“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.
While the doctors worked on figuring out this thing, I stayed with my family, waiting. I know I got a call forwarded to me through the Directory. The first time, it turned out to be Venus. When I heard her voice, a laugh forced itself from my mouth. Just a short one, then I hung up. I’d originally intended some sort of crafty lie, but why fucking bother? I didn’t even pick up the next times. Should have just told the Directors not to even bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. So I just hung out in the palace. I think Qiang and Max realized something was wrong. Qiang asked a couple of times. All I told her was “Nothing, honey,” and set her on my lap.
I didn’t get much sleep, and what I did, I got in Qiang’s bed. That first night in particular, I stayed awake thinking of vengeance. A Dimension Bomb on a dead man’s trigger. An eternally replicating grey goo swarm. Nuclear attacks on the ice caps to drown the world in a nuclear flood. Or even just disperse all the infected around the globe to make sure this disease took out everyone else. I thought of setting the world ablaze to serve as the funeral pyre for myself and my loved ones. Like I’d tried to do before.
In the dark there, I remembered those times I’d read about during the Cold War. There were a couple of times when the Russians believed the Americans had launched on them and they almost launched in retaliation for what turned out to be false reports. I’d wondered on occasion about that situation. Knowing the nukes are coming, unstoppable, and will wipe me out and my people. What do you do, eh? Do you launch, and kill everyone else on Earth for the sake of people who are about to be ashes?
I could. It’d be so easy. Really, anyone capable of turning a key, pushing a button, or giving an order could. Capability of destroying the world is easy. The question on my mind as I nuzzled my daughter’s head and tried to keep her hair off my lips, is would I?
I paid Psychsaur a visit in the middle of the night. As I’d suspected, the Claw really was the sort of enterprising but paranoid evil overlord that he’d construct testing rooms capable of negating whatever invisible whammy makes telekinesis and telepathy happen. I found Psychsaur laying on a floor made up of overlapping squares of thing wire strands. I didn’t go in, but instead stood at the observation area, the cameras giving me a view inside, and looked down at a red button. “Oooh, what does this button do?” I asked no one, pressing it.
The floor crackled and sparks flew underneath Psychsaur, jolting her awake and into a jump. She scrabbled at the smooth, reinforced walls, unable to find purchase to escape the shock from the floor. I hummed a short tune before looking down at my finger still pressing that darn button. “Oh dear, look at that. Totally forgot about that.” I let up and instead pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello Psychsaur.”
“Hello Gecko. Please let me out. I need to find out-”
“I’d have left you to the chief interrogator, who is excellent at his job, but we’re having something of a labor shortage now. Lots of people out sick. Lots of people helping to move the bodies. That’s why you have the pleasure of my personal attention.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Look at that, someone turned down the temperature in the room. “I don’t know what’s going on. Let me help you! Let us help you!”
“Is that what this is? Another gambit to make me dependent and controllable? You’d be happy to help so long as I surrender myself to your custody and give up my powers? You’d have a much better chance of that if you sick bastards hadn’t gotten my daughter infected.”
Her jaw gaped open and her knees collapsed under her. She sobbed to herself. “I’m sorry about your girl. Just, please… please, please, please, how is Venus?”
“Venus? How should she be?” I asked, figuring now we’d gotten to the good stuff.
“He said it started at the party. She’s probably infected too. Oh God, and if they’re infected, it must be all over Empyreal City by now.”
I looked at her, crying there. “I’m sorry about Qiang,” she said, her voice croaking. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me see my Venus again before she…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I let a breath out and moved my and over to push a button.
The door opened.
She looked up as I stepped into the doorway, my armor on except for hood. It hung off the back above my cape. “Come on. I had to be sure because of what’s at stake.”
She got to her feet shakily, snorting at a nose stopped with mucus. “I’m free to go.”
I shrugged. “You can be. I’d rather you stay and help me, but you’re not the enemy. You’re just as infected as everyone else, though.”
“When is it going to get me?” she asked, moving toward the door. I stood back to give her room to leave, figuring she’d rather not get too close. Instead, she grabbed my arm and leaned on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “For all that in there. But I don’t know. Qiang’s not affected so far. Hardly anyone is.”
I hardly believed it either, but I escorted her to the bio lab team for a better idea of what we were facing. They’d managed to get a secure line out that let them continue monitoring the island and North Korea, both of which had maintained a quarantine. I sent off for food and drink while we were on the way, and they met us there to help Psychsaur regain her strength. While she sat in the lab chowing down on a bowl of rice and chicken, I gestured to Dr. Smith, who had been caught scratching his prominent, beaklike nose. “Explain to our guest here, whose motives I believe to be honest, what seems to be going on.”
His smile was awkward and apologetic. “The vast majority of those infected are having no adverse response that we can detect. There is the odd reaction similar to the officer in the other room, and we have collected those for further study. If you don’t mind, miss, we’d very much like to do a more in-depth scan of your brain.”
“Why?” asked Psychsaur from behind a cup of coffee.
Smith looked to me, but I gestured again. He continued, “The infection as we’ve seen it appears to be spread out across the brain. We’re still learning, and every data point we obtain helps us determine why some are having this adverse reaction, and how common it is. Is it inevitable, or a fluke?”
I butted in here. “That may be her choice, but I insist she have time to see to herself first.” I turned to Psychsaur. “I believe you wanted to check in on Venus? Maybe get a shower or some proper rest in a proper bed, right?”
She practically sprinted out of the room before she had to stop and ask how to get back out of there. I pointed to the same person who brought the rice and coffee. “Show her out and call a car to take her to my palace. Thank you,” I nodded to the man, then to Psychsaur, who smiled at me. The one I returned wasn’t quite so enthusiastic, but then I’m a pessimist.
I sent her off for rest and to make her call.
Smith came over, talking quietly around everyone. “You trust her, Empress?”
I nodded. “She was worried about her girlfriend even over her concern for a child she believed might be dying. It’s selfish. If you’re pretending to not be involved, it’s the last thing you want to do. If you aren’t involved, it’s a reasonable reaction. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
“Now that she’s gone, I should inform you we have determined more about the nature of the illness.” He tapped a tablet in his hands and a hologram projected out to show an image of the human brain with red dots around it, most concentrated at the base. “Red indicates the full extent of the infection.”
“Multiple places? Does that alter our idea of who has it?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Instead, watch what happens when nanites are directed to engage them.”
A see-through holographic body appeared around the brain. The view zoomed in close to the red at the base of the skull. A cloud of blue dots appeared, one detecting the red and pulling the rest to it. Zooming in even further, I could see blue-highlighted nanites land on red growths. That was about all they had time to do before the red opened up and wrapped around the nanites, capturing the nanites and breaking them down.
Smith spoke. “We’ve taken samples the conventional way. It’s bacterial, and engineered specifically to fight off your nanites.”
I nodded. “Not a parasite?”
He shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t manage this rate of airborne infection even if it was. Our tests have shown something else of interest. The bacteria causes acute, temporary strain on the body as it reproduces enough to spread to anyone nearby. This all started at a party, so it’s likely that’s why no one noticed at first. From what we see, it spends little time reproducing before going dormant. The infection in your officer didn’t. I must stress my assessment will become more accurate with more data points across a greater range of infectees, because I currently believe going dormant is how it is meant to function. The officer’s reaction is atypical.”
“If someone’s engineered this stupid thing, I wonder what the point of the typical reaction is,” I said. “It’s good work, and I thank you for it. I know I’ve placed a lot of importance on this, but now we know it isn’t trying to kill us all, remember to take a break. Catch a nap of your own, and something better to eat than stale coffee and sandwiches, ok?”
He nodded and said, “Thank you,” then looked back to his team. “I have something I want to finish up before I can take a moment, but thank you.”
I nodded and headed out. Creeper caught me on my way out though, moving with the assistance of a crude exoskeleton covered in the brown patina of case-hardened steel. “Psycho! You have heard the news, ja? The disease is not meant to do to us what it did to the unfortunate man they carried in here?”
I nodded and reached up to rub my eyes. “Yeah. Great news, so far. I’ve told the team in there to ease up a bit. Don’t want them too tired or hungry to think up a cure.”
He nodded. “Of course. But I have another idea. Do you know the status of the infection outside of our borders?”
I shook my head. “We ever figure that out?”
“Nein, but it would be child’s play to sample the bacteria and modify a strain. It would be a poetic weapon to unleash as payback against the world for our fates. If we are to die slow, horrible, agonizing deaths at the hands of this epidemic, that is.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Creeper, I want any samples we take now to be used for finding us a cure. That’s the only thing I want us doing with this disease.”
“But what if we die?” he asked.
I closed my eyes as I answered. “Then we die wronged and we die containing it from the rest of the world. Take care of yourself and your people, Doc. I’m going to go catch a nap and make some calls. We’ve got a disease to kill, then we can focus on whoever did this to us. We wouldn’t want to be too tired to have our fun with them, now would we?”
Wonderful times on Ricca. We’ve had someone get sick on the island by something that didn’t clear up on its own. I’ve got nanites in the water keeping people healthy. This is the only place where if you cut a body part off, it might grow back on its own. Somehow, a guy who drank plenty of water got sick. Making it worse, any quarantine was fucked from the beginning, since he’d been at my daughter’s birthday party. The end of that saw a fuckload of people leaving before I even knew anything was wrong with this guy.
We had a failed quarantine from the start. But a few people did end up staying the night, including my daughter’s best friend, her parents, and the inebriated superhero girlfriend of my nemesis. Once Psychsaur had awoken and recovered from her hangover, I had to pull her aside and tell her why it was potentially risky to let her leave. “There’s a chance you and every single other person was exposed yesterday.”
“What did you put in the punch and how much do you want for the videos?” she asked, feathers still looking flat in places from how she slept on them.
“Not that kind of exposed, and $10,000,” I told her. I filled her in on the presence of he disease and the fact that our nanites were unable to heal it. “We have our guys looking into it. Full body scan, figure out what’s affected, what the cause is, disease or virus. Nothing in the guy’s medical file about a genetic disorder. Can’t do anything at all about the people we let leave. If we’re lucky, this thing doesn’t pass to others very easily. But until we know more, the island’s on lockdown. No one in or out. Which means I’ve already had to send Titan a message telling him he can’t sent out through the portals anymore.”
“You’re serious,” is all she said, looking me over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you more serious. This worries you.”
“It’s an illness unaffected by the things I rely on to stay alive and I’m trapped on the only island where it’s proven to exist. This shit is whack, yo. Worse, I’m put in the position of holding onto the girlfriend of Venus, and a kid, and her parents. It looks bad and we have to contain how many people know about this.”
“Crap, you’re right. Can you show me the guy? Prove what’s going on to me and I’ll talk to Venus. She can contain the situation out there, but she’s going to want to know this isn’t a plot. If you’re serious, I think you need to share the medical data here.”
I screwed up my face. “Yeah, because she’s a doctor? She won’t understand it. Knowing her, she’ll even use it to screw with my people. Your school there is handling education for kids and teens.”
“We have doctors on staff and as alumni, genius,” Psychsaur said, bopping me on the head.
I reached up to make sure my headdress was still ok. “Don’t fuck with my hair. My hair’s on point. I will tear a motherfucker up.”
She burst into laughter. “Oh my god, you’re so girly!”
“Don’t let the dress fool you, I’m the same Gecko I’ve ever been. Now let’s go play doctor.”
As usual, I got to feel the irritating silence of the digital blackout that came with entering the Institute of Science. We have hospitals and doctors there, but the Institute was deemed the best place for the guard’s quarantine, care, and study. It also didn’t have people all around with compromised immune systems, more careful procedures, and a lot of flamethrowers laying around in case things got bad. Then again, I bet strategic flamethrower placement could solve a lot of issues as far as doctors forgetting to wash their hands in hospitals. Hmm…
That aside, we were shown to the biological wing of the labs. We checked in with the doctor on staff who assured us the results ought to be back soon. Dr. Smith, he called himself.
“Smith, eh?” I asked, looking at the holographic interface floating in the antechamber to the isolation unit. It depicted a rough outline of a human brain that slowly, piece by piece, was refining itself. “Good job, Smith.”
“You couldn’t have told the nanites to do this?” Psychsaur asked.
I shrugged. “I have a certain amount of medical knowledge and can program them easily enough, but these were originally built for healing. Most of their code came with them. I just made certain changes, like having them only work on myself. And, well, that whole thing with taking over the world and using them to control and kill people. I actually made a pretty stupid mistake with them early on. These guys know tests I don’t and are intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of the brain. Intimately, do you hear me? That’s why this guy pretends his last name is Smith.”
“There are concerns we could be branded as criminals,” Dr. Smith said.
I waved his objection away. “Tell them you were just following orders. People accept that all the time, even when they think they’re too good for it.”
“I would rather not test that,” he said. “Once we’ve found the infection, testing others will be much quicker. If anyone else is infected, even as an asymptomatic carrier, the nanite network can reveal it to us. A full map of it, virus, bacteria, parasite, or agent, will help our understanding and attempts to cure it. Then we can update the nanites to counter whatever new disease we’re dealing with.”
I raised a hand. “If you’ve seen the sort of programming in these nanites, you should know they’re pretty good at figuring out what’s unusual for the humanoid body and eliminating it. I’ve literally bet my life on this technology many times over. If this is capable of evading them, I think we’re guaranteed a major problem on our hands.”
“Holy crap, you have a third arm!” Psychsaur said. She grabbed that hand. “It’s real.”
“Had to do something with my third arm after I grew the boobs.” I’d held up a lower hand without thinking. I slipped the other of that pair out to wiggle its fingers at her.
“Why do you have two more arms?!”She took my hands and kept looking them over, prompting Dr. Smith to look away and scratch at his temple. “Did you take these from someone?”
“I built them myself, with lots of meat, calcium, and nanites. We’re talking with a doctor here.” I turned back to him, though she kept feeling around on my hands. “I’m going to need a redacted copy of his chart in digital form for her law-abiding friends back in the United States. So see to those details accordingly. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
He shook his head. “We have the resources. All we need is time to work.”
As we left, I had to pull my hands away from Psychsaur. “Won’t your girlfriend be jealous you’re holding my hands?”
“We’ve worked through worse, like her Catholicism,” she told me. “You made yourself a second pair of arms. I guess I didn’t think about what you could do with them.”
“Your girlfriend knows better than most how good I am at growing arms. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you might fail to mention this to her.”
“Yeah, no, that’s not happening. Sorry. I’m surprised you’d do all that. You said you mess up sometimes.”
I raised a finger. She examined the nails on that hand. “I messed up early on, when I first made some work for only my DNA.”
“You want to tell me how?” she asked. “Come on, stop being so paranoid about your secrets. It’s probably not something anyone can even use against you, like the arm thing.”
Now, I could come up with ways Venus could use information about me having extra arms to her advantage in a fight with me. I also knew I wasn’t going to give that kind of idea to her girlfriend. That said, that earlier screw-up wasn’t something they could really use against me, no.
“So a lot of people have a very limited understanding of sex and sexuality, especially in places where that kind of thing is considered a bit rude and risque to talk about. Even on my planet, knowledge of exactly how it all works doesn’t necessarily filter from the experts to the regular folk. So, I messed up and had it handle the chromosome issue in the stereotypical way most people would think it goes.”
She looked at me for a moment. “And? What chromosome issue?”
“When I told the nanites to work on only my DNA, that included a mapping of it. They were to make sure all of me was up to code, save for anything replaced with cybernetics. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that the body is not uniform in sex cells, nor that the sex of individual cells can affect the body so greatly.”
“Parts of me are male?”
I looked her over, from her scaly skin to her feathers in place of hair. “Parts of you are prehistoric. But possibly. The problem with the most conservative estimates on how common it is are naturally incomplete. How many people have the DNA of every cell in their body tested? Look at how diagnosis of autism increased once your doctors learned enough about it to detect it better. Long story short, these nanites could quite possibly allow anyone on Earth to change sex at the drop of a hat just by reading the DNA off cells of the opposite sex and working their magic on the organs that matter for all that. Except me, because I am one-hundred percent male.” I posed, showing off how the dress hung from my feminine frame topped by a gold headdress in my flowing hair.
We walked along in seconds, coming to the lobby of the Institute. “So that’s it?” she asked.
I scoffed. “I said it was a stupid mistake. I didn’t say it was a big one. Besides, there’s already a process involving genetic grafting and my nanites that would let me do that if I wanted to. Just think, a pregnant Gecko.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re thinking of becoming a mother?”
I rolled my eyes. “See, this is the harm in telling you heroes things. You start psychoanalyzing and projecting. Next thing you know, y’all will be trying to impregnate me to try and keep me docile. Joke’s on you though, if you have any idea how pissed-off a pregnant woman can be and add that to my natural pleasant demeanor.” I smiled at her, and not the nice one. This was the smile I like to give people before rearranging their organs with a knife. “I’ma eat ya, bitch.”
We were just getting into the Imperial confiscated convertible when one of the research assistants sprinted out of the building. He came to a stop right next to me. I think he might have bowed, but he was so busy trying not to puke and sucking wind that I couldn’t tell. “Easy there,” I told him. “Catch your breath. Unless you’re a member of the bomb squad, then tell me that first.”
He shook his head and took a minute to get his breathing under control. “Empress, we found it and they are writing a program to patch into the nanites. If it pleases you to wait, we will have it shortly and you can see the results firsthand.”
I looked to Psychsaur. She shrugged. “I’m fine.”
Whoever they had working on the nanite programming, they worked fast, or maybe they’d already been building an app while the rest of the team was hunting this thing down. So we waited in the lobby and a half-hour later, Smith brought us a laptop personally. He set it down, eyeing Psychsaur, then switched it from hologram to augmented mode. The he activated the app.
An outline of the island appeared that filled in with buildings and rough patches to signify the forest and temple ruins off on the other part of the island. Then, pinging off each other, little dots began to appear. The regenerative nanites were meant to coordinate together in order to better repair the body and fight disease. I’ve used that coordination for tricks before, like triggering the grey goo protocol when an enemy needed to be disassembled, or to hold the world hostage during my brief tenure in control of the entire world. This time, it went through and kept jumping through the population of my island, even down into a couple of the sewer crocs by the looks of things. Soon, what looked to be most of the island filled out. More red dots kept appearing rapidly, in ones or twos, sometimes with larger groups.
I looked up to Smith, who looked pale. “Is that just the people it’s scanned, or is that the people infected?”
He swallowed. “Infected.”
Then the view expanded, showing North Korea and Mu as well, who had copied our waterworks and where people were just generally exposed to the nanites for medical care. Our colonies on the formerly-sunken continent appeared to be clean, but the infection was spreading from Pyongyang about as fast as it did here on the island.
“Empress, based on my rough estimate of the rate of infection, I believe it likely the infection first appeared on the day of your daughter’s birthday.”
I threw my head back and laughed, which made Smith jump. Once I had a moment to quiet down, I heard Psychsaur punching buttons on her phone. I turned and slapped it out of her hand, then grabbed her throat and lifted her off the ground. “You’re not warning anybody. Which one of your little friends was it?”
“I don’t know!” She kicked at me, then grabbed my wrist. Her telekinesis squeezed my fingers and forced them open. She dropped to the ground, and I suddenly felt a tingle in my head like she was up to something. I heard Smith fall, the tablet clattering with him. “I didn’t have anything to do with this. I don’t know what’s going on, I promise. But you know you can trust me. You can trust Venus.”
I thought back to my encounter with Future Venus. Willing to give me up to pay some aliens back for helping stop a threat. Willing to kidnap my daughter and do what she thought was best, keep her as a hostage of Master Academy. I could feel Psychsaur buzzing in my head, trying to get in. Ah, the benefits to having a brain that interfaces better with computers than psychics.
I threw a punch. She caught it with her mind. Another with a free hand. Again, she caught it. The same happened with the third and the fourth. I smiled, then went for a headbutt. Now, her catching that surprised me. I think she’s been practicing.
“I don’t want to fight you. I want to help you, please,” she said.
I also thought back to the red dots here in the lobby. The doctor, the assistant who tripped over himself running away from the fight, me, and Psychsaur. And while it pissed me off to no end to see myself represented there, that wasn’t the only thing to take away from it. “You’re in my world now, not your world. And I got friends on the inside.”
She collapsed into unconsciousness as the nanites in blocked the blood flow to her brain just long enough to knock her out. The invisible pressure on my limbs ceased and I grabbed her by the leg. I turned to see Dr. Smith standing up, looking woozy. He had a little bit of yellow vomit dripping from his mouth. “Glad you’re up, Doc. Get Creeper. I’m going to need our best anti-psychic testing chamber prepped for a guest. And forget the chart for her friends. Someone just gave the whole island a disease and didn’t even have the common fucking courtesy to kiss us on the mouth first.”