There’s something very odd being treated like some sort of broken, delicate thing. Moreso when the ones doing the treating are people I’ve spent years fighting, sometimes killing. In a timeline where I’d never come to this world, the hero population hadn’t been properly culled. Kids ran and flew around outside, holding a snowball fight. I watched as a couple boys tossed snowballs at a girl, chasing her into an igloo. The igloo’s entrance closed. A block opened to reveal a barrel. Tank treads popped out of the sides of the igloo and it began to roll. With a fwoom, it fired a snowball that knocked one of the boys on his ass.
“Awful lot of snow for Cali,” I said to Forcelight. She pointed to a pole that poked out of the ground and reached up over all the buildings. A large disk on top generated snow. “Weather control seems like it’d be useful for more than just playing around at school.”
“I asked them about that. My friend, Venus, told me it only makes snow. Nowhere else wants it other than Hollywood. Everyone thinks snow is too much trouble.”
It was a festive place. Lights adorned the outside of the buildings. Even the statue of Oscar Romero in the courtyard had a red and white hat on it. We moved past a foyer and front hall with rugs and its own smaller Christmas trees decorated about, and to the noisy part of the main buildings. Formerly dead and hostile faces welcomed me when Forcelight ushered me through the door of the Master Academy’s California campus cafeteria, where children, teens, and a lot of adults milled about around a two-story Christmas tree.
Venus came bounding up, out of costume, to hug Forcelight. “You made it! Everything wrapped up in Washington?”
Forcelight nodded. “Yeah. Once the big domino was destroyed, the others fell like a house of cards. Checkmate.” Venus smiled at the joke and turned to me. Forcelight turned to introduce me. “This is Gecko. She was a huge help. She’s some sort of technopath, so she turned the big one off. Gecko, this is Venus.”
“That’s amazing. Nice to meet you,” my nemesis said as she shook my hand. I wonder if I could hit that in this continuity… I mean, is still cheating if it’s in a different timeline? The only example I can think of involved another universe, and I still don’t think I’m in one. I’m in the same one that’s been altered significantly.
“Charmed, dear Venus,” I said. “It’s quite the place you have here. The food smells delicious. I can’t wait to have something other than highway snacks and hospital food.”
“She was injured while saving Washington,” Forcelight volunteered. “She had someone who helped her with that. He fought alongside us. Put a pin it that for later. For now, go eat Gecko. Go on!”
Thus commenced an evening of feasting with my foes. I ate too much, I was flirted with, and I even got asked to dance by Sixgun. I killed him, too. Not tonight. I’m talking about in the old continuity. Tonight, he just tried to get in my new dress. There was no killing to worry about… until it got later.
My history with Christmas being what it is, I kept my guard up even as others drank and cavorted. That’s why I was paying attention when wine in a glass started rippling. Someone else, a man with pointy ears, looked up. “Something’s coming,” he said in a soft voice
He ran to go warn someone. I ran out to the yard to see what was the matter. It had become deserted as the night went on and the children were forced into beds to have nightmares about sugarplum fairies.
A giant robot with pincers for hands came to a halt outside. We’re talking a good thirty, maybe thirty-five feet tall. Very similar old-style Nazi design aesthetic, but with a visor for a windshield on the head and a pair of gun barrels poking out from underneath it like a nose. It didn’t come alone. I spotted others near its feet.
On the one hand, the upcoming fight would be none of my business and nothing’s going to be permanent over here once I give it a good editing. On the other, I wanted to punch something.
“Master Academy, come out and face your doom at the hands of Dr. Creeper and his Ho-Ho-Horrors!”
Huh. So that’s what he got up to over here. I zoomed in for a closer look at the Ho-Ho-Horrors themselves. The one that stood out the most was the gargantuan of a man covered in scars and medical staples. He had a pair of metal bolts from each neck, shot fire from a flamethrower with 8 openings. Another looked like a regular guy until he concentrated and grew into a white-furred ape-thing. Next to him stood a man in a pilgrim outfit with a face covered in a black mask with white eye holes. On the opposite side of the flamethrower-wielding Frankenstein’s monster rolled up a cylindrical robot with a facsimile for a metal head planted on top of the cylinder, which held several arms. One of the arms lit up with an electrical arc between two ends of it, while the others were an assortment of claws, drills, and at least one plunger.
Then the ninjas dropped down between us the Ho-Ho-Horrors and the school. They had the cloth head coverings like you’d expect, but with goggles and metal lower face guards. The rest of their costume was less “black pajamas” as the stereotype goes and more like winter camo with body armor and sheaths for swords and other weapons. “Also, I’ve hired the services of the Ronin-Go. They aren’t my usual minions, but these are the only ones I could find willing to work Christmas Eve.”
Yet another reason why most people don’t bother attacking on Christmas Eve: better shit to do than get into a fight with supervillains. Like getting into a fight with family.
By now, I wasn’t the only one looking at the group. I rushed to the front hall and grabbed some ornaments off the trees. Most of them were those stupid plastic non-breakable ones, but a few were the classic glass. I broke several of those up and laid them out on the floor, then waited by the welcome rug.
The door burst in and ninjas came through it, yelling and waving swords. I waited until I got a good sized group and pulled the rug out from under them. A half dozen of them found their legs no longer underneath them and a short drop to a granite floor welcoming instead. I tossed the rug back over them before they could get up and ran over the top of them to the next wave. A good four of them tried to swing at me at once from the same direction and ended up getting in each other’s way. “Should have come at me one at a time,” I said with a laugh and grabbed away their swords in each hand.
They looked to me, then two bent and fired grappling lines on either side, forming a little corridor of rope at about knee level. One of the others jumped over me, knocking down one of his lumpy friends under the rug, and whipped out a pair of sai. The other who hand’t so far done anything squeezed his hands. Long metal claws popped out of winter digital-camo colored gauntlets. “Hi-ya!” the ones on either side of me yelled. Because when you hire ninjas, you want the classic ninja experience.
“Hiya,” I said, then hocked a loogie onto the clawed-ones visor. I turned around to the one behind me. I planted all four swords I held in the floor rug, and in someone I was standing on, and used them to lever myself into a flip over that one. He turned quickly and barely managed to catch two of the blades with his sais. I grinned and winked at him as the other two swords cut his pants so they fell down his legs. “Ever been circumcised before?”
The ninjas on either side of this little rope corridor they hoped to restrict my movements with came at me but soon found themselves crunching over broken orbs and stars and such. The one in front of me turned to run and tripped through a combination of his pants being around his ankles and the fact that we were still on top of a welcome mat covering six of his now-irritated and potentially wounded friends. The one I’d spat in the face of flipped over him and landed on the pommel of one sword I held up when I figured out where he was coming down at. He fell to the floor moaning and cradling a nut that’d need to be popped out later.
A shot caught me in the chest and knocked me back until I fell off the rug. There in the doorway was the smoking old-time flintlock. And behind it stood the guy in the pilgrim costume and mask.
I coughed and felt for my wound. My hand came back bloody and holding a round metal ball that had flattened where it ran into the bulletproof subdermis of my body. Still hurt like I’d been hung by my figgin. Before I could stand, one of the ropes was cut by Sixgun and his Bowie knife. He twirled it into a sheath and looked to me. “You alright, ma’am?”
I coughed and nodded. He nodded back, then turned and squared up with the Pilgrim, throwing his coat back. “Howdy Pilgrim. That’s no way to treat a lady. Mayhap you have a shot with me instead?” The Pilgrim tossed aside his spent pistol and shifted another couple around to the front of his belt.
One of the ninjas that had hurt his feet on broken decorations fell over on one of the little Christmas trees out there, knocking off a big red bow that rolled lazily between the two gunfighters. After a moment, the Pilgrim drew. Sixgun was faster. He shot the pistol out of the Pilgrim’s hand, then popped him in the shoulder, spinning him around into the cold, dark night.
By now, fighting had erupted all over. Once I managed to get to my fight, I spotted the Were-Yeti tangling with a huge, half-man, half-sloth that I knew as the Human Sloth from my own experience. Forcelight, meanwhile, had destroyed the flamethrower of the Frankenstein and was trying to put him down before he could overpower her. I spotted cylindrical robot with the treads circle around behind her.
I jumped it and stuck my fingers to its head. “What are you doing?” it asked. “I am Qwanzaar! Release me at once. No, do not stick that in there. That is not where fingers goOO!” It voiced surprise as my nervous system joined with its computerized brain and stopped it.
“Okily Qwanzaar, you’re mine now,” I said. I looked up at the giant robot, which traded blows with a woman in a pink and black costume with butterfly wings on it. It managed to catch the Pink Pixie by a wing and tore it off, sending the heroine spinning. And I couldn’t do anything about it from the ground. Dr. Creeper’s robots were based on old analog Nazi designs meant to be worked with levers and buttons and no computer elements at all. Nothing about this big one suggested he’d upgraded that part of it.
Instead, I looked to its knees, then at a cluster of downed ninjas. It was easy to appropriate their grappling hooks and ropes, then hop back on top of Qwanzaar. Firing and latching on with a grappling hook didn’t take a lot of work either.
No, by far the worst part was waiting for Qwanzaar to slowly circle through the snow for longer than it would have taken to watch the entire opening of Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth scenes. Pink Pixie, then Forcelight, managed to keep the big guy distracted long enough, especially once they saw what I was doing. Creeper didn’t noticed I’d tied up his robot’s knees until he went to step back and it caught. “What is this?!” his voice boomed from the speaker just before the robot began to fall.
The robot knocked off the disk that made the snow as it fell onto it, then the chest began to poke upward where the pole underneath had stabbed into it and the fall damaged the chest plate from the inside. A piece of metal fell off the top of the robot’s head and a rotor popped out. The head pulled off and began to fly away.
Instead of going after it, Pink Pixie, Forcelight, and the other heroes worked on rounding up the remaining Ho-Ho-Horrors and Ronin-Go. They might have thought they had longer, but the escape pod head’s sides opened up to reveal wings and jet engines. The rotors fell off as it shot away with a sonic boom.
All in all, not a bad party.
Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hannukah, Io Saturnalia, and an early Joyous Kwanzaa, dear readers. Remember, so long as you’re still alive, doesn’t matter if they trap you in another world, you’ve still got a chance.
Between burns, a missing hand, and skinless zombie dog wounds that got infected, I have had a hell of a time missing my nanites. You can’t go out and play vigilante without incurring some injuries and they’re pretty much the only thing that’s kept me going at my nonstop pace. Without them, I’m stuck healing in a hospital. They better not expect me to pay. Worst bedpan service I’ve ever had, and I’ve hung out with some classy scatophiles.
After some convalescing, it seems popular opinion won over Blackstone enough to visit and do what he could to help. Well, some pushing in the hero community, and by hero community, I mean Forcelight carried him into my room. “I don’t care if you hate her, she got hurt helping us out and I know you know how to do something about it!”
I had been downloading music, movies, news articles, and podcasts that differed between this timeline and the next. I’m not sure how well they’d stick once everything’s fixed, but you never know what handy information might be dug up in one and secret in the other. I have some good dirt on a bunch of people. I stopped looking through things and blinked, bringing myself back to meatspace. “Your company doesn’t have anything better? Regenerative nanomachines, perhaps?”
“Long Life looked into it, but we don’t have the capability,” she said. She glared at Blackstone, then, who at least shaved again in the days I’d been laid up. “Reverse time and get rid of her injuries or something.”
“You will regret this! She’s not to be trusted!” He held a finger up toward Forcelight.
“You didn’t notice any of that out there?” Forcelight asked.
Blackstone glared at her, at me, back at her, then glared at the “Get Well Soon!” flowers I received that sat near the get well nudes I didn’t ask for. Finally, he pulled out Los Cincos Soles Dorados. “You do not simply play with temporal magic,” he growled.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, aren’t we well aware. I’m pretty sure that thing we need to do, the whole reason we were even in this city to begin with, would work better if I wasn’t the queen of the blisters.” I paused, then looked to Forcelight, “I’m an Empress, by the way.”
“Cool. What planet are you from?” she asked.
“Strana Mechty,” I answered. Blackstone gave me a confused look, but I didn’t want to explain the whole situation. I didn’t fucking know the situation. My adventures with Mobian uncovered that me coming to Earth is necessary, at least on my world. It caused a big chain of events where aliens Justice Rangers arrive on Earth and I leave their crashed ship and equipment on my planet to be discovered and form the basis of the Justice Rangers I knew from there.
Big load of bullshit if you ask me, but there’s some sort of paradox going on and I’m confused. Time travel has some sort of rules, but I can’t fucking follow them.
My pain was noticed. Even though I had my eyes closed, I heard Forcelight drag Blackstone over. He said, “Fine.” I opened my eyes to see him standing there with the book open. He fished around and pulled out a pocketwatch on a chain with his other hand and held it up.
“Purple haze, all in my eyes,” I said, careful not to sing. Bleeding ears would likely affect the healing process.
“Jimmi Hendrix you are not,” he said. The light bloom moving over me combined the tell-tale purple of Blackstone’s power with the gold that appeared related to his interactions with the book. “The easiest way to deal with this is to be kind, rewind.”
I shouldn’t have to explain what being hurt is like, but I can’t explain what having it reverse is actually like. My skin did things I’m still trying to forget about, but I remember the itchiness, the cold, and the burning which then rapidly reversed to room temperature. I got to see my hand rematerialize from ashes. I winced and gritted my teeth as the nerves appeared and everything went through the same process of shifting temperatures and pain.
He stopped and put up his pocketwatch, now tarnished and cracked. “How do you feel?”
“Worst bedside service ever,” I said, tossing the covers aside and standing up. “I couldn’t even get anyone to check my temperature the fun way. Where are my clothes?”
“They’re not healed, but they should be easy to replace,” Forcelight says. Yeah, they were a bit stinky by this point. I had spares from the road trip… in Blackstone’s car. I don’t know if they came through the sewer tunnel with us, but I don’t think I want to get them from there at this point. So I headed into the bathroom to get dressed. When I came out, Blackstone was on the phone with someone.
When he saw me, he finished it quickly by telling the person on the other end, “Yes, dear. I’ll be there. Trust me I will be. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
I squinted and opened a connection, curious. The contact read “Marivel” in the phone. There were texts, but he hung up before I could get into them. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Could you give us some privacy, Forcelight?” Blackstone asked of her. I dove into those texts when he said that. Fhe looked to me and I nodded, even as I worked through texts about missing Blackstone and wondering if he’d pick up milk on his way back. Forcelight shrugged and walked out the door. As she passed through the door frame, she disappeared from the frame and the hallway with a hint of the sound of an objection forming in the air and disappearing as she was transported somewhere far away.
“What’s up?” I asked him warily. Forcelight’s annoying like this, sure, but not worth teleporting to Timbuktu or wherever.
“This world, how do I say this, it’s not all bad for both of us,” he began.
“I don’t like where this is going already. Who was on the phone, Douglas?” Ooh, a nude selfie.
“You have no enemies here. They think you’re a hero. The ghosts saw it in you-” he stopped when my fist did right in front of his nose. The magical vow stayed my hand no matter how much he deserved it. “You used to want that. You liked it.”
I put my hand down. “Stop pretending you care about me. I thought you said you didn’t have a family?”
“You killed my family, yeah. My sister, my mom, and my dad. I spent my life trying to avenge you. I missed opportunities for happiness, like with a childhood friend. I didn’t miss her in this reality. I didn’t realize it until we were on the road.”
He started to pace, looking out the window. I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know the woman. You’re just the stranger who took what she thought was her husband’s place. You might as well wear a mask and fuck someone else’s wife. She doesn’t know you.”
“You’re too close-minded!” he said, turning back to me. He held tightly to his little magic book, too, squeezing it in his hand. “That’s why you didn’t notice. You do things to electronics but couldn’t see my cell? Right? You didn’t even look. Watching TV in the motel when you can access the internet from your head? I was scared, but I texted back and we talked. It’s like I’ve known her my whole life. This is the life I was meant to have.”
I reached for the book. Light flared up in my vision when my fingers made contact with it. My eyes could have compensated for it if it was real but my HUD classified the light as a magical anomaly. I flailed around with my arms, but Blackstone and his magical book of getting me the hell out of here were gone. I recovered my sight after a few seconds and checked around. Blackstone stood in the hallway, looking at me.
“Careful. You’ll shoot your eye out.” Jaw tight, he glared at me. “You can’t hurt me. We made a vow. The ritual isn’t complete. You want to send someone after me, you’ll have to figure out how to get back on your own. I think I’m beginning to understand. The best revenge is living well. I have a new family and yours is gone like mine was. Your army and your riches are gone. I’ve beaten you at the peak of your power, while I’m only beginning to tap into mine.” He held up his book. That damn book I helped him get.
I dove for it, determined to grab onto it no matter how blinded I got. I knew it was a long shot. I wasn’t so surprised when I fell out of a doorway into Reykjavik and saw Forcelight standing around looking at her phone. I took a moment on the ground to process things. It must have turned into more than a moment from how the hero came over and helped me up.
“Are you alright?” She bent down to get a look at my face when I didn’t answer. “What happened? Did he hurt you?” She glanced back behind me at the doorway.
“I’m trapped here. I don’t have anything. I don’t have my armor or my nanites or my daughter.” What a terrible day for rain. Forcelight, a hero I actually murdered, hugged me. She’s really that damn clueless. I should kill her again. I should kill all of them again. Destroy as much of this worthless world as possible until Blackstone caves.
No, it wouldn’t work. “They’re all gone because of him. I’m not from another planet, exactly. I’m from another Earth. He was supposed to get me back to my family. I have a little girl, and a wife, and friends. People depend on me.”
“Bastard,” she said, holding me. “We’ll get him.”
“Yeah. We will. But we’ll need help.” I looked up at her, the rain having wet my face horribly. She wiped the drops away.
“I have friends. If you want, I can introduce you to them. I was going to meet them at a party, at a place called Master Academy. They can help you get back on your feet if you’d like,” she said.
I threw back my head and laughed. “That would be perfect.” Embraced by a hero I killed, being led to the Master Academy and all their superheroes to be taken in while I figure out a plan to reverse my predicament. The laughter turned bitter when I remembered Qiang. I’d made deals with devils and built a new criminal underworld all to protect her from those I wronged and their revenge against me.
“Hey, you know I’m Forcelight, right?” she asked. I nodded. “So what’s your name? Or even your hero name?”
Hero name? Fucktaneous spazballs, she thinks I’m a superhero. It actually caused me to pause while I thought of something. The one moment the ability to pull a name out of my ass comes in handy, “Uhhh, how about you just call me Gecko for now?”
“I specialized in magic that bends time and space in order to finally defeat you. There are other benefits,” Blackstone told me. “It appears the car is not one of them.”
Blackstone tried to adapt the spell where people travel through door frames, only using a tunnel. The result spit us out of a drainage pipe on the outskirts of D.C. in a shower of car parts. It wasn’t wrecked so much as taken apart.
“You didn’t, per chance, invoke some sort of gremlin, did you?” I asked. “I ask because I have a lot of metal parts inside me, and I’d rather not lose my brain or my splanch because you were fucking around. I’m pretty sure you need me for some reason, too.”
“I do, yeah,” he stood up from the seat he was in and tossed aside the steering wheel in his hands.”Where’s my phone?”
I raised up and fished the cup holder out from under my ass to get his phone out and tossed it to him. “At least the smaller stuff seems to be in one piece. Even my glubok.” I stood up and dusted myself off as well.
Blackstone eyed me. “What’s a glubok?”
I chuckled. “If you have to ask, kiddo, then you can’t afford it. Where is this wizard lair we’re looking for?” I climbed up the side of the grassy embankment to get a look around. Blackstone followed, slipping down once while distracted with his phone. “And worry about your Facebook later. That addiction’ll kill you.”
“It’s important. Wait, how is Facebook a drug?” he asked. He reached the top and looked at me briefly before checking around. We were next to a highway. The city looked to be in worse shape than I expected. I heard sonic booms and saw smoke rising up in a couple of columns. It drew Blackstone’s attention away from his phone. “Never mind.”
“I don’t know how heroic you’re feeling, but sometimes it’s good to remember what is your problem and what’s someone else’s problem,” I advised. “We accomplish what we’re looking to accomplish and all this reverts, I hope.”
He held up a hand and did the wibbly-wobbly gesture, tilting it side to side.
“Either way, no need to go ruin our ticket back to save a pretty face,” I told him.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been around trouble,” he said. “After everything so far, I shouldn’t have to continue to justify my skills to you.”
“No need to get shrill just because your delicate boy parts make you super-emotional,” I told him.
“I hate you,” he reiterated.
I gave him the middle finger. “You took my daughter away from me. Back at ya, fuckwit.”
“We still need a car, dickweed. How are we getting a car?”
I walked over to the road and took a stance, moving my coat back to better project confidence and my boobage. A minivan screeched to a stop. A lady in her 40s rolled down the window. “Hey baby, looking for a ride?”
I blew her a kiss. “Honey, I want to get there and I want it fast.”
She nodded toward Blackstone. “What about your friend?”
“He can fit in the trunk,” I answered as I approached, putting more of a sway in my hips. I leaned down to the driver’s open window as Blackstone jogged around to the passenger side. I winked at the woman, then I turned my head toward the road ahead of us. “Holy crap, Elvis?” She turned to look and I grabbed her with my lower arms. I pulled her out and dropped her to the ground. Blackstone slid into the passenger seat as she came out and hopped the center console.
“Get in,” he called. The woman stood and ran for the driver’s side window, punching at Blackstone. I yanked open the driver’s side rear door as Blackstone started to drive. I hopped in and held the door open to knock the minivan’s former owner to the ground.
When I closed it, I glared at Blackstone from the rear seat. “I had that.”
“She lived, didn’t she?”
Most people think of all the monuments and memorials when the District of Columbia comes to mind. It’s a city. A lawless, ungoverned city. Probably because it’s not a state, so it’s directly governed by Congress. In my timeline, that’s basically worse than being governed by your average PTA Council because the PTA Council generally has less gridlock and the ones in power at least pretend to care about school children.
But enough about PTAs and minivans. The reason I brought up the popular view of Washington is because we were headed into the less popular view. We had to head east, over the Anacostia River. We ran into a little bit of a problem when a couple of androids landed in front of us. They were fairly bare-bones, with a little armor on their torso but plenty of gaps between the moving parts on the limbs. The heads were little more than a single giant camera lens on a rotating mount. Blackstone wanted to take a detour, but I reached up and jammed his leg down. They cracked the windshield and dented the hood to hell, but they didn’t get back up and pursue us either.
The place we were looking for appeared to be nothing but a former Chinese takeout restaurant. “Pretty good front, actually,” I said.
“The food wasn’t bad either,” Blackstone added. I let him lead the way on this one. All the better to avoid lingering traps. Around the counter, into the miniscule kitchen, and into a storage room that smelled like a skunk had choked on the nasty air and died. Times like this really make me miss my armor’s environmental seals. Down the trapdoor was a dank but untouched basement area with walls of stone and mortar.
“Nice setup.” I took it all in. The altar with crystals and an athame sat feet away from a heavy iron slab with a few bones laying on it. A crystal ball sat on a small table in front of a beanbag chair. There were a pair of bookshelves packed with all sorts of tomes of ancient evil, including a third edition De Vermis Mysteriis and a first edition Ann Coulter. Blackstone headed over there. “That’s it, right? Once you have that, we’re good to go?”
“Not scared, are you?” He took a break from looking through the bookshelf to smile at me. “It’s all just hocus pocus, right?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve dealt with magic stuff before. One of the more complicated aspects of the superhuman world. I’m just ready to leave. This planet’s like a collection of a bunch of really powerful people who all had grudges against me, except I’m broke and I don’t have power armor.” I winced as a muscle in my calf spasmed just the wrong way. “Nanites would be nice, too. Filthy dogs. Who knows what they’ve had in their mouth?”
“Relax, the nastiest thing they’ve sunk their teeth into was you.” He found what he was looking for, a surprisingly small grimoire with an Aztec-style pattern on the front cover. “I had to use the ghosts to establish sympathetic bonds with your past, present, and future to enact the ritual in hiding. It’s easier with your cooperation.”
The ceiling shook once, twice. “I think the smooth sailing’s over, Dougie boy.” I sighed and opened my connectivity. I’d been avoiding it. I didn’t like this version of Earth. Not really a different dimension anyway. I know what crossing the Universe Divide is like. “We got robots. And worse.”
“What’s worse?” he asked. He tucked the book away. A pair of robots of the same minimalist construction fell through the ceiling, almost hitting me. Blackstone’s purple tendrils tore the head off the one closest to him. The one near me pointed an arm with a barrel on the end at Blackstone. I tore the arm off and shoved it through it’s chest under the armor plates. We both turned as something else fell through the ceiling. She was a pale woman with hair that glowed white. It didn’t contrast much with her white uniform, which featured a yellow aurora around a red cross on her midsection. At least her gloves and boots were black, but it was a terrible costume. As terrible as her name, because I recognized her as Forcelight. In the correct timeline, she’s dead.
“Heroes,” I said as I watched Forcelight stand herself up. It grew lighter as the entire ceiling just disappeared. Looking up, I faced a firing squad of the cheap robots all pointing arm cannons at us. “You got a shield or something, Blackstone?”
“I have something better,” he said. He glowed purple, with just a hint of gold that seemed to come from the open Los Cincos Soles Dorados in his hand.
The bots opened fire, but all of their red energy balls stopped a few feet above our heads and stayed there. “Now’s your chance to hack them,” Blackstone said.
I shook my head. “I’m trying, but they don’t seem to have remote connections, and these things can’t have much of a brain.”
Forcelight looked between us. “We don’t know how they communicate, but we’d better destroy them before they merge.” She lit up as she launched rays of light from her hands that sent the little robots flying. I swept my laser eye across a couple, but she got most of them. Once most of them were gone, she turned to Blackstone. “Are you two going to stand here with your thumbs up your asses, or are you going to help?”
“I will,” Blackstone said despite a glare from me. He waved his hands and the energy balls left in the air fizzled away. Forcelight took to the air, only for Blackstone to call out, “Hey! I can’t fly.” Smirking playfully, she hovered down and helped him out. I jumped out after them and caught a glimpse of a larger mess of metal parts that stood on two legs. Its entire chest was a barrel and the blast it fired at Forcelight sent her flying and Blackstone dropping.
I hit some fight music, Ultimate Battle by Akira Kushida, and ran right for the twelve-foot metal monstrosity. It set its feet and tracked me, but I was fast and slid into the home stretch. There’s only so far down something with a torso like that can track. I crawled underneath it and got to my feet, looking for something to do a bit of wrecking with. I found a motorcycle, which was better than nothing. I grabbed it and slammed it into the back of the robot’s knee. The cycle broke, but the robot knelt to regain its balance.
I hopped onto its back. It struggled to stand. I started tearing pieces off its back, working my hand inside. “Brains. Brains!” I called out, laughing as my special homo machina nerves reached out. I ran into a conglomeration of computer cores, all working together.
It was tracking back up toward Blackstone, and I was still working on figuring out this new programming language, so instead I just intercepted the signals. No more sight, sound, and shooting, but especially no balance and lower motor functions. And since it was in the middle of standing back up, that meant falling forward. I couldn’t figure out everything about it, but with a bunch of the smaller ones approaching, I used what I knew to cut into some of its power cores. It had redundancies there, as well. I couldn’t get them all, but I got enough to slow it down while I hopped off to avoid getting red on me.
Blackstone waved his hand toward a crowd on his end, ageing them to rust. Being a lady, I serviced them one, two, or three at a time. I ducked between them, tearing heads off, grabbing one to use as a club on others. One of them, I grabbed and threw into the windshield of a car parked on the street. I jumped high and landed with all my weight to knock it the rest of the way through, then slid inside. They started to pepper the car with superheated blasts of something crimson when I dove out the passenger window, rolled, and came up with my nails digging into delicate wiring of one unfortunate robot. I threw its body into another of the crowd of robots while keeping hold of what had probably been important wires.
It was tiring, keeping moving like that. I was dodging to stay alive and sometimes taking them out. Ok, ok, I shouldn’t be too humble. I was working my way through plenty with my eye, hands, and enhanced strength. And I had some weapons. I pulled a car door open and kicked a robot inside so I could smash it up by slamming the door. I tore the car door off and threw it into a robot, knocking it down with a door embedded in it.
But there were a lot, and in the middle of the fighting, and things fit back into place. I don’t know when I started laughing or when I lost that hand. I’d gotten tired and it all became a blur, but I knew I couldn’t stop even if my lungs exploded and my muscles turned to jelly because moving was the only thing keeping me ahead of death’s snapping jaws.
I was so disappointed when I realized I lost the hand. I liked that hand, dammit, and because if it were bleeding I could use that to blind some of them. Instead, I had to pick up just three of them and swing them through the crowd.
I turned at one point and brought one down on a familiar hero I’d faced before. Forcelight sent it flying with one of her light beams and slapped me across the face. I growled, dropping my fangs and preparing to strike. Then I recognized her and what was going on. I blinked and turned to see what was going on, but the street was a mess of twisted metal and destruction, with a few rusty and others cut into pieces. I turned and raised the stump to the sky. “And stay out!”
Up there is where I noticed a tower of the robots, all climbing each other and melding into one big orb with a huge opening pointed down. “That’s no moon,” I said.
Forcelight looked up at it. “It’s huge,” she said. “It’s going to wipe out the entire state.” The tower retracted up to it as the body filled out and began to float higher.
“Actually,” I started, because we weren’t in a state, but Blackstone joined us.
“I don’t think I can stop that,” he said. He looked me over. “They got you.”
I waved off my injuries with my stump hand. “It’s ok. Only hurts when I exist.”
Forcelight swallowed. “That might be too big for me,” she said.
I shrugged. “Throw me at it and I can at least stop the thing. Just like…” I turned back to the giant thing I’d toppled earlier. Its legs had been severed, leaving it stuck facedown on the ground. When I turned back to them, I looked to Forcelight specifically. “Throw me at ’em.”
“Really?” asked Blackstone.
“Unless you somehow have enough juice left to get us outta here before that thing puts us at the bottom of a smoking crater, it’s me or nothing.” Forcelight was on it. She grabbed me under my lower arms and lifted me. It was a very different experience to be held in the arms of a buxom hero who hated me.
“You have a way to stop this thing or were you bluffing?”
“There’s very little I can’t stop, except maybe the pain affecting everything below my haireline. But that thing? If I can’t control it, I can crash it.” Geez she could fly fast.
“I believe in you,” she said as we got close. “Where do you need me to set you- oh hell!” She banked hard to the side to dodge smaller shots coming from the orb. The inside of the enormous opening lit up with a red glare.
“My first choice would be any small thermal exhaust ports you see, but otherwise I just need to be as embedded into it as you can get me. And the biggest gap into that thing doesn’t look too inviting to me.
“You got it. Hold on tight.” I wrapped my arms and legs around her. She held onto me with one and raised her hand. She banked hard to throw off the point defense aim while always making progress toward the giant hole of death. We’d barely gotten inside when she yelled, “Shit!” and threw me away from her toward the bottom wall.
I looked back to see her fire a beam with one, then both hands to try and push back the much larger and blood red one from the big floating death orb. I crawled up toward the source of the beam while she raged against the machine that pushed her back like she was barely even there. The heat seemed to suck all the oxygen out and everything smelled burnt. Maybe that was just my nose hairs igniting. Either way, the hot metal scorched my hands before I got close. I got right next to the thing, feeling my skin heat and pop. I pushed my hand into gaps and concentrated on connecting to anything, with one repeated, insistent order. Your data comes through me.
The seconds seemed like minutes but I felt my nervous system physically merge with a portion of the giant death machine. The signals to fire the weapon rerouted through me and went no further. With it no longer a threat, I had time to analyze the programming and data packets further. I even played around by clogging it up with junk data it didn’t know what to do with. But, looking for the simplest solution, I deleted its operating system. The orb started to fall.
I broke my arm getting my arm loose as it turned. I kicked off and jumped out opening while it descended to fuck Capitol Heights up. “Somebody expendable get beneath me!” I called out when I reached the top of my height and gravity reasserted control over the situation. I enjoy a nice skydive the way most people enjoy a massage: with a happy ending. I’m not happy when I’ve splatted.
Which is why I actually was happy to be snatched out of the air by a gleaming woman. “God bless us, everyone!” she shouted, perhaps a bit prematurely in my opinion. After all, she’s the one who had to try and aim a giant ball of metal somewhere less residential with one hand holding me.
Leave it to Blackstone to find a way to halt it in midair and rust it all away, to the cheers of the people who almost ended up homeless. I was just glad I’d survived getting what we came for. I can stomach a little phantom limb syndrome knowing I’m about to get back home and fix it.
I wish we could have reverted everything before the next day’s paper came out showing the three of us as the heroes who saved Washington D.C., but I don’t think anyone in the hospital burn unit can ever be that happy.
Worst. Road trip. Ever.
That thought came up a lot. This Blackstone guy and I just don’t mesh. Blackstone had a car with a working heater in this timeline, which did a lot to alleviate the weather problem, but I intended to get better clothing first thing. There was a little town near this asylum he had been concerned about. Apparently Blackstone had a reservation at a little one-story motel where nobody seemed to care if someone walked around with an unknown woman inadequately dressed for the weather.
He went in to check on the room and took the keys with him. I stole his car anyway. Have I mentioned I love how computerized cars have become? And those nice little ATMs? Feels like forever since I was sweet talking all the green out of a machine. Nice to know I have a fallback option as a prostitute to robots if we get back and Skynet’s taken over or something.
By then, the clothing store, located right next to a hardware store, was closed.
I walked up to the hardware store, cut the door’s handle and lock off, and pushed it open. I didn’t have to go far to find anything usable or to set the alarm off. I tossed a pickaxe through the display window and stepped out after it, glad I wore shoes with a decent sole on them back when I was tree decorating. It seemed smart with all those pointy, easily-broken decorations laying around on the floor.
Whistling a tune I’d had stuck in my head (Blue Monday, if anyone’s interested), I picked up the pickaxe and walked over to the door of the clothing store. What do you do when a store’s closed and won’t take your money? Open it and don’t leave money, that’s what. Plus, since I busted the windows to get in and out, I didn’t have fingerprints. It’s like the perfect crime.
You know, until the cops showed up to figure out what was happening with the alarms and broken glass. A couple cruisers showed up. Nice to see they’re getting modern cars out here in the boonies. I wonder if the police out here have nice life insurance policies. So the question is, do I meet my dates outside, or do I let them come in and make ’em late?
The answer would elude me a little while longer. When I checked through a window, the cops who got out were standing around with their eyes closed. I walked out, spinning the pick axe around in my upper arms. The lower arms were hidden from view inside my long coat. Still humming to myself, I walked right up to the one who had his gun out. “I just can’t get this beat out of my head. I wonder if I can get the beat out of yours?” I practically spit the second “beat” as I raised the pickaxe’s pointy end over my head. It didn’t come budge when I tried to bring it down. I looked up. The head glowed faint purple. I looked around. Blackstone stood over by his car, hand raised and glowing the same faint blue as the pickaxe head.
I sighed and took my hands off it. “Fine, I won’t kill them.”
The pickaxe flew into his hand. “Haven’t you killed enough?”
“Nope,” I said, walking over. “Gotta do something, though. I can erase the footage, but erasing their brain’s a different matter entirely.”
Blackstone gritted his teeth and turned to the car. He recited something low enough I couldn’t hear it while I helped myself to some free money I found laying around unclaimed in the cops’ wallets. When I turned back to the rented car, it had gone from silver to red. “Festive, yet subtle. We better hope they didn’t see the license plate.”
He turned and a bolt of purple came right at me.
I woke up in bed the next morning, fully dressed, no Blackstone in sight, at the inhuman hour of 6 AM, unless the clock radio on the nightstand was a broken as it was old. A knock came at the door as soon as the clock turned to 6:01.
“Go to hell!” I shouted, and rolled over. The door opened, so I turned back to see Blackstone there holding coffee.
“Wake up! The day’s wasting,” he said, far too cheerfully for someone awake, showered, and dressed at 6 AM.
“Go masturbate with a hacksaw,” I said.
“You should be ready go to after that sleeping spell,” he said.
I sat up and threw a pillow at him. He dodged it. “Don’t ever cast some spell to knock me out like that ever again.”
He sighed and raised his hand. I woke up in the car this time. I shook my head and turned to Blackstone. He raised his hand. I reached up to pull down the sun visor above the seat and played like I was checking myself over in the mirror. “I’m hungry and I need to pee.”
“Are we going to have any more problems?” he asked.
“Also, I need a shower. You didn’t let me shower. You didn’t, right?” I asked, looking down at myself for wet spots.
“No, I didn’t,” he said. Just when he seemed ready to relax, I pulled the visor off the ceiling of the car and held the mirror in front of me. Blackstone resorted to his trick again, and the spell bounced off the mirror. He slumped back in his seat while we went down the interstate at 60 miles an hour. Being a considerably better person than Jesus, I grabbed the wheel.
I ended up with plenty of time to stop and tend to my own needs while he was under. Just a little highway exit place where you’re pretty sure every inch of the room has had cum sprayed on it some time or another. I took the time to use the facilities, shower, get a bite to eat, and get caught up on the news. A new Chief of Staff had just been appointed, for instance. This timeline’s version of events didn’t include the White House being tossed in another dimension, so they got this guy my facial recognition system pinged as a former target I’d once killed. Dye the hair a different color, add some facial hair, lose the glasses, and it looks like that clone of Hitler made something of himself after all.
Blackstone let himself in after a couple hours of napping, hand glowing. I raised an eyebrow. “Instead of constantly casting spells, you could treat me like a person and do this the easy way,” I suggested.
“You’re a monster. I know what you do,” He said.
I pointed to the TV. “Looks like I’m a useful one.”
He waved to it as well. “There was something in it for you, every time.”
“Yeah. Earth was my home too. I’d like to get back to that version of events. So how are we doing that? I assume you were driving us somewhere for a reason?”
He glanced outside, then stepped in and closed the door. He sat himself down on the lone chair left in the place. “We need a book.” When he saw me reaching for the nightstand drawer, he added, “A specific book on magic. Los Cinco Soles Dorados. It’s a translation off the walls of a lost Nahua temple discovered by a conquistador and his men separated from the rest of their party. It’s said he bound the book in the skin of the native translators he brought who refused to discuss the wall’s writings with him. That’s horseshit. I had the book in the other world. It’s fine parchment.”
“You don’t remember enough to figure things out without it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t have an eidetic memory. I took photos, but they would never turn out right.” He pulled out his phone and frowned, then began to mess around with it. “It’s out there. I took it from the home of a wizard who died a few years back. He fought Captain Lightning in D.C. And it went bad for him. Here, see?” He held up the screen of his phone for me to see, showing off photos of what might have been a book behind an intense reflective shine.”
“You couldn’t turn the flash off?”
“That was with the flash off,” he said. “Anyway, I thought we could try D.C.”
Sploosh. That big white house is just ripe for a break-in while he’s hunting down the book. But with time of the essence, I felt the need to ask, “We’re already going to take long enough on this road trip. Can’t you look into a crystal ball and scry or something?”
He looked down and adjusted his coat. “I don’t seem to be capable of finding it that way.”
“Then do some sort of remote viewing of the wizard’s lair you said you’ve been to before,” I suggested.
He coughed. “I can’t. I think it’s warded.”
A wolf howled outside. He looked up, curious, and checked the door’s peephole. “What in the world… is that a zombie dog?”
I went to go check the window next to the door. Outside was some sort of skinned, eyeless dog padding around in a fog bank that had drifted in. It left a confused mess of bloody paw prints in the snow, and I started hearing this fuzzy crumbling sound like cosmic background radiation. It’s just the one at least. Kinda spooky-looking, but just a dog.”
Blackstone joined me at the window. “That’s not the one I was looking at.” Another walked over to join the dog I’d seen.
“You hear that?” I asked. “Like from an old TV? The snow?” It kept getting stronger and stronger.
“What are you talking about?” Blackstone asked a moment before a dog scrabbled up from next to the window and threw itself at the glass. The cheap window gave in one jump and the blood canine tried to crawl in. I put my shoe on its back and drove its body down into the sharp glass and pushed it to the side. Sanguine muscle tore open and blood dribbled down. The dog twitched and tried to get up, but it stopped once I finished stomping its head in.
The sound got less intense until the others got closer. “Huh… something related to those thingies. Magical interference.” I looked to Blackstone, who stared back out the window. “It happens.”
“It’s about to happen even more.” He said, raising his hand hands and gesturing to leave runes of purple light hanging in the air. I looked outside at the four dogs the pack had grown to. A purple coil wrapped around one of them and threw it high into the air. The other three came at me, bro.
I moved past Blackstone to open the door for them. The one in the lead obliged and got it closed on his neck. I stomped its head straight down. That didn’t stop the second from jumping and pushing the door open. I backed up and raised an arm to catch the bite of its strong jaw. I swung my arm, lifting it off the ground. The dog smacked into the wall and the low ceiling. I held it up and punched it where its nuts hung. It yelped, and yelped again when I grabbed them. It let go of my forearm, but I grabbed onto it.
I was missing a dog though. I heard ripping from the last of the dogs tearing Blackstone’s coat sleeve. He kicked the dog toward me. It took the hint and launched itself at me. I shoved its packmate toward it and watched as it bit down on the other blood hound’s nuts. Forget yelping, that dog fucking sang. The biter let go and went after my leg instead.
I reached around for anything to put it out of my misery with and settled on a lamp. I brought it down, smashing it off the floor. It bounced, then burst when I pushed the lamp down hard onto its chest.
Purple enveloped the dog on my leg and pulled it off me. Blackstone lifted it up to chest level. “Something is very wrong on this Earth,” he said.
I flipped the lamp around, took a stance, and batted the dog into the TV. The TV sparked and the dog convulsed, but neither were working anytime soon. “All the better to GTFO as soon as possible. The faster the better.”
Blackstone smiled. “I know a shortcut. It’s one where we can take the car. The world sucks, but I like the car.”
Everyone thinks about the benefits of being a world leader, but not so much the downsides. Yes, I can park anywhere I want, especially when people see the missiles and canons on the side of the Flyer. But I’m constantly interrupted by people wanting my attention, even when I’m heading off somewhere to deck someone’s halls and sleigh some people.
This comes up because, right when I’m waiting to hear back from my team and Baron Samedi, Intelligence Chief Pagan called me up with an update about the Paris Situation. It didn’t help he was confusing me with his facts and nuance. “What do you mean they aren’t entirely right- or left-wing? That’s the damn country that invented those terms!”
“Mommy, there’s a tree in the living room!” Qiang said from the doorway. Young Qiang this time. Not the future version that I saw reach down a man’s throat to pull his heart out. That’d be ridiculous. Her hands are too small. She’d have to use both, and a little kid can’t fit both arms down a human throat. Not sure how common of knowledge that is for you, dear reader, but it’s true. Personal experience.
“That’s for sticking shiny things on and hiding presents underneath it!” I told her.
“I know it’s a Christmas tree,” she said. “The movies are all over the TV!” She smiled at me. D’aww, she’s going to be a real heartbreaker some day. When her hands are big enough.
“You can go decorate it and stuff if you like. I’ve just got a call right now,” I told her.
She clapped her hands. “Ok!”
Back with the phone call, Pagan had invited someone from the France Office of the European Section on to give me a better idea what was going on. “Yeah, ok, so a mix, possibly hijacked, with some astroturfing and all. More importantly, did we get what we were looking for?”
“We retrieved the painting the Deep Ones told us about, and the casket from beneath the cathedral. We successfully masked the thefts. Proceeds from the artwork and gold we obtained are expected to more than pay for the operation. We can escalate the riots at your discretion, ma’am.”
“Nah, no need to toss weapons into the mix. And, hey, if this treasure hunt you’re on doesn’t work out, at least it hasn’t cost us anything,” I told him.
“In my eyes, the existence of the map confirms the Squamous Reaver’s existence. I will claim its power for Ricca.”
Either the guy’s developed a treasonous streak, or he’s just really into hunting this thing down. Some people get like that, you know? I think it’s a very old instinct, evolutionarily speaking, to fixate on a hunt. But I’m fairly good-natured as murderous dictators go, so I told him, “If you need a help, for any reason, feel free to let me know.”
After that, it was a nice night of tree decorating up, cookie eating, and movie watching. As it happened, it was nearly one in the morning when I heard from Baron Samedi. Well, first I heard from Skul. With that bunch of magic users, he was the only one who thought to take a cell phone with him.
“We’re getting’ real close, Psycho,” he said.
“Hand me the damn phone or I’ll shove it up your ass!” said Samedi in the background.
“I discovered, with no help from Baron Samedi, that there is a ritual going on. That was me. If he had wanted to dispute that, he should have brought his own phone and maybe shouldn’t insult my phone case’s bedazzling.”
“I am a god!” Samedi said.
“And I’m an atheist. I don’t believe you’ll do anything about it,” Skul said to the Baron. The next part seemed to be directed at me. “We’re attempting to disrupt whatever’s going on. You have a secret admirer.”
“Are there nudes?” I asked.
“There’s hair,” he answered.
Ew. Not liking the thought of how some hostile person got that stuff. “What do you mean about whatever’s going on?”
He responded more quietly. “We’re almost in. We’re bypassing wards to shield the building and alert those inside to our presence. It’s an old asylum. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Not really. I’ve messed with one or two before, but it wasn’t all that significant. I mean, I DID meet a girlfriend in one.”
“You dated crazy?” he asked.
“Worse, I dated a hero,” I told him.
“I have a bet with someone. Was it Venus?” he asked.
“Nope,” I told him. “What’s this ritual thing look like?” I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, wondering how I’d look with something more in the purple shade for lipstick.
“This is advanced stuff. They took a long time doing it. I see a ghost with sunglasses from my position. Blood. There’s a clock and blood, too. Wait, something’s… Baron Samed-”
Everything changed. The decorations, the tree, my daughter asleep in my lap… it all disappeared. “Skul, what the fuck?”
The response from the call wasn’t encouraging. “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.”
It didn’t look like anyone had lived in this place for awhile. I got a rush of weird notices from incoming data that confused me, too. Conflicts in scrapers. No access to the Institute of Science. Weird notices about the Empyreal City Nightmare Zone. Stories of the Fluidics in their remaining safe zones fleeing Mot and civil war. Eschaton the superhero burned down Moscow in the name of Ricca. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
There were three things I wanted immediately: my daughter, my armor, and a clue. My first guess was some sort of Ghost of Alternate History, but one didn’t appear. I checked outside the door and found a hallway. Someone didn’t get rid of the rest of the palace in this continuity. There was a servant out watering a plant in the hallway. She looked up when she saw me. “May I help you, madam?”
“You can see me?” I asked.
“Yes, madam. Should I not be able to?”
“I don’t know. It’s still 2018, right?”
She smiled. “Yes, madam.”
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Does the name Psycho Gecko ring a bell?” I asked.
She began to back away. “It does not. Perhaps I should fetch someone for you.” She set her water jug down and turned.
I put my hand over her mouth before she could call out. “Tis the season for me to give you a choice. You can either go sit in that residence for awhile and pretend you got knocked out for awhile, or you can call out.”
She made a sound, so I slammed her head into the wall, knocking her out. It only occurred to me after my percussive anesthesia that she might be trying to signal agreement with shutting up voluntarily. I left her safely locked in the residence while I made my way out of the palace.
The secret is to just be cool, dudes. Walk like you belong there. Seeing as it’s my damn country, I know I do. But whatever this is, they don’t realize that and I don’t have my power armor. Or nanites. The lack of my nanomachines is troubling in particular. Even if they for sure didn’t have my face on file after walking across the courtyard, there aren’t many people strutting their stuff with four arms.
Everything felt different in the city. It had that tension I hadn’t noticed until it was gone. The one where regular people know they can’t be too much themselves in public. I didn’t see any Deep Ones at all until I came across one with a cart strapped to him. He was bent over while the owner of the cart lashed him with a short whip.
The Deep One stood suddenly and grabbed the man’s arm. With a pop, he tore the arm out of its socket. The Deep One began tugging at his restraints amid spewing blood and screams. It was locked on, and he was trying to tear off the thick lock with his claws.
“Hold still,” I said, jogging over. My laser eye lit up and cut a line down the harness next to the lock. A couple seconds of effort later and he had the collar off.
“Thanks,” he said before booking it down a side street. I went the opposite direction, and didn’t trail blood after me. I had to find myself a liquor store, so I headed for the traditionally poor section of town. World leader 101: keeping people drunk is an easy way to control them. They can’t even organize like that because if you get enough drunk people in one place, they turn their anger on each other.
I slowed down and caught my breath before heading into one such store. “You have a marker?” I asked of the teller.
The pudgy, balding man with the goatee looked around and reached for something. Before handing it over, he stopped. “What’s this for?”
“Calling a ride,” I said.
He squinted curiously, so I nodded toward the palace and reached for the marker. “I’m on assignment.”
He went to hand it to me. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a headbutt, then grabbed his had and slammed it down on the counter again and again. I finished him off with a beer bottle to the back of the head. But I didn’t kill him. No, I just covered him in high-proof liquor and used that marker to draw out a figure of a man in a top hat on a wall away from the counter. “Ok, calling Baron Kriminel. You out there, Baron? I hope you’re not too picky about going through Papa Legba, but I know you do this stuff in Memphis. I got wine, rum, a whole damn liquor store for you.”
When that got no answer, it was time to resort to the bigger offering. I sighed and turned to shoot a puddle of moonshine pooling under the counter. The moonshine lit up with blue flame that climbed the counter and caught the cashier on fire. As expected, that woke him up, and led to screaming and flailing.
Kriminel didn’t show. Fuck. There goes getting out of this with magic.
I headed out the doorway…
…and found myself in New York state, standing outside an old, abandoned home for the criminally insane.
Standing before me was a crying young man, not even to his mid-twenties, with long hair and a beard that existed more for lack of shaving than actual effort. Purple light from his fingertips joined into an orb at his palm. “Come all the way through,” he said.
I looked at the doorway I was in. The other side showed the liquor store that was catching fire as the cashier ran around trying to put himself out.
“Maybe I don’t wanna,” I said.
“It’s the only way we can get back,” he said through tears and strain of effort.
“Back where? Who are you? Where are we?” I asked.
“I’m Douglas Blackstone. I’m the person who has been tormenting you so I could obtain the reagents I needed to get here. A world where you never existed.”
I was on him in a flash, throwing him to the ground. “You got rid of my daughter!”
He pushed a hand to my chest and said a word that threw me into the air. Purple tendrils appeared from thin air and wrapped around my arms and legs, holding me captive. Blackstone stood up, coughing and wiping himself. “You killed my family. If you care about your daughter, think about what you’d do to the man responsible. How you’d spend years preparing for revenge. The things you would give up. I’ve spent six years of my life on this… and I get here and they’re still dead. And things seem worse. What kind of fucking joke is this?” He ran his fingers through his hair to get a handle on himself.
I just raised an eyebrow. “The Aristocrats.”
In a moment of dark empathy, we both started laughing. After he calmed, he looked up at me. “As much as I would love to kill you or leave you behind in this world, I need you for the ritual. If that failure of yours is normal for you, you can’t manage magic of this magnitude on your own.”
“So… you tried to get me to die while you worked on your magic plan to somehow shift everything to a timeline where I don’t exist, and upon getting what you wished for it turns out not to be worth it. Yeah, sounds like a Christmas miracle.” I tried to spit on him.
Blackstone sidestepped it. He shook his head and glanced at a phone laying in the snow nearby. “I never thought you… listen, do you want to get back or not? I vow to work with you and not see you come to harm until we are back in our timeline, and may this vow be binding upon the spirits and the universe. Agreed?”
He made a gesture and interlocking symbols appeared in the air between us.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I already preferred a world where I existed, thank you very much.” The symbols shifted, then shot into a line between myself and Blackstone. I immediately felt the tendrils loosen and gently lower me to the ground. I walked over and tried to punch him, but my hand stopped of its own accord inches from his face. “You agreed to it, too,” he said by way of explanation.
Instead, I grunted my frustration and began to rub my arms, having not been dressed for snowy New York. “Ok then. What do we need to get back to a wonderful life?”
“Bet you didn’t expect to see much of me from here on out, eh?” I asked the man in the doorway. He was hidden by shadow, but I could make out the cane he held himself up by.
“You tempt fate calling me,” he said.
I held out a jug. “That’s ok. I brought rum to tempt you.” I sensed more than saw the smile. The darkness enveloping the loa in that door frame wasn’t mundane in nature. My HUD classified it as a magical anomaly as well. Despite that, the loa tend to enjoy wetting their whistles. “Unless I’m getting you mixed up with the Baron. I’ve seen him in action recently, and I thought it was him at the bar in Memphis. I don’t intentionally mean disrespect. I’m just a poor, confused little mortal.”
The Back Alley Voodoo Bar on Beale Street is one of the villain bars that isn’t normally accessible to civilians or heroes precisely because of the criteria for entry that involve a representation of who I used to believe was Baron Samedi.
Papa Legba reached out and took the jug from me. His hand passed out of shadow to do so, revealing an old, thin, weathered hand. “You assumed too much. I answer the calls of mortals much of the time, but we chose Baron Kriminel to be the doorman. He likes you supervillains. And if the Baron Samedi was here, I think you would soon find yourself bearing a dark baby with dark powers in that tummy of yours.” He poked my belly with his cane.
I snorted. “He’s a little old for me by, what, a few hundred years?”
“That hasn’t stopped him yet,” answered Papa. “I would not be surprised if he tries the next time he sees you.”
“That’s going to make this awkward then, because that’s what I’m going through you for,” I said. “I believe there are protocols for your particular branch.” I put it as diplomatically as I could, considering my conflict with the Three Hares.
The Hares are a collection of stranded aliens, powerful supers who had been seen as gods once upon a time, and the human descendants of those supers. Considering they tried to brainwash me at one point and pretend I was another god, it’s possible they aren’t even immortal so much as passing along code names. The fighting ended when we found out a rogue alien named Barkiel had been manipulating events to set loose Mot, an ancient and nigh-unstoppable superhuman powerful enough to end the world as we know it. I’d taken care of Mot for them, and my allies, the hero Venus and the superhuman activist Titan, figured out something like an agreement afterward. And proved that we’ve grown way, way beyond simply giving ourselves the names of mythological gods.
Venus sent me an email about the further details of the peace they negotiated with the Hares. I should read it someday. Instead, I set about contacting the loa portion.
Legba cocked his head. “What does the Psychopomp want with an old man like Papa Legba?”
I swept my hand back to the table in the room I was in. “Perhaps you could bring me Baron Samedi and enjoy some of this hot red beans and rice I have here in the kitchen.”
I hadn’t used my own place for the ritual, but a local restaurant had jumped at the chance to be especially nice to the dictator. When you control a country, people just jump at the chance to do nice things for you. And if you happen to favor them in the future, well, that’s just being nice to your friends. And that wouldn’t count as bribery pretty much anywhere.
Legba stood up straight all of a sudden and twirled his cane. “That sounds wonderful, thank you,” he said as he stepped out of the shadows. He’d gone from old to young and horny. They looked like bulls horns a bit. He didn’t exactly let me study them while he headed to the other room.
The doorway he’d left was suddenly filled with a bespectacled man in a top hat and a black coat over purple shirt and pants. “What brings me here?” he asked before looking me over and cocking an eyebrow. “Psycho Gecko. Damn fine to see you.”
“Samedi, you ol’ horn dog. All that time I was messing around with the Hares and I never ran into you?” I walked over and gave him air kisses.
“That is truly a shame. You’re a hell of a woman.” He grabbed my ass.
I grabbed his balls and squeezed. “With long, sharp nails. Interested in being one, too?”
He laughed and we let each other go. “What are you fuckin’ around with now to give me a call?”
I handed him a jar of rum. “Thought you might be interested in helping me find out some information about some specific ghosts.”
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I know you Three Hares types like to pretend you’re gods, but if you can’t be arsed to care about someone showing you’re asleep at the job, I guess that’s on you. In the meantime, feel free to relax. But what would I get the people who have hidden compounds, alien technology, and money squirreled away? A really good razor?”
The Baron chuckled. “Let’s talk land, head bitch of of Mu.”
Both of the loa had left by the time I was once again visited. Having become secure in other ways, and remembering how the Ghost of Christmas Present had toyed with me, I didn’t bother squeezing into the armor for this one. No, when the clock struck one and a figure in a black hood and robe appeared, transparent as always.
It found me in my own bed, nude, hands moving under the covers and a loud buzzing noise. It stepped toward me, then threw the hood back. She had a face painted like the Calavera Catrina, with her face painted like a stylized skull, with bright blue “petals” around the blacked-out makeup surrounding the eyes. As pretty as it was, the the makeup ended at her neck. That wasn’t a painted spine connecting her head to a bony chase. Whatever kind of ghost she is and powers she has, she couldn’t be mistaken for someone with powers in a costume.
She put her hands on her hips. “Is this meant to shock me? I’ve seen it, honey.”
I sat up and threw the cover up. Before it even fell from the air between us, I fired the plasma tether. The scientists thought it up. Instead of a smaller blast, this one fires as a continuous arc. The yellow-orange discharge lit up the see-through ghost, which burst and showed of the scorched wall. I powered off the plasma tether and set it aside. After applying a bucket of water to the wall, and walked into my closet to throw on a dress real quick.
I turned around and there was the ghost again, standing at the doorway. “Did you think that would stop me?”
“Nah,” I told her, holding out my hand. “But it makes me feel better.”
The spirit grabbed my hand and squeezed with an intention to inflict pain, but my grip’s pretty good too. It’s when she let go that I noticed we’d ended up somewhere, and somewhen, different. We were in my office, being ransacked by people speaking American English and dressed in civilian clothes but with SMGs and pistols around. “Dead at last, dead at last. Christ Almighty, she’s dead at last. You think they’re out there toppling statues?”
“That’s what the other team’s supposed to be doing. May not be working. If it doesn’t, the extraction team has a nuke to leave behind,” said another.
One of them held up a diamond broach and whistled. “This is a profitable mission if we’re quiet to home base.”
“Yeah, but where did she hide the schematics. Blueprints. Nuclear codes! There has to be some kind of documentation. Were the scientists the only ones who could read here?” asked one of the three. He turned to the door. “How we doin’, Frank?”
From outside came a thud.
The one who called out pulled his pistol. He eased up to the door and turned the knob. The door fell in, along with the body of another “civilian”. The two further back in the office began to pack up whatever they’d found, which seemed to be art ripped out of the frames and some jewelry. The man in the doorway’s head exploded. A blood hand stuck through it holding a pistol of its own that shot one of the others in the head. The last remaining one opened fire on his comrade, who needed the extra bullets like he needed a fist-sized hole in the head. The corpse collapsed. The owner of the fist seemingly vanished into thin air.
The last remaining looter looked for anyone. Then he realized what was up and opened swept the gun from side to side, firing wildly. He was stopped when the gun flew upwards out of his hands and a woman appeared. Blood marred the outfit she wore, with flecks on her blonde hair and just under eyes that that revealed Asian heritage. I liked the outfit, too. Close-fitting, but not skintight, with a short skirt and leggings, all dark red with gilded portions that formed a dragon soaring through the red fabric.
Her face rippled and became a smiling reptilian visage. She reached down his screaming throat and pulled his heart out only so far as his throat, where she left it.
“I like her,” I said to the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The ghost responded, “You might. She’s your daughter.”
The guy who had been shot in the head stood up and shot her in the head. She fell to the ground.
The ghost coughed. “She was your daughter.” She held her hand out for me.
I ran to the future Qiang. “The fuck is the point of this?”
“Showing you what your life is leading to,” said the ghost. “Let’s go. We have much of this dark future to see.”
“Bullshit,” I told her, looking over my downed daughter and running a finger over the wound and bullet. “This story you’re copying might be old-fashioned, but it’s about changing someone’s ways. Exactly what ways do I change to prevent my girl from getting shot in the head.” I turned and looked at the ghost, laser eye glowing.
She looked at me. “You could end it.” She seemed shocked at the words, then turned to glance behind her.
“You done fucked up now, pretty pretty,” said Baron Samedi, grinning at her from behind his skull facepaint and glowing eyes. “Tell the truth now, skeleton cunt.”
“I was told to frame things as needed to encourage Psycho Gecko to depression and worse,” she said. “My master believes it would be easy. It’s the holidays.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.” I backed off as Qiang opened her eyes and sat up, throwing a knife through the open door. I heard a cry from the last of the infiltrators, then another thud from out there. Oh, right. There was a living guy here. Kinda lost track of it in the middle of seeing my daughter shot in the face.
Qiang shook the bullet free from her skin, which had stopped it. There were some darker colors than regula flesh in there, so maybe some subdermal bulletproof nanotube mesh? Either way, she got up, swore to herself, and ran out the door to go finish off the guy.
Samedi watched her go, too, until I hopped up and hit him on the arm. “Hey, she’s my kid.”
He turned to me. “Kids grow up.”
I grabbed his throat and started choking. He sputtered and spat a cigar in my face. I charged him. We rolled over a few times, the Ghost of Christmas Future forgotten. In the middle of pulling the Baron’s top hat over his face and punching it, I noticed her turn and fade away. Everything looked dark again, as we were back in my closet. I quickly pulled the top hat off. “You able to follow her?”
“I am the master of the dead, bitch. Her ass can’t hide through space or time, though it helped find you that you two never entirely left this room. Shit, I put my mark on her the moment we touched.” He patted my butt to emphasize the word “touch”.
I pulled his top hat back down and socked him in the nose again before standing up. “Good. I have just the team to go pay this little gaslighting son of a petaQ a visit. Commissioner Gordon, it’s time to light the batshit signal.”
“Do you want them taken alive?” asked one of the magical bounty hunters assembled before me. I didn’t like the guy based on his armor being styled after a Crusader’s armor. He wore mail under the crusader flag tunic, and covered his face in a barbute-style medieval helm with such a small T-shaped slit that it was hard to make out very much of his features. It not only clashed from a historical perspective, but I don’t usually work with militant theocrats.
I shrugged. “There will be a substantial reward for whoever finds the person doing this. You are free to use any methods necessary, and I don’t care if they’re alive. Disintegrations are ok, as long as you bring back proof.”
Crusader Rex, as he styles himself, nodded and hefted his blocky rifle. The bunch saw themselves out. The others, including a mummy, a couple of mystics in official Faustus/Hephaestus business robes, a British guy with a 5 o’clock shadow in a trenchcoat, and a woman in way too skimpy of an outfit. I’ve seen lingerie that covers more. Magic is pretty much the only way that could stay on. The last of the bunch was a guy I recognized named Skul. Bald guy, in faded pants and jacket, with a mask fashioned from the front of a human skull. I remember when he used to mug people on street corners with a cheap pistol.
Well, if he manages it, he manages it. Some mages might be so prepared for weird occult attacks that they don’t expect a Saturday Night Special. If the guy prefers to dress like he’s about to hit a liquor store in the process, that’s his business.
The Institute having secured several clocks, we had figured out that the visits keep occurring at one AM. My alarm went off five minutes ’till, with both the witch and one of the Faustus people having asked to be nearby. The witch had to be close. With an outfit that amounted to little more than a strapless bikini covering a squat, chubby body with small breasts. Actually, pulling back the footage, I’m not sure my feelings for her were entirely my own, because she had this wonky thing with one eye and a chin with its own ass crack.
Having remained loyal to a woman who preferred me when I had dick for days, I woke up to my alarm clock and waited, armor ready to smack the straight out of the second Spirit. Everyone knows that’s the Ghost of Christmas Present, who doesn’t even bring a present. With a name like that, it should be mandatory. I waited for the Present to arrive. And how did I not see that mole?
It was very nearly 1:01 when I jumped up. “Anyone spotted anything weird yet?” I asked over the radio. Silence answered me.
“Not yet, Empress,” said Dr. Silence. “We thought we had a power surge, but it only lasted a moment. Have you checked with your mystics?”
I didn’t get an answer from them, so I cloaked and headed out the door. Maybe the ghost went after them first.
I stopped down the hall at the door to their room. Oh, look, a checkpoint that negates my stealth in my own facility. I knelt down beside the door and popped it open. When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man didn’t charge out for a couple seconds, I poked a hand around and let the cameras tell the tale.
What had once been a white lab room was now a warm, inviting study with wood floor and walls covered in bookshelves except for the fireplace. A crackling fire backlit a large man in a green robe laying on a couch where the back didn’t run the length of the whole thing. Along the floor was a small feast of ham, turkey, stuffing, roast beef, buttery bread, deviled eggs, and angel food cake among other selections. The man was as big as a pro wrestler, and not fond of covering his hairy chest. He raised a torch in one hand. “Is that you, Psychopomp? Do come.”
I began to charge three of my arms and grabbed a rubber chicken off my belt. I squeezed the head off it and tossed it into the fire, past the guy. He glanced at it, but seemed unconcerned. I came charging in as flames exploded out of the fireplace toward the unconcerned ghost, intending by the energy sheaths on my gauntlet to disperse the undead being that sought me out.
The ghost disappeared before I hit it, which left me hurtling into the fire. I came out on the other side, landing in a city’s roundabout. Around me ran crowds of people with faces covered, carrying their own makeshift torches. One of them was driving a bulldozer along, pushing cars out of the way and tearing down street lamps. The city’s lights were being replaced by torches carried by protesters.
Nearby, I saw the ghost again. He would find some isolated masked person and shake his torch over them. Instead of ash or sparks, water rained down. I watched one man put down a pipe he carried, pull off his mask, and walk away from it all. “It’s a shame to quarrel at Christmas time,” he said.
“This is Paris,” I said, standing up. I found my arms no longer glowing, the energy somehow having bled off. And though I could stand on the streets, my arms went right through the people living up to Paris’s longstanding tradition of revolting.
“Yes, and look at such ungrateful people who would fight instead of enjoying their food and their loved ones,” he said.
“Dude, they’re poor people who are getting screwed out of food for themselves and their loved ones,” I pointed out. “You would deprive them of their means of seeking justice and making their voices heard just because you don’t like fighting around the holidays?”
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” responded the spirit,”who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness, who are as strange to myself and all my kith and kin, as if they were inhuman. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”
I pointed to the torch. “You’re the one influencing them to stop. You’d rather have peace than justice, and instead of telling the guys screwing people over, you want to tell the victims to shut up and be quiet.”
“And you influence them to fight.” The ghost waved his torch over to where an injured man was being helped away from the fighting. His fellows set him down while another moved in and began performing some basic field medicine, trying to set his leg and wrap the bloody wound on it with medicated gauze laced with medical nanites. “Training, equipment. You have a hand in this conflict.”
“I offer knowledge and aid. They sought it out of their own free will and apply it the way they wanted to. You want to control their minds and force peace on them at the cost of their wants and needs. I offer enlightenment and empowerment so the powerful alone don’t control the course of the world.”
The ghost swept his arm across the darkened city, smoke rising in several places. “How many people are dead because of the knowledge you loose onto the world and then wash your hands of?”
I nodded toward the protesters. “My knowledge didn’t make their government tax the poor to bolster the rich. This fighting is out in the open and temporary, but there’s been more conflict, lasting longer, cold-blooded. This will kill, what, tens? Maybe hundreds in the end from fighting? How does it compare to lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? This is a momentary terror, but you ignore the older and more vast one, inflicted day by day, year by year, decade by decade, unseen because of its pervasiveness.”
What is it about Paris that makes people, myself included, want to give speeches?
“I think you could use a little Christmas cheer, woman.” the ghost said sternly. “I know what will help!”
The wind picked up and embers from the torch flew out. They came right at me and obscured my vision just enough that I didn’t notice the change in venue until the wind calmed. We were in a trailer now. A woman stood in the kitchen area, boiling rice and heating up canned vegetable beef soup on the stovetop. We stood in the adjoining living room area, where a threadbare plastic tree stood next to a stained couch.
“Even in these dark circumstances, there is hope,” said the ghost. He pointed toward the tree, but then walked across to the kitchen and sprinkled his torch water, whatever that’s about, onto the food. “A little seasoning of my own to help.”
“Ew,” I said. “Try not to put too much of your own ‘special sauce’ into that woman’s cooking, ok?”
“My blessings are felt more by the poor. The smallest aid helps them more.” He looked past me, to the door. A moment later, someone knocked.
The woman in the kitchen turned to the window and glanced out. She sighed. “Go away!”
The door opened anyway and one of my agents came in. I remember him as the one I extracted from Abnormal, Alabama. A local business leader who ended up leaving his family, including a son who was a sidekick to a local team of teenaged superheroes. It seems his family have fallen on hard times. “I heard about the accident. I want to see him,” my agent told her.
“You ruined his life enough,” she said.
He looked around. “It didn’t have to be this way. You keep sending back the money I send.”
“I don’t want your money and neither does he,” she said.
He set his jaw. “Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one in a wheelchair peeing into a bag. There are so many ways I can get our son back.”
“You already lost him when you chose some crazy tyrant over him,” she responded. She cussed under her breath and spun around to turn the stove down and stir the soup.
My agent turned and headed down the hallway while she was distracted. She noticed and called out, “Hey! Don’t go back there!”
I followed the father to a back room where his son sat in a wheelchair. The father hugged him. “I’m here, Tim.”
“Some fluid of my own making would be better suited to helping this situation,” I told the ghost who had followed me back. “But I suppose that’s evil to you.”
“It was you who created this situation. The son and the mother would not take it,” he told me.
“Yeah, well sometimes people don’t know what’s good for them. Same as those folks wearing government suits in Paris. They got themselves into a mess and are refusing to help themselves out of it. These folks here don’t have to work for me or anything like that. Now, maybe the son doesn’t like it, but I imagine he preferred being able to feel his penis and not living in a roach castle like this.” I looked around.
“You drove him to this and pretend good people have a choice,” said the ghost. “Taking children from parents and training people to be insurgents and killers. This is who you are in the present.”
I turned around to punch him in the schnoz, but found my fist hitting the bare metal wall of the Institute of Science’s hallway. I was back. “Fucker,” I muttered. Apparently I can’t even be philanthropic because nobody wants to take money from me and people want to pretend it’s evil to do so. Nothing but telling me to change my ways in some vague way that doesn’t held and ignores a lot of nuance. I shook my head and looked around as scientists armed with plasma rifles and mages with glowing body parts stepped into the hallway.
“Stand down. Y’all missed it,” I said. I shook my head and set off to go for a walk. I went ahead and sent my Intel head, Pagan, an email to both confirm the presence of that one agent in Alabama again, and to authorize the insertion of funds and medical nanites for his use.
They might live to regret it, but at least they’ll live to regret it.
Faced with the prospect that someone was sending ghosts after me, I did what anyone would do and prepared an ambush of the spirits. I decided to sleep over at the Institute of Science. Was a killer on my sex life, since Citra wasn’t comfortable with all the people around to see, or with the idea of the ghost stopping by. That’s fine. I don’t need her to have sex. I can fuck my own self! Who’s got four thumbs and gives a fuck to me? This gal!
Now that I’ve set the stage a bit, I was sleeping in the Institute of Science after the visit from the ghostly Good Doctor. I passed out early, which sucks because of how much worse “passing out” sleep seems to be compared to the normal stuff.
The Institute of Science was built to prevent any possibility of data being leaked out, to the extent that they didn’t even have internet access. That had to work against their research as well. I’ve authorized allowing internet access to the Institute, even if that means some remodeling on the top floors, but I’m less worried about leaks here.
The Faraday cage woke me up. It’s like a metal screen that blocks electromagnetic fields, like radio waves or some smaller electric discharges. It doesn’t keep them all out, and the Earth’s magnetic field gets through, but it’s something. It was a little difficult to sleep in the thing for me, but it was one of the better defenses to add to the thick lead walls. I could feel the disruption it created in my connections to the outside world, and then I felt it falter. I looked up to see the first of these three spirits float into the room.
I expected Ronald Reagan. I got some young-ish looking guy in a t-shirt, a jacket with shoulder pads, jeans, and hair that managed to be both short and poofy. I looked at him, and he looked at me. After a couple of seconds, he spoke, “Nice gazongas, baby.”
“Not your baby, Gordon Gekko,” I said.
“I’m not that old. I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Ok, team. Now.” A smaller version of the island’s forcefield went up as cabinet-looking things stood against the walls opened. It took a moment before they were all fixed on the ghost, who glanced at them curiously. The storm of plasma blasts dissipated the ghost’s body and left the room smelling like ozone. When everything seemed to be all clear, the emplacements stopped and the ventilation kicked in to clear that out.
“Good job, team,” I told them. “But just in case they try again, I’ll be in here. Somebody put that Korean ASMR person I like to listen to.”
The next night, Christmas Past tried again. I awoke to find him floating over me, the gun emplacements not activating. Everything stayed dark. I couldn’t even call out of the room.
It appeared to be the same ghost. Odd that the plasma didn’t disperse it completely, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility. And it found a way to disrupt the power, so it can think as well.
The literature on ghosts is wild and all over the place. Most of it, I wouldn’t trust anymore than I’d trust the pop culture explanations behind superpowers, or the Angelfire websites claiming all sorts of wild theories. The ones who would know the best are the magic types and they don’t like me. I’m not sure if they’re so tight-lipped with everyone else, but they have no desire to teach me any more than the little I know already. I’d rather not let them know it’d be futile anyway. Homo machina and magic don’t mix well.
What does work well? Redundancy. Emergency backup power. The kind of thing you wouldn’t hook plasma cannons to. Big whoop, right? Well, as the Ghost of 99 Luftbaloons reached for me, I ordered the shield generator on. Primary power didn’t kick in. The emergency did. The shield went up, intersecting with the apparition’s body. He opened his mouth as if to scream, but crackling came out instead. Then, like smoke, he blew away.
The ghost having been beat twice by a bit of brainpower, I was confident we could handle it a third time as I walked into the shower the next morning. That changed when the water stopped. I heard it and felt it, but when I opened my eyes I saw the icicles hanging from the shower head. I looked down at myself but found no similar icicles hanging from my nipples or any other body parts. Then I noticed the door frosted over and the complete signal deprivation happening again.
I grabbed a razor and loofah for weapons, having once traveled deep into the heartland of Peru to learn the deadliest loofah techniques. And how true that story actually is shall remain the secret of myself and whatever poor dickweed comes at my while I’m armed with a loofah.
Thus armed, I kicked open the door and found myself in a forest white with snow. The Ghost of Christmas Past floated nearby, smiling and watching me through sunglasses even though it was night. “Hey, glad you could make it!”
“Coming after me in the shower? That’s low. You’re lucky you don’t have any solid orifices or you’ll have to deal with the loofah.” I waved it at him.
“Can you stop trying to fight me?” he asked. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“You kidnapped me and dragged me to another place.”
“And time!” he added. “Check it out. Does any of this look familiar to you?”
“It’s the woods!” I said, throwing my hands up. I looked around for any idea where this place was. Still no connections, which is unusual. Still, if he’d thrown me back in time far enough, there could just be nothing to find. Take me back to the 40s and there’s not a whole lot I can connect to. But these woods did look familiar, so maybe it wasn’t that far.
It was something about the spacing. It was all so uniform, like it’d been planted just like that. Like if you planted a bunch of trees to hide a secret base but were really lazy about it. Despite thinking it’s a stereotype, it was one based entirely on this base from my childhood. It reminded me of a night, long ago… “What the shit tits are you playing at?” I asked the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“I brought you back to the earliest firm memory of what would be Christmas. It’s so cold and dark out here without the Christmas spirit.”
We both looked over as a group of kids ran by. The girl blew past everyone, headed for a fence composed of chain link with vertical panels placed every couple of feet. Behind all of these kids ran the dogs. Lean, hungry, with muscles bulging through their skin and short fur. One of the kids fell. It was hard to tell any of them apart from the others with their heads all shaved and stuck wearing the same outfit.
Speakers blared out as the girl in the lead reached the fence and hopped onto it, climbing over. “We told you the penalty for not finishing your run before dark. We are only as kind as the world. To survive, you must become greater.”
The boy that fell glanced back at the approaching canines and raised his fists as if to punch when they got close enough. One of the other kids yanked him, dragging him, until grabbing him to haul him to his feet. That one pushed the thick boy ahead of him and tried to run after. The thick boy watched long enough to see the one who helped him fall under the weight of the dogs that clamped down on his arms and legs. The kid that had been saved kept running for it over the laughter of the only other remaining boy outside the fence.
“What, exactly, is the point of showing me this?” I asked the Ghost.
“Wow,” he said, pulling his sunglasses down. “This was supposed to be an inspiring journey to help you see how much of an asshole you’ve been so you could change your ways. Or kill yourself, I guess. You just ran ahead and left them all like that?” he pointed at the girl on the inside of the fence, panting. One of the other boys stopped next to her and pointed to laugh at the last kid, the one who had been rescued. He was on the fence, pulling his feet out of the reach of dogs that could jump way too far to be canines.
I pointed to that kid. “That was me.”
The ghost looked between me and my past self. “You filled out amazingly.”
“Well, nice try showing me horrible things from my past, but you’ll note I didn’t do anything wrong here. If it’s any consolation, I killed the laughing guy.”
“Fine, we’ll go back to an earlier, happier Christmas,” he said.
I snorted. “They don’t have Christmas here, just other winter holidays of warmth and togetherness. Also, shouldn’t I be cold out here in the nude?”
The ghost looked me over again, taking a long time to enjoy the view, then snapped his fingers. We appeared in an apartment’s main living area where a heater glowed with holographic flames over it. “Dude, you left my shower behind?” I said, waving my loofah threateningly.
Everything began to warp and distort. The parents and kid that walked in didn’t seem right. Faces were missing. They were moving without walking. The walls distorted, going from clean to bloody and full of holes.
“What’s wrong with this?” I asked, closing my eyes.
“It’s based on your memories. This is the best you remember it, and the furthest I can take you back.”
I kept my eyes closed and held all my hands over both my ears. “Get me out of here, now!”
“I’m supposed to teach you a lesson,” he said, weakly as faceless men with guns burst into the apartment. I could still see it in my mind’s eye. No faces, no specifics to the uniforms, just men and guns.
“I know people who trade in magic stuff. They’ll be more than happy to bottle your ass and use you as a glorified doorbell for the rest of your unlife if you don’t get me out of here.”
He snapped his fingers again. I felt the welcome rush of network and radio chatter, and opened my eyes to find myself in the shower again. I immediately called up Pagan, my chief of Intelligence. “Get me every ghost hunter, ghost buster, and Ghostface Killah you can find. Offer Faustus/Hephaestus money. Kidnap their loves ones if money doesn’t work. I want these ghosts found and their source eliminated. If they have any family still alive, I want them dead.”
“This is about the situation with the Institute?” he asked.
I hung up on him and went to go shove myself into my armor. There was a complimentary bottle of seashine sitting in my room just waiting to be downed.
Aside from our own Thanksgiving holiday to an unnamed island in the Mediterranean that hosts supervillains, it’s been relatively boring as of late. Sure, there’ve been problems to deal with. Big influx of refugees from Central America. I think I unnerved the nearby Directors when I found out about it. They didn’t find it as funny as I did, probably because they were Honduran instead of Peruvian.
I happened to have a lot of spare food laying around from my attempt to get people to stop their Christmas obsession by threatening to take away Thanksgiving, so it worked out. Turkeys for tots. I was going to reinstate the old self-proclaimed Immigration Director, but he’s dead. Funny story, this blacksmith was moving his anvil up to the second story of his building for some reason. The Director visiting a nephew at the nephew’s two-story blacksmith supply emporium on delivery day, when they were lifting anvils up to the second floor storage. Heck of a place for a collision with a drunk segway motorist. Ran right over his head. Not really a way to save someone at that point.
So I decided to chuck it in the fuck it bucket and came up with a new idea. I just let them in. They had to register real quick, with a subtle body and DNA scan. My guys used the data to create a profile for them on the island’s AR overlay. Think of it as a digital ghost the exact size and shape of a person that is laid on top of them everywhere they go with data embedded that keeps track of money and welfare. Even if they don’t get the equipment to interact with it, it’s compatible with the banks and most vendors on Ricca. A person with the overlay can walk right up to a register, get scanned, and the computers do the rest. If they have phones or glasses that interact with it, they can transfer it person to person.
The system appears to be secure so far, using my modified operating system that branched off from the dimension I came from. Nice and easy, with an option to operate off the grid with money.
So I’m working on that sort of thing, hunting bugs and building up the registration team. I already found some new workers for the nuclear power plant, and some nurses. If the nurses can’t hack it here, we have a training program in Belgium to help their hospital workers integrate nanite healing into their practices.
There’s really no crisis for what feels like the first time in five years or so. I’m not even all that worried about holiday problems this year. I think I’ve done about all I can for Christmas, and I simply don’t know enough about Hanukkah to help out. Also, Ricca doesn’t really celebrate Christmas. I heard Master Academy had something hectic going on in their neck of the woods, but it doesn’t appear to involve either myself or any anthropomorphic personifications of seasonal feelings so I’m sitting that out.
Yep, when I laid my head down to finally sleep, my brain swimming in medication Mix N’Max claims is keeping me level, I had nothing to do but hold my hot wife and sleep. I was awakened by the sound of metal chains making a racket. I reached over and grabbed for a weapon from the nightstand.
The Good Doctor, appearing see through, stepped through the wall. To begin with, he was clearly still dead. Once again, it’s kinda tough to bring someone back from how I killed him, and he didn’t look any more alive now that he was translucent. A spike had been driven into his heart that held the thick metal chain that wrapped around his body to him. He was clearly dead as a door nail, not that I know what’s so dead about door nails in particular. But it was Good Doctor. The same face and costume, with the addition of a thick chain with embedded designs of scalpels, bonesaws, and human organs.
I nodded to him, “Sup?”
“A lot. Er, is this a bad time?”
“I was trying to sleep,” I answered.
“That, and you, and her,” he said, sweeping his hand across the large dildo I held in my hand, my nude appearance, and my naked wife who had inexplicably remained sleeping. Probably because she snores like a bear.
I pulled on a teddy to cover up. “Fine, fine. I’m surprised you’re so prudish. Aren’t you British?”
“Actually, I’m dead,” he said. “However, I have important news for you that is best delivered if you aren’t otherwise distracted.”
I stood up and slid on some panties, then ran over and tried hugging him. My arms went right through him. “Aww,” I said.
He responded with a pained smile. “Being dead has tempered the hate I had for you in life, as a partner in your misdeeds. It is… nice you still see me as a friend.”
“Of course I do! One of the few I had for a long time. A little thing like fighting to the death isn’t going to change that,” I said. “Sorry about killing you by the way. Really the only thing to be done.”
He nodded. “Yes, it was you or me. Mind, I’d have preferred it being me.”
I shrugged. “I mean, obviously I feel the same way. Hard to fault you. So how you been?”
“I’ve been dead,” he said.
“Cool, I guess. So, you’re like a ghost now? The guys at the cemetery didn’t mention that.”
He shook his head. “This is not an ongoing thing. I was brought back and compelled to impart on you a message.”
“Wow… dick move. Someone brought you back from the dead because they couldn’t bother writing an email or texting?” I asked.
“I know, right?” Doc agreed.
I leaned in to stage whisper conspiratorially. “If you know the guy’s name, I wouldn’t mind doing you a little favor. Ya know, sending him a message involving being dead the old fashioned way. Or her, I should say. I still forget that stuff, despite, ya know…” I pointed at my awesome boobage.
“Yes, well, I don’t know what force has put me back on Earth or forced me to weigh me down with the chains of my sins while alive. This doesn’t make any sense, does it?” he asked, pointing to the chains.
I reached for one and passed right through. “Yeah, gravity isn’t ordinarily something I associate with ghosts, but there are loads of unanswered questions there regarding centrifugal force and gravity that magic has to answer for.”
“Right. Including the fact I’m back and not even allowed to enjoy a nice cup of tea. Look at me, I appear to have gotten into the weeds on this. I should continue on, then we can hang out. Where was I…” He cocked his head to think. When he spoke again, it was with a cadence of recitation instead of the normal way in which he conversed. “Oh yes. I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, meter by meter. I girded it of my own free will… bugger that, you know I was forced into this… and of my own free will I wear it, which is a load of bollocks as well. Would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? I don’t even want to think about it.”
“The ending was a little weak,” I judged. “But if someone’s going to stick a chain on me after death in proportion to the evil they think I’ve done, chances are good it’d be a lot worse than yours. Now to figure out who this necromancer is and do them in first…” I set up a database search for people in the superhuman community that practice magic. The Faustus/Hephaestus organization is top of the list and probably have a more complete listing than I do. I imagine plenty of people using magic just want to go about their everyday lives instead of throwing on capes and fighting people in tights.
“I don’t know about the chain. It is just the message I was given to convey. Now I’m worried what will happen if you die and someone raises you from the dead as some sort of ghostly reaper,” Good Doctor said. He sighed and looked around. Spotting a chair next to a small desk, he sat down in it.
I pointed at the chair. “Exactly what I mean about magic having a lot to answer for. Can you believe that shit?”
“Relax, I’m tired for some reason,” he looked down at where he seemed to be sweating. “I seem to have sprung a leak.”
I waved it off. “Probably just ectoplasm. Don’t worry, the folks who clean in here are used to strange fluids in strange places. So was that it? That all you needed to say?”
“I feel as though my time is nearly gone,” he said, taking up the same cadence as when he was reciting his message, “But I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Psychopomp.”
“You’re a good guy, dude,” I told him.
“You will be haunted by three spirits,” he said.
I pointed the dildo at him. “Dammit, Doc, I will fuck a ghost up. Don’t you play with me. I’ll bust the shit out of you.”
He held his hands up. “This is the message again! There will be three more ghosts. They shall come at midnight on different days.”
I thought about it a minute. “Ghost of a friend I used to partner with… visited by three ghosts… are any of them related to Christmas in the past, present, or future?”
He shrugged. “I think so? I don’t have a lot of information about my current condition and what is compelling me to do and say these things.”
I brought the hand with the dildo up to rub my forehead, the veiny purple toy wobbling as I did so. “Just when I thought I was safe from Christmas, someone’s gone and pulled A Christmas Carol on me.”
“You think it was a person?” Doc asked. “If there is someone behind this, I haven’t met them or spoken with them.”
“Makes more sense to me than the universe suddenly changing how it works out of nowhere to spit out a bunch of ghosts related to a man-made holiday in the hopes of reforming me when I’m not even at my worst,” I explained.
“I wish you luck,” Doctor said, standing up. “I must go, and I do not know if I shall ever see you again.” He adjusted the chain. “I will be glad to be rid of this.” He looked up at me. “Good luck staying out of this chain yourself. For what it’s worth, I hope you become a better person, but for your own sake. These violent delights have violent ends, you know.”
“We’ll see how it turns out.” I smiled at him as he began to fade away. “Rest in peace, Doc.”
When I was pretty sure he was gone, I sat back down on my bed to contemplate the necromancer and ghosts trying to mess with me. Then I laid back down and finally set the dildo I’d grabbed from the nightstand back where it had been, my fingers tracing the model name on the side that read, “Big Humbug”.