” I said.
His grin stretched wide, “These feelings will linger, but the facts do not care. Let me show you to your home, Tripura.”
I still felt defensive, so I did not take his offered arm. Perhaps he’s right, this guy… “What was your name again?”
“I am Mbeku,” he answered as he led me into the darkness around the light. My sight changed to allow me sight in the dark, and I saw the hallway we were headed to, marked with three rabits chasing each other in a circle over it.
I felt so tense, with lingering paranoia when I saw others dressed in all sorts of costumes around. One man kept staring at me while adjusting something. The word wouldn’t come to mind, but the name appeared in my vision. A bow. It’s a weapon of some sort.
“Greetings,” he said, catching me looking. “Do you remember me?”
I shook my head.
He smiled and held out his hand. “I am Phoebus Apollo, the true Apollo.”
I took it, allowing him to kiss my hand. “And I am Tripura Sundari. Pardon my memory.”
Ya know, they almost got away with it, too. Problem is, my brain’s like one of those things they call a computer. I can search stuff, and I even found where I keep this file open, doing running commentary or reports after my adventures. And do I ever have adventures, stretching back further than when I suffered extensive injury two years ago. These files document all of that, and more recent ones. Like Apollo capturing me. Or my discovery of a drug called Unity that affects memories. And a cure.
I can read about them, but they still aren’t my memories again. Not yet. But these folks were kind enough to invite me into their organization, thinking they have me fooled. It’d be a shame to waste the opportunity.
Unless I run across regenerative nanites first. Then I can stop being Tripura and go back to being Gecko. They named me after a Hindu goddess or something, with a name that means stuff about being really beautiful.
Stuck with a name about being really pretty when I’ve beaten up other people named Apollo and killed alien conquerors. I’m gonna have to crush someone’s skull with my kegels for this.
Things have changed since my men arrived. The Hares were spread out in smaller search parties that seemed like a good idea when they thought they could overpower me. When my guys arrived, they caught several search parties by surprise. Not all made it back, but not enough are in a state to provide usable intel. My guys get first priority treatment with the nanites.
And after days living off whatever I could find in the wilderness, I got first priority on the rations. My weird correspondence with that projection mostly abated, though he showed himself a couple of times. I was halfway through an MRE of rice and pork when he appeared. “I don’t believe I have ever, and I mean ever, seen someone so happy to eat food meant to survive a bomb.”
“All the howling from the wolf and those sniffers drove away whatever game is normally here,” I mentioned around a mouthful of rice. “I have had to eat things you wouldn’t believe.”
“You have a lot of nerve complaining about nuts and berries,” he said, shking his head.
I shrugged. “Not a fan of the berries, but the nuts came in their own gravy. And people prefer the term ‘Rocky Mountain Long Oysters,’ thank you very much.”
“I dearly hate interrupting a meal, but I believe some of the people inside are trying to get away and another team are moving to reinforce the lodge,” he pointed in two different directions.
I called up the commander of the expeditionary force, because we needed a regular military command in addition to my own whims. As a dictator, I may be in ultimate command, but it’s best not to leave every piece of military strategy to a gal who just spent her morning teabagging a corpse with another body’s torn-off teabags. “I have a tip about some runners. Same rules of engagement as the rest of this. Dead bodies are no big deal.”
I set off in the direction my projected adviser said the reinforcements were coming from. He informed me that, “These are good Samaritans. It seems real reinforcements are unaccounted for. Neither group is prepared for the heat you bring.”
I didn’t realize I’d found them until I was hauled off the ground by man resembling a tree trunk with twisted root legs and branches for arms. He held me up in the air and stretched his trunk above the tree line. “Is this the lady causing all this fuss?”
“Empress Psychopomp Gecko,” called a man below me. A… rather hunky guy. I’m not usually into that sort of thing on a guy. A long beard, dark as ripe forest soil. A chest bare except for a thick carpet of hair. Stag horns on his head and a fuzzy little tail sticking out above the loincloth that covered up all his naughty bits. The dirty feet weren’t my thing. Most of him wasn’t my thing. But at the time, I could see myself being his thing. “I am a lord of forests. I offer freedom for freedom. You for the prisoners in the chateau.”
“Mmm, how about some petite death in exchange for not giving you some big death?” I asked. “I’ll break your dick off so I don’t break his stick off.” I nodded toward the tree man.
The tree guy spoke up with his creaky, amused voice, though he addressed the horny guy below me. “This may be the rare time your power over women should be tamped down.”
I rolled my eyes under my helmet. “Someone’s getting’ awful assume-y about my gender just because I like having boobs and pretty dresses. Bend over and I’ll show you how hard a dicking I can give you without a dick.”
He shook me around a bit. “Hush.”
I reached down, grabbed the first finger wrapping around my torso, and snapped it to the side. “This wittle pitty went to market…”
He threw me at the ground, where I bounced off and coughed up something liquid in my helmet. Aside from that and the overwhelming pain in my chest, I was probably fine. Couldn’t have broken more than three ribs, the pussy. When I stood, I found the lord of the forest standing in front of me and he didn’t look quite so friendly anymore. I suddenly noticed those hands and feet tapered off into claws. I pointed off to the side, “Holy fuck, it’s Johnny Cash!”
He turned to look. I shoved my boot into his groin. And then I flew back from the force of the kick, my knee feeling like it was going to take a vacation. Or at least a break for awhile. I projected invisibility, but was thrown into the air before I could do much of anything. A friggin’ tree grew up under me and tossed me up to about face height on the tree guy, who swiped and caught me in a mass of branches and leaves where his hands had been before. As they caught onto me, vines grew and pulled my arms and legs apart. I had a little freedom for twisting and pulling, but the forest lord guy put his hand on the leg of the tree guy and I was suddenly pulled taut.
“Hope your men will be more agreeable than you are, Empress,” said the lord as they started making their way through the forest.
I had my personal drones, but I figured I’d wait. Just a bit. While I was at it, I called up my commander. “I’m gonna need our specials for a little job.”
“Yes, Empress. They are not being utilized at this moment.”
“Good, I’ll see to them personally.”
I noticed that whatever strength increase the tree guy got, it faded fairly soon. But I didn’t break way then until the three markers on my HUD got close enough. Then, I brought my drones up. Their lasers carved through the vines holding me and allowed me to tear my legs free. From there, I jumped onto the shoulder of the big tree man.
Down below, the forest lord turned to look up at us. Then a bronze-armored man on all fours plowed into him with a shiny titanium horn at forty miles an hour. Most people would have been killed instantly. The forest lord fell was knocked down. Bronze Rhino had to shake the impact off, too. He’d been one of the rescues form China who used to serve The Claw. I didn’t get his whole story, but he decided to wear the armor again because he had nowhere else to go.
VelocityRaptor skidded to a stop. The chrome cyborg opened the jaws of the raptor head on his his armor and unleashed a gout of flame upon the downed hunk, who went up like a leaf and screamed like a Wilhelm.
“No!” called tree guy. He raised a foot to stomp, but got my cutting into the side of his head with a Nasty Surprise on one arm.
“Hey big guy, got wood?” I asked.
He began to fall. I looked down and saw a buff woman with cybernetic parts resembling a shark pushing on the tree man’s foot, pushing him over. Rawr. Now Silver Shark’s my kind of woman. The kind with more machine parts than organic ones, who barely even looks like a woman through all the muscles. It works for me, may not for you, dear reader. Find someone your body parts want you to be with, either brain or below, and do what comes unnatural and depraved.
Giving Tree here was as susceptible to fire as his friend. With that lordly fellow busy becoming dust in the wind, we chased after a crawling tree to hack and burn away at him. In short, we tore him a new ash hole. And I began to wonder if I needed a flamethrower drone. The real problem’s the fuel, ya see…
That distraction forced my forces a little thin, but the chateau people never got away. We settled in for another night behind barricades made of downed trees that blocked the view of my people from the folks in the hunting lodge. Everything quieted down at night ever since the howling trackers attempted a midnight sortie our first night here. The men built campfires behind the barricades, but the would-be commandos found nobody around them. When they rushed in, they were the only dark shapes moving around bright fires against a background of wood barricades. The fire lit them up, and then so did the guards on duty. Shame, though. It would have been a good strategy if my commander hadn’t proven himself to be a cunning chap. A way to try and wear us down in the dark.
I was happy to teach the commandos some comman-don’ts.
I settled in at dusk, healing those ribs and checking on the embassy attaches in Paris who had the unenviable job of finding and babysitting Qiang when my quick trip here turned into a longer affair. Then my spirit animal showed himself again and I realized I hadn’t seen the denim jacket dude since he sent me after the giant woody and his horny friend. “Good going earlier. Now, I don’t suppose you would want to see the secret entrance to the chateau’s basement, would you not?”
“Would I?” I asked, not entirely sure how the double negatives worked out there. I got it figured out after a little counting. “I might.”
Even as the sun fell, the trip around the entire area didn’t leave me exposed. We had drones and Flyers set up to monitor the perimeter. One of the squaddies or privates or whatever we call them even figured out they could detach breaching cameras to provide a better view. We had the better view and superior communications. Better weapons, tougher armor, and nobody around to stop us. Technically, NATO was supposed to be meeting about us, but the current American President threw a temper tantrum. So it’s pretty much open season in Europe nowadays. I get the feeling a lot more countries are going to start developing their militaries accordingly. But for now, that means I control this part of France.
Even, it seems, a weathered wooden door hidden behind a bush against a hill. “That’s the escape tunnel, eh?” I said. I looked it over. The door had vines crawling on it. It was a good sign that they hadn’t been pulled loose. The dirt around the bush didn’t appear trod upon. A few people might have gotten out if they were careful, but they hadn’t pulled off a bigger escape.
“You should go in,” the denim-clad projection suggested. “Have some fun with them. They won’t even know you’re there.”
I thought about it. And I thought about my aching ribs. And how I didn’t know what this guy was playing at, other than that he was one of the Hares who found some benefit in me killing some of them. Though, if anyone asks, nobody I killed was superhuman. I mean, not like there are any bodies left of the reinforcements from earlier, right?
So I turned and began to walk back to camp. “One moment, let me just get a little something handy…”
The projection grinned as I went back and grabbed a crate out of one of the Psycho Flyers. He wasn’t quite so happy to see me pull out a directional mine and rig it so that anyone trying to get out that door would learn a valuable lesson about being flammable next to explosives. “I could do that, or I could use this thing to track if they’re trying to escape.”
“That’s a mine,” he pointed out.
I nodded, “Yep. It’ll tell me exactly when someone came this way and got blown up.
He disappeared, leaving me to read a story to my daughter over the phone and contemplate just what the Hares, all of the Hares, were up to. It hasn’t escaped my attention that this guy might be sending me off into fights meant to get me caught or killed, that wascally wabbit.
Ah, to be kill-horny in France. This country has a long history with murder, taken to epic levels during the Revolution. I’m something of a fan of that kind of history, and was able to impart some of my knowledge over the course of a few days while I waited for my army to show up.
I walked around my small encampment where I’d caught a trio of… something. As far as they’d been concerned, I’d been sleeping during the day and formed a rudimentary shelter against a downed tree. One had moved quicker and seemed to be sniffing me out. Didn’t heal any quicker from that spike wound to his leg from when he approached the fake camp. Screamed pretty good when I hauled him up out of the pit, and put up a struggle that hinted at extra strength. Just like the morphine he’ll need now for that hole in his leg. The next in his trio was a step up even more, with battle axe, stout shield, and chainmail. I had a pair of arms for each weapon, though I had to aim low for his face to break his nose instead of my skull on his helm.I grabbed his well-trimmed beard and tossed him in the spike pit with his hairy friend. The last fellow seemed to be nothing but human. He had a hunting rifle, a ski mask, a bulletproof vest, and night vision goggles, but no real frills.
Perhaps I’d been wrong to hop out of that chateau after all, especially when they could so easily be bound with their own cables, bungees, and handcuffs, and hung upside down from trees. But open wounds and blood rushing to the head was no reason to ignore a little history lesson. “Now, most people, if they know any history of the revolution at all, are acquainted with the idea of the guillotine. Quick, easy, and less chances of screwing up than with an axeman or a hanging. But fewer people know about the ships. Fun idea. They loaded ships up with prisoners, tied up so they couldn’t swim. Then again, these were the days when sailors probably couldn’t either. So they’d take a boatload of prisoners out there on the river, get a lifeboat ready for the skeleton crew, and pull a plug built into the bottom. The crew would get away, but the prisoners were left to sink to their deaths. I think they called them Republican Baptisms since the first ones were clergy. Nuns and priests. Thousands of people in mass drownings. Bodies floating everywhere.”
I leaned in close to the one with the bad leg wound. It bled down his outfit, which was simple camo, easily purchased from any hunting or outdoors store. He actually snarled from behind his gag. I leaned in and pretended to recoil. “Someone could use a bath.” He kept on trying to intimidate me, so I shoved his gag even further into his mouth. “Might teach you to wash your socks next time,” I said. I wasn’t working with my full complement of bondage gear, but I can adapt.
I tapped him on the forehead with this knife I got from disarming them. He looked so funny, annoyed like that. I laughed, watching him squirm, all red-faced. I took the handle of the knife and smashed it into his jaw again and again. Then I grabbed his ear. “No piercings, I see. Well, don’t say I never gave you anything.” I grabbed his lobe and pulled his ear out to the side, then jammed the knife right through that fold in there that’s part of the tougher part of the ear. I whispered to him right in his ear so he could hear me over his own muffled yelling. “Or do so that, I guess. Lots of double negatives going on.”
The regular guy made some noise too. Poor guy, just needed some attention. “Hey, cut that out,” I stepped away from my stinky plaything and took the knife with me through the side of his earlobe. I brought the knife over and rubbed it against the ski mask where it covered his nose, “If you keep making noise, your little mask is going to get all bloody.” I traced the knife up along his neck and over the vest. “If your mask is all bloody, it’d be hard to hear you if you spill. Your. Guts. Ahahahahaha!” I ran the sharpened metal over the exposed skin that showed on his belly where the shirt had pulled down from gravity.
I smacked the flat of the blade between his legs and discovered I had misjudged the sex of my pursuer. “Oh, pardon me, ma’am. Didn’t realize I was dealing with someone of the fairer sex here. Unfortunately for you, fairer or not, you appear to be nothing ut a human. So fragile.” I plunged the knife into her soft belly and left it there. I turned then, holding my head next to hers. She screamed like you wouldn’t believe, so I tugged the vest down enough to cover her head. Not easy to do with all that wiggling.
I stepped over where the Medieval LARPer hung, a curtain of chain mail keeping him particularly blind and deaf. I lifted the chain mail up enough to look down at his face. “Paying attention down here?” I let it fall and smack him in the face, then jumped up above the treeline.
As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “Holy shitballs, either this weed’s really fucking lit, or the planet’s attracted to me.”
I fell back to Earth, grabbing the knife, and bringing it all all the way down and out the top of her chest. I turned to the bulge-eyed tracker whose knife I borrowed. “”Ya know, I was gonna torture her, but it looks like she already spilled her guts. Hey, I’m gonna go ahead and split. Mind if I keep this? Thanks.”
I’d have loved to leave some parting gifts for them, like conveniently places claymore mines, or more spike pits, but I didn’t have forever. If one bunch could catch my scent, another could, especially after I’d gotten some red on me from the hunter back there.
It wasn’t a couple hours after leaving those three alone in their camp that I had my next close encounter. He leaned against a tree, not even hiding. I hiked along and then there he was, in denim jacket and plaid pants, like some old British punk. He looked at me over a pair of sunglasses and asked, “Don’t you ever feel your astonishing talents are wasted fighting your own people?”
I threw the knife, but he wasn’t there. He was behind me, walking toward me. I turned to punch and it went through him, as did he. I turned again to see him staring me right in the eyes. “You cannot hurt me now, but you should loosen your elbow and shoulder more when you throw.”
I waved my hand through the guy. “A hologram?”
“I can confirm this is a projection.” He looked me over. “Your planet breeds impressive killers. I especially enjoyed your lesson to them. Mass drownings… everyone lifting off their feet as the ship sinks from beneath you. The cold water embraces everyone, left to stare at each other as they watched the water overtake them. Some float more than others in waters murky with other drowning victims.”
“Sounds like it’s something you’d heard of,” I said.
“I have also undertaken a study of the history of this planet.”
“Well aren’t we just two perfect little nuts in a sack,” I said. I pulled one of my drones from scouting ahead so I could spy behind me and see how much time I lost to those tracking me. “I bet they all suddenly know where I am, right?”
“No, deadly one, not at all. You have attracted much interest from my… coworkers.” He kept up with me despite never seeming to walk.
“Doesn’t sound like you’re fond of them. One too many stolen lunches?” I crashed through bushes and broke small branches on a tree off in one direction before jumping over the treeline to land in the opposite direction and kept running, making some effort to avoid doing the same this-a-way.
“You’re no favor to him, but that’s a good thing for the both of us,” He motioned from himself to me.
“Something tells me you’re not doing me any favors either.” I headed down a hill.
“I’m more sympathetic to your cause than you know. Why not aid each other while our interests converge?” He pulled his sunglasses off and hung them from his jacket pocket. “We don’t have to be allies of friendship, but of convenience. I want the Great Wolf dead. You want to punch him in his glass jaw. I hope things work out. I’ll be rooting for you.” He grabbed his glasses again and slipped them onto his face. “I leave you to deal with it.”
A howl echoed through the woods, close by. I skidded to a halt at the bottom of the hill, calling my drones in closer. Another howl from closer touched something unthinking inside me, something that wanted to run, no matter what would chase.
The giant wolf approached through the trees, drooling onto grasses and weeds. “None violate my house and live.”
I cracked my all of my knuckles through my gloves. “I’ll violate your corpse when you’re dead. Doggy style.”
“I am the King of the Wolves! And you are but a bitch,” he growled out before charging me.
I disappeared, holograms of myself racing out to take a fighting stance. He snapped fruitlessly at a couple before a black-haired ghost woman appeared in the wolf’s face, screaming. He flinched back, which is when I fell on his snout. I’d meant to get him in the head, but he moved back further than I’d prefer. An uppercut clacked his teeth together and knocked a fang loose. Glass jaw, eh?
I jumped and punched him in his wet, snotty nose. “Bad doggy! Learn to take a punch!”
He lunged, snapping his mouth at me. The fangs started to crush me, but I got both pairs of arms pushing on the top and bottom portions of his damn muzzle. I got my knee under me to free one hand that went to my belt. The drones moved in, blasting the Great Wolf’s eyes with lasers. He howled in rage, then snapped his jaws shut on something he chewed on.
I looked down at him from up the hill, juggling rubber chicken heads. “Suck my cocks, bitch.”
When the grenades went up and blew apart the wolf’s head, releasing one last howl despite the utter impossibility of it from a headless beast. A last few heavy splats of blood hit me from the open hole at the top of the wolf’s neck before the shaking body collapsed.
The sky got darker and I looked up to the sight of Psycho Flyers taking up position near me, firing down on my pursuers. I turned to see a drop cable land near me and noticed that denim dude standing near the corpse of the giant wolf. He held an oversized heart in his hands, something I figured had to do with the hole in the wolf’s body because I’m a master detective. The landing of one of my armored soldiers obscured him for a moment. The denim disappeared, heart in hand.
The soldier near me bowed. “We are here, Empress.”
I patted him on the shoulder as he stood back up, others dropping down near us. “Good. Let’s get this war started.”
I missed that feeling of news coverage. The BBC talked about Psycho Gecko’s Blasphemy. Al Jazeera wondered which holy site was next. Outlaw X loving detailed the attacks, starting with my ride of the valkyries in London. Fox News ran a story suggesting rich Jews were secretly financing my attacks in order to draw attention away from a pedophile ring Hillary Clinton runs out of the basement of the Alamo. Not all PR is good PR. Some of it’s just fucking stupid.
It helped that I was rampaging around the United Kingdom, one of those countries that news people actually report on. Anybody who’s ever tried to hold someone hostage in Croatia knows what I’m talking about there. As Dame promised, there were many old religious sites with the Three Hares icon. They didn’t all turn up anything useful. Some had no secrets to share. Some had been long abandoned, with careful demolition yielding no further results. Others had been emptied before we got there, leaving little for us to find other than signs of human occupation in places humans shouldn’t have been living.
They didn’t all have that magic door, though. Good thing the proud interrogators of Ricca were on the job to follow up and ask questions in the area afterward. Or, more likely, they bribed a shitload of cops to ask a few questions for them. Nosy neighbors are a great source of information. They get so pissed about big trucks in the middle of the night, people moving, all that.
We also moved about. Dame didn’t like traveling with me, so Qiang and I had ourselves a little father/daughter road trip. We left the British Isles as quickly as possible in order to find something to eat, though. I was forced to express my displeasure in British cuisine after it turned out a waiter hadn’t intended me to bang his head into the table, then mash his skull. Then there’s the blood pudding incident. We don’t want to talk about the blood pudding incident.
Just me and muh daughter, driving around Europe. She was absolutely delighted when people started driving on the right side of the road again, even though it meant much less swerving from me. She’ll get used to cars heading straight for her. I still remember my first headlights. When there was still adrenaline involved.
Being in France tempted me to hit up the big tourist spots like the Louvre and rob them blind, but I have a child to look after. I have to think of her. That’s why we robbed a candy store instead. I wish I could say it had the Three Hares and we went on an amazing summer adventure of life, love, and lollipops. Instead, I punched the teller and Qiang, too distracted by her armful of candy, missed her shot to grab the cash. Instead, I grabbed bunch of those giant suckers, licked it, and smacked a cop in the face who tried to stop us right outside. The guy was going to have such a big bruise once he pried that thing off his skin.
I had to leave her behind for the next attack, and I was glad for this one. Dame met me in her normal guise in the twilight of the French countryside. More specifically, she asked me to wait in south-central France, at the edge of a great forest near a mountain. She tried to get the jump on me, but my armor’s traditional 360 degree display stifled her attempt. “Hello, Dame. Lots of trees around here. Please tell me this isn’t about some musty church in the middle of nowhere.”
“This isn’t about some musty church in the middle of nowhere,” she said, floating down to land next to me before solidifying.
“Good. Now I need you to get down on your knees and pretend you’re licking ice cream.”
She slapped me, which might mean she likes me. We’re in France, so I think I was supposed to grab her and kiss her at that point. “Don’t talk to me like that again or you can find your own hares.”
“Why is it that bitches always get testy when you break out the sexual harassment?” I asked.
“Ask your mother if you can catch her at the dog park,” Dame said. “Shut it already. You make everything profoundly less fun.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d gotten down on your legs already,” I mumbled. “Ok, ok, what are we doing here?”
“Off in this forest is the Chateau du Maquis, a former church refurbished as a hunting lodge following World War II, in honor and recognition of the Maquis du Mont Mouchet. They fought the Nazis in guerrilla engagements ending with a final attack where the force was dispersed, but not destroyed. The Nazis brought everything to stop attacks from infantry hiding in the woods; the Luftwaffe, artillery, armored units, motorized units, and veterans from the Eastern front all fought. 3,000 Germans fought 2,700 French and only managed to kill about 500. The rest lived to fight another day.”
“While the Nazis ended up as history. So where’s the forest in question? Is it behind all these trees?” I raised a hand up above the eyes on my helmet to shade my view.
“It, it.. it… flames, the flames, flames on the side of my face. Breathing… breathing.” Dame threw up her hands. “Come on, get in my car.” She pointed to a dark blue Aston-Martin.
“Hardly a fitting vehicle for a supervillain,” I said. Her response was to eye my rented Yugo. “What? You’d be surprised how much plastic explosive you can fit in one of those things. It’s the perfect car to blow things up. Nobody cares about the loss of a Yugo. Nobody investigates too hard. Nobody mourns the Yugo.” I looked back at it and gave the car a thumbs-up. A stiff wind blew and the wheels fell off. “So, your car?”
The Chateau, as Dame only informed me upon nearing it, had a minimal occupation of caretaker. No big security force. No police anywhere around.
“Sounds like the perfect place to run a side hustle. What are we looking at? Drugs? Weapons? Not to be too stereotypical, but wine smuggling? I could smuggle the shit out of some wine. Takes a whole ‘nother class of mule to pull that off. Or push it in, as it were.”
“Vacations. The wealthy need a place to hunt and hold secret meetings.”
“Which brings us back to the drugs and weapons and wine shoved up someone’s ass,” I told her. “They going to be put off by us showing up in costume?”
“Rich people. Isolated chateau,” was all the answer Dame provided, or needed to provide.
Heavy on the stone, steeples, and climbing vines, the forest pressed close to the chateau grounds, obscuring it. It felt confined by the forest. Perhaps that explains kicking the doors completely down as I did. “Everyone, drop your pants and raise the roof!”
An old man looked up from pushing a broom in front of an empty fireplace. “What are you wanting here?”
“Must be a Parisian,” Dame said to me, stepping up and slapping me on the arm. “Pardon me, my eccentric friend and I interested in the grounds. Is there anyone present who could educate us?”
“If there’s anything to know about the chateau, I would know it,” said the old man. He continued his sweeping past the fireplace. Didn’t even bother to pick up an old machete laying next to it, though. “I must finish. Then we will talk.”
I decided to set the doors back up while we wait, and noticed the old, burnt wooden Three Hares above the door. Dame helped herself to a glass of wine while I checked the Hares over for a trick entrance or some sort of mechanism. Had to pile up a couple of really old chairs to do it. Older than this place if it was only built after WW2. The Hares symbol itself might be salvaged from another site, which means a whole ‘nother trip involved.
“Any weirdness around here, Dame?” I asked. “Maybe help us narrow down where what we’re really looking for.”
The old man appeared at the doorway on the opposite side of the building suddenly. Fast old fart. “The Beast was caught around here.”
I checked with Dame, who almost had to waste a drop of wine to surprise, then looked to the old man. “The Beast, eh? May I ask which beast?”
“The Beast of Gévaudan. It was a giant wolf, the fiercest such beast to ever stalk the forests of Earth. For three years, the Beast claimed the lives of the innocent. Hunters came and failed. They shot a greatwolf and stuffed it, but the attacks continued. The hunts of man and wolf continued until Jean Chastel shot the Beast with silver. Its body disappeared into the care of a surgeon who confirmed it had feasted on human. This is the story of the Beast of Gévaudan.”
“Interesting story. Werewolf?” I asked.
“Here wolf,” said the old man, dropping to all fours. His clothes disappeared into long, grey fur upon the rise of a wolf the size of a bull.
Dame jumped up, tossing the wine bottle against the mantle of the fireplace as she put distance between herself and the old wolf. I was more focused on the knowing eyes of the old beast until the fire started. I thought it was the fireplace itself until I saw the machete was burning. From the flames, like ashes, slid an arm, then the rest of a dark-skinned human body with iron plate piercings running along the arms, the chest, and everywhere else not covered in red pants and shirt. He set his red sash around his chest and picked up the machete. When he spoke, the words I heard didn’t match his lips. “You come to my house with weapons and violence in your heart?”
I threw my cape back, unleashing a pair of laser drones. “Violence is such a simple description for what I do. I prefer if you call it a nightmare.”
Dame lit out of there without so much as a “Sorry,” and a piss in her pants. And as I squared off with the two, I heard things. Things like a car revving up and speeding out of there. Things like creeks and snapping branches. The satellite imagery showed more things were out there. I began to suspect I was entering that point where I didn’t know how many it’d take to whoop my ass, but I’d soon learn just how many they were gonna use. If they’re all as tough as the one at the first site I hit in England, that won’t be many.
So I jumped out as well, pushing the broken door out and knocking over someone. I didn’t get a good look at them as I slid a ways, then jumped off and into the thick woods surrounding the place. A dropped rubber chicken grenade set a fire to spread and cover my tactical re-mobilization away from the main area of conflict.
Whatever these guys were, however good of trackers and hunters, it’s a bit tough to hunt someone more powerful than a locomotive who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. I called in my own dogs then. Or at least their voicemail. “Titan, I’m going to need the Riccan soldiers in France. It’s better if you don’t know pretty much anything else about it. Oh, and if you see Dame come around, tell her she owes me a lot of ice cream.”
I smiled, hearing the crashing of trees in the night and the flutter of fleeing birds.
Nice place for a hunt. I’m hunting Hares, they’re hunting Gecko. Time to see who’s the top predator around here.
Despite numerous objections from Dame, I took a little bit of time to prepare. I had my reasons though. It wasn’t about annoying Dame. Well, it wasn’t ONLY about annoying Dame. There were a few factors, but what I decided was most important this time was fun. Sometimes, in this wild and hate-filled world of ours, you just wanna have fun. I am the right gender for it momentarily. Or sex. I think I kinda screw the words up a bit when I’m probably mentally a man who was physically male and made myself phenotypically female.
I’m proud of the fact that there are no words to describe me sometimes. In fact, some of my favorite times are when the best people can attempt are screams.
So when I was finally ready, I called up Dame. I know she has some sort of permanent residence around the city, but nobody ever wants to give an evil mastermind their home address. The spycams gave me a heads-up as she tried to fly through the floor of my room. For those who don’t remember, she possesses a gadget that allows her to become incorporeal with certain strange interactions with electricity. And with me, considering my abilities.
She flew through the floor and settled onto her feet in the outer suite. I burst through the door in full regalia, “Nice to see you!”
“I’d say the same, but I hate you. What the fuck is this?” Dame asked, pointing to my costume.
I twirled the spear in my arms and slammed the butt into the floor. “Fucking awesome, that’s what the fuck.”
“Are you sure this is the time to play games?” she asked.
“Lady, these events represent a paradigm shift that may very well change everything we know about our ways of life. For the entirety of the rest of human existence, it’s likely powers can be shut down. Anyone who can slip a collar on a super can stop them. We might as well have as much fun as we can while we still can. People have expectations of me. Glorious expectations. It’s sometimes nice to live up to them.”
“Should I ask where you got that thing?” she asked.
I shrugged my head to the side. “They have some sort of vegan thing going on here. It’s like some sort of symbol of these guys who eat beef.”
The old cathedral was still in service, a few hundred years not being particularly old in Europe. It had just let out its service when the strains of music began playing all over the city around it. High above the rising music, a figure stood in a black cloak and hat, face covered by a pale, grinning mask.
I kicked him off for blocking my view and took his place. The light glinted off the scales of my armor, the dome of my horned helmet, and even the pointy cones on my boobs. My robotic horse stepped up behind me, nuzzling my shoulder. “That’s right, Bot Stallion.”
“Are you done posing yet?” asked Dame from behind us.
The horse let out a whinny at my command. “Bot Stallion says hello,” I called back to her. Then I swung onto its back and raised my spear. “Havoc!” I let loose the drones of war, which rose and followed as I rode the horse off the side of the building. The Ride of the Valkyries roared out, heralding my arrival.
Bot Stallion shot our grapple lines that hauled us back against the side of the building. It cantered down the side of the building and jumped off before we smashed into pavement. Someone’s car broke its fall while keeping us moving forward, this time at the doors of the cathedral. The rockets on the horse kicked in then and hurtled me even faster toward the main part of the building.
I’m sure it had a formal name, probably ending in -tory or -cristy or something. I know what to call the door at least, which soon began a career in teaching reptiles martial arts after I broke through it on my robot rocket horse.
A priest stood there with hands raised. “What in God’s name is going on here?”
“I am Psycho Gecko. Gods have no place here,” I told him. The drones formed a circle around me and began flying after each other, lasers aimed downward and cutting deeper with each pass.
“What do you want from us?” the priest asked, clasping his hands.
I raised my spear and looked to the roof, catching a glimpse of the Three Hares symbol in a place of prominence where worshipers could easily see it. Then I threw the spear in between laser beams to impale the priest. “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da-!”
The floor dropping out from under me cut me off as the drones finished with this layer. That put me in the basement, with Dame floating around. Her skintight black suit was a tough darker than the shadows, but it was the glittery, crystalline mask and bracelet that really stood out. “Nice to see you finally,” she told me.
I got down off the horse as the drones joined us. “I’d say the same, but I hate you.”
She pointed up. “Was that really necessary?”
“Yes,” I told her. “But I’d rather not talk about it here. If you’re so confident in your quiet shortcuts, my dear, feel free to get us an invitation.”
She nodded and pressed something on her bracelet. She turned translucent and dove into the floor of the basement. She surfaced again, muttering to herself, then went swimming through the floor, looking for something. For my part, I started checking all the candelabras and torch holders attached to the walls, the older the better. “You wanna give up yet? I got plenty of laser. Not like the world’s running out of light yet.”
“Shut up,” she said from out of the floor.
“Actually read an interesting line in a book. Not a bad book, just not entirely profound. But they had this phrase I thought was pretty good.”
“I think I got it,” she said. She disappeared down below. Soon, I heard a click. I looked around to where an old candelabra bent into a wall. A five foot section of the wall around it popped back as well. I poked my head in and found myself looking at a winding staircase. It was at that point I began to regret already using the Phantom of the Opera theme song in my adventures. But it saved Dame from the ill-effects of my singing, so there’s that. Instead, I hummed the Tales From the Crypt theme. A line of laser drones followed faithfully while Bot Stallion took up guard mode in case the heavy construction blocked my ability to reach out to it.
“You’re not even trying to be quiet, are you?” asked Dame at the base of the stairs.
“That implies I’m avoiding a fight. Instead, this might just be an empty air raid shelter,” I looked around, finding this corridor to be fairly narrow. “Though…”
“An air raid shelter with that staircase?” she asked after checking up where I’d come. “And this sort of entrance.”
“Why can’t you suggest there are people here to kill more often?” I smiled at her and winked before skipping through the corridor.
Poor Dame floated through walls to catch up, “That’s not what I said.”
“It isn’t?” I aske,d playing at a frown. “Strange. That’s what I heard. Perhaps you have a speaking problem.”
She glared at me. “I’m not arguing with you. It only encourages you.”
I skipped along until we rounded a corner and I found myself looking at a larger gathering room. There were cheap plastic tables all about, like it was used for a large meeting or conference. Two things really stood out above all that. First was the door on the opposite side of the room, like someone stuck a regular house door on the dark stone of a cathedral. The second was a man reading a magazine who tossed it aside when he saw us and scrambled to his feet.
“Who are you?” He asked, holding out a cupped hand. I felt pain ripple through my belly and up my chest. It was like pressure, and something squeezing me all over. I felt like wheezing. Then it reached my head and I felt nauseous. I threw up, then collapsed back against the wall.
Dame bent down by me, then looked back up at the man. By this time, he’d pulled out a composite bow and plucked it, firing a bolt of light at Dame. She whirled rapidly into the wall that the lightbolt tore a chunk out of.
The bowman turned back to the room. “Time’s up! Go, go, go!” Then he looked at me, eyes lighting up. He stepped closer. “Who are you and your friend?” He looked me over.
When I caught him staring at the cones over my boobs, I asked, “You like my knockers?” The right boob popped open and a boxing glove popped out, smacking him in the face. I lifted myself so that when the left one fired off, it caught him in the balls. He bent over in front of me, giving me enough opportunity to say, “My eyes are up here.”
He stood back up, teeth clenched in anger. I pointed behind him, where the drones had gotten into formation, flying around in another circle, this time with lasers aimed at him. I’ll give him credit, the man took more photonic bukkake to the chest than most could, but he cut and ran. Or disappeared into a flash of light. I was hoping for sliced and diced super salsa, but I’ll take light-based teleporting.
When he seemed busy not being present, I went ahead and reached under my scale mail skirt for a regen nanite fix. Whatever this fucker did to me, I had them log it for later inspection. That was the position I found myself in when I saw a group of kids come running out of a side hall. Like eight of them. Five teens, a young boy still in single digits, and a pair who looked like they were twelve. They saw me, eyes wide, and all except one of the older boys ran for the door. He looked to me and raised his hands as if to do something too.
The drones took aim at him and his friends. “Stand down,” I said. The dizziness was still there, but I had enough strength to drag myself to my feet with the help of a wall. “Whoever you little shits are, you’re coming with me.”
“Or what?” asked the teen.
Dame poked her head out of the wall next to him, “Yeah, or what?”
The boy fell over one of the plastic tables. He got his feet under him and ran after the others, who were doing something to the door. They hauled it open, revealing a sunny area with tree branches swaying in a breeze.
I smiled and began to walk toward them. “Come here, kiddies. Come to Gecko!” I stumbled against a table though, so it was time to inject myself with more nanites. “Run and I’ll shoot you full of photons.”
“No,” Dame said, floating out in front of the drones. She punched a couple of them, disrupting the electronics and shutting them off. The others she stood in front of. “Not children.”
I was interrupted by hacking up blood from my internal injuries, so I didn’t press the point. Not too much. Not with how I was able to bounce a signal through the portal. Sure, GPS showed me in London and Istanbul at once. But it was specifically a location not on Dame’s list. It must have been nobody’s business but the Turks’.
The door didn’t stay open long. They rushed through with whatever they had on them, at which point I could roll onto the table. “Whew. That hurt. Go double check if you can about where that door leads. Or gimme a minute and I’ll do it.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. When she opened the thing, it was just stone wall. “It’s a portal.”
“They must be doing neat things with stolen Cape Diem technology,” I said. “And nasty things with whatever they put in me. Come on, let’s get out of here and leave cleanup to the cleaners.”
On our way out, I passed a team of Deep One Riccan soldiers on their way in to tag and bag everything. I needed the drones to help move myself out, but I recovered before Bot Stallion got us back to my hotel.
“Now can we finally talk about what that was about?” asked Dame, slipping off her bejeweled mask and tossing it to the side as I began to lose the valkyrie getup.
“Hunting. I don’t know who these guys are, which is just amazing. I can’t find anything in all my numerous stolen top secret files about these Three Hares, so they have done a phenomenal job staying under the radar. But they’ll know we know where they are based on these raids.” I sent text massages to Titan and Venus then, informing them that the Three Hares site was indeed connected. They had Dame’s list, too. “Or that I know, since I’ll be the one hitting up everything. And if they start to panic and move things around, we’ll know thanks to some friends.”
“Stop beating around the bush,” she said.
“But that’s what I’m doing. Beating around the bush and seeing what flies off. Seeing where it flies to. If they stay still, we might miss them.”
She crossed her arms. “Are you feeling alright?”
I shrugged and read the diagnosis from my nanites. “Surprisingly lucid considering I just fought off brain cancer. And lung cancer. Liver and prostate too. That guy gave me tumors. Literal fucking cancer. I’ll have to thank the bastard who did that to me with a bit of chemo therapy just for him next time I see him.”
“Next time?” Dame asked.
“This isn’t over yet. I’m still hunting wabbits.”
“I want less emphasis on it, but don’t discourage the pursuit. Max is working on his stuff too, but any cure’s also useless if we can’t vaccinate against this thing. We could probably quarantine and cure the entire island if we had enough for everyone, but all it takes is one more boat coming in. Until there’s a vaccine, quarantines and cures aren’t going to do much,” I told Creeper via Dudebot. I left one behind in a storage closet at the Institute, right near the lobby command center. It helps keep in contact, especially since I’ve done some traveling.
Dr. Creeper was calm at least. I’d authorized him to spend some money on a massage day for the scientists, who were driving themselves to exhaustion over this and I wanted to keep morale up. Remind people what they’re fighting for. Or researching for, in this case. Brain work may not wear on the body the same way, but mental exhaustion is real. My Chief of Science had called to check in though, wondering if we should even worry about a cure. “I understand, herr Gecko. Vhile I have you on the phone, the cell you asked for has been completed.”
“That was quick. Nice going,” I told him.
“It seems ve had a similar testing room already built. The modifications were simple.”
“Thanks. Just keep it ready in case we need it. After all the trouble he caused us, I’m sure there’s another Funhouse I can get my hands on. Until then, keep up the good work.” It was a neat design to handle the issue with Funhouse. From the way the guy talked in unison, I suspect he had a hive mind. And since he was working as a spy, I suspect he was suspicious enough to not have all of his hims meet at the same place. Not unless he was insanely loyal, and I’m not sure that’s the case. He did screw up their plan.
If Funhouse hadn’t panicked, we wouldn’t know what the disease’s purpose was. We wouldn’t know powers could be restrained, even ones like mine. I suppose we’d know some shadowy cabal was behind it, but it’s pretty easy to tell when Faustus/Hephaestus is up to something, and VillainNet would give me a heads-up on others. People really like insignia, trophies, and decorative flourishes. What Funhouse led us to was an auxiliary base that saw barely any use in an abandoned temple to one of the world’s major religions.
I figured I could either start investigating all the Buddhists on Earth, or I could start investigating the design with the rabbits that was the secret door access.
I finished our little call just before heading up the steps of the museum Qiang was hopping up one at a time. We’d both dressed for London’s heat, which wasn’t so bad considering the island’s weather. The exception was that I had to wear these gloves along the length of my lower arms. I had them made because I was tired of wearing clothing loose enough to fit my arms down. Now I just have to worry about clothing that handles both pairs and hiding the extra ones around anyone I don’t want knowing they exist. These gloves are made of the same material as the camouflage of the Pyscho Flyer, but comfortable to wear thanks to an internal layer.
The Museum of Architecture was, sadly, not the best place for Qiang. Eventually, it’d be fun to take her through and teach her all about weak points and ways to sneak around, but she’s a bit young for it. I promised her we’d find something fun, like a zoo, afterward. Because, as I informed a guide, “I’m looking for information on a historical architectural symbol.”
I do so love many British accents, especially when they’re telling me things I want to hear. They were able to direct me to the area of the museum in question, though I had to dangle a donation in front of them to get some personal attention. I also let Qiang look around at scale models all over the place. She pretended to be Godzilla, but stopped short of destroying anything.
“Tell me if you’ve heard this one,” said a woman’s voice. I turned to see a blonde, tan beauty in her twenties approach, belly and sides peeking through openings in the fancy pants blue dress she wore. With a mask on, I knew her as Dame, a thief who had been known to work with heroes from time to time. “A kid, a supervillain, and the world’s best thief walk into a museum.”
“No mention of yourself in the joke?” I asked. “How do you always find me, Dame?”
She set her feet and crossed her arms. “A lady must have her secrets, but this time Venus gave you up.”
“Preposterous. Venus specifically said she was never going to give me up. Never gonna let me down. Never gonna run around or desert me.”
“Ugh, that is SUCH an old meme now. Shouldn’t you be saying ‘Gas the Jews’ over and over again these days?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, because it’s real funny when someone has to repeat the punchline thirty times hoping people start laughing. You’ve gotten better at insulting people.”
“I’m going to get a lot of mileage out of that comparison,” she said, grinning.
“Seriously, what do you want Dame?” I asked, motioning to where my daughter pretended to shoot radioactive breathe at a damaged gargoyle. “Some of us are here on important business.”
Even she enjoyed the sight of Qiang playing. “Obviously. What about you?”
“I’m trying to figure out why humans who speak English decided to associate sex with so many bad things by making the parts and actions into insults that people otherwise find quite enjoyable. ‘Fuck you, dick. Fuck you, pussy. Screw you, asshole. Cocksucker. Shit tits.”
She opened her mouth and flinched at the last one. I walked over and clapped her on the shoulder, adding, “Good to see you’re a fan, too.”
“Let’s just talk. Venus filled me in on the situation. I can tell you more about what you’re looking for than whoever they roped in to smiling pretty at the museum.” She turned and indicated the symbol in the exhibit of three rabbits chasing each other around the interior of a circle, with only three ears but each animal having a pair. “Let’s grab coffee.”
“Qiang, want to go get something as sweet as you?” I asked.
She stopped gnawing on the gargoyle and looked up, face alight. “Yeah Baba!”
Dame bent down. “You’re Qiang? You’re adorable.” She patted Qiang on the head with one hand. The other reached for where Qiang was hiding her knife. My girl pulled that knife on her, glaring.
“You think that’s bad, try to take her candy and see what she does to you,” I said. I patted Qiang on the head. “That’s my girl.” Qiang looked up at me and smiled.
We left and headed down the street, because Dame insisted, “The swill here is meant for tourists and academics. I know roasts worthy of a king.”
“As an Empress, I suppose I can lower myself to try a mere queen’s favorite coffee,” I said all snooty, raising my nose. I ignored the looks from an older lady who sniffed at the remark.
“As an Empress, you can afford to pay me. I don’t work for free,” she waved a hand. “I am a thief, not an informant. I have to make a stealing from someone.”
“I have money enough,” I told her.
“You have enough money to give it away. I want something more valuable to you.”
“Any deal involving my first born doesn’t count,” I told her. “But I don’t know what you’re hoping for that’s more valuable.”
She turned and winked. “Your crown. Officially, I’ll steal it and get away with it.”
“Only damn way you could get it,” I told her.
She raised an eyebrow briefly. “Maybe, maybe not. That’s how the story goes that I’ll get it, and you will verify it.”
“Fine, but you better give me something real or no deal. This is leaving a bad taste in my mouth already. That or it’s this coffee,” I said, sniffing at my cup. I palmed a nanite syringe from my purse with one of my hidden hands and injected myself to make sure I wouldn’t fall prey to sedatives or poisons.
“It will be. The symbol you’ve looked into is called the Three Hares. The earliest examples trace back to 6th century China in Buddhist religious spots near trade hubs. It spread along the Silk Road, moving faster when the Mongols established the Pax Mongolica. All the religions wanted it. There are churches all over Europe with the symbol in areas that imply significance and association with the Green Man, a pagan symbol of rebirth. Since Green Man is pagan, what little agreement there is on the subject suggests they are enemies. It also appears in synagogues and Islamic artwork. You can find a marvelous example of the latter on a casket in the Cathedral of Trier. You can’t go to church in Devonshire without tripping over more rabbits.”
“Ok, what’s it mean?” I asked, pretending to take another sip of my coffee. I wasn’t paranoid about it so much as I just didn’t like it.
She shrugged. “No one knows. It spread from China to England and was used by people in four rival religions. It’s connected to the Green Man, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Lazarus, the Holy Trinity, and more gods than I can count, but nobody knows what it’s for. We don’t have any writings about it.” She stopped and turned to me.
“That’s not very useful,” I told her.
“There isn’t much useful.” She raised her cup to point across the street. A cathedral stood. “But that church has the Hares in it, and nobody seems to know what happened to the air raid shelter underneath it.”
“If that’s all…”
She pulled out a couple sheets of paper. “Every location and artifact I know of featuring the Three Hares symbol and every mythological figure associated with it in case that’s important. You’re working with a titan, after all.”
I reached out for the papers. “Groovy. Ya know, cool cat, I was down at the malt shop when I heard something about this hip new thing called electronic mail. All the lamplighters and newspaper boys are talking about it.”
“I know. I knew this would piss you off more,” she said. “Almost as much as finding out I’m working with you.”
I looked at her, then turned to the church across the way. “I’d better go get my spear and magic helmet then.”
“Your spear and magic helmet?” asked Dame.
I nodded. “Spear and magic helmet!”
“Magic helmet?” inquired Qiang.
Qiang hopped up and down excited. Dame rolled her eyes. And I began to hum “Ride of the Valkyries” as I began plotting.
Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?
We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.
Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.
Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.
It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.
Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.
There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.
Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.
“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.
“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.
Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”
“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.
I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.
Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.
“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.
“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”
Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”
There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.
I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.
“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”
“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.
“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.
“I said I got it,” I told her.
She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”
I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”
She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”
I cringed back a little. “Why?”
“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.
She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”
“This is something you have to do?”
I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”
I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.
The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.
That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”
Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”
“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”
“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”
Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.
“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”
“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.
“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”
The trail had fits of stopping and starting, but never for long. Never long enough for the guy who took Psychsaur and Max to sleep. They’d zipped over to India from the portal, but didn’t stop there. They managed to get from there into Pakistan in amazingly little time. When I showed it to Titan, shortly after he and Venus joined me on Ricca, he informed me Cape Diem didn’t have a base there. “They stole our portals. Maybe they built something to hack into our network. Either way, this is unacceptable.”
We’d set up at the residence. It wasn’t considered neutral ground the same way the Cape Diem compound was, but it was a hell of a lot more private and better protected, even with that new hole in the wall of the living room. Everything had mostly turned out ok from that event. Our assailant, the blonde multiplier, hadn’t gone after Qiang at all, and neither did she charge him with a knife or anything. I think I’m raising a girl smarter than I am, but it doesn’t make anyone feel any better about a home being partially blown up.
It was easier for us to coordinate and control information Each of our organizations’ are looking into the attack in their own way, chasing leads, studying bodies and wreckage. Well, the bodies are on my end. It’s a bit inefficient, but cross-organizational cooperation’s going to have to wait.
“They didn’t take anyone for you?” I asked Titan for confirmation.
He shook his head. “No. He killed someone. Hurt others.”
“He took knowledge from you, but he took our friends,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Venus said. “You said Max made a cure?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s just not enough, and it can’t be replicated.”
Venus paced around the office, looking at the monitors of our setup. “Psychsaur found him. Her powers let her do that. He avoided her until he was ready to do this.”
I looked between them. “I thought Psychsaur was supposed to cover Cape Diem first?”
Titan nodded to Venus, “She convinced me otherwise. It’s a good thing, too.”
“How’s that?” Venus asked.
Titan scratched his chin. “If she was at Cape Diem when this happened, the mole at Master Academy wouldn’t have been exposed.”
“Do we know who he is?” I asked. “Because on my end, he was just Funhouse the Clown, aka Ricardo Milhouse.”
Venus said, “He told us he found out his little brother had superpowers and was fighting crime at night. He was concerned and wanted him trained. He told us his name was Rick Houser. He brought a kid in. God, we had to lock up a teen to find out how deep he’s into this.”
“Richard Milford Holmes,” said Titan, tapping away at the computer and bringing up some of the Cape Diem files. “Twenty-eight. No powers, but a lot of enthusiasm to join us. He’s shown an eagerness to do the shit work even when offered duties more in line with what we expect. A lot of people join up to do something grand to help the world. It’s a good attitude, there’s a lot of more ugly work to it than people want. Except him. He was staying under the radar the entire time. Ten months.” He glared down at the table. Venus patted his arm.
“He hasn’t stopped at all until now,” I pointed out, bringing up the map where they’d finally been stopped. “So maybe he’s where he needs to go, or it’s a trap. A trap would be a bad idea for them.”
“Unless they take our powers with that collar,” Titan reminded us.
That was when Venus walked over to stand beside me. “What powers? This is all training and equipment.”
Venus and I had to take a moment to suit up, each of us in bulky armor. Hers was her current generation of power armor with the face taken up mostly by a golden chrome visor. Mine was based on the suit I’d stolen from her future version, but with additional armor plating and strength-enhancing pseudomuscles added to resemble my heavy armor. I was just as agile as ever, in armor far more durable. After all, nobody said the added armor plates couldn’t be the same material as the less-bulky version.
Titan remained his giant blue and orange self, with a pair of wings sticking out the back of his Cape Diem uniform.
On our way out, I gave Qiang a hug, smiled at Silver Shark checking on a burn along her arm, and politely squeezed by Sam and Holly trying to bar our way. “’Scuse me, gotta go save Mix N’Max, just the three of us, no additional help involved.” I picked up Sam with both sets of arms and set her to the side. I turned to find Holly taking her place, so I skipped around her.
“We’re coming!” Sam called after me as I pushed through the doors. Titan and Venus followed, with Max’s assistants coming after.
“You two aren’t villains,” I called back as we walked to a Psycho Flyer parked in front of the palace.
“You don’t know what he means to us!” called Holly.
“Do you trust them?” Titan asked me.
“They’re loyal to Max above all else. They’d never see him harmed or kidnapped in any way,” I answered. “But I doubt they have anything to bring to the table on this other than potential hostages if things go wrong.” I stopped to look at the assistants. “Leave this to us.”
“We are not useless,” Sam said. She pulled out a glass bottle with a simple oval label and “The Cure” written in Max’s handwriting. “Take us or we destroy it.”
I looked up the ramp of the flyer where Titan and Venus had stopped. They looked to me, eyebrows raised. Well, I assume Venus’s were raised under the helmet. I pointed to Sam and Holly. “Nothing about them threatening the cure?”
“It’s your aircraft,” Titan pointed out.
“I’m not saving your asses if you get in trouble,” I said, turning and walking up the ramp. I heard them clatter along after me.
They probably would have regretted it if they knew the flight was so long. I had the flyer loaded up for it, though. Toilets, toiletries, an in-flight meal, and a selection of movies to watch.
“Air Force One, Airplane!, Sully… what are you trying to tell us here, Gecko?” asked Holly as she stepped up into the cockpit.
I created a pair of holographic sunglasses in my lower right arm. “I think my meaning should be quite…” I lifted the hologram into place where my eyes would be through my helmet. “…plane to see.”
“Oh god, I’m going to be sick,” Holly called out from the back of the flyer.
“It wasn’t that bad!” I called back.
Sam winced and looked back. “I better get to her. Flying can be iffy for her.”
I shrugged as she left. “It was y ‘all’s decision to come.”
When we got to where we were going, the nanites indicated that Max and Psychsaur were still there. And where we were going turned out to be a small, decrepit Buddhist temple on top of a hill. I invited Venus and Titan into the cockpit to look down on it. “That’s a pretty cunning way to hide a lair,” I told them. “Anyone who breaks in looks like their sacrilegious. On the plus side, we have plenty of room if there are any religious artifacts left. Gold, sufficiently old stonework, even bones will do.”
“We’re here for your friends, not bones,” rumbled Titan. “I guess you better get in there since you’re the quietest somehow.”
“Okily dokily.” I stood up from the controls and the flyer dropped for like half a second. In the back, Holly vomited. I hope paper bags were involved.
“You fucking psycho!”
The reactions I get. I held up my hands. “It’s fine. I got it remotely anyway. Just decided that if y’all are going to ask the guy flying the thing to get off it, shit might happen.”
“You could land,” Venus growled.
“I’d rather not risk being stranded in Pakistan. Nobody should.”
I landed harder than is preferred for stealth, but at least I was invisible. When I got to the door to the place, I found was in better shape than its appearance would lead people to believe. A quick scan through multiple spectrums didn’t reveal anything. No lasers, no wires, any of that.
I called down a quartet of drones from the trapdoor of the Psycho Flyer. They assembled on their way down, forming a platform big and strong enough to hold me in the heavier armor. I hopped on top as it passed through the doorway. I wasn’t going to get caught by pressure plates this time.
I had a line open to the Flyer cockpit, Venus, and Titan, so it wasn’t long before I heard Venus ask, “Found anything yet?”
“Lots of wood and tiles. Not even any valuables. Not one piece of art, either, except this little thing.” I spotted this decoration built into the base of the altar. Three rabbits, two running one way in a circle, the third another. But that was because the third one was broken, flipped around. There weren’t even any other doors anywhere. No way down to a hidden basement. So I flipped the third rabbit around and clicked it into place.
Behind me, tiles slid out of place along the floor, revealing a circular stairwell down that had to be hell to get hostages down. It also had no room for flying. “I got a way down. Go ahead and get down here. I don’t see anything up top. Y’all should be able to hop or fly to the stairs.”
I headed down and found my way through a rusty metal door, and from there to a circular room with a floor made up of rounded stones. There, I saw a quartet of dead Funhouse. No sign of Max or Psychsaur. But there were two other corridors from there. It was easier to figure out where to go when I heard retching. It’s been a vomit kind of day. “Funhouse was dead when I got here. I think I hear someone. Going to see if I find our peeps.”
I snuck my way on down the corridor when I heard Titan and Venus behind me, coughing. “What’s that smell?” Titan asked.
“They’re discolored,” Venus said from back there, too.
I found Max and Psychsaur locked in a pair of old time cells. Stone walls, a barred door, and a whole lot of hacking going on. I dropped the hologram. “Hey guys. Here I come to save the day.”
“Gas,” Max hacked up. “They killed him.”
Psychsaur added, “It got here.”
I pulled out a couple of syringes. “Venus, got a couple patients here. Some sort of poisoning. If y’all are still alive, I’m guessing it’s dispersed and stuff.” Metal bars and all, it wasn’t even a matter of hacking. I tore the lock off Max’s cell. The alarm started up then.
“I got activity down this corridor!” Titan called out. Then, the world blew the fuck up. But we didn’t go with it. There was a booming roar that tried to kill my eardrums. It got hot as fuck. Wasn’t as bright as I expected. After everything settled to mere shaking, I popped open Psychsaur’s cell, too, and grabbed them up. It’s a lot easier carrying people with extra arms.
I found Venus in the middle chamber, where a pedestal now stood in the center. Titan barred access to the other corridor almost completely. He stepped away slowly, grimacing “Any bomb you can walk away from is a good bomb.”
“You good?” I asked.
He nodded. “I’ve taken bigger.”
I nodded toward Venus. “That’s what she said.”
“She is busy downloading files off this computer while it self-deletes,” Venus said, a USB from her suit plugged into something on the pedestal.
All in all, a successful rescue. We got our friends. We got the collars off without damaging them overly much. And we got some files to sift through about what we’re dealing with, starting with the final message left in the system from a voice that sounded like dozens overlaid on one another.
“We had greater plans for you. You were to observe and report only. You are one piece of a vast apparatus. Our plan could never be stopped by one man with a cure. Ricca was the first, followed by Moscow, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Empyreal City. All within the first week. Thank you for listening obediently while the gas circulates. Your obedience is no longer required. You are no longer a piece in our apparatus.”
Leave it to Max to figure things out. His methods aren’t exactly science, though he argues otherwise. That’s why he’s not my preferred way of curing this thing. My guys can mass produce a cure, probably. Anything he comes up with, he’s the only one who can make more, through whatever processes he uses.
Still, his lab was safely tucked away in one of the many rooms in the palace residence while I tossed fake stuff in spare building we had over near the graveyard. That has an added bonus of being more convincing if the person we’re after is someone familiar with the island, plus the growers who operate out of the tombs will be more than happy to sell all kinds of stuff to relax people if they come looking. I made sure to pick a building at least far enough away that explosives wouldn’t screw with their operation. Probably. I also warned them that they probably want to cook any meth in the daytime until this gets cleared up.
I know, breaking in at night. How cliché, but most people don’t live where they work. Yet. Now if I’m done turning into a socialist dictator, I had a mouse to catch in my trap. And I like traps. There’s something about letting someone walk into their own doom that appeals to me, much like the concept of a deal with the devil. It’s like when the drunk old man warns the counselors not to go up to Camp Crystal Lake. Or when the drunk old man warns the tourist to get out of Innsmouth. Or when the drunk old man warns you that the woman on the sidewalk gives people an itch. I think what I’m saying here is that if I’m going full-on cliché, I need a drunk old man.
It was too late, though. I’d been camping out in the place and didn’t have time to shop for an old drunk when the motion detectors went off. It was a simple but ingenious system. The walls were rigged to detect vibrations, but the actual motion detectors were at all the doors. I watched as someone tripped them, moving swiftly but quietly through the small former store. He came to the room underneath me, one of the ones done up to look like it was in business for Mix N’Max. The figure bent down to examine the obvious bear trap on the floor, then jumped over it. The motion detector, set on the wall at stomach height, detected him and activated the second bear trap. The one on the ceiling. It clamped down with a satisfying and juicy squish.
He cried out, because this wasn’t an instant kill or anything. Just a large, jagged, metal trap that tried to get its jaws to meet just under the guy’s rib cage. I’m not saying he couldn’t die as a result of this. I’m just saying it’d take awhile.
A second guy dove between his friend’s dangling legs and over the first bear trap, which was less expected. But that’s why we have backups, like solid steel doors to slide into place, locking everyone inside whatever rooms they were in. There were other sensors going off, too, which spoke to a much larger infiltration than I’d expected. I stepped out of the corner from where I waited, staying invisible because I don’t resort to dramatics all the time. The lights rose, revealing identical men in front of me. Not just the same clothes and my usual “all humans look alike” view, but the exact same faces. I just figured it was identical twins until the cameras in the other rooms with motion showed the exact same thing. Identical septuplets spies? Talk about 007.
The guy looked familiar, too. Big forehead. The hair’s an obvious blonde dye job. Ah, and my ID program got a hit. Last time I saw this guy, he was dancing in the dunking booth while wearing clown makeup. “Seven of you clowns?” I asked.
The one who was free looked around the room and let loose a chuckle before blurring and splitting into two, then four, then eight. “As many as I need to deal with a problem.”
“I don’t know how many copies you can make,” I said as I dropped the invisibility. His clones? Extras? Whatever they were, they were crowding in enough that they’d have found me anyway. “but I know you don’t have enough to stop me whoopin’ your ass. This is my house.”
They surrounded me, and all spoke at once. “Right now, it’s looking like more of a funhouse. Let’s have some fun.”
Silly rabbit. He thought this was going to be some sort of fair fight, when it’s really a rigged carnival game. His powers must have extended to mere copies, because they went down like regular humans. I charged one of them and punched through him, and the one behind him, and into a third one. I smashed them against the wall, grabbed an organ out of the last guy in that bunch, and pulled out to burst it over the head of another one coming at me from behind. He stumbled back, but another came for me. I grabbed his shoulders with three arms and his chin with the fourth. He screamed as his skull came up, at least until he gave a pop and part of the spine came loose too. By then, the guy who got beamed by a kidney cleared his eyes enough for me to beat him to death with his own skull.
One moment, just realized I needed to put that accomplishment on a list somewhere. Beat a man to death with his own skull. Question is, do I count the consistency with physics as a plus or a minus?
Considering I have four thumbs and don’t give a fuck, a lot of dead bodies started piling up. He probably thought he could just concentrate one or two of them on reinforcements until I grabbed a pair and started swinging them, knocking the remainder on their asses. And one onto the floor-based bear trap, which clamped down on him.
“Looking pretty fun for me right now,” I said.
One of them grinned at me. “A shame we couldn’t play longer,” he said. He pulled his shirt up and tugged out a detonator. I quickly cranked the power of my leg armor’s pseudomuscles up and jumped through the roof, catching a nice big fireball up the ass because I didn’t bother to angle anything. The whole damn building blew up, and not even because of my stuff. I mean, yeah, I prepped explosives. I wasn’t going to use them with me inside the place.
I’m not entirely sure if my legs broke from the jump, from the landing, or from both. I just knew they broke sometime in all this. It took me a minute after landing to stand up and start pulling hot debris away to see if any had happened to be taken alive. As could be expected, I got a call in short order, from Silver Shark. “Gecko!”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Big-ass explosion, though.”
“Us too, fuckface! The Aryan brotherhood just broke in here. One of them grabbed Max and hightailed it. The others are fighting and blowing up.”
“Grabbed Max? These guys are pushovers.” Despite that, this was no time to argue. If he’d grabbed Max somehow, then he was moving him. I jumped to the top of a nearby building, heading for the docks while I pulled open the satellite view and focused it in on the area surrounding the palace and Directory building. “I’ll get him,” I said before dropping the call. I adjusted course for the Cape Diem compound and tried calling up Cape Diem.
I had a direct line to Titan, at least. It’d have to do. I’d rather have the number of the guy working the portals. He could still get an order through to trap the military truck with the canvas-covered back. “Titan, Gecko. Our mole’s trying to pull someone into his hill through your portal.”
I heard growling. “I’m elsewhere, but my people are on it. I just found out a mole on our end is barricaded in the central portal hub with the controls and passcodes. Hold on.”
There was a beep, then I heard Venus’s voice come through. “Titan, this is Venus. I found the mole. He’s running for the Cape Diem portal and he’s kidnapped Psychsaur. She couldn’t use her powers. He had some collar on her. He might have more for you.”
“That must be how he could get the upper hand on Max,” I said. I reached out, trying to access the nanites. He had to have been exposed to the water supply at some point during his time here, right? Fuck, somehow this guy didn’t bother washing his hands the entire goddamn time.
“Gecko?” Venus asked.
“Hold on, I got a kidnapping to stop on this end, too.” I’d hopped from rooftop to rooftop paused to pull out a drone from behind my back and throw it. I reoriented it and flew it ahead of me, trying to catch a truck that must have had its pedal welded to the medal. And me with throwing explosives. The drone flew after it. I jumped along. And it was a disorienting experience. Hard to aim, but I did. I raked the rear of the truck, lower down, with machine gun fire. The rear left tire popped and went flat. The truck wobbled. It hid some sort of debris and began to turn onto its side.
The canvas rear burst open and a motorcycle flew out, carrying one of those blonde fuckers and Max on the back, something around his neck. He had to have been tied there or something. The cycle burst through the gate into the Cape Diem compound and headed right for the tent surrounding the portal. I chased after, unable to shoot becaue of my friend.
People scattered out of the way, some in regular clothes, some in the soft white and blue of Cape Diem personnel. The motorcycle disappeared into the tent, and I landed outside it a second later, popping something. I limped in after them and saw the portal flash and close, leaving me alone with a team of confused Cape Diem portal technicians.
“Gecko, you copy?” Titan asked. “You were breathing hard and growling, then you got all quiet.”
“They got away,” I said, realizing I still needed to breathe.
“Damn! Same here,” Venus said.
“My people just retook the portal room. It’s empty. Something’s in the system. I have techs on it. Good people. One of them’s like Gecko. We’ll find out where they went.”
I stood there, flexing my fingers, pulling up as much of a view of the world as mankind’s satellite network could give me. Not like I’d get lucky and somehow run across the exact tiny spot where he was and be able to recognize him and whatever other copies of his were working. “Unfortunately, he somehow managed to avoid getting any nanites in his system while he was here. Or he found a way to clear them out. Otherwise, I’d… Oh, right.”
“What?” asked Venus.
“Nanites in the drinking water. I put them there to keep everyone healthy, which is how I knew something was up when someone got sick and stayed sick. This guy didn’t have any in him, which is why I couldn’t stop him earlier. But Psychsaur and Max both have them in their system. I can track them.”
Venus spoke up. “This is going to sound bad, but we should wait until they stop running.”
“Find them in their lair,” Titan said.
“Yeah, and then clean them out, hopefully before they can do whatever they need to do to flush them out. I’ll and order them into the hard to reach places.”
“I recommend we keep this under our hats,” Titan said. “I want to make sure this is the last mole in my organization.”
“Agreed,” Venus said.
I cracked my neck and turned with a flourish of my cape, ignoring Cape Diem people running around, trying to calm everything down. “Eh, I’d say I doubt there are any more, but this isn’t looking like a good day for me. Looks like it’s just the three of us, then.” Despite all that, I did trust Dr. Creeper to not be a mole. I had him send a team to the ambush building to see if they could scrounge up anything like what the clown had on Max and Psychsaur.
I had to delegate. After all, my house, with my kid in it, had just been attacked. Just another thing to save up for when I get my hands on someone.
“…and the dastardly do-gooder who captured him and recovered the stolen Viking relics is said to have remarked, ‘There’s Norway you’re pulling this one off, Man-Opener!’ Folks, your old pal Outlaw X is going to break from the program to tell you about one of our latest sponsors. I’m sure you’re all aware of that crazy cat named Psycho Gecko, Emperor of Ricca after the Claw’s unfortunate demise. Inter-villain squabbles can be a real bummer, so that’s why I carry the new RA32 pulse blaster. The latest handcannon from Riccan Arms uses photons and gluons and more -ons than you can shake a stick at. I don’t know how it works, I just know it can light up your enemies like the Fourth of July and fold into the shape of a large flashlight so the missus won’t find out where you go at night. Riccan Arms is the innovation you desire in a package your enemies fear. Pick one up today…”
The labs set up a forward outpost of a sort in order to easily access the outside. The Claw had the place set up the old way for information security. At this point, I’d be grateful if random people on the street downloaded enough of the work on the infection to give us a hand with it. It also let me listen in on Outlaw X, the premiere radio station for villains. I never kept up with it as much as I cared. Even they hadn’t quite gotten wind yet of the Riccan lockdown, courtesy of stockpiles we had off the island and a comprehensive decon protocol the guys came up with on a hunch.
The bacteria spreads quickly, so my guys decided to see what the transmission tells us. A few days outside a human body and they die. They collected a few to see what the dead ones could teach us. Vulnerabilities, but also a chance at a vaccine. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone uninfected except the Deep Ones. Not all Deep Ones, though. It took some probing questions, but it turns out the purebred ones just don’t get infected. The bacteria just don’t recognize their brains as targets. It’s the ones with some human in their ancestry that end up infected. Deep Ones, eh? Close enough to mate with humans, like homo machina, but far enough away that they can’t be infected by this, unlike homo machina.
I figured out this was a handy thing, though, so I made inquiries through the Drone Division to see if elders and other Deep Ones community leaders could find me some able-bodied seapeople. I also sent along money and high-end moisturizing cream as incentives. A couple Deep Ones insisted on holding out for more. Specifically, they wanted to make sure their people’s work on behalf of mine wouldn’t be forgotten. They’d seen the way Americans were throwing away the lives of Puerto Ricans and concentrating immigrants in camps. They’d even begun a process of investigating citizens to decide if they should end up in the camps as “citizenship cheaters”. I told the guys working for me to inform those holdouts that I remain committed to seeing to the welfare of all Riccans, humans, Deep Ones, and homo machina alike, and would gladly honor those who help to save my people in their hour of need.
Lofty language, sure, but a lot more inspiring than sending them an answer of, “Fuck, man, sure, whatever.”
Luckily, the Chinese were making another shipment to the U.S. The Deep Ones were more than capable of capturing the ship. A science team donned hazmat suits and went onboard to find the people being sent over to the States. They went deep into debt to afford the chance at a better life, probably without realizing how bad the U.S. has gotten. Or things are just shitty enough in rural China that they’ll risk moving to a country where Nazis are still a major demographic.
The Deep Ones had to tackle one dumbass scientist who thought it’d be a good time to attempt taking his hood off. He got chewed out so many times up the ladder before I heard about it, Dr. Creeper told me he had to turn down the man’s request for seppuku. Which is an especially odd request for a Filipino, but Ricca’s something of a melting pot. Just the other day, people celebrated some holiday and I never got around to figuring out why they had dog balloons fighting with bird balloons.
In the end, they maintained quarantine and kept the people clean enough for experimentation. Because, as some upper-class white guy once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. You can tell, because you don’t hear too many poor people, or oppressed folks arguing that some people need to get the shaft for the greater good. So as a white guy, I had no problem ordering captured Chinese people to be used for experiments to save my people. Well, a white guy in the body of an Asian woman.
Once the exterior’s open to being changed like clothes, racism and sexism make about as much sense as being a fashion snob. Plus, a supervillain should always be on the lookout for downtrodden people. Think about it; police hostility to oppressed people means a lack of trust and gang organization. So you go in, you have people who area already disinclined to inform on you to the cops, and you can recruit in groups. Plus, you can buy a lot of loyalty sending them to school for subjects like mechanical engineering. They learn a trade, you get someone to help maintain the robot army. You know why you don’t see shadowy cabal of Jews taking over the world? Because nobody gave them a chance, dammit.
Enough, brain! Get on point, or I will poke you with things!
Work on a vaccine stalled when it came to using dead cells. They didn’t suddenly spring to life and create a full infection, which is great, but they also didn’t elicit an immune response. So while that’s a setback for vaccinations, it means we can safely ship weapons and equipment with no trouble. It has helped keep things under wraps.
With the science guys hard at work, I had a call to make. And since I had Psychsaur talking to Venus for me, that means it was Titan’s blue and orange mug that appeared on my giant screen at home. “Titan.”
“Psycho Gecko,” he acknowledged. “Any luck on a cure so far?”
I shook my head. “No. We had an idea for a vaccine, but it didn’t pan out. On the plus side, materials are safe to spread around after a few days. Maybe not anything from a refrigerator. We’ll see on that part.We’ll get you nanites for detection purposes, though.”
He rubbed his chin. “Is that safe? You said the bacteria eats nanites.”
I waved it off. “It’s fine. They tested to make sure, but it only seems to attack nanites that attack it and derive all their nutrition from hosts. The solution the nanites are in is more about preserving them from moisture and air, and the bacteria die off just as easily.”
“Thank god for the little things,” he said, pun probably not intended from his complete lack of reaction. “How are your people holding up?”
“It seems to be limited to the hundreds. If this were any other population, with less general health, I suspect we’d see more. What about your folks?”
“We’ve had four with the adverse reaction that we know about. Six other attempted to break quarantine. I have someone investigating.”
“Thank you,” I told him. “I peg the heroes, personally.”
“Not your own?” he asked. I mean, technically yes and no, that time my wife made herself look like Venus…
“Anyone infected could have spread it from the airport or docks as soon as they arrived, or from anywhere else. It’d have gotten everyone anyway. That’s what they made it for.”
Titan shook his head. “That assumes Patient Zero knows anything about it. He or she could have been ordered to let it out at a social function or in your vicinity. You could be collateral damage to a different target.”
“I think we can assume the target was me. It’s able to bond to homo machina and resist my nanites and it first appeared on my island as far as anyone knows. Not like the symptoms are unique, though. We’ll stick a pin in that for later.”
“With the CDC,” he interjected.
“Right. Those guys, if they even still exist these days. I just don’t think they’d risk someone getting caught ahead of time with this when all they have to do is release it anywhere on the island, so I think this person’s first opportunity was the party. That means someone who came in, either with the Master Academy group or with your people. But I will have recent arrivals looked into by my pervasive peace force. I might loosen the restrictions on brutality.”
“I emphasize efficiency of brutality,” Titan said, glowing eyes giving off just the faintest hint of disapproval.
I cocked my head to the side. “You wouldn’t believe the level of pissed I’m on. I think you’d better hope the perpetrator is found by someone other than me.”
“You are allowing the heroes to investigate their own,” he pointed out.
“I don’t trust Venus to investigate. I need you to get Psychsaur over there for me.” I’d hinted that Qiang might want to play with the reptilian superhuman quite a bit. Get her real sympathetic to what I’m fighting for. I don’t have to trust Venus to find out of if the heroes are behind this. I just have to trust a mindreader who likes my daughter.
“See if she’ll help me first and you have a deal.”
I nodded. “That is, of course, up to her. I’ll see if I can make it happen. Heroes, villains, and neutrals all aligned. Someone clearly wasn’t satisfied with the small size of their asshole.”
“Some things just aren’t done,” he said. “Standards don’t make you weak. Maintaining them shows a strength that means more than most understand. There are things you simply don’t do to people or children. Even your nanite scheme was a bluff in the end. The better for you that it was.”
Ehh, maybe I won’t tell him I was prevented from killing a huge chunk of the world with nanites that time.
I’m not telling lots of people lots of things. Like how I haven’t told even those in my science team that Mix N’Max has set up a little lab right in my own home to come up with his own concoction to cure this thing. It’d be about useless if it takes too long or if he somehow has to do one at a time. And then, once we’ve got a usable cure, it somehow slips out that he’s got lab space elsewhere and is working on this very thing. Sure would be interesting to see if anyone tries to break in and sabotage efforts.
Then, I play Whack-A-Mole.