Psychsaur came along with me to Seattle. I wasn’t going to bring her as there wasn’t any real reason to and she has her own life to live, but she asked about what I’m doing. “Just infiltrating some rich douchecanoe’s party scene of trafficked girls and boys to confirm he’s doing what I think he’s doing, then killing him. No different than your average Catholic Church service.”
What, did Pope Francis think I forgot? A lot of priests should consider themselves lucky I wasn’t Pope long enough to make some decrees.
Psychsaur ignored the jab at the Catholics. “You’re going to take your daughter with you into that situation?”
I thought about it. “I guess I can leave her in the room.”
“Around a bunch of criminals known for trafficking girls, who you’re going to piss off when you kill someone and stuff starts blowing up?” she asked, raising a decent point.
“Right, I need explosives…” My hands went to my waist, where my more integrated design left me without a belt to hang rubber chicken grenades from.
Psychsaur crossed her arms over her chest. “You know what I mean.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine, you have a point. I probably should arrange for a safe house for her.”
“I know people. I’ll go with you,” the heroine said.
I thought it over. Having a known superhero with me has the potential to alert Meecer’s people, but I did just give Psychsaur a hell of a makeover. She didn’t look anything like she used to. As long as she doesn’t throw on a costume, they shouldn’t realize who she is. “As long as you don’t go acting or looking like a hero, we’ll be fine.”
She shrugged. “Deal. I’m getting out anyway.”
“Really?” I asked. “Wow. Just so we’re clear, you’re going to stop being a hero?”
She nodded. “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting and risking my life. There’s a lot of pressure to make that your calling when you have powers, especially if you don’t look human. I just want a chance to live my own life.”
I smiled. “Good for you. In that case, thanks for helping me with my super business before you hang up the cape and tights for good.”
She smiled. The bathroom door opened as Qiang finished and stepped out. “Ok, I’m ready to go!”
I threw a fist in the air. “Ok, kiddo. Tonight, Seattle. Tomorrow… the world!”
“Really?” Qiang asked.
I motioned her on over toward the door and the car. “Of course not. You’re too young for a whole world. Start with a fish and we’ll see how you do from there.”
Getting to Seattle wasn’t the problem. I just walked into a private airstrip like I owned the place and stole a doctor killer. That’s the nickname of private planes with a tendency to crash when flown by amateur pilots with more money than know-how. Lucky for us, I’m no doctor. If I was, I probably could have diagnosed why Psychsaur was so quick to get out of the plane when we landed and rush to the bathroom.
“Huh. I wonder what her problem is,” I said, looking to Qiang.
My daughter had put her helmet on at some point during the flight. As she unbuckled her seatbelt, she said, “Maybe she doesn’t like flying upside down.”
“Could be,” I said as I slid out of the plane.
Meecer’s people found us that night to invite me to the evil kidnapping rape ring, but in a classy way. You know, with an understated white envelope slid under the door and a beautifully calligraphied invitation with embossing. I held it up for Psychsaur to see. “I have a location.” And an instruction to dress casual.
It turned out to be a movie theater. I looked like anybody else on the street with my armor altering how I appeared to others. Some of those others were just people going to see a movie. I was missing a prime chance to catch the new John Wick alongside these folks. Well, most of these folks. The women with the super-expensive earrings and the guy whose watch I stole weren’t the usual types to go to this theater. I saw them head down a separate wing after an older ticket taker directed them there.
He approached me. “You are a new face. Do you have a ticket?”
“This is something of a premiere for me,” I responded, holding up the invitation. He looked at it brifly, then stepped aside and motioned for me to head down that wing of the theater. It led to a short stairwell down, then a doorway. And from there, a lavish scene of chandeliers, red carpeting, and a waiter stepping up.
“Drink, ma’am?” he asked.
“Not this moment. Perhaps later,” I said.
Two men approached. One was the same private dick from the house, whose name I never caught. The other was a larger man, wider, fatter, but not obese. He had a devious, hungry smile without a matching gleam in his eyes. “There you are… our newest guest.” The private investigator broke off to speak privately to the waiter while the big guy reached a hand out for one of mine. He settled on upper right. “Colburn. Jeffrey Colburn. I will be your host tonight.”
I looked to the investigator, who kept turned away to look at other attendees. I turned back to Colburn. “I thought our ultimate host was Meecer. I thought I’d be meeting him.”
Colburn laughed, like if Santa Claus wanted to take a butcher’s knife to some kids. “He limits his attendance at the Dark Bazaar. He doesn’t like connections. Here, let me show you our attractions.”
It’s disappointing Meecer himself isn’t here for the sake of convenience, but on with the show. The tour started with a particularly noisy area, where a cage surrounded by a clear container held two people. On one side, teen boy in a cage stood in a pair of shorts. He was a skinny one, no real muscle to him, with long, black hair. Facing him was a chunky girl who could have been in middle school, in shorts and a shirt. Both had collars around their necks.
Something yellow flowed out of the girl’s eyes, like little motes that drifted in the air. She began to hover off the floor, then moved her hands toward the boy. The motes shot at him. The boy raised his arms to shield himself and ice blossomed outward from him. Spines stuck into the ice or bounced off it, flowers beginning to bloom off what had come from the girl’s eyes. The girl directed those seeds or pollen or whatever they were down to the floor where they began to grow together into a quartet of thick vines with snapping flower mouths on the ends. They rose above the lip of the boy’s ice wall. He created small shields in the air to stop their bites, then held his hands out. Ice formed in the air in front of him and kept spreading over the rest of the enclosed area, trapping the vines. It almost reached the girl when a light flashed above the arena and the ice stopped moving and the girl fell to the floor. Both combatants appeared fine, but it seemed the boy was much stronger.
“Disappointing fight, but he’s so powerful that it’s hardly fair,” Colburn said. “We normally fight even after they bleed, but he can freeze anyone. I’d like to break him of the habit with a death match, but he’s premium breeding stock.”
“And the girl?” I asked, watching as both combatants were dragged out by guards in riot gear with batons and tasers.
“She’s too young for breeding, but pleasure is another matter. I advise giving her room to grow,” the ringleader of the night’s events informed me.
“I don’t think this was all made clear to me,” I said. “What’s all this about breeding?”
The man led me away, putting his hand over my shoulder in an overly-familiar way. He looked puzzled for a moment as he touched the armor, then continued his imitation of a shark’s grin. “An impressive villain like yourself must know the value of superpowers. Magic, cybernetics, random mutation, natural training, unnatural physiology, mad science; the ways to obtain such power are legion and unreliable. Prominent families agree that the best way to insure superpowers in your legacy is the result of proper breeding.” He led me to a hallway next to a bar area.
I looked around but I couldn’t see that investigator anymore. Maybe he’d ducked out, if he was smart enough, if he had me figured out. I doubt it, which meant he probably thought I was like all of these things.
Colburn jostled my shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts? You’re more quiet than I was led to expect.”
I motioned to the whole place. “Oh, just wondering how I could possibly have gotten so far without having heard of this place.”
Colburn’s fingers came together, tip to tip in an apologetic gesture. “One does not obtain an invitation by threatening to blow up the world. As I said, this is about the importance of good breeding in families of leisure.”
“Do you have much of a selection?” I asked, wondering how I was going to shut all this down. Destroying it was one thing; rescuing kids was another.
“We have hundreds of fit stock for you to peruse,” he said, snapping his fingers in the direction of a waiter. The waiter brought over what appeared to be a menu at first. Instead of a wine selection, there were lists of features: sex, ethnicity, skin color, hair type, body type, powers.
I turned and went to put a fist through his chest and pull out his lungs. Colburn, suit and all, turned black with white specks dotting him. My fist bang into him, but couldn’t penetrate. “Attacking us, Empress Gecko? Our hospitality is not to be violated.”
I pulled my hand back, but it caught in midair and began to pull toward him, along with my body. The room seemed like it sped up, and my arm stretched unnaturally long before I fell into Colburn. I fell out in a bedroom with a selection of fetish gear laying around. Standing in front of me was the teen boy from the fight. A voice came out of nowhere. “Boy, freeze her.”
“I’m here to get you out,” I told him.
He shook his head and pointed to the collar around his neck. “There’s no getting out with this bomb strapped to my neck.” He held up his hands toward me.
I turned invisible by instinct and began to charge my gauntlets. The ice advanced on all sides, even freezing my feet and closing off the ceiling from me. I lashed out at the ice, but it was replaced faster than I could break it. It closed over me, thick, restricting, until I couldn’t move.
I reached out with my mind, looking for something to help me out of this situation. I ended up connecting to a call being made. “Mr. Meecer, she disappointed us. Yes, just as small-minded as to be expected of new blood. Mmm, but isn’t it delicious to know we have such fine new breeding stock? One of the most famous villains in the world, and an Empress.”
“A rare treat,” came the response. “No one touches her before I arrive,” said the man I’d been looking for to kill.
Well, looks like I may have found my target after all, just as soon as I get out of this ice. If anyone expects me to warm up to the idea of sex slavery, guess again. If there’s anything I am at the moment, it’s a major frigid bitch.
A thankful one as well. Psychsaur texted me an update an hour later. “Police raided your hotel room. We’re safe at a friend’s.”
“Good. Keep her safe. Am captured, will deal with target. Side note: good thing I no longer have testes to freeze.”
Now that I’ve got a couple days to think, time to run through possible bomb collar frequencies. Then, when Meecer shows, I either set things off or disable them before busting out. All according to my mysterious plan that totally involved me getting caught. Yep. That’s how it’ll look when the story gets out on this end, at least.
Some might reasonably ask how I can trust Venus, now Medusa, to run around on my island and elsewhere. I know this for a few reasons, one of which being Mix N’Max, my old amigo, has provided that perspective. He called me up while I waited for Meecer’s people to get back to me, video chatting with me while Qiang was zonked out. I sat there listening to my ASMR, getting an audio-only ear massage from a woman wearing dish gloves while I scrubbed away at my child’s armor. I put it on pause when I saw he was trying to talk to me.
“Hey there, Maxxy,” I greeted him.
“Hi Gecko. Are you having fun over there?” He asked. He was standing in my living room, in front of the giant monitor that doubled as a TV in his poofy white shirt. Without his jacket, it didn’t stand out so much from his pale skin, but at least his red lips broke up the image.
I shrugged to myself. He couldn’t see anything more from me than a floating head because the call was coming from INSIDE THE BRAIN. “Eh, could be better. This guy’s not very punctual. I as good as left him a note saying, ‘call me’ and he’s taking his sweet time getting around to it. It’s a very rude way to react to someone who stole his ego painting.”
“Do you know what Venus is up to?” he asked.
“She prefers Medusa now. She’s supposed to be figuring out who tried to kill me when we were on that other world.” Ugh, dried dog drool with food gravy still in it. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
“She’s talking with the Justice Rangers. A lot. I’m not sure you should be trusting her. I asked Sam and Holly if they’d keep an eye on her.” He crossed his arms. Behind him, Sam Hayne walked into the camera view briefly, eating a bowl of cereal. She’d gone spiky and bright orange with her hair now. Max’s punk assistant gave a little wave, then stepped back off screen.
“Oh yeah? Anything interesting happen?” How does a girl lose this much hair in her helmet and not go bald?
“They had a girls’ night out. Medusa invited the Pink Ranger along. Sam doesn’t trust them.”
Sam called from offscreen, “That’s right!”
I shrugged again. “Sam doesn’t trust me.”
“That’s also right!” Sam added.
“Guys, I get it, I do. You think I trust her? I have no idea what she sees in me, how she can actually have any feelings for me after all we’ve been through against one another. I’m half-convinced this is all an elaborate plan of hers to get back at me by making me paranoid while getting some good sex from me.”
Holly rose from the bottom of the image, eating popcorn from a bowl. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Tell me more!”
“I didn’t know you were that way, Holly.” I said, eyeing her. She had long blonde hair with pink highlights now.
Max shooed her out of the frame. “She’s not. She’s just a fan.”
“Mhm!” Holly said just before leaving the call to just Max and myself.
The image I projected showed my eyeroll. “I completely understand the concern and it isn’t without justification. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m choosing to take the W on this one and trust her. It’s good to know I’ve got a friend like you who is looking out for me, though, and I’m sure if she does try anything, you will be part of the way I pull through it.”
“Get a room, you two!” called Sam.
I pretended to narrow my eyes. “Max, just how attached are you to having two assistants?”
“It’s getting to be a hassle to feed both of them,” he smiled.
“I’ll eat Holly then,” Sam said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Wow, they’re both like that. And all this time I thought Max was taking his work home with him…”
He laughed it off. “Try to enjoy your vacation, your evil majesty.” He gave the last three words a cheesy emphasis. He’d have to be careful not to take that tone publicly. Lots of people take that Empress thing seriously.
His comment about vacationing gave me an idea. When I finished with Qiang’s armor, I set it aside and started poking her. “Hey, wake up. Wakey, wakey. It’s morning.”
My drowsy little pumpkin stirred. “Huh?”
“I’m tired of waiting. Let’s hit an amusement park.”
We had a load of fun. We went to the front of all the lines. They tried to keep Qiang off a few rides, but she had these extending stilt things in her boots to raise her up in case I thought she needed to reach stuff higher up. Then she found a water pistol and pretended it was a real weapon. The park people bought it.
Our trip back was just a hop and a skip back with our armors on. Well, a few more than just one hop and skip, but y’all get the point. When we reached the street our little house we were staying in was on, I noticed an extra car on the street. A real nice one. And a window shade was drawn that hadn’t been before. “You stay back,” I told Qiang. “And stay hidden. You notice anyone sneaking up on me, or on you, you let me know immediately, got it?”
She nodded and ducked behind a car.
It’s about time they found us. I wasn’t even subtle, renting it under the name Psycho Gecko. Maybe he thought I’d have gone for a hotel suite, but I wanted to change things up this time. A small two bedroom in a nice neighborhood lacked room service, but it had a certain charm, and an ability to sneak up on where you stay that’s better than a hotel. There, you don’t know until you’re either inside or in the confined hallway just outside. Here, I have a whole street, with cars to duck behind. I left Qiang ducking behind one.
When I stepped out, a ripple swept across my armor. The coloring of my chest was replaced by the landscape on the opposite side of me, adjusted to counteract distortions. Holographic emitters worked with the armor’s own color-changing abilities to render me invisible. I stepped lightly in the less cumbersome armor and made a circuit of the house before going in.
A man in an expensive dark blue suit waited in the living room, the sun glinting off his dusky, bald head. His backup laid in a pile by the back door. As a courtesy, I left them alive, with complimentary ball gags so they wouldn’t talk. I grabbed myself a drink from the kitchen and stepped up beside the guy, leaning on the chair and turning visible. He jumped as I appeared. “Hello there, visitor. May I interest you in a frosty beverage?”
I stuck the straw against he fanged “mouth” on the outside of the helmet and played a slurping sound.
The man stood up and backed off, hands coming up just a little. He covered by grabbing his suit jacket and buttoning it up. “I don’t believe I will, madam Gecko.”
I gave a little wave with one lower hand. “Oh, please. Just call me the Great and Devious Empress Psychopomp Gecko. Madam Gecko was my mother. Heck of a brothel owner, that one.”
The man looked at a loss as to how seriously to take this statement. I giggled and set the drink aside. “I take it you’re a decently-paid, if expendable, goon here on behalf of a certain wealthy client?”
“Actually, I’m a private investigator on retainer for that wealthy client. I suppose that makes me expendable enough.” He smiled at that. “Lucky for me, I’m not here for a fight. My employer asked me to see what we can do to persuade you to return a possession with sentimental value. We thought it best to simply ask, rather than go to all the trouble of a fight.” He flashed a winning smile.
“Aww, look at you, trying to lube me up like that. It’s a good thing you’re not looking to fight, though, because those guys you brought were a pushover. What was it, just five?” I pointed toward the backdoor, outside of which they were all incapacitated.
The man winced. “Will it help my chances if I say I didn’t want to bring them along?”
I held a hand up parallel to the ground and wobbled it. “Eh. You’re right, it’s a fortuitous day for you. I wasn’t hoping to get into a fight either. I fully intend to see about a deal with you and your boss about the possession in question, which you no doubt already tried to find.”
The man motioned to a couch nearby. “Please, may I sit?” I nodded; he sat. “If we’re both in agreement that this is a time to deal, not a time to kill, then please help me understand what my resourceful client may do for you?”
“I’m aware that your client takes human resources very seriously. You know, let’s stop beating around the bush. I know your boss beats around some trafficked bush.”
“This is about the drugs, then,” the man said.
I shook my head. “I actually meant the parties with special entertainment for those invited. Just men and women enjoying some company and some fucking.”
The man’s face went still, but the smile no longer reached his eyes. “Oh. That is a more complicated subject.”
“I’ll bet it is.”
“I will have to confer with my client before I can make this deal. I hope you understand, this isn’t something I can do from here.” He slowly reached into his pocket and produced a cheap flip phone that he tossed to me. I caught it. “I’ll contact you with his answer.”
“That’s fine. Go talk to whoever you need to in person. I’ll be here with the painting,” I waved him off.
He started to go, then sighed, and started for the backdoor. “Let me get them before I go.”
“Oh please, I’d hate to throw them in the recycling,” I said.
I didn’t get confirmation until the next day, via text. “You are in. Seattle. 5/20. We will find you.” I set the phone aside and went back to examining the day’s paper, where a section on local events showed a memento picture from a ride.
“Son of a… Qiang, dear, come look at this. They said they couldn’t give us the picture because of someone showing more than they were supposed to.” There we were, strapped into seats, our arms up in the air. With our helmets on, you couldn’t see our screaming faces. You could see those of the other riders, their eyes fixed on us as we plunged down a steep incline.
The headline read, “So Much Fun, It’s Criminal!”
A hero asked me a favor. Psychsaur arrived here on the island, direct from Los Angeles. The reptilian, feathered hero is one of the few I’m happy to see, and the feeling is mutual. She gets me a bit better than most, thanks to the telepathy and the mind reading. I worry sometimes that my positive outlook toward her may be the result of even more tampering she’s done to my mind. She’s messed around in there in the past. I don’t exactly like that she did it without asking, especially in regards to some problems I hadn’t been ready to address at the time, but it’s done. And she was one of the first heroes to really get me.
She walked into the tent that served as my temporary throne room while everything was being rebuilt. Two capital buildings and throne rooms since I’ve been Empress isn’t a good track record. I don’t like buying new furniture every year. I wouldn’t have even bothered with concept of a throne room just yet, but I need a way for things to come to me officially without letting everyone into the residence.
I was playing with my daughter, because she’s still not leaving me alone too much since I got back from the other dimension. Today’s lesson: chainsaw juggling. Just kidding. That’s one of the things I’m gonna get a tutor to handle. No lesson today, just videogames. The dastardly duo of PsychoGecko and Noobmaster69. I don’t know where she got the 69 part. I teach my daughter to use only the most refined language.
I sat there, my brain plugged in for voice chat. “I don’t care who the fuck you are, you’re talkin’ to mama bear now. You’re sore? Fly your ass on over here, we’ll see how sore you’ll be. I don’t care, I got an extra pair, and the only ass they’re going up is yours before I pull your tonsils out through your sphincter. Go cry to your mommy, you alcoholic asswipe.”
Next to me, Qiang giggled and kept shooting at someone.
“That’s one way to greet a guest,” I heard a feminine voice call out. Psychsaur walked in from the shadows on the outside of the room. Gotta get better lighting in here.
“Psychsaur!” I dropped my controller and hopped up. Qiang was too busy at the time with the game and pause buttons are incompatible with multiplayer.
The hero smiled as she approached. “You’re camping in style now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just a temporary matter until we rebuild everything and then they spend half the time gilding it all. I’ve got ideas on where to take the gold from, actually, but that’s a whole other thing. What are you doing here? You know, so soon after we were all on the same flying ship together.”
“I had to stop elsewhere first. I’m here for a favor, but I brought money,” she checked around and found some place better to sit than the cushions my kid and I were using. We both took a seat at a nearby table brought in for formal business.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Before I say this, I want you to know I thought about this a lot. I see it as a way of improving myself and fixing a defect that impedes me and prevents me from doing what I want to do in life. There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding body issues and disabilities, and I see this as the latter. It doesn’t indicate I see my condition as a sign of immorality or that it makes me less of a person. But it doesn’t let me be the person I want to be.” She fixed me with a look. I got the feeling this preamble came from experience.
I could sympathize. I have an extra pair of arms and boobs I wasn’t born with. “You, like most people, were born with an unfortunate defect: you’re not me. It severely hampers how awesome you can be.”
She made a drawn out “Heh” sound and looked to the side. “I want you to make me look like a regular human.” She fixed her eyes on my face, watching.
My reaction was more like, “Kind of a shame. You’re so pretty.” The scales, the feathers, they work. Not in a sexual way, not since she really went and mind melded with me, but they’re pretty features. The fact that they aren’t human ones isn’t that big an issue for me. It obviously is for her. “Sure. Got any particular person you want to look like?”
She brightened up and smiled. “Sure!” We talked it over for a bit, before she confessed, “I didn’t know how you were going to react. Thank you for not giving me shit.”
“Who am I to tell you you can’t do what you think improves yourself?” I reached up and ran one of my lower pair of arms through my hair.
And so the three of us set out for my workshop. I’d gone ahead and taken part of the basement level under the old Palace Grounds for personal maker space. That way, I didn’t have more giant vats of nanites laying on the floor of the living room. There was a small armory as well, with remaining pieces of past armors, as well as a copy of my current iteration. On one wall was the armor closet, assembling an upgrade. It was partially visible.
“Is that a shell?” Psychsaur asked as we made our way to a nearby nanite submersion tank.
I nodded. “Of a sorts. It’s a bit of a departure from some of how I’ve done armor before now. Instead of modular armor or a bunch of layers, I’m building it all in. I’m aiming to create a fully integrated and sustainable suit of power armor. No nanoweave with armor plates on top of it or embedded in it, with nanite quilt or exoskeletal muscle layers below. For starters, having an exoskeleton underneath stuff is just bad grammar. But I think there’s reason to believe I can make armor that provides superior protection with no loss of dexterity. Aside from the damn rockets. Haven’t figured out a way to incorporate them.”
Sad, that. I like having elbow rockets. There’s nothing like opening up an intercontinental ballistic can of whoopass on someone’s face.
I directed her to a square tub on the floor with a hand scanner attached. I touched my hand to it and a hologram appeared overhead, showing what we were aiming for with her looks. She looked past it, to a much larger block taking up most of the back of the space. “Make the hair a little darker. Hey, what’s that?”
“Oh. Working on something bigger, with a very different philosophy than the other armor. I prefer the integrated version, but you never know when you’re going to need some power behind your punches.”
“Hulkbuster, got it. That’s good… do you think it’ll work?” she wondered, setting a hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged. “I’ll do my very best to make sure it does. If it doesn’t, we can always change it later.”
Feels nice to do something for a friend, and it gave me time to metaphorically pick her brain. She could hear me from inside the tank, unless she turned on the TV or sound system. “So… do you know anything about a man named Erin Meecer?”
“Who?” she asked. Qiang snuck up and nearly hit me with a hammer.
“What’s this do?” My adorable daughter asked.
“Anybody you hit with it is disintegrated into a pile of ash and never comes back,” I told her. I pulled the hammer away.
“Really?” she asked, unsure of herself and looking from the hammer to where she almost smacked me.
I tossed the hammer aside, “Nope. But you shouldn’t mess with whatever’s laying around in here. You keep doing it, you won’t go with me to America.”
She hopped up and down. “Yay, am I going back to the Academy?”
I looked to where Psychsaur was being changed. “What’s going on out there?”
“I’m trying to find out what you know before my daughter and I visit the U.S. To impart a little karma on someone.”
Sadly, she didn’t know anything about the guy. Erin Meecer. Rich. Part owner of various companies, including a car company. Probably done all the same bad things anybody does who gets paid thousands of times more than their employees do for less work. Not really the sort of thing to disgust Medusa when she was Venus. Nope, this one has to do with private parties with kidnapped people, boys and girls both, helping to entertain guests.
“Mommy, do you hate rich people?” Qiang asked me as we flew into the country.
Psychsaur, seated nearby, smiled. We were kinda on my, uh, private plane. And Psychsaur didn’t look too bad. Not quite as unique without the scales and feathers. She reached up and rubbed her nose, getting used to it still.
I stuck out my tongue at the heroine before I answered. “When someone poor or powerless gets into trouble, they have more than enough people ready to make them pay. Not always, but since they don’t usually do it just once, there’s always a chance. But sometimes bad people do bad things and people don’t stop them because they have a lot of money or are important. I’m one of those people, too.”
“No you’re not!” she squealed as she hugged me.
“D’aww… you wanna help me break into a place?”
But Gecko, why would you take your daughter to go break into the house of a sex trafficking pimp bastard? He was out of town. I figured we wouldn’t find anything here. A guy like that has a lot of properties I could waste time looking through, but I thought I’d go about this the direct way. That’s why I busted through the door of a mansion in rural California on a hill overlooking the vineyard. The alarm sounded and tried to put out a call. I stuck a Psycho Gecko bobblehead on a table by the door. They’re cute. A bobbing head, then a pair of arms in my older, more iconic armor holding bobbing, decapitated heads. I built in a signal jammer in the base to make sure nobody radioed or used that pesky internet to get a signal out. I even showed Qiang how to cut the phone lines.
“Doggies!” Qiang said when a pair of Dobermans came checking the door.
“Honeybun, is your armor on tight?” I asked.
She ran forward and squealed with delight as one of the dogs tried to bite her arm. She tugged her arm free easily and tried to pet it. “Yes, mommy!”
“Don’t let them hurt you, dear,” I told her. I started in, but paused to see how she handled the dogs. They went for her arms and tried to drag her down. The couldn’t get the best grip on her armor, which was designed to handle worse than dog bites, and it had the strength to help her get up. Plus, it had the same tight seal to allow it to survive a chemical attack as my own. The dogs can’t get through unless she lets them through.
So with the alarm being nothing but loud noises and the guard dogs thoroughly distracted, I headed in. I kicked in a few doors, grabbed a few small, valuable trinkets. I wasn’t here for major theft, or even burning it down like I would prefer. Qiang loves the flamethrower, but this was about sending a different sort of message. It required a slow burn, some might say. Like me. I’m saying it. I didn’t get to use a damn flamenwerffer. Instead, I tried to find anything that might have particular personal value. A trophy or plaque of some meaning, perhaps.
In his living room, I found an eleven foot by six foot painting of Meecer wearing a lion’s skin and wrestling with a dragon.
I was taking it down when a man in a suit arrived, swaggering around the corner. He wore a pair of glowing red glasses and knuckle dusters. “So you’re the asshole waking me up?” He clapped his hands and the light came on.
Where before my armor looked like power armor, this guard got a look at armor that looked like dark grey skin, with no gaps. On the chest, four tendrils, like two uppercase omega symbols, one inside the other, stretched downward, colored a dark orange against the grey, one not meant to show up as garish in the shadows. The same orange colored my fists, knees, and spine. The helmet featured a grinning maw of fangs underneath a triangle of eyes that contained lasers. The helmet had its own “hair” in the form of a pair of horns that cling to the helmet as one piece and curl downward along either side of the face, ending in a pair of spheres: my take on a jester’s cap. This armor lacked the cape of my prior version. But instead of metal plates or nanoweave, it appeared more like a thick skin or soft shell.
“Who the hell ARE you?” asked the man who stumbled up on me.
I let the helmet do the grinning and raised my lower pair of hands. Glowing orange nails extended from the fingertips. “I’m Psycho Gecko. Tell your boss I want to talk.”
He raised his fists in a boxer’s stance for a second. I took a step toward him and he lowered them. “What am I doing… you don’t look like that guy, but I don’t make enough. Take what you want… just make it look like I put up a fight?”
I nodded and walked over. His shirt ended up shredded and I tossed him through a wall, but I didn’t hit a stud on the way through. He’d survive, probably end up with a nice scar that, if leveraged well, could really help his reputation. He’d be one of the few to survive a fight with Psycho Gecko. I’d say he should pray I don’t find out he was a part of Meecer’s side business, but he wouldn’t want to bring gods into this. They’s so squishy.
I carried out a big ol’ painting past Qiang, who had picked up one of the dogs overhead and was spinning it around in a circle. The other one was hopping around, trying to reach for the spinning dog. “That thing’s gonna spew,” I warned as I stepped outside and out of the blast radius.
Her giggles turned to a gasp, then crying. “Momma! He puked on me!”
“Looks like we learned something tonight. Come on, kiddo, let’s get back to the hotel and get you cleaned up.” I giggled a little bit, with the sound turned off, as she walked out of the house covered in a disgusting tax mixture. Aww. “At least you don’t have to smell it or wear it.”
Now then, I just have to wait until I get a call from Meecer or one of his associates. Sure, a hero might have trouble infiltrating whatever he’s doing and getting some proof of what’s going on, but I’m no hero. He has absolutely no reason to fear me going to the police or the FBI with what I find. He just has to fear going to the grave.
When I first got home, Qiang, my dear daughter, clung to me. When I went to bed, she clung to me. When I woke up, she clung to me. When I took a shower, when I ate breakfast, when I set my machines to build a replacement armor. I had to enlist Buzzkill bodyguards to finally pull her away long enough to see to her schooling, though I didn’t want to. If every there was a learning curve to master, it’s the one that comes with her being the heir to a supervillain’s empire.
With the nation militarized and under alert to deal with the threats of extradimensional invaders, my government was able to limp along. They deferred to Qiang and Citra, my political wife, as much as possible, but we’re lucky no one cared that much to ask who was running the country while I wasn’t around and what authority their decisions rested on. They might have said Qiang, who was a vocal advocate of Ricca continuing to aid the heroes and other countries while I was away, but there should have been a regent with a better understanding of the circumstances.
A failing on my part. I already have an idea to rectify it, but after spending time sorting out an important piece of business.
“It wasn’t one thing. Maybe it should have been. It’s easy to know what’s right when you first start out. If there’s a hoodlum who snatches a purse, you stop them. A pedant would say there’s nuance there, but not really. You get experienced at it and you can handle bigger thefts and fights. I was so proud of the first headlines about arresting carjackers and robbers. One morning, I’m having my coffee to warm me up after a cold shower. I bumped a bruise on my arm and scatter the newspaper. I was on the front page for stopping the Privateers from stealing a microchip from a Defense Department lab in the city, but I was reading about murders and carjackings no one stopped.”
I reached out and put a hand on Medusa’s shoulder. We sat on a couch at the Riccan Institute of Science. We were waiting for the doctors to get done with Dame. I’d taken a huge risk the first time I messed with Dame’s brain because I didn’t care that much if she lived or died. Medusa would rather she live, so I had brain experts and nanosurgeons do the job right. The nanosurgeons use holograms and Homo Machina physiology to closely manipulate regenerative nanomachines to handle jobs that Riccan doctors think are too risky or delicate for machine thinking alone. I think it’s bollocks, but I handed the job over for them to do their way. They know a hell of a lot more about brains than I do.
Medusa wanted to wait on her. Dame had been her friend. I wanted to wait with Medusa, and we decided it was time for a talk.
My nemesis-turned-girlfriend continued, “I wondered how many people were going to be killed by the chip I saved. Maybe more than if the Privateers took it. That was a scary thought for me to have. Mercenaries and pirates might be more responsible with it than law-abiding companies and my own government. Law-abiding doesn’t mean they’re right. The Privateers were wrong and would hurt people with it, so why wasn’t it wrong when the private company does it?”
“We still keep criminals in those basement cells where we kept you. Mender wanted you to be our assassin off the books. And he was wrong to think that, but it means I’m not the only one seeing this.” She went quiet for awhile. “He used to tell me, sometimes, to drop investigations. I had reason to suspect this guy, a rich man, of things. He was a philanthropist. I wonder if the money he gave to charity eased the guilt of what he did or if he used it to fish for victims. I wanted to move in, stop it, capture him, and turn him over to the police. Mender…” She shook her head.
“He told you not to bother?” I suggested. I shifted so I was laying with my head next to her, running a hand absentmindedly down her leg. I like touching her just because. She shifted so her bare feet were over to the opposite side, so I just laid there.
She patted my head from behind. “He did, and he showed me an article from ten years ago. A woman was arrested for making false police reports. She was a private detective. Her business license was revoked. She was evicted. Then he showed me another, about a local superhero. Villains hunted her down and beat her to within an inch of her life. She once worked with the FBI. Mender wanted me to know there was no one who would legally do anything about it. The best result would be him threatening us.”
Her hands lazed over my back, her nails lightly scratching me through my dress. “I threatened to go after him off the books. Mender asked me what would happen to the academy once the FBI snoops on us in retaliation. He had to protect his students. He’s just as selective as the cops. That morning, years later, I think about how I’m not stopping the clear-cut crime. I never found the time to go after him. I’m not stopping the really big crime. I’m just doing enough to maintain the status quo and anyone it doesn’t work for is screwed. I had to get out, but I couldn’t do this on my own.”
“Mmm… I thought you had lots of hero friends.”
She sighed. “They all knew the Academy and I didn’t feel like I could trust them. I needed help.”
“Of all people, you trust me?” I asked, rolling over. I had to see he face on this one.
She laughed. “To let me be a villain so I can fight the good fight? Yeah, I can trust you for that.”
“I dunno… maybe I can’t trust you. After all, you’re so off your rocker, you picked me for a girlfriend.” I winked up at her.
“Stop it,” she leaned down and kissed my forehead. “You’re better than you think you are and you’re getting better. I think I’ve been a good influence on you.”
“You think you knocked sense into me so you’d try smacking it in a different way?” I asked.
She looked away from me with a smile on her face and lightly shook her head. “I think you’re fine and you can be endearing when you aren’t trying to drive someone away. I’ve watched a lot of Gecko because of my job.”
I scooted up to rest my head on her thigh, propping me up a little to look away from her. I didn’t say anything for about ten seconds, so she added, “Be honest with me, ok?”
“I just don’t see why anyone would love me unless they were in a fucked up situation. I killed your boyfriend that time. I’ve tried to kill you before. How do you forget that?”
She reached down and took my hand. “You don’t. Maybe you learn to forgive it.”
I held her hand, ran my fingers over her palm. “I dunno how you do it.”
“You dropped your attempted murder investigation quick.” She intertwined her fingers with mine.
“I wanted to come home and be with my family. That reminds me, Qiang and I made you a present.” I held out my hand and activated the little homing drone. About the size of a small flashlight, it zipped along toward me, carrying a small box. I untied the drone from it and held it up to Medusa.
I’d worked hard on it in my workshop, with Qiang at my side. If not for me forcing her to go to school (and assigning guards to make sure she stays), she’d still be with me. Can’t blame the rugrat. So she was there with me, both of us in power armor, as I swung a great hammer overhead, pounding out a hunk of metal Above me, robotic tendrils spread out and turned downward, great lasers refining my design. When I was done, I backed away. The tendrils grabbed a see-through case and set it up around my creation. An arm lowered itself, no thicker around than a pencil and opened up. Arms small enough to have an arm wrestling competition with a mosquito spread out and latched onto the gift, holding it up in midair. Qiang and I unleashed our barbaric yawps into a receiver that amplified the sound and the box reflected it inward on itself. The box shook as sound waves slammed into the metal and refined it further, helping to distribute the carbon and forge a strong piece.
Medusa held it up. “Is it a keychain?” she asked of the small piece of metal in her hand. “How sweet of Qiang.”
Hey, I put a lot of work into that bracelet. I said watched her reaction to it, the way her eyes shone looking at it. I think she was fucking with me. She slid it on and looked down at it, then smiled a brilliant smile up at me. “I love it.”
After a brief kiss, she had to point out, “I didn’t get anything for you in exchange.”
Lightbulb. Exchange… “You did a lot for me on the ship. The way you stood up to Warman really meant a lot to me. But if we’re talking exchanges, you just gave me an idea.”
“I’m not swapping bodies with you through a transceiver like Dame has,” Medusa said.
I grinned. “Way to ruin Christmas for me early, but no. I was just thinking about a fun time you could give me, involving your rich asshole and whatever nasty business he’s up to.”
“That’s my problem to deal with,” she said. “You’re already doing this for Dame even when you don’t want to.”
I grimaced. “I do have something you could do for me instead, but I don’t want to. You’re here to forge your own path and do your own thing, and it’s a little close to what you did before. What I… I don’t want us… I’m trying to figure out how to say this. I don’t want our relationship to be about what we do for one another like some kind of business deal. I want to help you, and I don’t want you to think it’s about getting things in return”
She bit her lower lip, then ordered me to “Sit up.” I did so and let her pull me onto her lap. “What are you thinking?”
The way I sat there, with her hands on me, what I was thinking isn’t fit to print. Mmm, the taut muscles under her skin… “I handle the bad guy who got away, you find the person who tried to murder me?”
She smiled and kissed me again.
The opening of the doors interrupted us. One of the surgeons walked in and bowed. “Empress, good news.”
It was a little blow to the ego how quickly Medusa set me aside to go run and check on her friend who, apparently, had made a full recovery. I didn’t care to interrupt. I’m the last person Dame ever wants to see in her life.
Instead, I sent off a message to Queen Beetrice, the bee-woman in charge of North Korea. I made sure it was a formal electronic invite. Perhaps it would have been less rude to call, but I knew the kind of high-pitched sounds she makes when she’s happy. It’s entirely possible that every dog in Asia heard her reaction to a formal invitation to brunch with me to discuss an important matter of state.
Like it or not, as childish as I see her quite often, she’s proven to be damn competent. If anything happens to me before Qiang comes of age, she’ll make a fine regent.
Finally, the day we were to head back. I woke up, noticed I had an extra pair of arms in bed, and smiled at the thought of the body pressing against me from behind. I turned and pushed Venus’s brown hair out of the way before kissing her. She eventually woke up, returning my affection until she opened her eyes. She started and sat up onto her knees before smiling sheepishly. “Sorry, forgot who you were for a moment.”
I tugged the covers up over my chest. “Mmm, was a little longer than a moment.”
She smiled that lovely smile before she leaned in close. “No, I knew what I was doing then.” She kissed me once on the forehead.
I winked at her. “I’d say you did.”
She blushed, then bit her lip. She hugged a pillow to herself and looked over to where Dame had been propped up on a chair, still not waking. An earbud-like device rested on Dame’s thigh. “Trying that was wrong, though.”
I’d given her the gizmo for her as a surprise. It let her inhabit Dame the same way I could, but Venus wasn’t having anything in that situation. She got back out of Dame and we got into an argument. There was some light pushing, and I fell on the bed while dragging Venus with me. Before we knew it, the argument was over.
I rolled my eyes, then walked my fingers up Venus’s thigh. “If it’s so wrong, go grab some handcuffs and lock me up.” I started to kiss her knee, but she popped me with the pillow.
“I’m serious. What you’ve done to her is beyond the pale. And trying to get me in her?” She shook her head.
I pushed the pillow away and reached up to run my fingers through her hair. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” I smiled at her, hoping temptation would override her morals again.
She got up and walked over to the other utilitarian chair by Dame, gathering her clothes up along the way and began pulling them on I slipped into Dame and sat on Venus’s lap. She held me for a moment but pushed me away when I moved in for the kiss. “No. And I don’t care what your nanites said about the damage. Fix her. Bring her back. Give her her brain back where neither of us can take it over again.”
It was more of a sad rebuke than angry. She followed it up by getting dressed and heading out to check on our departure details.
When the Buzzkills used some of our limited nanite supplies healing my stab wound up, I held onto a little bit. I reprogrammed them for diagnostic purposes, to tell me more about what was going on with Dame. They found damage throughout her lovely cybernetic brain. If anything, it’s a surprise it didn’t affect me more. Or maybe it did, like when I forgot who I was. After that, they focused on healing her injuries from the underground fight. You’d be surprised what organs can bruise, dear reader.
Either way, I figured I’d keep her fed and watered, make sure she goes to the bathroom in the right spot. I’ll get her fixed when we get back home. Probably. I’m tempted not to. It’s the kind of perverse transhumanist mayhem I so selfishly love. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she won’t be there when it’s fixed. Brain injuries are interesting like that, but doubt it’s the kind of thing that could kill her while leaving her intact enough for me to take over.
Speaking of taking her over, I can freely move back and forth again. Near as I can tell, something in my transceivers just… gave out. A power surge from the Domeship shouldn’t have affected me, so maybe it was residual damage left over from the mag-lev rails. I’d been dancing with those trains an awful lot. Fuckin’ magnets, how did they mess up my brain?
It took me longer to get ready for the day than usual, due to having to shower and dress two bodies. Maybe Venus wants to walk around smelling like stank, but I have some class. Travel looked to be more difficult, and I thought of grabbing some duct tape and doing a conjoined twin scenario. I remembered there was already someone who tried to kill me on the ship and figured that would probably add a few more enemies I didn’t need yet. Never know when you’re going to catch something bigger than a scalpel to the heart. I opted to tie her to my back, like a pack. I don’t actually want her hurt while she’s a backup body for me.
I still attracted dirty looks with Dame tied to my back by a bedsheet rope. Good thing I didn’t need to ask for directions. I got enough glares and “Fuck You”s from heroes I only cheerfully waved at.
We all met in the dome. We stood there among defectors and rebel crew to watch as the Senate renamed itself the Forum and appointed a three-person ruling Council to run things via the dome functioning like a giant round TV screen. Some of the rebels near me, who weren’t so much rebels anymore, muttered about how they thought the whole body should have been gotten away with and replaced by regular people.
I’m not sure what that said about the chances of this government standing up, but I felt a lot better when Warman met with the joint session of the Forum and Council to be presented with an armistice. I rolled my eyes at that one. We fought for peace and got a break. Now, we get to leave the peace treaty in the hands of some of the people who tried to sell us out and join the invaders. I sighed and texted Venus. “This is why I should have assassinated the Consuls. They’d be much more inclined to go ahead and accept a peace treaty if they knew how grave the situation was.”
“Bad gecko. Bhave.”
“We have to talk about your shortening problem.”
“L8r. Turning ship over 2 nu capn.”
“I may have to break up with you over the text speak.”
She didn’t reply for several minutes, either processing it or too busy with ceremony. After nearly ten minutes, I received he reply. “U! Break up w/ME after last nite?!!!”
What’s the point of all the shortcuts if you’re going to add so many extra exclamation points. Some believe more than three such pieces of punctuation are the sign of a diseased mine, and I can’t help but suspect it’s true after seeing it in action. “It is painful to read.”
“U tricked me n2 Dame.”
“She’ll never even know unless you tell her once she’s back to normal.”
“I no. That’s y its feels so bad.”
I frowned as I looked over the words in my HUD. I’m going to go ahead and take her at her word this really did make her feel bad once she stopped thinking with her vulva. I thought of all the confusing feelings and the way she used those. Her replacing her doppelganger and tricking me. Freeloading and getting close to my daughter. She tricked me into dates and cuddles and snuggles. Just talking and watching TV together. Dates. Her smile.
And even though she seems to have meshed well with her old friends, I still caught the clear disapproval about her being with me. I have no clue why she’s with me. And I realized that really mattered to me. Because if I knew why she stooped to slumming with me, it would give me an idea what I could do to keep her. It was truly an insidious plot.
“I don’t know what you see in me, Boopsie, but I wish I could live up to it enough to keep you around. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that to you,” I sent to her. Not exactly reminding her it takes two to make the beast with a billion backs, but she knows that part already. I’m giving her an out. A way to shift blame onto the villain.
They announced that the ship would be transitioning back to our world within one hour, pending the return of our delegation from the surface and the arrival of diplomats from the new government. I set my system to hold all incoming texts and calls for awhile. It seemed safer to stay out of the way. Instead, I stopped by the infirmary. They had taken good care of me, feeding me nutrients through IV. It could have been much worse. I chould have had to eat their shitty food.
The understaffed bunch who had been manning it were taking a well-deserved break. I stared at the bed where my body had lain. I’d already checked around it for anything to tell me what was going on, but they’d cleaned up already. It was a hygiene concern when you’re supposed to heal the sick and dying. The heroes signed off on it, said they checked the area over thoroughly.
There was no video surveillance of this hall of rest beds. It wasn’t expected to be a private area at all; it held seven beds. The report I cajoled out of Eschaton said they had hardly anyone else in the room with me. Of the two, one was zonked out on a sedative at the time and the other was in the bathroom. My paranoia wanted to tell me this was by design. My pragmatism said anyone waiting to kill me would have found that to be the perfect moment to go for it.
Still, I had to check.
The hero who’d gone to the bathroom had been identified in the quick report I’d been given. Almost two pages long, it didn’t have a lot of details, but it emphasized that Electrikitty had been cleared and had nothing to do with the attempt on my life. It took most of the hour to find out where she called her litter box. She didn’t have as good of quarters as Venus, which led me to briefly wonder why Venus got special treatment. Leftover goodwill, or a protective measure for being close to me? Probably just my paranoia acting up again. Either way, I walked into one of the eateries and sat down across from a superhero wearing an electric blue cat ear headband, and a white costume with blue electricity patterns over the chest, arms, and legs.
“Oh my god, is that a dead body?” she asked, looking at Dame on my back.
I glanced back, then shook my head. “She’s only sleeping. Say ‘hi’ Dame.” I inhabited Dame briefly to raise her head up. “Hi, Dame!” I jumped back into my body to look into the gawking, open-mouthed expression of Electrikitty. “Listen, do me a favor. I’m looking into that incident in the infirmary, the stabbing?”
“I already talked to the other heroes,” she said, squinting at me. “Have we met?”
She looked pretty convincing, not knowing who I am. I smiled at her, “Maybe in another nine lives.” I watched as she rolled her eyes at the comment, then I continued, “I was just wondering if there was anything you saw at all. Maybe something you remembered. Anyone you noticed between your bed and the restroom.”
She shook her head. “No. The only thing I can think of is to ask those guys in the colorful suits and the helmets. One of them had a crush on her or something. He was always watching.”
“But not that day?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Maybe?” Truly, Electrikitty was a font of knowledge. She legitimately seemed not to remember me the whole time. I dunno, maybe she was just that messed up at the time. Even her tipoff about the Justice Rangers was just pointing toward a direction I was already headed. I didn’t just suspect them of having something to do with it, but I did remember how often they liked to hover over me and watch me. They either almost certainly knew what happened, either by participation or observation.
I found them hanging out back under the dome itself. They mostly stuck together in a group and were all in costume. Justice Rangers inevitably stand out. They even usually wear their colors when out of costume.
I walked right up to the group, who were conversing with a group of Uranals in fancy dress and a few heroes, including Pinion and Warman. The group quieted as I approached, as if it’s unusual to see a four armed woman with a seemingly-lifeless woman tied to her back.
“Can I help you?” someone asked.
“Ricca Island Police. I need to ask someone a few questions about a murder,” I said. I dont know if my Security forces, the primary peacekeepers of the island, go by that, but it made for a good acronym: RIP. And I am in the chain of command, so it’s not really a lie. I’m at the top of the chain.
“Gecko,” Warman said, “May I have a word with you in private?” Warman’s shrewd party politicking caught me off-guard. I hadn’t taken him for the diplomatic type.
“No can do, Wardude. I need to have a chat with these guys, gals, and non-binary pals to see who tried to kill me.”
Warman pushed past the group, none of whom were smiling now. Or so I assume. You can’t really see into those Justice Ranger helmets. He caught me away from the group and put an arm on my shoulder. “This is the diplomatic entourage. We do not need any wild accusations flying now.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t have this peace if not for me and you know it. They’d have shattered Uranus. The food riots, the food relief, the Buzzkills coming to your aid during the protests; all me, baby. Hell, the Buzzkills would have been keeping a better eye on me, but I had them helping y’all out.” I poked him in the chest with one finger, staring him down.
“If you want to talk about all this after we get back to Earth and the diplomats are out of sight, have at it. Accuse whoever you want. Hell, accuse Elvis,” he gestured over in the direction of Honky Tonk Hero, who was having a picnic with Pinion. “But I’ll tell you now, you won’t find nothing. Nobody saw anything and nobody wanted to see anything because you’re a vile son of a bitch who half the people on this boat want to see knifed. To be quite honest, no hero here is going to throw their buddies under the bus over you.” He poked back, between the boobs.
He withdrew his hands as things got quiet. I was looking into his eyes, but thinking through the best ways to hurt him. He nodded behind me. “You want to give them a reason to put you down? Nobody here gives a damn about you but your bugs.”
Oh look. I just found out I CAN get even angrier. “You don’t call them that,” I told him.
“Hey Warman,” said a voice from the side. He turned to look and caught a fist to his jaw. It stumbled him, owing to the element of surprise and the enhanced strength of the woman behind the fist.
Venus stepped between us, rubbing the knuckles on her right hand. “Murder isn’t ok just because the victim is an asshole, asshole.”
Warman spat off to the side. “Look who’s talking. You seem pretty tolerant of murderers nowadays, Venus.” He projected his voice, making sure he was heard by those around us who were clearly following the action. I glanced around and saw many of my Buzzkills assembling in squads in case it came to it.
“My name’s Medusa,” she responded. “I for the people, not the law. There’s no one so wretched they don’t deserve to be saved.”
Whew. Terrible day for rain. Had to hold back and make sure none got on my face.
There was a bright flash, then a voice over the ship’s intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Earth, home universe.” I could even feel the familiar internet sync up with my brain, managing to spoil the entirety of the current season of Game of Thrones before I ever had a chance to watch it.
That got a cheer from the part of the crowd that wasn’t caught up in our drama, as well as the Justice Rangers and the Uranals.
Warman turned. “I have to go see to a lasting peace to a war that threatened billions. You go kiss that bitch who murdered your boyfriend,” he said by way of parting shot. He headed back over to the diplomatic entourage, who seemed to quickly forget the scuffle.
Medusa wrapped her arms around me. “Don’t worry. I got you.”
The absurdity of it got a laugh from me. I hugged her back, kissed the top of her head. After a couple of minutes, she looked up. “You want to round anybody up?”
I looked over her head at the Justice Rangers. The pink one stared at me. I raised one of Dame’s hands to give her the finger, then answered Medusa. “I want to go home to my family and hug my daughter.”
There I was, a woman on a mission, deep in Uranus. It got a bit hairy, I’ll admit. Even a bit nutty at times, some might say.
The heroes wanted to wait, but the revolution wouldn’t listen to them. It had too much momentum. The heroes talked to whoever was supposedly leading this thing, only to find out they were trying to write up declarations and constitutions. They didn’t even realize the mob they supposedly led started a riot in front of the Chair and the Tower.
“At least we know where this weapon or bomb is,” Gorilla Awesome told me. He loaded a hefty backpack onto me. They’d stuck at least one of pretty much any tool not nailed down in this thing, and a couple that had been torn off of where they’d been fixed. Unless something goes really wrong, I don’t know what I’d need a vice for. I have too many already. The oxygen tank was probably a good idea, though.
I don’t know how Dame had this thing upgraded, but I was glad she figured out a way to remain in contact with people while still going intangible. When I first encountered her, the intangibility had an issue with electricity. My internal power source had a heck of an effect on it once. Nothing like that to worry about in Dame’s body, just a computer brain. That’s what prompted me to improve it. Er, her.
Still a bit of a mixup from time to time, what with me sharing her brain at the moment. You can’t really make this work without some feedback from the other direction.
I could have dropped from the Domeship and gone intangible for quicker results, but I thought it’d suck to overshoot and keep going. From what the brain trust of heroes told me, it’d be a really bad idea to go too deep into Uranus. Something about portions of the mantle consisting of liquid diamond. I really want to see that kind of shit, but without being subject to the kinds of pressures that would liquefy diamond.
They flew me down while some of the heroes deployed to try to slow down the rioting. I hopped off, went intangible, and did my best to swim down through everything. Someone, keeping track of everything, noted, “Dame is loose. Alpha, Beta, Gamma team are deploying.”
It didn’t take too long to sweep through sewers and foundations. I was blind below that. “Further down,” Gorilla Awesome urged in my ear. “Left. No, the direction to the left of how you just moved.”
I had to stop and think that one through, then shifted. “Ok, I’ve turned so that’s my left now. Let’s get going.”
“I hope the light works,” he said.
It took a good hour of “swimming” through a bunch of minerals and ice I couldn’t see in the first place. I felt uneven, jagged things passing through me painlessly. The texture changed when I reached the end of that half hour. Solid and dense, then a layer of solid and slightly porous. I followed that down to a floor of dense metal. Past that was air. I tried to trace it out and found enough room to at least turn solid. I’d been so long without real mass and wasn’t used to the weight of the backpack I’d been loaded down with, so I fell as soon as I turned solid, cussing.
Gorilla Awesome was alarmed. “Dame, are you hurt?”
“Just wasn’t used to so much sass in my mass after all that.” I breathed in through the oxygen mask and turned on my headlamp. It’d be a big room for a house, like a living room, but square, with these columns built into the wall. In the middle was a big, black egg on a stand. “Congratulations… their secret weapon was a dragon’s egg.”
“Really?” Awesome asked.
I rolled my eyes, “Probably not, but it looks like an egg.” I started to approach, but I felt a stabbing pain in my chest. I looked down. Nope, hadn’t been stabbed. I didn’t smell anything if there was something in the air. “Ugh, that’s not good.”
“What?” Awesome asked.
“I hope there wasn’t some kind of poison or viral agent down here… feels like I just got knifed in the chest.” I felt something warm spray all over me. “It’s for real like someone really, 100% stabbed me.” I fell to my knees, trying to take a breath even though I was fine on my end.
“Dame, what’s wrong?”
“Check on Gecko!” I coughed up. I took a minute or two to gather myself. I felt cold in spite of being deep underground. I crawled over to the stand and reached up to adjust the device attached to my ear, setting it to Venus’s frequency. “Boopsie, talk to me. Something’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I think it might be my body, up there in the infirmary.”
“What? Gecko?” she asked. “Dame warmed me you could take over her. How long have you been in there?”
“The night I went into a coma. I don’t know how that happened. I just woke up in Dame when she had that head injury with you.” I took a second to remember her body didn’t have trouble keeping air in her lungs. “I don’t know why. I tried going back.”
“I’m on the ground. I can’t-, I’m nowhere near the infirmary. They’re checking on you. They’ll save you, alright. Stay with me.”
“Keep talking, Boopsie.” I focused on the sound of her voice as I forced my way to the stand and dropped the backpack. I fumbled around in there and pulled out a small blowtorch and a box of matches. When I looked up, I noticed a thin, vertical line of light cast on the stand that certainly didn’t match my head lamp. I turned to look and saw a column cracked open. Out stepped a nude, grey-skinned man. The column insides looked like a padded pod with some computers, wires, and tubes hanging up.
The clone looked at me. “You are here to activate the device?”
I nodded. “Yep. That’s completely why I’m here. I’ll handle the bomb. You go back to sleep and I’ll handle it from here.”
His eyes glowed red. Oh, well, if it’s a fight, that I might be able to handle. I whimpered as I stood up. Venus’s voice came through loud and clear in my ear, “You can’t fight. That’s Dame’s body. You’re already dying, please don’t take her with you. We’ll figure something out.”
With friends like this, it’s a wonder I’m even trying to stop this planet being blown up. I mean, I technically get everything I’d want anyway if I just kinda “Oops” the doomsday device into activation. I might have to sacrifice Dame’s body to do so, though, which would look like a lot better option if mine wasn’t dying. But then, if my body dies, my mind’s going with it anyway.
I started shaking my head from side to side, concentrating on a beat. “I got this feeling on a Summer day when you were gone. I crashed my car into the bridge. I watched, I let it burn. I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs. I crashed my car into the bridge.”
The grey man shifted so my back wasn’t to the egg, then flew at me. “I don’t care!” I yelled at him and activated Dame’s intangibility bracer. He flew through me and smacked into the hard metal walls. “I love it.”
Now, I managed to at least sway in time to the music. It helped me concentrate. I went solid and grabbed the goody bag they’d packed me. I tossed it into his arms and rushed him. He caught the bag and then had to put up with his attacker leaning on him. I pulled out a pair of pliers and squeezed his nose with them. “This’ll help with the smell. It can’t be pleasant this far down Uranus.”
He half groaned, half growled and grabbed my hand in an iron grip. Yep, definitely superpowers. He pulled my hand away and the pliers dropped. “You will diEEE!” he screamed and hopped up and down, dropping the bag. It hit my other hand that had caught the dropped pliers and knocked them loose, causing me the pliers’ hold on his exposed nut sack. He threw me at the opposite wall, hard. I phased through it.
He stepped away from the wall, looking around, then walked toward the doomsday device. My voice reverberated out from around him as I maneuvered through the solid exterior. “You’re on a different road, I’m in the Milky Way. You want me down on Earth, but I am up in space.” I poked my head out from above him. He looked up and zapped the ceiling with red lightning. I dropped down, only turning solid once I smacked into the floor, and scrabbled to grab the egg thing. Then the bracer went on again and I fell through the floor with it.
The next time I sang, it was from a corner. “You’re so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch. You’re from the 70s, but I’m a 90s bitch.” He turned and tried to zap me again. He hit the egg, blowing a piece of it off and exposing circuitry.
He ran and slid on his knees to cup the egg against him, checking it over. I came out of the floor behind him and grabbed for that blow torch, then the matches. The flicking of matches got his attention and he turned in time to see fire. Glorious fire! He got an eye full, and practically screamed with joy at the sight. Or maybe that was pain. As happy as I was to hurt him, I still felt like someone was turning me into a sub sandwich, so the feelings were a bit confused in me as well. But I held him there, grabbing the back of his head to force his face against the torch. The first punch to Dame’s chest made my back pop. The second made something inside break. He didn’t finish the third, because by that point I’d burnt a hole through half his head. I was almost burning my hand, but I waited until his body stopped wiggling. I let drop to the side and I shut the torch off, falling to my knees.
I didn’t even have the decency to wheeze for as bad as I felt. I fell forward, over his feet and against the shell of the egg-shaped device. It sparked a bit, but zapped me. So, it still had power. I would have to handle this with delicacy. “Venus, I’m feeling kinda fucked. But not in the good way. I’m feeling like I got mounted by a horse and nobody bought me dinner first.” I began tugging stuff out, breaking shit. Truth be told, doomsday devices usually pretty sensitive. It began to whine at one point and I noticed vibrations, but then I got the blowtorch reignited. I held it up to the exposed portion and began to burn my way through it. It snapped, crackled, popped, and stopped vibrating.
I celebrated by tossing the torch aside and laying down for a nap.
When I awoke, it was to Venus’s voice in my ear. “Gecko? Are you still there?”
I groaned, putting a hand to my chest, by which I meant Dame’s chest. “Still here.” At this point, I couldn’t tell which body the pain was coming from, I just knew I was tired of it. “Tell the Buzzkills… have a syringe ready for me.”
I had been worried I was going to die there, next to some egg that someone buried in Uranus. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but neither was the thought of those dickweeds in the Justice Ranger outfits getting the last laugh, or being abandoned by heroes who loathed my presence, or the thought of what would happen to my daughter without me there. So I decided I wasn’t sleeping anymore until I clawed my way out of Uranus and into the light again. I vowed to rise again. Plus, coming back from the dead always gives a person serious cred for building their own cult.
Finding the way out was easy enough. I went up. It was all the time spent injured, even if it was made easier by phasing through crap. When I reached the surface, I left the radio sending an SOS and just laid there, trying not to breathe too hard.
I woke up this time and held myself with four arms in my own body, glad to be back. Fuck that whole “toppling the government” celebration the heroes were having with the resident Ewoks of the Butt Planet. I couldn’t get a good read on what exactly happened. There was talk of tarring and feathering, but also drawing and quartering.
Still no sign of Dame waking up on her own, though.
I don’t know why I felt like checking in on Psycho Gecko. They have us on a rotation system where we spend a few hours on duty, then come back to help. They have even less time out than when they go out on patrol. It used to be, they’d go out, hang out on rooftops, and eventually find something to stop. We’re all being zipped to and fro to hot spots where the work or fighting is almost constant. I’m mostly used for search and rescue, and scouting.
I was scared at first; I’m sure as shit not a fighter. I haven’t been scared since the head injury. More… sad, I guess? And angry. God, so angry. I didn’t think I hated them so much. If it was just the soldiers who shoot at us, that would be understandable. But I pulled a mother and her child from wreckage and wanted to slap the hell out of that crying baby. I wanted to yell at the woman and tell her this was all her fault, too. I didn’t want to be there, risking my life for people who let all this happen when I could be home.
I don’t know why I’m thinking of home so much. Home’s a penthouse paid for with stolen money because I didn’t want to live off money from those hermits with the god complex. But that wasn’t the only weirdness to happen to me. I had an incident while scouting.
They needed me to see how the soldiers were arrayed near this Perilous Tower place and the Consul’s Chair. They named their palace after a seat. I bet it’s because it had a humble name a long time ago. The oldtimers who say they’re gods talk about that stuff. “I remember when Stonehenge was nothing but a bunch of druids sitting around on rocks doing rituals.”
I got a good look, but I was sneaking around the streets circling the Chair when a group of armored soldiers with jetpacks landed around me. I normally play this safe. I could activate my bracer and go underground without issue. I turned it on and threw a punch at the nearest of the five soldiers around me. I had a thought that I didn’t know how many it would take to kick my ass, but I knew they didn’t bring enough.
I had ideas about grabbing guns, choking people, snapping necks, but the soldiers around me opened fire through me. Didn’t do shit to me, but they got themselves good. Their armor stopped most of it. I went solid long enough to grab for one’s gun. His strap stopped me from pulling it free, so instead I smashed it into his throat and sent him splaying. Another raised his gun, sans strap. I twisted it free of his grip, phased, and held the gun out so the receiver poked through his head. When I went solid, the gun did too.
He landed next to one of the people who hadn’t tanked bullets as well as the others, leaving me two more to play with. Play? The fuck am I doing “playing” with soldiers? No respawn, no GG. Like, when one of them pulled a knife and tried to stab me in the pancreas. I grabbed it, twisted his wrist, stomped on his ankle, then drove it into his throat. The warm blood splattering me snapped me the rest of the way out of whatever was going on with me.
I went insubstantial and ran. I stopped after what felt like a mile. I don’t know. I work out, but I don’t marathon run and why the fuck am I talking about my workout routine? I fucking killed those guys. They had visors and armor and I couldn’t see their faces but they were probably human people. Even those grey fucks are human, maybe.
It took a minute before the trembling stopped. I wanted to say it was emotion, but I knew it was adrenaline. I’d be fine. I probably didn’t even kill that one with how weak I am now. That thought convinced me that, more than anything, I needed to get off the ground. Because I realized, holy shit, I was critiquing that shit mentally. I knew I could do better, but thought that was a pretty sweet ankle kick considering the boots they had on. And that’s why I took a deep breath and screamed for a moment. Then I called up the ship and told them to I was done and to get me the hell out of there.
When I got back onto the ship, I headed for the medical ward. I heard someone calling for me back in the docking bay, but I needed drugs and shrinks and some electroshock therapy. Lots of electroshock. Lots of drugs. I remember when they wanted to put me on some when I was a teenager. They thought I was too willful. The people at the program… my parents? What program? I was remembering two different sets of events. What. The. Fuck?
I headed for the beds. I needed to lay down, that’s all. I ran over to the bed next to Psycho Gecko and tried to collect myself. I laid back, tried to take my mind off this, whatever this was. I started wondering if I’d see those guys in my dreams, but knew I wouldn’t. A weird little phrase occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m a woman dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a woman. Don’t know where that came from. I know who I am. I…
A lot of shit hit me at once that made the whole “murderer” thing affect me even less than it already was. The me in the mirror didn’t match the me inside, again. This time, instead of being hairy and masculine, it’s because the me outside was Dame. I’ve spent a few days dreaming I was a butterfly. I’m a Gecko instead. I groaned, looking over at my body.
I sensed a presence and looked up near the doorway. It was one of the Justice Rangers, checking in on my body. He wasn’t paying me any mind. Kinda emblematic, I guess. My past is always there. I’m always tied to it. Venus thinks I could be better. Do I dare entertain the thought that she’s right? And what then? Give it an actual go? Abandon my daughter and my empire? Even abandon whatever this is with Venus? That’s the same thinking that drove me into my cowardice when I had a time machine. I didn’t make things better because I thought of what things were like now.
So leaving aside all that, I could just leave my body on life support. Let go of my past to try being a better person.
I know, I know, dear readers. It seems downright laughable for me to seriously consider. Of all people, I’m the one who pondered making a real and earnest change. Seeing what I could be if I let go and began again.
I sighed to myself, because it occurred to me that if any part of me really wants to be better, that means not hijacking some other person’s body and taking over her life permanently. I got up and pushed past the Ranger while telling him, “Stop staring, asshat.”
I found a seat in an area where people might not suddenly and catastrophically need beds, and tried slipping back into me. Nope. Well, shit. That couldn’t be good. I reached up and felt the stitches on my, or at least Dame’s, head. Maybe something got messed up in there, combined with falling asleep at the wrong time? Questions for later.
I went to go grab some food, giving my comatose body some side eye. I’m gonna be hungry as fuck when I wake up, but Dame needed to eat for now. It was there, while grabbing myself cloned, cooked meat patty and green beans so pale they were teal, that I saw Venus sitting and reading something on her phone.
“Surprised you get coverage here,” I said as I sat beside her at the table. Luckily, no matter the universe, humans sitting and eating leads to a limited number of options. It’s a lot easier to explain than all the English over here.
“Hey Dame,” she said, covering her mouth as she talked. She swallowed before shooting me a smile. “Heard you had some trouble.”
I rolled my eyes. “Like you wouldn’t believe. I actually need to tell you about something real quick.”
She looked to the doorway, where Gorilla Awesome bounded in. Gorillas running at you tend to draw attention. That goes double if they can talk and built their own jetpack. “I’ve found the reason they invaded! It’s that damn Gecko’s fault again, too.”
Venus sighed and looked down at her plate for a moment before collecting herself and asking Gorilla Awesome, “So Honky Tonk won that bet you two had?” Awesome snorted and pulled a seat away so he could join us on the other side of the table. Venus focused on him. “Did you run over here during my break just to remind me my girlfriend’s the devil?”
Aww… that’s the sweetest thing she’s ever said about me.
Gorilla Awesome shook his head. “Would that were the case. No. It was in the same series of messages that alerted us to a major problem. They were curious by the weapon used to attack Executor Paldrin’s province. They were relieved it wasn’t what they initially suspected it to be, but an attack that cuts them off from dimensional travel was still considered a grave danger to them. They are heavy importers of raw materials. They can’t survive otherwise. Most distressing for us, they suspected it was a mobile version of what they term the ‘Spite Solution’.”
“Let me guess, they kill everyone.” I volunteered. “You don’t call something a ‘Solution’ without a lot of people dying.”
Awesome nodded slightly. “Yes. There was an uprising on Earth. A political rival from a family with superpowers suddenly grew in strength and threatened to depose the Consuls. Because the rival, the Consuls, and most of the Senate were on Earth at the time, nobody ultimately knows if the Consuls used it to spite their enemy or if someone else used the opportunity. All these Consuls know is the Earth is a slowly-spreading lifeless asteroid field. Despite that, they have completed a similar device on Uranus.”
Venus jumped up. “Next time lead with the doomsday device they currently have!”
“Sorry!” Gorilla Awesome raised his damn, dirty paws. “But the good news is, we know where it is.”
“Where?” Venus asked, sitting back down.
“A mile beneath the Chair building. Completely surrounded by ammonia ice, blocks of methane, diamond cement, and metal plate so that no person could get in and out,” Awesome answered.
Venus looked to me. Gorilla Awesome did, too. After a moment, I figured it out, “Oh, right, if only we knew someone who could just phase down about a mile and do something to mess with it.”
Venus patted my arm. “Thank you for offering. You’re a dear.”
Thoughts of Dame and Venus were interrupted by a gorilla with a Ph.D. Telling me, “Don’t worry. We will talk you through the disarming process. This is an area where I would prefer having Psycho Gecko awake if at all possible, but it’s probably best we let sleeping bitches lie.”
Gee, thanks. Nice to know what people say when I’m not around. Little do they know the person they’re insulting is the one preparing to plunge into Uranus to save everyone.
I have to revise my opinion of these rebels. Or perhaps it’s the political rivals I shouldn’t have underestimated. They spread the word that the Consuls didn’t have that much force behind them. People demonstrated. It’s an odd verb to use, especially as protesters often have to hide their identities to avoid being attacked later by paramilitary forces. Nah, what they’re demonstrating is their displeasure. Light enough cars on fire, the people in charge start to realize they messed up.
They didn’t start with fire. First, there were shouts. When the cops started beating them, they brought out the sticks and bricks. Then the soldiers brought out guns, and the protesters went in with fire. Then the heroes arrived to save the day.
It was always something that annoyed me about them. Heroes save people, sure, but they’re mainly known for upholding the laws. Even if those laws are unjust. Refusing to take a lives, when it would be the best solution. I don’t have to think too hard to come up with a few people whose deaths would make the world better.
A better world… yeah, it sure did a lot of improving, didn’t it? Fuck, we went from being invaded by other planets to other dimensions. No use worrying about that distraction at the moment.
So the heroes arrived to save the day. They put themselves between civilians and soldiers, to save the citizens of an empire that tried to conquer them. They threw soldiers around, pulled guns away, whisked people from underneath danger’s blade. And they didn’t kill. I thought I changed them at one point.
So many had been brainwashed by the Claw. I couldn’t beat him, but I freed the heroes and villains under his control. They had the power to do what I couldn’t, but I figured they’d all get a thirst for blood in them. They’re saving their enemies. I saw it from the Domeship: a soldier tried to beat a protester with the butt of his rifle. A glowing acoustic guitar stopped it, and Honky Tonk Hero kabonged the soldier to the ground. He helped up the protester, guided them to safety, and stopped another one from smashing a downed soldier’s head in with a brick. It was like that all over the planet, including the capital.
And they were failing. I think they had just about everybody deployed. Heroes, most of their defectors. That was why I was there. They could either keep more folks around as bridge crew to make sure this thing stayed in the air, or I could take over. The only group they hadn’t used, per my orders, were the Buzzkills. The heroes were more than happy to put themselves in danger. They can’t make that decision for my gals.
I warped the ship over a city called Owa. An explosion blew apart something in the street. “Toasty!” I said to no one in particular. I called down to the team there. “Major Tom to Ground Control. Everything ok down there? It’s looking a bit hot on the streets.”
“This is Pinion.” Right, flying super. Purple and light blue costume with fabric wings. Likes to throw feather-shaped knives, but she’s a hero. “They broke out the mortars. We need help.”
Whoever had that smart idea wasn’t getting it out to their buddies, but that didn’t do much for Pinion and her team. I opened up communications. “This is Gecko. Pinion needs reinforcement. Is there anyone available? Also, beware of mortars.”
“Syncopate here. I think we have this. Give me-” He went staticy for a minute. Syncopate… the guy has these little dishes around his cuffs to help concentrate sonar powers. He sounded out of breath when he checked in a couple seconds later. “This clone unit is tying us down. I’m sorry. I think we need some help now.”
I looked over at the Buzzkills standing at attention, then looked back at the situation. I cut the transmission to the heroes and looked to the Buzzkills again. “This part of it isn’t our business, so I don’t expect y’all to follow orders without questions. This is voluntary.”
“Father Empress,” said one of the Buzzkills as she stepped forward. Quite an odd title there, made possible thanks to my gender situation. “We are not only drones. We have been watching the situation as well. What the heroes are doing helps all of us. I will assemble squads to deploy and help them, first in force at the most dire hot spots, then moving to the rest. We will make you proud.”
I turned to keep an eye on the Domeship’s view screen, even though I didn’t need to with my body directly connected to its central computer. “Thank you, daughter. Be safe. Let me know when you’re ready to warp to the next hot spot.”
She and the other guard bowed, and they left. I kept my mouth shut and digitally generated the transmission when I informed the heroes. “Buzzkills are preparing to deploy. Pinion, you’re up first. Then Syncopate. All teams, keep me abreast of any trouble that pops up. We’re working on the worst spots first, moving onto others.”
A text appeared in my HUD from Venus. “Nice to see ur joining fight.”
I rolled my eyes and texted back. “Aren’t you too busy punching to type?”
“How do u no I’m not braining it?” she asked.
“Because if you were using a connection to it instead, you wouldn’t be stuck in text-speak. Fight first. Flirt later.”
“Never stop u before.”
That gave me a brief smile before the Buzzkill runner came in. “They are away.”
“That was quick,” I said. The Buzzkill didn’t say anything. She was conspicuous in her lack of speech. “You were planning for this.”
“We want to make you proud and protect our hive. We run maneuvers, we train. We plan. We are ready to fight for what we care about, Father Empress,” she said.
Well, nice to see my half-bug bumble babies got brains. If I’m going to send them into a fight to help heroes save people who wanted me dead, at least one side in all this is doing some thinking. “Pinion, help is on the way.”
“Thanks, Gecko,” she said. I put her gratitude aside. A bright white light saw us over to the next hotspot, Poarch.
“Syncopate, Gecko,” I announced. “Still alive?”
“Alive and rockin’,” he said.
I tried to remain all business during the flight of the bumblebees.
The main fighting ended quickly in most spots. Others raged on. The people, emboldened by their new protectors, refused to back down. They encircled government buildings and garrisons. I lost track of everywhere I shuttled people. It just kept going, with me as a glorified ferry. Get up, disconnect long enough to go to the bathroom, grab some nutrient-filled cloned food, and back to being the ship’s brain.
The hardest nut to punch was the capital. The seat of the Republic’s power also held its largest concentration of forces on the planet. The protests and riots that broke out there were nearly stomped out while the Buzzkills were busy with the heroes forcing other guard units to surrender and lay down arms. And then while the heroes tried to arrange for some sort of protective force to guard those other areas that wasn’t going to start a new massacre.
Meanwhile, I stood, sat, or even knelt in one place. It got so bad, I actually passed out. I didn’t realize it until I heard Venus calling out. I opened my eyes and realized I was laying down in a building. It was night, things were on fire, and a portion of the wall was gone. A hand gripped the floor. I checked and that was where Venus’s voice came from. She was holding on with one hand while holding onto a person with the other. She tried adjusting he grip, but the floor bent a bit more.
“Dame, get her,” she told me. Just great. I can’t get a break even when I pass out. At least I was off my ass, even if it wasn’t my ass I wore now. I didn’t even think about it, hitting the phase bracer and passing through the floor to land on the one below. I grabbed the guy Venus held and pulled him away from the edge and the damaged structure. Venus landed near us, and checked the guy’s head and neck. “I think he’ll be fine.”
She turned to me and I saw a wince underneath her visor. “That looks pretty nasty. You should get back to the doctors.” She reached out, a flashlight on her wrist snapping on. “Get that looked at.”
“Tis only a flesh wound,” I told her.
Gorilla Awesome’s voice broke through what had been a nice moment that had me wondering if I could steal a smooch. Dame told Venus about the whole brain puppet thing, I’m sure. Either way, the supersmart jetpack gorilla told us, “Something has happened on the ship. We need a skeleton grew again.”
“What’s up, Awesome?” asked Venus.
“I found Psycho Gecko unconscious at the controls. I expect it’s sleep deprivation. She won’t wake up no matter how hard or often I slap her. The Buzzkills are moving her to quarters, but I require aid to fly the ship.” Well that didn’t sound good.
“Jesus, is this the first anyone’s relieved her?” Venus asked. A burst of light outside showed darkened smudges all over her power armor. I checked my own self out and found Dame’s costume had a few tears as well. My feet ached, my head throbbed, and my muscles were all sore from days of physical activity with little rest. I was all jittery, too. That’d be the adrenaline. I leaned against what had been a table and breathed in and out, trying to control this body.
Gorilla Awesome sighed. “I am going to implement full rotation. It will allow us to shuttle the wounded more efficiently, and allow us to rest outside of a warzone.”
“Good idea. Let the bees know,” she looked to me. “You should go up, too.”
“I-” I started to refuse, but then my head pain roared forward like a bull and I focused on wincing and getting through the pain. Even if it’s me feeling it instead of Dame, I decided it was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, the heroes and my Buzzkills had pretty much run themselves ragged like this. Warman stayed to fight, along with some of the supers who didn’t need to worry about that so much. And I passed out when being flown back up.
I dreamed I was back on the ground, scouting out the soldiers and finding people trapped in buildings to rescue. Ugh, and I still felt like crap when I woke up, but at least I woke. I was getting some of the blood out of my hair when I heard some of the doctors talking about the casualties. That crazy bitch Psycho Gecko didn’t even do any fighting and she ended up in a coma.
I looked at myself in a mirror for a moment while my body as a whole complained. For just a moment, I thought I didn’t look right, like I wasn’t looking back at my own face. I shook it off, and headed off to grab some chow before I went back down. Whoever said there’s no rest for the wicked didn’t count on the egotistical empress of assholes snoozing while Uranus is on fire.
The heroes had a job for me. Venus called me up in the middle of pulling a little prank. “Are you busy right now?” she asked.
“I could normally work through it, but I’m about to lose you in a minute. Electromagnetic interference. You’re not riding the rails on the surface, are you?” I grit my teeth a little as I delicately bent some wires toward each other with the aid of some insulated tongs.
“We’ve been analyzing the situation over here using their version of the internet, knowledge from the defectors, and information we’ve all learned in our activities.”
“Our activities? I’m the one who interrogated hostages. What did y’all do?” I’ve been out here stealing shit. I haven’t seen these heroes out and about, helping me blow shit up.
“After we fought off the planes, we have been helping out. We’re healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and helping protect people from gangsters called the Kah. We’re trying to utilize all our abilities, which brings me back to why I called. We have a few anthropologists and sociologists among the secret identities. They think-”
“Hold that thought in your pretty little head, dear,” I said. The wires touched and I fell back as my cyborg parts rebelled all at once. It took a few seconds to shake everything off and try to stand up, which got harder when some trains and individual cars started to land all around me on the cold Uranal dirt. Others smacked into the rails above me, but none overcame the magnets. It was only a brief power surge all along a kilometer of track, but it disrupted the flow of people and goods between places.
While I waited on everything to stop falling and to explode if it was going to, I called Venus back. “Ok, I’m back.”
“Do people need our help?”
“Probably. There’s probably injured,” I said. I paused as a man screamed on his way down from the tracks. He landed with a thud, then cried out again. “Yeah, definitely going to need some medical help for collateral damage.” A metal groan drowned out the man’s screams, followed by a falling train car plowing into the man. “You know, nevermind. I think the casualties took care of themselves.”
“I’m sending them anyway. Do you need a ride?” she asked.
I looked over where I left my tread cycle. I stole it off a Kah courier. “I’m good.” It disappeared under another train car. “You know what? A ride would be nice. I’m out here kinda far. Transmitting coordinates now.”
She briefed me as I waited underneath the rails in case any-friggin-thing else decided to fall off. Annoyed me, too. I liked that cycle. I want another one, with built in rocket launchers and machine guns. I’ll paint it red and call it “Minstrel II: Electric Boogaloo.”
The info I’d picked up was puzzling. I hadn’t pieced it all together yet, but a picture was starting to form of a severe labor shortage and a highly nationalistic culture where only a minority of people bought into the ideology.
Venus explained. “At some point, their capital was Earth. We don’t know what happened. The Republic’s line is that it was destroyed in some way. We don’t know what that means. Now, it lives on with a colony on Uranus that has to rely heavily on resources from provinces, which seem to be other conquered worlds. It has been a long time since they heard any news of new conquests, so they think the provinces are having trouble and that’s where they keep the majority of their military.”
I tried connecting a few dots myself. “So Paldrin was a provincial leader, maybe with a world or part of a world under his control. He went after us with his own forces that were more like the provincial garrisons or auxiliaries. Then I took him out and the main military invaded us. If you’re right about the military situation, I wonder why they threw good money after bad?”
“We wondered about that. How did you kill Paldrin?” Venus asked.
“It was a super weapon. Kinda meant to destroy everything within a certain radius, but untested. I didn’t know how much it would destroy. It was derived from D-bomb technology, but the Dudebot I sent it with didn’t get shot back to our dimension until a week later or so.”
She was quiet for awhile after hearing that, probably coming to terms with the idea that I might have killed a planet. It was self defense, but still. Whatever I am to her, I don’t expect her to take genocide well. Though I suppose I think genocide has more to do with specifically targeting a certain ethnic group to wipe them out, including using methods like sterilization. An entire planet is really too indiscriminate to be genocide.
Regardless of all that, when Venus next spoke to me, she cut to the chase. The heroes have gaps in their knowledge, and they want to figure some things out. They want me to infiltrate the primary military command center, the Tower Perilous, located in the capital city. It looked like a tall, vaguely phallic cement building inside a number of smaller stone buildings that radiated out in a sunburst. I took a good long look before I left the Domeship. Venus didn’t see me off or have anything to do with the briefing. They had Honky Tonk Hero handle that, though I noticed. Odd choice, and I suspect he lost a bet from how happy he seemed over it.
The whole thing would have been much easier with the aid of my power armor. Too bad that got dissolved away by the Praetor, eh? On top of that, they don’t seem to really bother with women in their military, and most folks don’t just have an extra pair of arms. But, fuck it, I didn’t want to stick around on the ship while everyone but my half-insect daughters gave me dirty looks. The desire to kill me was palpable, and yet they need me. It’s all feels familiar.
As if to emphasize that point, I spotted my old nemeses, the Justice Rangers. I nodded toward the red and green ones, “How ya doin’? Enjoying the ride?” As one, they gave me a salute that would be an insult in our dimension of origin. I gave them the ol’ Spaceballs salute right back.
Clone stuff. It’s all clone stuff around here, not nearly enough cybernetics. They put so much work into building things because of that. It also made it more difficult for me to throw some armor together. Luckily, I had an idea on that front. I made a people suit. Before people start getting upset, I cloned a suit of grey skin to hide myself inside and some padding to disguise my milkmakers. Grey people are allowed to have extra arms on this planet. Pour one out for Buffalo Bill; truly an inspiration.
Their security is shit on this planet. I rode the train like anybody else, got into the capital like it was no one’s business. There were some delays when the trains had to divert around messed-up rails and underneath bomb scanners, but it’s not like anybody wanted me back with the heroes quickly. From there, I had to navigate the landscape of glass and local concrete that was the big city. People looked, but not twice. As someone with grey skin and a leotard, I was someone they didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
The Tower Perilous was easy enough to find. That one had a security wall around it to keep people out, but any big wall like that has its weaknesses. Unless you have people watching it all over, it’s simple to hop the thing like I did. I checked some of the outer buildings on my way toward the jackpot in the middle. They looked like a combination of storage and trophy room. Golden statuettes full of precious gems looked a little fancy to be in a storage locker, but there they were, packed in with gold in all kinds of shapes and sizes. If every one of these buildings had that kind of stuff in it, they were fucking loaded.
Which, I realized with a smirk, is exactly the problem. You dump that much gold on the economy all at once and it becomes worthless.
They had soldiers in honor guard uniforms who nodded to me on my way through. I wouldn’t be surprised if their vents are big enough to walk through upright, these people. It was a bit tough navigating, but someone in a nice uniform smiled and approached. “May I help you?”
“Praetor M,” I introduced myself. “I have been sent to see to the Grand Executor’s files.”
His brow furrowed. “The new Grand Executor hasn’t been appointed yet.”
“The old Grand Executor. I must see to his files.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. I walked past him, toward the elevator. He followed along into there with me, not calling in security if that’s what he meant to do.
I looked to him. “We have discovered an existence of a technopath among the invaders. I need to harden the encryption on the Grand Executor’s system, whether there is a new one or not.” I held his gaze until the man punched a button on the elevator. At least this machine wasn’t too convenient for them to do away with.
The Grand Executor’s office was one nice piece of work. I think the guy had rugs on his rugs. All sorts gems, bottles of stuff, incense, bundles of scrolls, and odd little clockwork sculptures. This guy had weaponry bling all over the place, as well. A small, if ornamental, armory hung on one wall: rifles and handguns shared it with naginata, swords, and a large fang. This was not the office of a professional general, and his unfamiliarity with our world compared to Paldrin might mean I was barking up the wrong tree.
“Leave me in private,” I told the aide who showed me the way as I stepped around an ornate desk carved to resembled the base of a great redwood. The chair behnd it had the same touches, carved so that the legs looked like trunks and spread into roots at the bottom.
“Are you sure? What if the technopath attacks?” He asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Nothing you could do would stop them. Thank you for your help. I will handle it from here.”
Frowning, he left me in private. I ran my hand over the screen of the flowing shell material that made up the exterior of the computer on the man’s desk. Its curves encompassed the monitor and keyboard. I checked around for the tower. A cable ran down from the shell into the floor itself. I pulled back the rug under the desk and found the tower was the floor, hidden behind a layer of glass. I checked to make sure nobody had slipped in while I was preoccupied, then I pulled up the sleeve along one of my lower arms and dug my fingers into the skin around the wrist. A trail of blood circled the wrist where my fingernails cut it. I pulled the skin off like a glove and slipped it into a pocket. I dialed back my eye laser to cut through just the floor, just enough to get my hand into the oversized circuit boards below.
It was actually an older version of the same sort of software on their tanks and the Domeship, so it took a moment to orient myself. And then, worlds opened up to me. I established a link with the Domeship.
“Gecko here. Analyze this,” I started uploading key parts of the data. They were right. We were fighting something of a vestigial empire. Its provinces were other versions of Earth, and almost all were in rebellion or close to it after to much of their military power had been drawn off. One was successful, having almost completely routed their local Executor and Governor after all contact with other worlds had been lost for a week. “Oh wow. Turns out I didn’t kill that planet,” I said, putting that up on the screen for the heroes to see.
I thought about it. I had access to emergency overrides for Dimensional Relay Towers they used in the provinces and on Uranus to travel to other dimensions. I grabbed as many files on how they worked and began deleting the copies they had.
I had something to say to the heroes though. “I could end this right here and now. They have a force here… token, really… but I could shut down their vehicles. I could stop the trains. Cut off the cloning labs. Or I could turn them on each other. Clone soldiers loyal to us. Ram the trains into each other. I could render them helpless on all their worlds, and here. I could use their own relays to tear them apart. They’d never threaten anyone again.”
“Please, Gecko,” Venus said on the Domeship. “Shut them down. I don’t want that much death on our conscience.”
“If all we do is turn stuff off, there’ll still be plenty of death when we bring the fight here. You’re trading their lives for our lives. Lots of heroes there who may not like you speaking for them on that.”
Warman joined in. “That’s our decision, you son of a bitch.”
“We became heroes to shield the innocent,” Eschaton said.
I got flooded by hundreds of agreements. It was an overwhelming cacophony, but in the middle of it I could focus on Venus and her discussion with someone. I don’t think they knew I could hear. “Do you trust him?”
“I want to trust her,” Venus emphasized that last word. “I think she’s more than what you want her to be.”
I sighed. “Fine, emergency shutdown initiated. They’re wide open for you. Have a happy revolution doing things the hard way.”
“It’s the way that lets them live and doesn’t give them cause for reve-” Warman was saying before I cut the audio feed.
If the heroes want to kill themselves, who am I to argue? I’m getting sick of Uranus anyway. Though it did make me smile to realize my nemesis isn’t quite sick of mine yet.
That jetpack was a fascinating piece of technology. I suppose it had to be when developed for use in an atmosphere high in methane. Having embedded on the ground floor, so to speak, I’ve gotten a close-up look at the place. If not for whatever lost these people the Earth, this dimension might have been more advanced than my home dimension. They’ve built something fantastic here, but it’s lacking in certain ways. There’s not so much in the way of augmented reality, robotics, or cybernetics. I’ve seen people missing parts, or blind, and not begging. Relatively few beggars, all things considered. You know, why bother speculating when I have some people I can ask about that very thing?
I turned away from the window that looked out at the city. This food lab, Steel Tree Orchards, was a squat building, more of concrete they use on this planet. I went in expecting trees. I found a place where they clone fruits from templates. Snuck in through a vent. Had to destroy part of the vent to do it, but I found myself along an assembly line where people used syringes attached to tanks by hoses on the apples.
I walked up, grabbed one, and tore it in half. Kids, don’t try that at home unless you’ve got super strength and razor-sharp fingernails. The inside was blue. I suppose I could have done the police thing and given it a taste. Really, few cops do that because of the potential risks. Anyone who has ever smuggled capsaicin from a Thai chile warlord knows what I’m talking about.
“Hey, what’s this?” I asked one of the workers, who had on a pale green biohazard suit.
That worker didn’t look up but the next one along the line did and waved at that one. The one I addressed patted their chest with a glove, then pulled up their mask. “Who are you? You can’t be in here without a suit.”
“What’s this?” I asked again.
“That’s a blueberry apple, numbnuts. Get out of here.” He waved me away.
I rolled my eyes and pulled out a pair of swords I took on my last hijacked food delivery to the mothership. “I don’t wanna,” I told the guy as I hopped the conveyor belt and slowly approached him. He held up his hands, including one that was strapped to the syringe and hose. He started to unstrap himself, but I bonked him on the head with the butt of the sword and knocked him down. The next one, who first noticed me, got loose. I rolled over the belt and stabbed her through the foot. “Stick around.”
I pelted the next couple of workers with apples to knock them down. By the time the overseer came in to check on the floor, I had four of these workers trussed up with apples in their mouths to gag them. He walked in, looked them over, and asked, “What’s all this then?”
He looked up when I dropped an apple core on his head. “It’s banana flavor. Not my favorite,” I said, then dropped down on him. I added him to the collection and ordered him to inform on me. “Let your peace officers know I have all of you hostage.” He pulled out a cylinder that opened up at an angle and used a rotary dial on the bottom of it.
“You won’t get away with this!” he yelled at me, but I let him call out all the same, just long enough for him to report my intrusion. I grabbed the phone away from him and kicked him in the side of the knee, sending him sprawling.
“This is the hostage taker,” I said. “I want food and money delivered for me.”
“Is this a joke?” the voice on the other side asked.
“I could ask the same thing… I’m armed, angry, and willing to kill people.”
“She’s bluffing!” called the manager before I put a sword through his head. The other hostages screamed.
“One down. Food and money. Bring them out front of the building for Steel Tree Orchards.”
The voice on the other end directed people to me if it was smart. “Then what do you want?”
“Distribute the money and food to the crowd gathering there. If you do this, I will leave with no further loss of life. Delay, and this is going to get quite bloody. I have four more hostages. You have thirty minutes before another person dies. You storm the place, I take all their heads and anyone else you send in. These are my demands. Hope to it.” I shut it off, then laid down on the still belt to watch my hostages. “So, I don’t see too many homeless beggar types around here. Why is that?”
There were a few cameras to watch the outside of the building. Security was kinda lax, but I had enough of a view to keep an eye on the streets. Plus, there was a small window on the outer wall. It was too early for people to be storming the place anyway, so I focused on the confused hostages. The nearest one nursed her wrapped-up foot and asked me, “What are you on about?”
“Big ol’ city. Plenty of dark alleys… what happens when someone’s down on their luck? Loses their housing?” I asked
A different one spoke up. “Why would they lose housing?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Like if they lost their job and can’t pay for it. Am I missing something here?”
“Are you from the provinces?” one of them asked. Another guessed better. “You’re one of the invaders!”
“Y’all invaded us first,” I pointed out. “Based on the well-known principle of ‘you started it’, it’s actually right for me to go around and murder the whole lot of you. Not my goal, though.”
“Then what are you doing here?” asked the injured worker.
I smiled at her. “I was just asking where all the homeless people are.”
“There are none, barbarian,” another said. “We wouldn’t let people live on the streets like some sort of monsters.” Interesting. I really had a different expectation based on what I learned so far. Then he added, “There is always work to be done, even by the least capable. The Republic cares for its citizens; the citizens care for their Republic.”
“What if you’re too young, too old, too hurt or sick?” I asked, remembering all the disabled people I saw. “What if you’re mentally ill?”
“The Republic has a use for everyone,” he said again.
I waited for a better answer, then held up my hands. “That’s it? A slogan? Do you not know what happens if someone goes into a coma or something?”
“I know,” another guy said. “They use your body. You get melted down for nutrients to grow clones, or food, or the aristocrats bury you in their garden so you fertilize their flowers.”
The first one, the one with the slogans, yelled at the other guy. “The aristocracy perform the most vital functions of our Republic. Leisure is a reward for their service.”
“What, you guys don’t have leisure time?” I asked.
“Of course we do. We get time off work, barbarian. We aren’t slaves. Our great Republic knows we need days of rest,” said the sycophant.
The injured one spoke up, her head moving lazily toward the brown noser as if she was used to his schtick. “They have to give us day breaks as part of the employment constitution.” She turned back to me. “The bosses try to scare us into not taking them so they look good and earn more,” she nodded toward the dead overseer.
We stayed there, chatting back and forth. Outside, I noticed as vehicles stopped in front of the place. Two pulled up, carrying uniformed men. One pair stayed outside, keeping an eye out and talking to passers by. The other two ran in. I got up and moved over to the side of the main entrance to the room and waited as I heard people moving around. The door slammed open. “Desist!” yelled the uniformed man as he rushed into the room and looked around, a submachine gun raised. With him was an older, taller man in a uniform.
I pushed my sword through the cops’ spines. One collapsed, the other turned and I grabbed his gun away easily, then took hold of the sword by the blade and pulled it up, splitting the man open.
A minute later, I opened the window and tossed out a trio of heads belonging to the overseer and the two cops who showed. I heard gasping and screams when people noticed them rolling down the sidewalk toward the police. I smiled over at the hostages.
“Is this a game to you?!” cried the wounded woman.
I shook my head and took a seat. “Not at all. I don’t enjoy killing people. Not in the way I used to.” I pointed at my head. “Someone went in and fixed that little issue I had, so any satisfaction I get is for side reasons. Like how you now know they value your lives so little, they sent that pitiful little response in. I should go ahead and execute one of you to reiterate the seriousness.”
“Hey, no,” said the one who stayed mostly quiet up until then.”What if you run out? You need us alive. Won’t you need someone to escape with?”
“I like the way you think, stranger,” I said. I walked over and pulled him up. I dragged him over to the window and called out, “Do you care so little for your people’s lives? Is this the Republic caring for its people?”
With a swing, I took off the smart guy’s head, close enough to the window for anyone looking to see some splatter. Then I tossed that head out. In a game of homicidal chicken, they need to learn I’m not the one to mess with. The cries outside got worse, I think as more workers filed out. I hadn’t gone and taken the entire building hostage, not without minions. Besides, it’ll probably add to some of the dissatisfaction these people feel. Really drives in the notion that the people they rely on don’t give a damn.
I silenced my laughter enough to call back out, “I told you! Bring food and money! Enough for everyone standing outside! I better see some chicken and waffles out there or some motherplucker’s getting’ clucked in the ass!”
The cops outside were pushing people back, forming a perimeter that was joined by an armored personnel carrier and what looked more like soldiers. Meanwhile, I pulled out a little something that got one of the heroes into some trouble. Not the sort of plants that are supposed to be cloned in the middle of a war, or so Warman’s yells from half a ship away indicated. I lit up a joint and looked around, trying to see how better to defend the place. Then I smiled at the hostages and pulled out a bag of more that I’d pre-rolled. “Do y’all have a concept here called hotboxing?”
When the soldiers breached, they came in from two directions. I was standing by the door when I saw a camera on a stalk push underneath it. It probably couldn’t see so much with the smoke. The vent was broken and the window had been sealed again. I stepped to the left of the door. The kick that knocked it inward sent it swinging right at me, and I threw my body into it. The lead soldier in grunted and fell back. The ones behind him opened up on the door, but missed me.
Another soldier dropped from the vent I came through and stumbled on a pile of apples. I raised an arm and shot at him with the gun I took off the prior visitors I had. He dropped, probably not dead. The one that dropped almost right on top of him raised his rifle at me, coughing in all the smoke. I threw an apple and caught him in his dangling grapes. “How you like them apples?” I asked. When he raised his gun again, I used the confiscated police firearm to shoot his knee out. He dropped and slid over, banging his helmet against the floor.
I looked over as something fell into the room through the window I’d left open. The flashbang went off and my eyes and ears automatically adjusted to protect me. “For fuck’s sake, you’re letting all the stank out!” I yelled, motioning toward the broken glass for the benefit of no one but myself.
Three men burst through the door, one at a time. The lead one swung his gun around toward me as the second started to push past. I drove him down with the butt of a SMG stuck in his facemask. The second shot me in the face. It rung my bell a bit, but I brought the sword’s flat edge up hard enough to give him internal gonads. He fell to the ground, singing soprano.
The last swiped at my neck with a knife. It failed to penetrate, too, but this time it was due to armor instead of the skin I so lovingly crafted for myself. I grabbed his arm, broke his wrist, and tore the knife away. I slashed his chest. His tactical vest fell off. I stabbed him in each shoulder, caught him with the butt in the throat, and then uppercutted hard enough to knock him off his feet.
Another shot rang out, hitting me in the side of the head. It was a soldier down on the floor, holding his shoulder. “Ooh, looks like that’s been dislocated. Let me help you with that, buddy.” I said, giggling. I picked him up by his leg and slammed his whole body into the wall. All for nought, it turned out. “Oops, wrong shoulder.” Well now he needs help with both of them!
When I came back inside, the one with the pistol in his visor was just standing up. I pulled the gun out and kicked him in the visor hole. The first one down the vent hole groaned, then grabbed his radio, calling something into it. I walked over and grabbed it from him. “This is your hostage taker speaking. Let me make something very clear: the only way to win is to give me what I want. And what I want is not only a shitload of food, it’s two shitloads. Because here in a little bit, every one of these hostages, including the team you sent in, are going to be hungry, hungry hippos. And make sure there’s plenty of sweet stuff.” I dropped it and walked over to check on the hostages.
“What are you?” asked the wounded hostage as I walked over to her.
I looked at her, allowing my laser eye to glow, albeit harmlessly, and spoke in a monotone. “Series 800, Model 101, serial number 420.
“What-” she started to ask before I shot her.
After that, we got what we wanted. The local authorities delivered three entire trucks, which by that time was looking pretty damn good to my hostages. Once I showed them how a conga line worked, it was easy enough setting them free. As soon as they were all out the door, more soldiers rushed the door to confront me. All they saw was a silhouette smoking a joint before I threw it at the floor and disappeared in a Mary Jane smokescreen.