Qiang threw things at me. That hurt more than my nose. And I think I deserve it. I guess I didn’t really have to go running off. My contributions were minimal. I helped get some information out, and I was kidnapped by the supervillain.
I was the damn damsel. I’ve been captured before, but was I really all that necessary? If I’d stayed, would it have changed anything? My kid wouldn’t hate me. So.. yeah. Qiang’s not happy and locked herself in her room. I finally got to see the house through the eyes of my little puppet. A bit of a step down from having the world handed to her in a palace, with friends and family and an adoring populace.
I’m gonna have to talk to her about that. And so many other things. The birds and the bees, and how to kill them. Body parts and how to use them. And… what? I don’t get into any adventures that take me away too long? I’m not fond of the idea of settling down into some nothing job. The Exemplars appear to have their business well enough in hand.
I headed down the hallway in my own body, feeling my way along. There weren’t any pictures on the wall. I’d left her in an empty house. Shelter.
I sat down next to her door, wondering why the hell I thought I could take care of her. “Honey… I messed up.” I didn’t know if it’d matter to say sorry. I just got back from space and being possessed by Mr. Omega, and immediately run off. There’s some shit going on in that young mind that I don’t know how to fix. “I love you, but adults have problems. I have a lot of problems. That’s not your fault and it’s my job to be here for you anyway. I failed. I didn’t want to be left out. It was selfish. I’ve been failing a lot lately.”
She didn’t respond, but I heard her moving around in there. I realized, I haven’t even seen her room. Part of that’s because I have eyes, but my abilities don’t make that much of an excuse. Besides, I’ve got an extra pair now. One good thing about about having the second body to pilot around: I went shopping with that one while I stayed next to Qiang’s door, waiting. I eventually coaxed her out with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that she ate without talking to me.
I didn’t end up seeing Medusa again until the day after I got back, while Qiang was away at school. I was disturbed by a ringing sound that made me think my ears had malfunctioned. It turns out we had a landline in the house. A landline, of all things. I picked it up and answered, “County morgue.”
“Psycho Gecko?” Medusa asked.
“She’s here alright. Victim of a broken heart.” If I could have sent an image of puppydog eyes, I would have.
“Alright, it’s time for us to talk for real. Meet me at the super school’s gym, with just your real body.”
I took a breathe, gauging her tone. “Sounds like I’m not going to be too happy about this.”
She sighed. “We need to talk. I have your costume, too.”
I knew this was going to suck, but she did have my armor. Away I went out bundled up against the cold and went to school. Could have gotten a camera, but I don’t have money. Just a little damn house, that I’m stuck in because she’s paying to take care of my kid. I go on some sort of rampage, that could end. Or I just couldn’t live with my daughter. Yeah, I began to get a bit pissed off. Some of it, I knew, was me stoking the anger to deal with what was coming. It also occurred to me that I might be on to something. She stayed after finding out I loved her. No, maybe she already knew. I began to wonder just how much of this was her using me. She even used my armor as leverage to get me to this little talk.
A part of me I was surprised to hear chimed in to point out she has a lot of good reasons not to trust me. And that the trust we would need to survive as a couple can’t come from ignoring problems and hiding them away. We need a good, long talk, maybe even a chance to punch each other in the face again. Damn, I think odd things without my medication. I need to get a hold of Max soon, see about him sending me even more.
I figured I’d be going in blind at the gym, but detected one of those little body cam things people like to wear on their heads, laying on a table by the door. I connected to it and saw a little note had been left in front of it. “For Gecko,” it read. I went ahead and put it on, then went inside.
It was a heck of a gym. They built it so the walls could open, probably for changing the circumstances. When I got there, it was empty of students or anybody else. Toasty, too. I shed layers to reveal some workout clothes underneath. Easy clothing to move in.
Now, there weren’t any students, but there was a sparing mat in the middle of the floor. I recognized the pile on it as my armor. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d say this smelled like a trap. I discovered upon walking closer to the armor that it also smelled a like cinnamon. I heard her swing down from the rafters upon me picking it up, dressed in some workout shorts and a top. No costume or power armor for her.
“You and me on a mat for fighting. Why do I get the feeling this talk involves some cathartic punching?” I asked.
“Because I’d like to, but that’s up to you,” Medusa answered. “You trusted this wasn’t a trap, right?”
I nodded, so she continued. “And if we fight, you trust me not to kill or seriously wound you?”
I nodded again. She ran at me and went for a flying kick. I ducked and tossed me armor into the air, where it smacked into her face. She tried to get her feet down in time, but she misjudged it without her sight and skidded on her ass. She laughed as she rose and I wrapped my arms around her waist. I picked her up and slammed her on the ground, which stopped the laughing, but she caught me with an elbow to the empty socket and nose. She wiggled around and got my neck in a hold, locking her feet around my waist. I stood back up, fingers digging into her shirt to keep her in place, then belly flopped on top of her. She loosened her grip, but it smacked my head against the mat, too. I twisted around to break out of the neck hold, which worked, but she adjusted and grabbed my arm for an armbar. I started to stand, but she kicked me in the face, hard. So I tickled her feet. She growled, probably to keep from laughing.
I stood up again to slam her again. She dropped out of the armbar and landed on her feet, still holding my arm. She pushed her hips into mine and threw me over her. I rolled and came up with both forearms ready to block her kick to my face. Turns out, she kicked from the other direction, with the other leg. The momentum left her open when I grabbed her other foot and yanked it out from under her, sending her to the mat with an undignified “Oomph!”
“Is this who we are? Opponents?” I asked, taking a moment to catch my breath. “Always fighting?”
Sensing this wasn’t just a trick, Medusa pushed up more slowly. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t part of the appeal.”
I stopped, tapping the air with one finger while I followed the negatives in that sentence to make sure of what she was saying. I settled back down onto my butt. “So there is some appeal?”
“Yeah,” she said, scooting around to sit beside me. “I know you think I’m a goody two-shoes. You think I’d sleep with you if I didn’t care about you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just… I have trust issues. One girlfriend turned on me and tried to kill me for good reason. You’ve got every reason to hate me. You cost me my throne, and it feels like you’re using Qiang to keep me in line.”
She put an arm around me. “I should have talked more with you about letting the Riccans have their country back. I love you and see you have your heart in the right place, but I think you’re still so independent. So if you’re in charge, you’re a dictator who runs off and has adventures while other people clean up messes for you. You don’t know what’s best for you.”
“I’m getting a little bit of a Dom/Sub vibe from all this,” I mentioned.
Medusa threw back her head and laughed. When she settled down, she looked at me. “Maybe some of that is in there. There’s something about fighting you, hating you, giving in to you. I just got my independence, it feels like. I’m finally breaking away from a strict, ordered life I didn’t have much say in. You know what that’s like. Maybe this is some kind of late-blooming rebelliousness, and every daddy hates you. And, god, I can fight you. You’re clever and a match for me. But then you talked about kids with me. I love Qiang, but you and I feel very new and experimental. We’re both still finding out who we are and what kind of future we want, right?”
I nodded along. “Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I should take it a little slower with you. Get to know you better.”
“You should get to know you better,” she insisted. “Don’t be an Empress because you feel you have to be. Why did you decide to become Qiang’s parent?” she asked.
“I saw a lot of myself in that kid, and I wanted better for her, and began to care for her,” I said.
She nodded along, hair bouncing. “I see that in her too. And you. We’re broken toys, looking for a new purpose. You want to give her the chance to be who she wants to be. You should do the same for yourself, as much as you can. You know you still have obligations to that girl.” She raised a finger toward me.
I kissed the tip of it. She booped me on the nose and smiled. I was smiling too, turns out. Don’t know how she turned me around after that mood I was in. “Hey, want to come over and have dinner tonight?”
“You’re not going to dress up your sex doll in a maid outfit, are you?” she asked.
I stuck my tongue out at her, then said, “She’s not a sex doll. She’s a one-up.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you have a dominant streak too,” she winked at me.
“I thought we didn’t know each other too well,” I responded.
She pulled me against her. “I know you have some issues with yourself, and that you make yourself look unnaturally beautiful when possible. You try to look like other people and take over their bodies.” She ran her fingers through my hair, a copy of Dame’s. “I want to see the real you some day, when you’re comfortable showing the world.”
I’ll show her. I’ll show them all the power of Psycho Gecko, supervillain single mother!
“Who are you?” Technolutionary asked, stepping around me. I heard him moving, even if I couldn’t see him. Just circling around me
Things were hazy. My head didn’t feel right. These drugs they were giving me were utter shit. If they had any of the good stuff, they could get all the high without as many of the bad effects. It made it harder to concentrate on what I needed to be doing. I’d warned Medusa, I knew that. Thanks to the haze I was in, I kept repeating that part over and over again, trying to motivate myself to do something useful. It was like I was caught in a loop.
I finally broke out of it enough to reach out. I knew there had to be some kind of machinery around me, but I guess they didn’t use much bluetooth here, so I was just as blind about that. Either the whole facility was as good at locking down vulnerable devices, or they’d shielded the room I was in. I leaned toward the first because I had sent a text. There’s ways to do it, of course. Doesn’t even always involve lead. Fuck, Superman would be screwed if he went to Flint, Michigan. Perfect arena for Aquaman to take him down.
Someone was tapping me on the forehead. “Huh?”
“Who. Are. You?” I heard this guy ask. Technolutionary. I first ran into this guy on this seasteading settlement these guys were failing at. Technolutionary was taking advantage of the total lack of laws to kidnap people, remove their brains, and replace them with computers that could control their bodies in rudimentary ways. Shuffling, grabbing, biting. More than I could do then.
Anyway, this guy has a creepy crush on me because he sees me as a higher form of being and wanted to turn people into homo machina like me. Damn, I make stupid decisions. No wonder the only people who date me are messed up or of inferior intelligence, like Medusa. Stupid hero, with her stupid integrity and ethics and never giving up on me and her cute butt.
I tried to stick a hand up and point at the sky, but I was still stripped down. “I am the Great and Devious Empress Psychopomp Gecko! Wait, why did I not want to say that?”
“Gecko? Really. What are the odds?” I heard Technolutionary move closer. Mostly I smelled him though.
“Stop eating fish,” I told him. “It’s nasty and they’re lying to you.”
“Interesting. We don’t usually observe the effects of the anesthesia on a conscious subject. Interesting. They scanned you to find out how difficult it would be to replace your eyes and made a note of a number of unusual objects in you.”
“Was one of them a pencil in my wrist?” I said with a laugh.
“I can scarcely believe one of my creations caught you, but they said you lacked your armor. Still you survived the fight. I must pull rank and have you to myself,” he said.
“You don’t wanna do that. I’m a real bitch,” I said, then laughed.
He chuckled as well. “Not when I’m done with you. Let’s put you back to sleep though…”
“I better not wake up with you inside mmmmph,” is all I got out before a mask slipped over my mouth and I was out.
I’m really not sure I trust anesthesia from a bunch of people who don’t care if their patient survives. When I awoke this time, I was sure they hit me with some really good shit, because I could see. I shot up off of a cot I was on and found I looked really different, too. The loop started up again, thinking how weird that was. It was a nicer room than I expected, too. There was a bed nearby, with Dame on it.
Oh wait… that was me. I can tell, because she didn’t have eyes. Which meant I wasn’t me now. I briefly wondered if they scooped my whole damn brain out, but I had a bunch of red hair falling in front of my face. And my body still had my hair. Generally, they’d take that stuff off when removing a brain. Don’t ask how I know.
As I was shaking the hair out of my face, I noticed a mirror on the wall as well. I stepped over to it. My HUD tried to come up with a match on the face that looked back at me, pale but not as freckled as I expected. Weird, I even had heterochromia. One eye was blue and the other was so brown it nearly blended in with the black part you see through in the middle. I had no clue who this person was, though. I couldn’t even try to get an update on my files because I was completely blocked off… except for some weird connection that had automatically been made. I turned and checked my body to see an earpiece attached to the far side of my head.
Cool. I wonder if that means I can be more of these things. I looked down and felt my new self up, then I had a thought and checked this body’s pulse. Good, not groping a corpse. The thought of having a sexy body that’s, like, undead with a bunch of unnecessary guts torn out and stuff just seems creepy AF. Totally cuts down on the sexiness factor.
“I wonder what this was about?” I wondered. I said it a few more times because, again, loop. If I had to put a really accurate transcript of my thoughts at the time, this would be ten times longer and make a quarter as much sense as it does now. I don’t even want to go over how long I spent hopping up and down to look at this woman’s boobs. A little smaller than I preferred, but nice. Kinda weird to think of myself as sexy, too.
Finally, I heard a voice come through an intercom. “How are you adjusting to the extra body, Gecko?”
It was Technolutionary, pissing me right the fuck off. And that’s when my hands lit on fire. I looked down at them, wondering why they’d really be big enough buffoons to stick me in a body with superpowers, but then everything went black. Again. At least this time, I was still conscious, just blind again. Then I heard a hissing noise and went back to unconsciousness, telling myself I’m never sleeping again.
I awoke spitting up some stomach acid and being held upright with my arms tied over my head. I heard alarms off in the distance. Woowee, woowee, woowee, woowee. I started to turn the volume on my ears down, but then I heard a voice. “Let her go, Technolutionary!”
“Medusa?” I asked, trying to turn my head in the direction the voice was from. Hey, it’s that sexy lady who makes me feel hope. Wow, she sent me a LOT of text messages.
“It’s me! Did he hurt you?”
“Uh, he tried to beat me up with a super speeder and keeps giving me drugs. It’s terrible. They’re really cheap drugs.”
I heard a scoff nearby. “This President relied on my work, and still he cut corners. You were to be kept sedated until I trained you nice and properly not to try and kill me in any body I stuck you in.”
“That was a hot redhead,” I said.
I heard the crash of something metal hitting flesh. A gun went off, but didn’t hit me. Oh yeah, I can do that thing where I look through people’s cell phones. Before I could, the bond holding my left hand released. I reached over to the other one to tear and pull until it came loose, too. Bleh. First they give me crappy drugs, then they give me crappy copper? What happened to pride on one’s work?
I slapped myself before I could get stuck in a loop again and realized I had that thing on my ear still. Interesting. Bending over is when I realized that when I was put on display, I had also been dressed in a skimpy dress. While I did that, I tried to see how I could get that thing functional. What I found is it was dead. No battery, or power source of any sort. Instead, it had a wireless energy system.
Well, I can beat that. After all, I’m a power source. When it turned on, I found myself looking through a pair of eyes that were watching as I pummeled Core. I stopped. “Sorry about that. Don’t worry, change in ownership.” I hopped off him. He jumped up and tried to punch me a few times, but I backed off and deflected the blows. Then I reached up and removed that Freedom Legion helmet. I don’t think it was made to be unlocked from the inside, but I did so and turned to try and find me.
I was in a large hangar of some sort, with a control room overlooking it. There I was, up in the control room. Medusa was between me and Technolutionary, who had on purple and red power armor under his lab coat. He floated in the air on jets of flame from his calves and underneath the rear of his coat, outside the window while an armored Medusa looked between him and a guy in a shirt and tie who held a knife to my throat.
I hoped this puppet body resisted heat as well as she generated it. Even without knowing all the intricacies of her powers, seeing Technolutionary again helped me ignite that spark of anger the sedatives threatened to smother. I jumped her up into the air, shooting twin blazing jets of flame behind me from my hands, then tossing a couple handfuls of fire at Technolutionary and at the guy with the knife.
Inside the control room, the guy with the knife pushed me toward the fireball and tried to get out of the way. I dropped, caught his legs between mine, and tripped him. I had his knife away from him in a moment and, after some experimenting, found a place to put it in his chest I was satisfied with.
Through the other body’s eyes, I could see Technolutionary had dodged the fireball and moved closer to Medusa, who grabbed his leg. I jumper my firestarter again, aiming for the window, and landed inside just after Medusa finished smacking him around into stuff. He sprayed her with something that coated her in ice, then pulled free. Turning to reassess the situation, he saw me on one side of him in the skimpy red dress he’d stuck me in, and me on the other side of him in the Freedom Legion jumpsuit he’d stuck that other body in.
“Now, wait a second,” he said, turning to look at my original body. He turned toward the other and caught a fireball to the helmet. He flew up then, launching a rocket to blast a hole in the roof. He almost missed it, too, having damaged one of his calf rockets at some point. Guess that’ll teach him to use me as a damsel in distress, dammit.
That left me and Medusa, who was looking between me. Both of me ran over to her and hugged her. “Who are you?” she asked the Legion puppet.
“It’s me. I think Technolutionary wanted to do some freaky twin thing where he somehow connected me to just the one body,” I said with both voices.
“That is all kinds of creepy,” she responded.
“Can I keep her?” I asked, hugging my other self. I mean, they already took out her brain. Might as well…
“That’s also creepy,” Medusa said. I slumped with body bodies, but then Medusa started chatting into a radio. “Good, disable it Core. All of them.” She looked to the redhead, who didn’t fall over or anything, then stepped over to the broken window. I followed, unsteady between days of confinement and loads of drugs, until I helped myself out with my second body. Through her eyes, I saw a bunch of Freedom Legionnaires fall over. Just not mine.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Medusa was looking down at the skimpy outfit I was in. “Were you already in that when he caught you, or did he actually dress you for when he tied you up to distract me?”
“That was him, but it’s nice, right?” I asked, the redhead running her hand down my body.
I didn’t need eyes to tell that she was blushing under her visor.
The drive to that Exemplar base from Radium is quite the distance. The agents hauled ass, though. They rented a car, so they didn’t have special lights or law enforcement plates. The only thing that kept us from being pulled over is the lack of anyone giving a crap. They didn’t need me to point the way. They weren’t supposed to know where the raid was taking place, and they originally didn’t want to get anywhere near that mess.
Speaking of messes, only two of them came with me. Ohanian wanted to bring Mazur along, but then Mazur tried to stand. He sent us along, said he’d get treated, then work on smoothing over things in Radium. That left me to arrange for a babysitter for Qiang, and reassurances that I would be back. She wasn’t happy and yelled at me to stay back.
She had a point.
With Mazur and my daughter seen to, I took up the backseat of the rental car while Daniels drove and Ohanian used his phone to try and keep up on what was happening.
I spent most of the trip working on my gizmos. More than one. It wasn’t ideal working conditions and I didn’t have time for everything. The phones were essential; they helped me turn a pair of sunglasses into a new set of eyes for me. I also put together a few flashbangs with some real kick to them.
“What are you doing?” Daniels asked at one point after I got the sunglasses put together and was doing some funny stuff with cell phone batteries and wires. “Try not to mess up this car.”
“Don’t bother. The shit hit the fan,” Ohanian added. “It’s turned into a siege and got out into the news.”
I chuckled. “So, here’s a question worth asking. Did Medusa get back into the base before the reporters got there, or was she still on her way by that time.”
Daniels looked to Ohanian, who shrugged and said, “It’s not out yet. They don’t realize it’s even a possibility at the Bureau.” Ohanian looked at Daniels, who glanced over to him in between keeping his eye on the road. “We have to,” Ohanian told him.
Daniels shook his head. “I know you’re sick of what they’re doing.”
“We took an oath!” Ohanian said.
“This is fulfilling that oath. I know you and Mazur don’t have the clout for this,” Daniels said. “I’ll take responsibility when they ask why we didn’t tell them.”
“Or you can just blame it on me,” I said. “I get blamed plenty. It’s usually true, though.”
Ohanian glanced back at me, then to Daniels, and shrugged. We all drifted into silence for awhile until, with Ohanian refreshing and texting for updates. Finally, he broke the silence by saying, “This is fucking stupid. Everything’s happening there and we’re stuck here!”
“Let’s try the radio then,” I said, reaching up between them to push it on the more conventional way. An ad was just going off the air, followed by a long silence, then the DJ.
“Uh, hey folks. I found the button to come back from break. Like I, like I said, it’s my first day here after the previous DJ was killed deader than disco in that suicide drone bombing. You know what isn’t dead like disco? Country music!”
Off it went.
We had to stop for gas along the way, and it was that rest stop where Ohanian rushed out of the bathroom faster than he rushed into it. “What happened?” I asked as he hopped into the passenger seat after saying something to Daniels “Literal shit hit a fan?”
Ding! I got news alerts. Medusa and some Exemplars had made contact with reporters outside the base and had allegedly provided them with documentation of a scandal that could bring down the President. And then… nothing. All live feeds and streams of the siege failed. And then I got no connection whatsoever.
Ohanian growled in frustration at his phone. “Stupid thing.” Despite the risk of contamination by Country music, he tried the radio. Nothing but static.
“Bad news,” I said. “They must have someone or something who can block all of those signals. Just all of them. Nothing in or out. Good news, though, we’re close enough to be blocked, too.”
It wasn’t ten minutes later we saw a commotion ahead of us on the road. A searing yellow burst of light shot out from something flying in the air and the road ahead of us started to smoke. Ohanian busted out the minibinoculars and took a closer look. When he dropped back down, he told us, “It’s the Legion. He just fried that news van. The people inside have to be dead.”
“Do you think their news org will be as passive as they usually are about that?” I mused. “Like ‘Reporter Dead In Connection With Villain, Legion Standoff?’”
“This isn’t a joke,” Daniels said as we got closer.
I tried to roll my eyes and ended up missing them when I failed. “As often as it happens, it’s more of a running gag.”
“How can you see that any-whoa!” Daniels said, putting on the brakes. It wasn’t one of those super-dangerous situations like on TV where someone slams on them with lots of squealing. The Freedom Legionnaire had landed far enough away that we could stop without dying. It looked feminine this time, and held a hand up as we slowed and stopped.
“Turn back! This is a dangerous situation,” the Legionnaire yelled.
Daniels stuck his head out of the window. “Hey, what’s going on up there?” He motioned to the van stopped, darkened from heat, having skidded to a stop on the shoulder of the oncoming lane. “Those people are waving for help! Why aren’t you saving them?”
The Legionnaire turned and fired another blast at the van. Daniels, acting fast, gunned it as soon as the Legionnaire turned. When it turned back to us, the ballsy agent put on his lights and high beams. The Legionnaire flew upward while shooting a beam at us. We all bent away from the middle of the car instinctively as it sent the top flying off. Ohanian turned his head to watch the roof fly off, and then me as I jumped. I didn’t have the same reach as with my armor, so I looked out like a poor, pathetic failure as the Legionnaire flew even higher than I could jump. But would a pathetic, lonely, self-doubting husk of a human being- no time, I threw one of my spicy flashbangs.
It exploded with a bright flash, an annoying high-pitched squeal, and a brief fireball that covered everything with copper dust from wiring. I don’t recommend trying to recreate it at home, or in a car when you don’t have eyes.
Now, thanks to some physics nonsense that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, I landed back in the car, to the astonishment of a watching Ohanian. “How’d you know to duck? And jump? And throw that thing? What was that thing? You had a bomb in the car with us?!”
“Relax, it probably wouldn’t have killed you. It didn’t even kill that person back there. How good are y’all at defensive driving?”
Daniels kept speeding past the news van, and headed onward. Past that one, we could get a good look at more wreckage along the way, but also some people running alongside the road. Another Legionnaire was running, not with superspeed, just faster than humans do. As he closed in one of the people, big thorns popped out of his costume. He swiped at one person with an arm thorn, knocking them to the ground. A few more stabs and he was satisfied.
Behind us, the Legionnaire I’d left back there had oriented herself and flew back at us. This time, she got close overhead of and held out both hands. I punched her in the crotch hard enough to have technically cheated on Medusa. She kinda flailed a bit and peeled off at that. Then the flashbang I’d stuck in there went off and she collapsed onto the road, rolling end over and looking like she was pretty much out of condition. I don’t know if it’s a fatal blow, but it’s probably unpleasant enough to put her out of commission.
Daniels stuck a pair of powered ear plugs in his ears and pulled his gun free of his holster. “We have to save them.”
Ohanian nodded, put in his own plugs, and brought out his sidearm. He set it on top of the windshield, on a remaining section of the plastic up there. Supported, aiming with one hand, and bringing the binoculars to his eyes with the other, he aimed at the distant thorny Legionnaire. “Cover your ears,” he called back to me. I didn’t bother since my ears can adjust to that. Instead, I watched as he shot and managed to hit the Legionnaire, causing it stop in its pursuit of its next victim and look around. The woman in a red skirt and jacket that was next on the menu.
It didn’t penetrate. “Don’t you have more firepower?” I asked.
Ohanian called back to me. “They have armor! You’re lucky I can hit one at this distance.”
He used his shots to stagger the thorn guy, but that Legionnaire figured out what was going on, and Ohanian’s magazine ran dry. He swapped in a new one and the thorny bastard continued its chase of the woman in red. Daniels adjusted his course to come up beside her. She reached out in anticipation, though we were still a ways away. Then she began to fall, a thorn sticking through her belly. The Legionnaire was right behind her, pulling its thorn free. Daniels swerved and hit him. The Legionnaire bounced off the front of the car and along the ground, where he was run over by Daniels. The agent then skidded to a halt and backed over him. Then he got out and gave the limp form a couple shots to the chest just to make sure it wasn’t reacting.
Another man ran up to us, much less professionally-dressed, lugging a camera on his back. “You gotta help me! You gotta get me out of here! They’re killing everyone!”
Daniels put his hand on the man’s shoulder and tugged out his ear plug, the better to help him hear the distant sounds of gunfire and conflict. “Who is killing everyone?”
The man pointed down at the Legionnaire, then held up a file folder. “The Exemplars got copies of this to us. They took it from a lab. These things are prisoners and dead bodies. They cut out parts of the brain and replace them with computer chips, then bring them back to life under their control.”
Dead superheroes brought back to life? This has no place in my world.
Daniels took the file from the guy and glanced at it. He looked at the guy, then at Ohanian. Then he slipped the file into his jacket. “If you’ll come with me, I believe my superiors would like to debrief you in private.”
“What?” asked the man.
Ohanian rose in his seat, also looking a bit shocked. Daniels kept his gaze focused on the guy who gave us the file. “This is potentially explosive, stolen information that needs to be vetted for national security reasons. I work for the FBI and we can determine if this is even true, then pressure the President to do something.”
The man swung his arms back the way he ran from, the direction of the gunfire. “The President did this shit, man! If it was fucking fake, why are the fucking killing us?!”
Daniels reached for the man’s arm. “Please come with me, sir.” The man tore away and began running, now trying to escape us.
Daniels looked to Ohanian, who put his gun away and said, “I’m not going to shoot him to keep this quiet.”
“We took an oath,” Daniels said.
“That isn’t the oath we took,” Ohanian said.
They didn’t get much of a chance to argue about it because the guy who ran from us got splattered by a speedster Legionnaire who looked deathly thin. Might have even starved to death for all I know. Daniels rushed to the car, went to sit in, and a blur ran past that tore his head off. Ohanian brought his gun around to track the speedster as it turned. It straightened up, though, and he didn’t even get a shot off before he was suddenly flung through the air with a hole in his chest where the heart would be.
I hopped out and pulled out a pair of my flashbangs. I went ahead and activated them while the Legionnaire made the turn. Then I was crumpled on the ground, no longer next to the car. The air had been knocked out of me. I forced myself to at least sit up and saw the Legionnaire stalled in one place, his upper body swaying faster than I could really pick out. I hopped up and ran for him, aiming a kickoff kick right for his balls. He wasn’t there all of a sudden and I had to hop to keep from ending up like Charlie Brown.
Next thing I knew, I was embedded in the car door. And then I was being yanked out of there, getting the ultimate in whiplash as I flew across the landscape, pulled along by something gripping my neck. I reached back and grabbed what felt like a wrist, but then I heard a loud honking noise and got knocked the fuck out.
I woke up without my glasses. My GPS put me in Washington D.C. I could see anything, but when I tried to feel around, I found my arms and legs were strapped and clamped down hard enough to keep me down.
“The new super is awake,” I heard.
“She can wait. We need another disruptor,” someone else said. “The last one was blown up into too many pieces to sew back together.”
“Where am I? What’s going on?” I asked. While I did that, I realized I could access the internet. Sure, I didn’t have the password for their wifi, but I didn’t need that when I could go ahead and upload my own video to the internet, which I aimed to do no matter what Daniels and Ohanian decided to do with the file they got. I also fired off a text to Medusa with the details I did have of my location.
“You are going to make a contribution to the security of this great nation,” a cheery voice said. “You honor us with your sacrifice.”
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“Does the Technolutionary know she’ll need to be processed and given eyes?” someone asked.
Brief silence, then the response, “He’ll be by later to exam her himself and see what he needs to get through the skull.”
I smiled. “You are all so dead.”
“Shut up,” one of them said. I felt something slip onto my face, some funny smelling gas, and then I got real sleepy.
As nice as things went, they couldn’t last. After the events of that big reunion, I ended up sleeping 14 hours straight in a little house Medusa had rented for us. She’d gotten it for my eventual return, and Qiang had been living here on her own without me. Seemed a bit irresponsible, but she assured me this street was full of friendly families who kept an eye on her.
I woke to find Medusa telling Qiang to let me know there was an emergency and she had to go.
“What happened?” I asked, sitting up.
“Someone’s attacking the base. I need to get back,” she said.
“Ok, let’s go,” I said, rising up from the couch. I felt a little weak, as happens when you sleep that long, but at least my stomach wasn’t growling just yet.
“This is my group, and you’re not involved,” she said. I felt her hand against my chest, and then her lips against my cheek.
“I mean, my armor is back there. And you’re important to me,” I said.
“I’ll do what I can for your armor, but the Exemplars are my group. You don’t have to help with hero business because we’re a couple. You have a daughter to worry about, and a chance for peace. We just got you back. I think we’re tired of you running into danger.”
“Yeah!” Qiang added.
I didn’t really know what to say to that because they had somewhat of a point. I think the fact that I passed out for 14 hours speaks to a certain degree of tiredness, but she was more right about that separation between our agendas. And it can’t be good for my kid to constantly worry about me that way. And the worry I’m feeling is the same damn thing they tend to end up feeling when I decide it’s time to run off and punch a god in the nuts or something.
So I let her go. Besides, it gave me time to stop by an electronics store and start working on a couple of eyes. There are still traffic cameras and cell phones in this little town, enough that I managed to find my way there and back. It felt a little bit like an old school survival horror game, the ones with fixed camera angles for each new room or section. Unfortunately, we aren’t in Colorado, where I can use a little green herb to take care of any pain from wounds I suffer fighting the undead. Which explains a lot about how hard it was to aim in those games, or how you couldn’t climb over a picket fence to escape a monster.
I also grabbed some candy. It’s a risky move when I can’t see what I’m eating, but I’ve yet to meet the candy that can kill me. I wasn’t even thinking about paying, but Medusa snuck some cash into my pockets at some point. Darn reverse pick-pocketing.
Qiang wasn’t back from school when my attempts to build an eyeball from scratch were interrupted by a ringing doorbell. I got up from the table where I had some cheap burner phones set up to help me see and trundled over to the door. I opened it and heard a guy ask, “Oh. I’m sorry to interrupt you, ma’am. Are you the only one home?”
The person sounded a bit stiff. One phone camera gave me enough of a view to see it was a pair of suits at the door. I played dumb. “Yes. Who are you and what is this regarding?”
“Ma’am, we’re from the government and we have reason to believe a fugitive was in the area recently. If you don’t mind, we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“I’m sorry, who are you with specifically?” I asked. I stepped out onto the front porch and pulled the door closed behind me so they wouldn’t see I was building something.
“We’re with the FBI,” said the other of the two guys. “I’ve got my ID in my wallet, but it’s not in braille.”
“Oh. And what’s this all about? What fugitive?” I asked.
The first one spoke again. “Do you know of the supevillain Medusa?” he asked. Ah yes, the woman so evil, she snuck money into my clothes so I wouldn’t steal candy from a baby.
“I think I’ve heard the name before,” I said. “She was around here? I didn’t hear about any big fights or anything.” And I’m pretty sure people whose kids are at the school she’s funding make up a huge part of this little town now. I’m not going to pretend assholes don’t exist, but it seems weird for them to call up the Feds over this. I mentally reminded myself not to underestimate human stupidity. The United States in particular, as a country that’s had an anti-vaccine movement longer than it had access to vaccines.
“We received an anonymous tip that she was in the area,” the first guy said.
The second guy scoffed. “We know she was in your house. We have questions we want you to answer.”
Now it was my time to scoff. “You should ask them of whatever meth head you say saw her in my house.”
“You don’t understand, ma’am,” the first one said. “We know she was here.”
Someone else came walking up. “The house is clear. No other heat signatures.”
“You need probable cause to look in there!” I shouted at the newcomer. I’ve been in enough legal trouble to learn a thing or two, though I’m not clear on the legal status of using thermal goggles to search a house. I’d say some bureaucrat would require a good reason to justify breaking them out, but I also know a lot of law enforcement is happy to use any excuse they can get to use their fancy toys.
I decided to spy through any nearby cameras, half expecting to see a whole armed task force surrounding the area. Instead, it was just these three guys and their SUV parallel parked on the street in front of this house. I pushed past the two suits on the porch, stepped over these weird decorative grasses that bordered the sidewalk to the fence and street, and gave the man with the thermal goggles a good, stiff poke in the chest. “Get out of here.”
I heard a sound like a metal snap being undone behind me. A security camera nearby showed one of the suits back there putting his hand on the arm of his comrade and shaking his head in the negative. When the one who unsnapped his gun holster spoke, I recognized it as the less tactful second voice that I’d been hearing in all this. “Ma’am, where’s your walking stick?”
The other guy back there, First Voice, started to say, “We’re friends, we promise. We’re not here to-” but then the guy in front of me pulled his handgun on me. I grabbed his arm and threw him over me, taking the gun off him before releasing him to crash into the guy who’d undone his holster. The other one had his hands up, though, so I hesitated. Maybe Medusa’s rubbing off on me.
“Who are you? What are you here for?” I asked.
First Voice was calm. “We really are with the FBI. I’m Richard Daniels. We’re suspicious of the Freedom Legion task force that is hunting Medusa and her Exemplars. One of her Exemplars broke into a secure facility and found something. Now, she’s the Legion’s Enemy Number One. I’ve worked with her before and I trust her. Mazur and Ohanian here believe the Legion are rotten. We found out they traced her GPS, then found out it led here, and came to warn her and find out what she’d found before they could get to her first.”
“Is that true, Mazur?” I asked, wondering if both of the other two would speak up to try and fit the cover story.
Second Voice grunted as he stood up and brushed himself off. “Something is off about those Legion freaks. I know CIA spooks with more of a paper trail.”
The third guy also stood up. “I’m Ohanian. Mazur’s my partner. I lost an informant to a Freedom Legion op and they stonewalled when I looked into the casualties or even why they bothered blowing up an apartment building. We’re not all dirty. Look, can we talk out of the open?”
I decided to keep Ohanian’s gun with me as we got into their SUV, but I sat in the front seat. Not the driver’s seat, as I doubted they’d put any more trust into my braille method of driving than Medusa did. They began to bombard me with their doubts. No one saw the Legion without their heads covered. Nobody knows if they’re supers or if they’re being made. Nobody knows where they get their tips, or what evidence they use to justify raids.
“Slow down, you’re talking over each other,” I said, waving my hands around.
“Oh shit, get out!” Daniels shouted suddenly. I heard the doors open and and tried to get mine open, but I needed a moment to hunt down the handle. I started to get out and-
It took me a moment to get my bearings. I’d been thrown a bit. And was on fire. A lot of parts on me hurt, and my ears were coming back online. I heard shouting and gunfire, along with some whooshing and buzzing sounds. It took me a moment to get back to the camera view of the area, where I saw a tall, thick-bodied Freedom Legionnaire tossing around the trio of supposed FBI agents. He had Ohanian by the neck. Mazur approached, shooting at the Legionnaire’s arm. The bullets penetrated, but the masked super didn’t react except to swipe at Mazur with his other arm. Mazur fell onto the chain link fence in front of my house, leaving blood, fabric, and some flesh behind on the twines at the top. Daniels stumbled over to him, not walking right, and tried to check on him.
Well, I tried to stay out of this fight, but it’s literally right here at my home. The place my daughter lives. Physically, I hurt like hell. I blew my nose to spray out some of the blood filling my nose, and just kinda ignored my clothes burning. From the camera view, it’s not like it was burning me up. But the thought of that thing being here when my daughter got back?
“If I had my way,” I heard in my head as I pulled myself up, but that was the music player responding to me seeing a cone of flame burst from the big guy’s hand to catch Daniels, who proceeded to stop, drop, and roll. Shirley Manson, Bear McCreary, “Samson and Delilah.”
I stood up, slowly, feeling body parts complain. Had to jam my arm back into place. I began to walk toward the Legionnaire who just blew me up, the clothes burning off me. I could even see the smile grow on my face.
The Legionnaire spotted me and dropped Ohanian, who I guess was still alive. The big guy raised his hands. He went for the flamethrower again, but I ran through it, right at him. He took a stance and swung when I got in range. I ducked under it and did a rolling punch that caught him right in the cock and balls. Didn’t seem to do much to him. He grabbed me by my hair with one hand and punched me in my bloody nose with the other. I punched through that stupid, faceless helmet of his and scrabbled around for an orifice. I found the mouth and reached in with the other hand.
“Rargh!” I growl-yelled as I tore the upper half of the big guy’s head off. He dropped me to the ground and fell himself, the body twitching at the sudden loss of a brain signal.
“Jesus,” Ohanian said.
“Not quite,” I said, smiling down at him. Not exactly a reassuring sight, what with blood soaking my lips and running over my teeth from the nose. “You can call me Delilah if you want. Or if you need a codename, Blind Bombshell will do.”
While one of the first instincts I had with finding Medusa again was to toss her in bed and not stand up again until my legs needed to be popped back into my hips. Medusa insisted we not do that in the middle of everyone, or even back at the base. Or after the first shower. And I was opposed to putting on that suit with it all stinky, so I had it washed and hanging up to dry. She was taking so long to find me some clothes that I just started wandering around the base without them. The GPS put me… underneath a lot of lead. Wow. That can’t be healthy. Smart, though, as long as they don’t try to eat it.
So I set out. Opened the door, turned left, and bonked my head on the door frame because it turned out I didn’t make it all the way out of the door before turning. Still missing my eyes. I tried walking around with my hand on the wall, but I didn’t seem to find anything as near as I can tell. Blind people are a lot better at this than I am. I mean, I’m blind now, without my eyes. I don’t have lots of experience being blind. I don’t even have a stick to smack people with for being sightseeing smartasses.
Eventually, I stopped and threw my hands up. “Is this place fucking empty or what?!”
Someone nearby spoke up, “Everyone’s shocked to see a naked blind woman walking around.”
I pointed in the direction I heard them from. “Aha! Hiding, are you? Quick, somebody give me one of those sticks for blind people so I can get smackin’.”
“I’ve got this,” I heard Medusa say. Soon, I felt her arm around my shoulder, directing me back the way I came. “Come on, let’s get you back to the room.”
“You were lying about getting me clothes,” I said. It was a bit of an immediate buzzkill to the happy reunion, and a reminder of the bad times that led to me getting into a situation where I allowed Omega to possess me.
“I-” she started, then stopped talking while we walked. “I don’t think you should be inserting yourself into Exemplar until we’ve talked. We need to talk after everything that happened. I thought I lost you.”
“Psh, tossing me into another dimension? Come on, babe, minor inconvenience for me at this point,” I said.
“They forced Omega into its own pocket dimension. You could have been stuck there. That’s not the only way I lost you,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Hey, before we have this big talk and maybe end up saying things we shouldn’t say to each other, maybe I should get a chance to see my daughter. I have an idea where she might be, but I get the feeling I’m not going to like it.” As she led me through a doorway, I remarked that, “Is naked Psycho Gecko going to cause you some troubles already?”
She brushed my hair away to kiss me on the cheek. “No, but everyone will think you’re Dame right now. You look exactly like her,” she said. “I’m going to bring you clothes, I promise, but you need to stay in here, alright?”
“Fine, fine,” I said, checking around for something to sit on. I thought I found a stool, but I’m pretty sure it was some sort of round nightstand.
Despite the fact that I guess we might break up, Medusa was honest this time and brought back something for me to wear. I reciprocated by not wandering around and messing up whatever she’s doing and wherever she’s doing it at.
I also cooperated when I was led, shoeless and blind, to wherever they launch the Psycho Flyer from. My darn aircraft, quite possibly some of my soldiers, working for her instead of me. Or maybe she just stole or bought a bunch of it. I can imagine the new regime over there not locking things down as quickly as necessary. “Was that one of my bases?” I asked.
She sat next to me. “No. It belonged to a cult I stopped. We have so much ammo and explosives now.”
“But you did steal some of my power armor and at least one of my Psycho Flyers, like what we’re traveling in,” I said.
“Oh, sorry, let me get that door for you. No, we’re going in a car this time.” She said that about the time I came to a hunk of metal that did not, in fact, appear to be a state of the art VTOL. If I had to guess from how the exterior felt, I’d say it wasn’t even state of the art in the 80s. Ok, so I got it wrong about where we were and what we were traveling in. But I could still open a door, sit down, and buckle in all by myself, and I did so.
It was a long trip, and for obvious reasons Medusa did all the driving. I offered to take over, but she didn’t believe that I could stick a hand out and tell when a car was coming my way through braille. I freely admit it only works the first time.
Instead of addressing the awkward stuff, Medusa and I talked about a different elephant in the room. “Where did you go?”
“Space,” I said. “The final frontier. I thought you’d have Sam cluing you in still. She reads me.”
“Holly, Sam, and Max didn’t stick with us once we made sure Qiang would be safe. They’re your friends, not mine.”
Nice to know she didn’t end up stealing everything. Don’t have to answer any questions about that alien planting a kiss on me. At least, I hope it was a kiss. I don’t want to vomit out a bunch of alien babies in a few weeks. “Anyway, I appeared in space. Hitchhiked with some aliens for a bit. Got probed a few times. Then, I briefly got into publishing and attended an opera before they froze me, flew to Earth, stole some cows, and dumped me out in the field.”
After a few minutes of silence, she responded with, “I can’t tell if you’re joking. Hey, what happened to your eyes?”
“I got shot in one of them by an alien. I didn’t have a helmet or anything.”
“And the other?”
“I threw it into his mouth to choke him. The aliens didn’t bother giving me any replacements even though I saved them. Instead, I was too dangerous to be left roaming around.” I pantomimed throwing my hands up in alarm.
Medusa snorted. “Now it makes more sense. You didn’t start a war with an alien empire, did you?”
I shook my head, but didn’t say anything. After a couple of minutes of me not responding, I felt Medusa patting my shoulder. “You ok?”
“Just thinking,” I said, turning and faking a smile in what I thought was far enough for her.
“About what?” she asked. Damn, she asked. Now I have to lie.
I think I’m broke. I have no resources, no place to lay low, no way to repair my armor, no way to build more armors. No matter how nice this reunion is, I’ll still have to throw on the armor when I get back and start smashing things open until I have the money to pay for Qiang’s care. And even if things turn out cool between Medusa and I, she’s not fond of my robbing places. Then comes the inevitable choice between the two of them, the bitter break-up with Medusa, and making sure I don’t live a life of lingering resentment at my daughter for costing me the chance to be with Medusa. “Nothing.”
“How long have you been back?” she asked.
I answered, “About a week. Got back, tried to figure out what was going on around here, looked for Qiang and you, and went to go fetch that Core guy to find you.”
After that, she wanted to hear more, and I told her most of the story. Again, not the alien smooch. From there, we started rocking along to the radio, with her shushing me after I made the mistake of starting to sing. “Babe, no, I’m driving,” she said. I resorted to air guitar and drumming on the dash.
Then she stopped. “Get in the backseat.”
“Ooh, somebody got worked up,” I said, crawling back there and onto a bunch of clothes she had piled up. “Wow, your car is a mess.”
“There’s a heavy coat and boots in there. It’s October. It’s cold out there. Hey, hand me that coat under your left hand.”
Cold fucking shower, that’s what I got. But then, when I got outside the car, she stuck a phone in my hand and said, “Take a look around.”
I bonded to it pretty quickly and was disappointed in the lack of nudes. Which is a good thing, dammit. Sure, I don’t get them, but it means she’s not sending nudes to someone else. But I’d really like to see her naked. She gets to see me, but I can’t go the other way. And she’s really fun to look at nude, meaning both when I’m nude and when she’s nude. Really, extra nudity makes most situations more enjoyable. Ever watch cops go through canine training without the big puffy protective suit on, or any clothes at all?
Through the lens of Medusa’s phone, I saw a little town, with a little school and a little post office and a little set of fast food places, and a Super Wal-Mart, and a little school. Huh. I went back. One’s a combined elementary, middle, and high school. The other had newer signs announcing it as a private school for the gifted.
“Ok, what am I looking at?” I asked.
“Welcome to Radium, Minnesota, home of the Cupertino School of the Gifted. It’s named after St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was gifted with flight.”
“Allegedly,” I said.
“Really?” she asked. “You just got done fighting space Nazis.”
“I never said they were space Nazis. I don’t have any evidence that they believe in the tenets of National Socialism. They could just be space fascists,” I pointed out. While I quibbled with that, I saw the schools let out. A bunch of kids left both schools, some of them waving to each other or going to meet up at the fast food restaurants. One of them just took off and flew, right there in public. “Wow.. not keeping your super school a secret?”
“This is the middle of nowhere, and they’re getting along well. And I think we have pretty good protection,” she said. I zoomed in as some older kids came out, including ones with leather jackets and lots of piercings. There was even one lady that looked a lot like Spinetingler’s daughter.
“What the fuck?” I asked. “She’s a bit old for school.”
“I made sure to hire good psychiatrists and I reached out to Spinetingler after her daughter appeared this one time and tried to take over- you know what, it’s a long story. We’re taking down some filthy rich people and we have so much money. We have some villains’ children attending, and some people from poor families that would be likely to turn to crime. This is going to be a school for everyone. Neutral ground. That includes…” she turned to the school. We waited a half minute, then Qiang walked out.
I gave Medusa a slow cap. But while she laughed, I ran down the street, dodged a car, and across the next street toward Qiang. By then, she was already walking down the road away from the other school, so I had to raise the phone again, get a lead on her, and start running some more. I grabbed her in a hug, at which point she started screaming and elbowing me.
“It’s me! It’s mommy!” I dropped her. She turned and threw a punch. I dodged. She punched again, which I caught. She tried to stomp on my foot, but I raised my foot and caught it under her knee. She spun around and aimed the other foot for my face. I dropped her completely and let her fall. She stood up, pouting and crying. Then she hugged me.
“I missed you so much, baby,” I said, hugging her back tightly. Then Medusa joined us.
And even if that basic hero bitch breaks up with me, all is right with the world.
“So, how do you contact Medusa?” I asked for probably the fifth time since rescuing Core. We spent a little bit of time laying low in a places nobody would dare enter: Ruby Tuesdays, a Taco Bell bathroom, and even this one Gamestop. I’m pretty sure the Gamestop people knew Core was a fugitive from justice, but they were just happy to have someone in there. It got a little annoying, but they were more than happy to keep Core company while I found him some clothes. An assistant manager looked twitchy, but I bought his silence with a pre-order that I canceled as soon as we set foot outside the store.
He wasn’t ready to let me call up Medusa just yet, which is why I asked him maybe the fifth time since we left. “Come on, I need to get in touch with her,” I pressed.
He whirled on me, blue shirt hiding the blue glow beneath. “Call her yourself!” He turned and started walking over toward the nearby Wal-Mart where we hoped to pick up fresh transportation.
“I can’t,” I admitted, following after. “I had to get rid of a lot of stuff so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.” Isn’t it odd that I can say that with a straight face now? Omega wasn’t smart enough to figure out what I got rid of when I did it, but I knew enough to narrow some of the information down. I know I had Medusa’s number. I know I don’t anymore. That’s not the only piece of information that eludes me. Omega might have realized some of the potential of the Dimensional Bomb.
I lost my mind before, involuntarily. Giving it up of my own free will to save the ones I love? A fucking bargain.
Core passed up a perfectly inconspicuous SUV for a Dodge Charger. “I’ll make you a deal. Help me retrieve something I stashed in the swamp, and I’ll give you a chance to talk to her.”
He didn’t believe me. “Fine. First bit of help, we stand out a hell of a lot more in this thing than we do in something like that.” I pointed back to the SUV.
He turned and pointed to the backseat. There was a carseat. “A family probably needs that. We’re going in this.”
I shrugged. “Fine. Dork.” Worse, he took the driver’s side.
I didn’t realize how far Shreveport was from Bayou Blanc. That’s the difference between highways and the smaller backroads. We passed farmland and woods, then turned down roads of smaller and smaller roads. We were on a red clay road when we turned off even that to down a grass path shaded by uncut branches hanging overhead.
“So,” I asked. “You think it’ll be dangerous?”
“Maybe. When I was out here before, Freedom Legion got me. They’re probably out here looking, or they found it and left a surprise for me.” He looked around as we both stepped out of the car. “Besides, this place freaks me out.”
He took the trip a bit worse than me. He used tree roots and raised land in the swamp to try and avoid the water. I just slogged through it with my environmentally sealed suit. Once, when there was no way forward but through deep, murky water, I picked him up and carried him over my shoulder. “How do you know where we’re going, anyway?” I asked.
“A pattern of radiation I left. It’s harmless to the environment and hard to distinguish from the natural background radiation on the Earth, but most background radiation doesn’t spell out English words when looked at through the right instruments.” He started when he saw a log floating nearby, but he peered more closely at it and then relaxed when it didn’t move. I set him down when we got to a muddy section above most of the water, glad I couldn’t feel either the humidity or the muck. Core himself sighed in disgust at the squelching noise that came from setting his feet down on high ground.
“Which direction now?” I asked.
“Over here,” he said, pointing. He had a pretty good path that way.
We followed it another fifteen minutes before he ducked behind a tree. I caught a glimpse of a boat and faded into the environment with a camo pattern that shifted into a view of the environment behind me. People were talking up ahead, loudly. I moved up next to Core that way. “Nobody can see me at the moment,” I said quietly.
“Looks like bags of pot in the boat,” he said. “I didn’t realize I stashed the files so close to a drug operation.” There were a couple of men in the boat dressed for a hunting trip, though what they’d bagged was a lot more valuable. They were arguing, both occasionally gesticulating at the boat motor that was off for some reason.
“Oh yeah. No GPS or cell signals. Few pesky bystanders to stumble on it. Hard to find your way back if you get away…” I drifted into silence because something had startled the pair of drug runners in the boat. They stood up, one pulling out an AR of some sort while the other had a plain black revolver. They weren’t looking our way. In fact, they had their backs to us. The one with the rifle laughed and aimed it at something in the water.
Before he could shoot, a large man with a beard splashed up out of the water and tackled him off. I didn’t see it until he was on this side of the boat, but he wore a dead alligator on his back. The drug grower’s friend shot at the water where the gator man was busy drowning the other man, missing half his shots. The ones that hit didn’t do anything, and he even tried to shoot his empties a couple times before realizing it. Then man tossed the revolver down then and ran for the boat’s motor. He tried and failed to crank it, then kicked it, then pulled out a paddle. That’s when Gator Man pulled him over the side by his leg. He screamed, then gurgled, then he quieted down.
Gator Man crawled into the boat then, with the paddle in hand, and began whistling a tune to himself as he paddled the boat away. Core and I waited until he was out of earshot, Core looking around for me, until I figured the other super was far enough away. I dropped my camo and said,”…and whoever that was.”
“Is he gone?” asked Core.
Core stood back up then, stretched his legs, then led us away on a path that would have absolutely been visible to any of the three from that last encounter. We finally came to a gnarly old tree that had seen better days. Core rolled up his sleeve, took a deep breath, and dug his hand down into the water by the roots.
I thought I heard something. “Hurry up. Something’s on its way.”
Core squeezed his eyes closed. “I’m trying. Yuck.”
I was invisible when a trio of Freedom Legionnaires flew into view above us in their identical uniforms and faceless helmets. They stood in a bubble that stopped above the tree. The bubble disappeared and two of them dropped through the branches to land by Core. The other one caught himself in another bubble Only one more than we had looked like pretty good odds to me since they didn’t see me there, but then I noticed a large gator lazing in the water nearby. Or maybe Gator Man?
One of the Legionaries raised his hands and shot white beams that began to encase Core in ice. The other one held its arms in a peculiar way but didn’t seem to be using any powers.
“H-h-h-help!” Core chattered out.
And just like that, the ice guy’s head turned itself 360 degrees. The other guy’s body burst into flames. I felt the heat through my gloves as I pushed him into the water near the gator. It turned and splashed away. “Aww,” I said, disappointed. Fire guy chucked a fireball at where I pushed him from, but I flipped overhead, landing in the water near the escaping gator. The Legionnaire noticed the splash for sure. He turned toward me and got a faceful of gator as I smacked him with the beast I held by the tail.
He grabbed the gator and fried the squirming reptile until it stopped moving while I sank beneath the water. I almost missed him, but then I saw the mud kick up where he walked out of the water onto higher land. I grabbed his foot and pulled him back into the water, doing a barrel roll. Or, as the gators call it, a death roll.
His flames didn’t work so well in the water. My Nasty Surprise mini-chainsaw worked just fine, carving into his gut and up through his chest and neck. I left him behind as fish food as I rose dripping from the muck.
The last of the trio was in front of me, in a bubble again. He snapped his fingers and I was in the bubble instead, being lifted off the ground and into the air while he landed in the mud. Then a burst of intense blue radiation washed over him and left him twitching. The bubble disappeared and I fell back into the water. I came up to see Core was rolling down the sleeve of the remains of his shirt that had been burned through from the center of his chest.
“Good timing,” I told him. The Nasty Surprise slid right back up into its hidden compartment under my forearm. “You ok?”
He nodded. “I warm up quick.” He held up a thermos and unscrewed the top. He looked inside, nodded, then screwed the top back on. “I got what we came for. We better get out of here soon. There will be reinforcements on the way.”
“This’ll be fun,” I said, not entirely sarcastic. Chased through swamps by an army of faceless superpowered goons, never knowing if I’m going to stumble across gun-toting criminal operations or a killer Gator Man?
Core looked to the sky himself. “Come on, where are they?”
“You want them to see you?” I asked.
Core shook his head. “I emitted a low-level burst of radiation when we made it to the clearing that was the extraction signal if anyone had their equipment set to read it. Someone should be rushing to pick us up, but we have to stay here.”
“That could be a problem,” I said as a Legionnaire overflew us. It didn’t stop, but I think it saw us.
Then a missile flew out of nowhere and exploded him. I followed back its flight path and saw a Psycho Flyer materialize. I couldn’t feel its systems at all, probably by simple expedient of them being careful enough.
A rope dropped from the trapdoor on the bottom. Core stuffed the thermos into his pants, but directed me, “Go up first.”
I hopped up, landing near the rope.
“Good day, we both-” I heard Medusa saw as she approached. I stood up, pulling my mask down but otherwise letting her get a good look at my armor and face. And then remembering I look like Dame at the moment. “Gecko?”
I smiled, blinking, before squeezing my eyelids shut so she didn’t have to see in those empty holes, and rushed over to hug her to me. “Put a baby in me!”
We kissed, but she stopped long enough to giggle. “You’re back! You stink. You look like Dame.” Then, as if realizing what I said, she added, “You’re so weird. I love you.”
A few things changed since I’ve been gone. I half expected to come back and see another crisis going on that needs me to fix it. It’s October. A zombie uprising wouldn’t be out of place, especially with the High Technolutionary working with the U.S. Government. Or maybe evil clowns. Those are slightly less used, and I probably wouldn’t get some obscure Romanian or Sumerian version that barely resembles the fun ones.
Heck, even when I save a bunch of aliens, the only reward I get is being dropped on a cow patty with a new mask for my suit and a long-ass hike back to almost-civilization. But the air smells right. The animals sound familiar. And the food is made of less crap. Ah, I’m hardly back and I’m already complaining. I don’t know if that means I’m glad to be back, or I’m just an asshole. A bit of column A and a bit of column B. If the only thing people at that diner have to worry about is me being a grouch after so long without my meds or knowing anything about my family.
I think she’s doing ok. There’s stuff about me being deposed, me gaining godlike powers, and me invading my own country that was trying to establish a Constitutional Monarchy. It’s foreign affairs, so most of the world’s coverage was sketchy, but at least the BBC had some articles and video on the big fight and the effects show of Omega being banished. I got to watch as I got tossed through the same hole in reality. Captain Lightning tried to fetch me before it could happen, but it was closing while I went through. At least it’s clear I’m in the correct universe.
Afterwards, it went pretty smoothly. No talk about my heir, though. Ricca decided it’s going to drop the monarchy part and trust in democracy. Bold choice after the past few years. Queen Beetrice of North Korea formally separated from Ricca and relations with South Korea are friendlier than ever. Most of the colonies on Mu are friendly, but a community of supers and aliens has sprung up calling itself Godland. That’d be the Three Hares colony. The Bronze City recalled its soldiers peacefully and has also separated while they explore options related to more distant relatives of the king I replaced. All of it handled relatively peacefully.
It’s hardly a utopia. There’s lots of rebuilding to be done, and that portal that sucked Omega and me up was followed intermittently by smaller portals all over the world that dropped off junk and creatures that had been lost between universes. Nothing too disruptive, it seems. Nothing like the White House coming back.
In fact, the government under their current asshole is throwing together some Department of ExtraNormal Affairs to handle any of that transdimensional detritus and special superhuman threats to “the country”. I’ll guarantee that last part’s going to be abused. This is the guy who assembled his own gang of faceless superhero bodyguards, then ignored California. Which is in all kinds of interesting legal shape after that mess.
With an ok burger and fries down the gullet, I sat back and let it digest while I looked into Medusa specifically. She seemed like the most obvious one to look for. A quick search later and I found I was right. She’s been busy. She pulled a jailbreak in Hong Kong, stole a bunch of oil from a pipeline in Canada, and destroying a bunch of land-clearing equipment in Brazil. She didn’t do it alone. Some of the soldiers were in repainted Riccan power armor, or costumes. She’s got herself a team.
The latest thing they pulled was wrecking a bank IT center, with some stories saying she stole from it and others claiming she just data. And after that, she left a message that was quickly taken down off Youtube, but not before various news agencies reported on it.
“My name is Medusa. I was a hero. I still am,” it started with her wearing her mask but not her armor. She made eye contact with the camera, which is something her armor’s visor prevented. “I realized the world needs saving in a way most superheroes can’t. You can’t punch climate change. Dirty cops protect each other and put heroes in jail. The rich and powerful take what they want, and sometimes the criminal organization is our government. I thought I did more good as an exemplar for the world to come around to. I was trained to be that model hero, but I can’t do it anymore. I have to save the world. Sometimes, I have to save it from itself. I’m still a hero, but now, I am Medusa. Some call me a terrorist. Now, we are Exemplar.”
Eh, not the name I’d have gone with. I would have picked something like Nox or Dusk, personally. It was a solid piece of monologuing, though. And the name did lead to a handy bit of wordplay when she was referred to as an ex-hero turned exemplar. It gave me a name to search for, too.
On VillaiNet, I was glad to see my old access still worked. I was old news by now. That happens in such a fast-paced news cycle, though there was something of a betting pool on wondering when I’d return. Their logic was sound. I’ve either faked my own death or nearly died enough times before that it’s not confirmed until the body is seen publicly. Others thing it’s a waste of time because I might change my appearance completely and hide as someone else.
Medusa’s not on there. Mix N’Max has an account, but it says he hasn’t logged in for a couple months. But a little look-see revealed that some villains claim to be working for Exemplar. My lead came from one named Core who supposedly got arrested.
Core got nabbed in Louisiana. Some town called Belle Blanc. The Freedom Legion had been there, and he’s currently being held in some specialized super jail in Shreveport. I ordered some applie pie to go as I made up my mind to help him with bail. I didn’t know if his talk of working with Medusa was just boasting, but I’d figure it out a lot more quickly after I got him out. He was a lead, one I knew how to find.
I walked out, across the street to a two-story motel, and looked at my options. On the one hand, there was a trio of motorcycles crowding a parking space. Tempting. Another had an autumn red Plymouth fury in it. I’m kinda sick of that color at the moment. The only other occupied space held an RV. That really narrowed my options down.
I made great time, like many people do when traveling through the early hours of the night and ignore all those pesky signs about speed limits. That meant the guards at the William J. Lepetomane Correctional Facility For The Differently Criminal got one hell of a surprise when, a little after noon, an “Aoooga!” horn heralded the RV crashing through the fence and then wall of the facility.
At first, I thought I landed in some forsaken and forgotten series of back rooms they use for the hidden torture, but the supply closet and printing room clued me in to having crashed the Administrative section. It wasn’t a full-blown prison, and it was shockingly cozy. Everything was some shade of sickly yellow or shit brown. But not the kind of rich brown you think could grow a mighty oak from it. The kind of pale brown where you wonder if you’re getting sick. Listen, I normally keep a weapon handy in the bathroom. Of course I’m going to check to make sure nobody’s trying to assassinate me up the shit shute.
Speaking of shit shutes, the people who responded did not look like they’d seen their best days. The first one bounced off of me, made easier by me being invisible. The one after him skidded to a stop to help their comrade up. They left themselves wide open and their shirt untucked. I’ve heard the sounds of the dead on the battlefield and the rattle of murder victims in damp alleyways. The ripping noise of grabbing somebody’s underwear and tugging it up onto his head is one of my favorites. Throwing him onto his back and hearing his head bounce off the linoleum is a bit of a letdown by comparison.
I tried to have fun with it. I mean, if I can’t, it’d make this miserable work. Medusa has to like beating people up, too, otherwise it’d be really miserable for her and any other heroes pretending to be villains. Like, take this one woman who rounded the corner and smacked into me. She didn’t go down like the other guy, but did bounce back slightly. I grabbed her chest and the bra underneath her shirt and undershirt. Setting a boot on her belly, I kicked her, knocking her into another couple of guards and bowling them over even as I removed her bra right through her tops.
Nah, guards and the desk workers were easy. I made it into the holding area before too long, and the doors seemed to be built to mundane security specifications. The reason why became apparent when I got into the main holding area and found the rooms there where people were stacked four deep. Each one had a power dampening collar on. I became visible again, looking like an indistinct figure in a black robe and hood that completely hid my face. I tore began tearing open doors, asking, “Anybody seen Core around here?”
The first bunch stayed where they were. The second group scurried out without bothering to answer, but this guy with a teardrop tattoo under his eye nodded his head toward a second-story room across the cell block. “He’s in A27.”
I flourished a bow. “Thank you, my good dude.”
I still tore open a few more doors on my way over there. Not all of them would try to escape. Most had to realize they couldn’t get too far with their powers turned off. Maybe some weren’t thinking, or some had plans in case something like this happened. But enough of them began running for it that I thought made for useful chaos.
I tore open the door indicated by teardrop tattoo. “Hey, y’all? Is this 2B or not 2B?”
“This is A27,” said a guy in a radiation suit. Couldn’t get a look at his face through the blue glow from inside.
“I’m looking for Core,” I said.
Behind him, the other three inmates silently pointed at the guy in the radiation suit, who raised his hand and pointed at himself with a thumb. “That’s me. Did Medusa send you?”
“Not exactly, but I’m a friend,” I said. “Do you need that suit? I didn’t have a plan for that much conspicuousness.”
“I can’t control the nuclear core without my powers. I have to have it with the collar on.” He pointed at his neck. I felt around through that section of the suit and found a bulge. I got both hands on it. “I’m going to need you to tone down the glowing and irradiating as soon as I tear this off. You ready for this?”
Core nodded. The other three inmates behind him shook their heads in rapid disagreement. I tore the collar apart, tearing Core’s suit open in the process. The blue light quickly faded and he pulled off the suit to reveal a man in pale, sickly brown poo-colored pants and a chest with shifting metal armor plates built into it that closed over a core.
I stepped back so he could follow me out, catching the sounds of fighting and the crackle of electrical discharge. Core followed me out. “Do you have a way to get us out?”
Behind me, somebody who had gotten their collar off let out a trumpet as he transformed into a bipedal elephant man and jumped through what had been a reinforced window just prior to his impact with it.
“Depends,” I responded. “You need to recover anything they took from you?” When he shook his head, I pointed up to the hole. “Then that’s how we’re getting out.”
He actually paused to raise his face to the sky and smell the air. The guy got caught like a week ago. I had to grab him and drag him along with me. “Escape now, sniff later.”
In the paraphrased words of deceased cyborg president Richard Nixon: “Gecko’s back!”