Seasons Change 8

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With my quest done, I had more time to spend with Qiang. Sadly, I had more time for my responsibilities as a ruler, as well. American holiday or not, people are still going to cause trouble in the Pacific. Nothing too big to worry about. Without me around to commit it, crime is down. The influx of new recruits allowed a lot more downtime, made the corrupt security guys realize I didn’t need them. It helped that they’ve had ample opportunity to realize I’m both a bad motherfucker and willing to kill them for stepping out of line.

I’m proud of being a bad motherfucker, by the by. It’s a hard title to obtain. It’s much easier to become a good necrophiliac than a bad motherfucker, for instance.

There have still been some incidents, but without me there to hold his hand, the Directory appointment over Internal Security has figured out his role. First he panicked, then he locked himself away for three days with as much whiskey as he could find, then he switched to bourbon and started bossing people around just right. Which, coincidentally, reminds me of what I drink if anyone ever asks me to do any creative writing. His panicked emails and voicemails gave way to drunken slobbering and then a certain resigned cynicism that’ll serve him well. This is no world for optimists.

Optimistic that things weren’t going to be so bad, I had a Dudebot sign off on some new laws and regulations, then decided to check in on the robotic double of myself over on Mu. By now, the new ambassador had arrived to relieve Citra, my wife. She expected the marriage to be political, I’m sure. She never expected me to have her appearance altered to make it look like I was marrying the princess of a nation of bronze age people on a mysterious island that appeared in the middle of the ocean.

I took over running the Dudebot there to walk her out to the newly-arrived delegation. It almost got awkward when the new ambassador-regent’s baggage dropped and some bondage gear dropped out. Those poor, innocent Bronze Citizens will learn soon enough what that mask was for.

“Welcome to the Bronze City, Regent Toyotomi,” I said, the robot body double giving him a handshake. The man smiled warmly for all to see, and sensors in the hand detected that he tried to squeeze it. The guy was younger, with a beard, and had a bit of fitness on him. It probably frustrated him to face a robotic grip that he couldn’t out-muscle, but otherwise I think the guy will fit in just fine. Calling up his file, he’d been the embarrassing son of one of the more important former government bureaucrats to stick with the island. The bureaucrat had become a big deal in our government. His son had stayed an apparent embarrassment.

I’m not fond of how little they thought of the post, but I think they got the right guy. Gregarious and competitive; using ambassadorial luggage for sex gear is a good sign, too. He’ll fit right in with people who think the height of entertainment is a play about a guy banging his own mother.

I may have impressed the Bronze Citizens with my incredible ability as a playwright with plays stolen from actual Greek poets these people have never heard of. I’d have used my own legitimate works, but I don’t think they’d care for my stage adaptation of Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. I also haven’t written it yet, which presents another obstacle. Need a lot more alcohol and free time.

With a last wave, it was time for Citra and my Dudebot to depart. Oh, and to snatch an arrow out of the air before it could hit Citra. Another almost got Toyotomi, a third bounced harmlessly off the robot’s armor.

“Well,” I told Toyotomi, “I suppose there might be a few problems with this new job you’ve been handed…”

And just like that, the Drone Squad got assigned to security duty. The humans and Deep One immigrants who have taken up service with the remote-controlled warmachines should be more than enough to handle the conspiracy brewing around the Bronze City. You can tell it’s a conspiracy because the guards never found the guy. I know, I know, people used to be fairly incompetent at catching criminals, but think about it, dear readers. Most people in this city don’t go around armed. A spear might not cost a lot of money or take much skill to make, but this was a bow. Not everyone carries a bow in a city. It’s hard to carry a bow inconspicuously. And what kind of bow in a Bronze Age society is going to be both good enough to attempt an assassination and cheap enough to dump somewhere to escape?

The kind of boy funded by someone with money. Makes me wish the old Riccan project to drop mind control drugs from planes worked out. Damn chemtrails just never got off the ground. It’d make this so much easier, and I’d rather not use nanites for this job. I’d rather not think about this place until I had a use for it beyond denying it to other people. Hmm… yeah, I have an idea after all. That’ll be for later, though. I just need to kidnap some people.

In other news, Queen Beetrice, who rules North Korea as part of my empire, has sent me a lot of formal invitations to dinner. Also, a jar of honey that she claims is North Korea’s biggest export. She’s even got a program here where she rents out the services of some of her Buzzkills. The bee people go out, do a little cross-pollinating, and collect money from private interests and state governments who are a little short on bees.

So that’s another idea I can work with. I need an evil plot to kill wild bees.

Yep, plots everywhere. It’s a world of possibilities. So what did I start on first?

I took Qiang around to find a Day of the Dead celebration. They had a sort of one here in the city. It was really more of an outreach thing, but she had fun. She nearly broke a tooth on a sugar skull, but she forgot about how much it hurt when she saw someone dressed as La Calavera Catrina.

Then things got awkward, because she went running off, yelling “Citra!”

Oh fuck all kinds of donkey. She ran up and hugged a confused Venus, babbling away in Riccan pidgen. She pointed back at me before I could change the hologram from my armor to resemble something less like myself.

Venus wasn’t in armor, I should say. She wasn’t even in costume. She was there in a dress, and not one meant to seduce or show things off. Just a green dress. The puzzlement dropped off her face when she saw me. Thismight be the longest I’ve kept a face since I was a kid, and the projection even included some of those nice little scars from when the Master Academy supers were doing brain surgery on me.

“Qiang!” I called out. Speaking in the Riccan pidgen, I told her, “That’s not Citra. That is someone else.”

“She looks just like how Citra looked!” Qiang said, turning and looking at me, then back up at Venus. “Did she change how she looked?”

“No, that is how she looked,” I said. I had hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward.

Venus’s stance had shifted. She’d gone on guard. I noticed her reach for her phone on her hip and start tapping on the keys. I didn’t make a move to stop her. “Hello Venus,” I said in English.

“Hello Gecko,” she responded. Her eyes flicked down to Qiang. “Who is this?”

“Hello, I am Qiang,” Qiang said, also switching to English. She gave a polite and respectful bow. “Do you know my dad?”

“Your DAD?!” Venus seemed rather surprised by the concept that I could have a kid. Sure, it didn’t happen in the conventional sense, but I’m allowed to have kids. Normally, I’d feel more like stressing that point toward Venus, but I didn’t want to deal with her right now. Not with Qiang around.

A few in the crowd around us had looked at hearing Venus’s dramatic response, but stopped paying us any mind. I stepped close as well, though I didn’t give a bow. “Yep. Venus, this is Qiang, who has already introduced herself like a good young lady. Qiang, this is Venus. We are… acquaintances.”

Qiang smiled. “Dad, what’s a acquaintance?”

I looked at Venus. She looked at me. She looked at Qiang. I looked at Qiang. “Well, hon, she’s not exactly a friend, but we know each other.”

“You don’t like each other?” she asked. “Why don’t you like my dad? Dad, why did Citra-”

I cut her off right there. Going back to the pidgen, I told her, “Do not talk about Citra in front of her.” Even if it was Citra’s own choice, I didn’t want to explain to Venus that a woman seeking my affection did so by making herself look like Venus. I probably also wouldn’t like explaining how Citra had access to nude photos of Venus’s entire body. I’m just going to have to close that line of inquiry now. State secrets.

Venus looked us over again, then crossed her arms. “Who is Citra? Why did your daughter run up to me saying that name? How do you have a daughter?”

Starting to regret not using that magic tree to wish her pregnant with my kid. Thinking of Venus with morning sickness is fun. Thinking of it swelling her boobs is better. Probably the best part would have been “accidentally” saying in front of everyone that she was carrying my baby.

Then again, seeing her kneel and ask Qiang if she needs help and if I kidnapped her, I considered the possibility that I might want her hanging from a wire that’s been run through her bowels, a light bulb shoved into her mouth to help her serve as a giant Christmas light.

“My daughter is just fine. She doesn’t need your help. We’re not causing you any trouble here, now are we?”

An explosion bwawoomed in the distance. Venus glared up at me. I held up a finger. “I had nothing to do with that, I think.”

“Right,” she said, pulling her phone off its little hip holder.

“If I’m lying,” I said. “May your puny excuse for a god strike me down where I stand!”

The skies rumbled. I pointed up at a nearby cloud. “You watch it, mister. Don’t make me come up there.” Instead, it parted to reveal a man in what I’d call a quadcopter suit. Four giant rotors on his back.

He fired a shotgun down into the crowd of celebrants while dropping a few racial slurs.

“Stand back, I got this,” said Venus, tearing the bottom portion of he dress away for better agility. Then she saw the guy drop his gun and pull out a rocket launcher.

I sighed and looked to Qiang, then pushed Venus aside. “Looks like I got this.” I dropped the hologram, began charging an energy sheath, and jumped.

As I hoped, the guy realized some big metal man was heading his way and adjusted his aim accordingly. It was a bit less likely to hit anyone I cared about. Or Venus. With my free hand, I whipped out a chicken grenade, pinched the head off, and threw it at what I hoped would work for the distance. I’m not known for my skills as a quarterback.

The quadcopter racist fired at me. I pulled my cape around my front as much as possible, raised the forearm encased in a glowing aura, and loudspinningwhiningnoiseowthatsmyasswhyistherehalfabodegaonmyass…

After a moment spent laying around and collecting myself, I went to shake my head clear and stand up, but my head was already shaking. I stopped it and tried to stand up. First attempt ended in me falling back on my ass and the calf of my right leg. Don’t worry, it’s still attached. Aside from a minor spot of flash-frying on my arm, it seems my armor held up. That doesn’t mean punching a rocket had no consequences. One of them showed up in that all the people around me were on mute and someone had left a high-pitched whine going.

The first to rush over were Qiang and Venus. Qiang actually managed to lift me, at which point the hologram on her armor failed. Venus seemed surprised, but also surprisingly-willing to help me up and try to look me over. Man, there was a lot of sugar skulls. I began to wonder why they made them in the first place, like how they got that idea and how hard they were to eat. And why were we moving so slow.

I pulled away from Venus and picked up Qiang. “Leave me alone, superhero. Always being mean and never liking me. You just want to think I’m nothing but trouble.” I was probably speaking really loudly. “Your help has a hell of a lot fine print than anything I ever do when I kill people! My daughter and I are going to our hotel!”

Despite having trouble with my balance, I fought through the killer headache I had to get out of there, though I didn’t feel well enough to jump or run off. That worked out possibly for the better as Qiang and I found ourselves soon staring at the smoking, flaming wreckage of our hotel, where someone had set off a car bomb at ground level. I turned to Venus, grabbed the shoulders traps of her dress, and used her bosom as a face pillow. “Why can’t I have nice things?!”

My memory gets a little blurry around that time, but I woke up in the regular infirmary of what my GSP assured me was the Master Academy. At least this time, I didn’t have brain surgery. Or a prison. Just a heavy kid sleeping on top of me still in her armor, and a crumpled note in her hand from Venus.

“Dear Psycho Gecko,

The doctor says you can leave after you are rested. I do not know what makes a man like you jump in front of a rocket for people, but it is a positive change for your life. Do not make me regret it.

P.S. Your daughter is welcome to attend. We will make a hero out of one of you yet. :)”

She says that, except now I’m planning to kidnap some people, steal some equipment, and murder the compatriots of whoever blew up my luggage. I’ll just do it out of another hotel.

But I’ll consider the offer for Qiang.

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Seasons Change 7

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In my quest to bury the hatchet with horror supervillain Spinetingler, I have returned to Empyreal City with my daughter in an effort to find his. After some stabbing in the dark that involved too few knives, I showed Spinetingler my hand and won his cooperation over our mutual love of murder. Then, I ran into some stupid gang members while out and about with my daughter and was forced to let them live because she was there. But researching them while pursuing musty old records helped me uncover the mysterious lack of death in the area where Spinetingler’s daughter had been sent after her mother’s death.

So, of course, that’s where I needed to check on Halloween Eve. As usual, Halloween is a truce day. A lot of standards have been lost lately, but that’s one I’ve always enjoyed. So many heroes and villains dipped their feet into the bloody waters of lethal force, it makes Halloween even more important. Not holding to the truce may mean death.

As for why I didn’t go before that night, that’s simple. I was enjoying the holiday with Qiang. I’d neglected it too much. Not nearly enough scary movies or stories. I took my kid to a party and then we carved pumpkins. We had a brief pumpkin-innard fight and set the grinning Jack O’Lanterns on the balcony with candles to light their faces while the sun set.

I fixed us a nice dinner, thick-cut pork chops with homemade gravy from the drippings. She wanted to go with me, and I hated having to leave her behind, but this wasn’t something I’d drag her into. Her armor is for protecting herself. It may do that, but dragging her along into what’s most likely a hostile situation isn’t how that works.

The night seemed unusually quiet even before Halloween. Can’t blame anyone for taking it easy. People like their holidays. Sure, regular criminals are exempt, but they don’t have to worry so much about heroes dropping by and some of them offer valuable services to supervillains. Even the money launderers get to take it easy for a short while. Maybe use it for some downtime and maintenance of their money washers and money dryers. Try some new money steam cleaning. A hell of a lot better than the old days of hanging money out to dry on the line, where it could get mixed up with the counterfeiters.

My good mood lessened due to some sort of interference in the city. A little scratchiness in my head, maybe something electromagnetic. It wasn’t far enough to mess with Qiang. I didn’t know if anyone had strange experiments running, which was one idea. Hell, it could have just been some freaky interference from damaged or substandard infrastructure. If any city’s ever been skull-fucked, it’s Empyreal City.

To my growing annoyance, the neighborhood in question was inside the zone of this little crackle.

It wasn’t much. Old, worn stucco on a three-story building. Ugh, one of those awful shades of pale pink that makes you taste the foul medicine it resembles just by seeing it. It surprised me the place seemed so dead. Not the building itself. I was fully prepared to walk into a house of a thousand corpses if I had to make them myself. It was all the rest of the street. Lights out, nobody out and about. No stray dogs or cats, nobody walking around, no cars driving through.

When I stepped through the door, I did not find a house of a thousand corpses. And yes, I used the front door. Whatever else I was there for, violence wasn’t necessarily essential to it. The lights were off in the building. I tried them, no response. A quick check turned up that the place’s utilities were paid up every month on the same day and time like clockwork. The culprits for lost power, as they often are with utilities services, were aliens. They lost power here when the Fluidics invaded. It took awhile to restore service because nobody complained, and it turned out to be spotty. Why didn’t they fix it? Nobody complained.

That alone sends up a huge red flag. People have this stereotype of Empyreal Citiers being more rude. I don’t know about that, other than I probably threw off the average. But I do know that people are bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling. They’re stupid, lazy assholes who would complain about being rubbed raw if they got to spend all day in an orgy with super hot supermodels. Complaining is second nature to humans, unlike us superior Homo Machina.

I hit the light amplification setting first and began moving, then swapped over to infrared. That was another red flag. They weren’t in the entry hall or the stairwell that I could see from it, but there was heat all over this place. Maybe a little colder than heat signatures should have been due to the time of year, but I counted at least 40 people in the place. The closest batch were in a side room, like a foyer or living room.

I pushed the door open a little wider to find a group of give people in there, all standing up and facing inward like a star. They were staring blankly, sometimes turning their heads. To look at a different one of them. It was too sudden to be natural, and occasionally the entire group would turn at once.

Boom, sudden headache. Not from an actual, physical explosion. I was looking at them all when I got an image, like the place was lit up but all dark blue, and the group in front of me weren’t people. They were mannequins or dolls or something. White pieces with blank faces. At the same time, an ice pick of pain stabbed through my head, right above my left eye. Hurt like hell, and I grabbed the door frame nearby to steady myself. As the pain faded, I realized a couple things. First, the crackly feeling had intensified. Second, the five people had all turned to look at me.

They didn’t move right. They came walking toward me, but it wasn’t right. It’s like they didn’t care about weight. Like they didn’t remember how to walk and were just tossing body parts forward. I growled at the pain in my head and reached out to the closest one, a guy. I pulled his head into the door frame, grabbed the door, and slammed it into the frame so hard it cut through the top of his head with a sploot that sprayed brain and bone against the wall of the hallway outside.

I didn’t think they’d actually hurt me, but the ones who grabbed hold of me had surprising strength. The human body is a lot stronger than it lets on, but its full potential isn’t usually realized unless it’s in extreme situation, like a kid is trapped under a car. That’s because the muscles are strong enough to lift the car up, but the bones and ligaments don’t handle it so well. People do that for long, they break themselves. These guys were awfully skinny, but I think they were being forced to tap into that strength.

Unfortunately for the pair who had my arms, I had the power of robotics on my side. I grabbed them both and pulled them in front of me, then took their heads and pushed them together. One of the spares jumped on my back, but couldn’t do anything to stop me smashing their skulls together until they were left a pulpy, bloody mess on the floor. It was then that the fifth and final one tried to chop block my leg out from under me.

No go. I kicked that one off onto the floor, then jumped and landed with my boot grinding the puppet person’s brain into the old wooden floor. Another jump and I landed with the considerable weight of my armor on my back. Or, more precisely, on the person on my back. It didn’t kill her, but it certainly didn’t make her stronger. Left her writhing like a bug, except for her legs. I left her impotently reaching up to me with her wheezing, gurgling breathes.

Above me, I found more of these puppet people filling the stairwell. They’d all had time to empty out of the hallways to try and obstruct my path, but it also helped me. I stepped away from the stairwell to check the building. There. On the top floor, naturally, those who couldn’t fit in the stairwell littered the hall leading to a single room where one body lay.

I stepped back into the stairwell and ramped up the muscle amplifiers on the leg portions of my armor. I didn’t have to use the stairs. Puppet people tripped down the stairs after me. As I jumped, more threw themselves off stairs and landings to try and grab me. They weren’t the most coordinated lot and they missed. I gripped onto a pair of wall light fixtures on the third story stairwell wall and swung myself onto the landing before they could completely give out on me. A quartet of puppets stood before me, looking downright undead. They might as well have been skeletons with a thin covering of skin. It was amazing they could stand upright, and pitifully easy to just knock them on their asses as I passed.

I’d noticed then that the crackly, itchy pain in my head had been growing. Worse than that, time started playing some funny tricks on me. Minutes flew by and more of those puppets from below grabbed at me from behind. They shouldn’t have been up there so fast. I realized that whatever was doing this, which almost certainly was Spinetingler’s daughter, was fucking with my perception of time. I pulled a chicken grenade from my belt and tossed it back. It went off real soon after leaving my hands, throwing me forward and clearing some of the hallway behind me.

It also caught the place on fire, so that was an issue. It seemed like it took forever to get to my feet. More like twenty minutes while the flames grew around me and weakened the building. This was an issue. I pushed forward, overclocking the computerized part of my brain to try and compensate. Now I was the one throwing body parts forward like I couldn’t hardly walk.

Just before I reached the door to the last room on the top floor, more psychic pain struck me. It felt like a bear trap had closed on my head. Then it began to grind from side to side. I gritted my teeth and walked through the door, scattering splinters everywhere. It was a bedroom, the master bedroom I think. It had its own bathroom, unlike probably every other room here. That’s where I found her, shivering in the bath. She was in her twenties. She was skinny, and blonde, and peered up at me with giant eyes of light brown. I could see bones. Well, I could see a lot more than that. It was a bath, after all.

I grabbed her under her arm and pulled her to her feet, then stuck her with the paternalizer. “I can’t play with you,” she said to me, looking me in the eye. I noticed smaller spikes of psychic pain hit me.

“Nope. A benefit of my particular biology,” I said. I looked her over. Skinny, yeah, but she could have been pretty. The nose was a little big and pointed. Combined with the way her wild hair hung down over her back, I thought she looked vaguely rat-like.

The paternalizer let off a victory tune that made me feel like swinging a giant sword over my head. Confirmed, this young woman had Spinetingler’s DNA.

Good thing, too. Shit was falling back in the hallway and smoke was getting everywhere. “Looks like I need to get this princess to another castle,” I said. I grabbed her throat and applied just enough of a sleeper to put her out, then put her over my shoulder. I threw the tub through a nearby window to make an opening, then jumped free.

Of course, then I had to find a good place to steal a mirror from while a minor crimewave of tumorous mutants ran through the streets, overturning cars and wrecking shit. There were going to be a lot of pissed heroes and villains dealing with that one mad scientist I interrogated days earlier, that’s for sure. But for now, I just set the mirror on the ground and said Spinetingler’s name three times.

An enormous eyeball looked up at me from the mirror, and almost seemed to squint in eyeball-y satisfaction upon seeing the girl in my arms. “Gecko tested, DNA approved. I had to knock her out to save her from a burning building. I recommend some good food.”

A pain in my head indicated she’d woken up. So did the kicking feet. “Let me go. I don’t want to play. I don’t want to play!”

“This is no time for child’s play,” I said. This woman wasn’t right in her head, I figured. Maybe it was her powers and relying on them from an early age, maybe it was what she’d done to people to avoid education. Either way, she wasn’t my problem.

The image shifted to an older, fatherly actor with blood around his face. “Come to daddy,” said Spinetingler. He laughed as I tossed her down into the mirror. She disappeared into its reflective surface, the shattering of the mirror cutting off her screams.

I slept just fine. Got up, made breakfast for Qiang, and we set about planning her trick-or-treating. She decided she wanted to go as Venus. Since she’s my daughter, she did. And since she’s my daughter, I made sure she got plenty of candy even if I had to sneak into the house through the back door and steal it while she was at the front door. She also got a few credit cards, wallets, and a nice purse or two.

Happy Halloween, dear readers.

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Seasons Change 6

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It is Fall, and Halloween approaches. I, the Great and Devious Emperor Psycho Gecko of Ricca and my daughter, Qiang, have visited my old stomping grounds of Empyreal City to negotiate a ceasefire with the powerful horror-themed supervillain Spinetingler. The way to do so? Finding ‘Tingler’s daughter, all without getting Qiang too involved.

So here I am, in Empyreal City once again. A recovering Empyreal City. Recovering quite slowly. The city’s vulnerable, and I am the recently-crowned Emperor of my own nation. With me is my kid, heir to the throne, with her own set of power armor. And what did we do today?

We visited a haunted house. I thought it would stop my little Qiang from talking about all the nice and neat kids she met when given a tour of Master Academy as a prospective student. “The grown-ups wanted to know who you were, but the babysitter said I was not supposed to say,” she said, practicing her English. I try and I try. I’ve never been a parent before, and I got to skip the part where she’s a whining baby keeping me up at night, but I just don’t know how I’ll ever teach her informal English. Unlike me, she didn’t learn the cusswords first.

So we were heading down the street in broad daylight, her without armor and myself well-protected in mine. She had bundled up for the weather, and I just appeared to be in a suit. A nice suit; the hologram featured pinstripes that were just my own name repeated over and over again.

Quang didn’t like wearing her armor a lot yet. Still getting used to it. Growing pains. I keep making little adjustments, but there’s only so much I can do to get her comfortable with the whole kebab. We picked up some kebabs for lunch, so the language was on my mind.

We walked down the street like that, her yammering on about Master Academy seeming so great, when I caught a glimpse of a confrontation about to occur. Two behind us, two in front. Unusual grouping. Most muggers rely on surprise over numbers. I noticed the two behind me pull up bandanas over their faces and pull down hoodies. The bandanas had snarling canine mouths and the hoodies, grey in color, had ears on them. They reached down and pulled out weapons. Hand claws. Sharp, arcing metal with a grip and a small handguard.

“Hon,” I told Qiang. “We are about to have a short fight.”

Qiang looked at the pair walking toward us. The ones in front of me didn’t have the hoodies, but I noticed bandanas around their necks just a second before they pulled them up. One of these guys pulled a knife, the other had a cheap, snub-nosed revolver.

It would have looked like I dramatically put my hands up in recognition of being outgunned. That mistake wouldn’t have lasted for long, not when the rubber chicken suddenly appeared in midair and smacked the gun out of that guy’s hand. While my hands were up there, I grabbed my cape and hit the disconnect button. It also magically appeared from nowhere, though pulling it loose disrupted the projection for a moment.

The guy in front with the knife got my cape thrown on him while I turned to confront our clawed friends behind me. “What’s with the Wal-Mart furry fandom look going on here?” I asked.

They looked at each other, then back to me. The one on my right spoke up. “Who are you, some kind of magician?”

“I am good at sawing people in half and making them disappear. One moment,” I turned back toward the other two. The one had just picked up his gun and the other had gotten the cape off. I grabbed both and threw them at their friends.

Qiang, for her part, had ducked to the side behind cover, drawing her knife out from where she kept it hidden. I let the hologram drop as I stepped between her and them. “Alright, you little gang of pups. Time to answer the age old question…”

They soon learned that question when I had them piled up one on top of each other and sat on top of the pile, holding the hands of one of the hoodie-wearing ones and making him hit himself in the face with a bare fist. “Why you hittin’ yourself? Why you hittin’ yourself?”

“Daddy, let’s go!” Qiang called. I looked over at her, gritting my teeth in my armor. She was the only reason I hadn’t killed them so far.

I leaned down to the guys. “I don’t know what kind of gang shit you’re playing at here, but you’re going to get up and you’re going to thank my daughter before you go. But first…”

I let them up and let them live, but I also held all four of them in the air by their underwear while they thanked Qiang and apologized to her. See, it’s about respect. And about the reveal that one of those guys wore a thong. Past tense is important there, because I suspect he’ll stop after this incident.

And that was the day, one marred in a bit of fun for me that still led to Qiang hugging onto me when we got to the hotel room. I just let her hold me, and keep holding me. She didn’t want me to go, which caused all kinds of issues when I had to pee. When she finally spoke, she asked in her own tongue, “You’re not going to go get hurt, are you daddy?”

A couple minutes later, I managed to get my laughter under control. “It takes more than some idiots with guns and knives to hurt me. I was more worried about you than anything else.”

She sat there and thought about that, then got up. Fifteen minutes later, she came in wearing her armor and hugged onto me. I had to wait until she fell asleep before I could head out for some night time fun. I left a note taped to the front of her armor promising I’d be careful and I’d come back ok.

After all, my big plan of the night involved breaking into this archive used for nothing but off-site records storage for a few different departments of Empyreal City’s government. The boringness of the worn, old brick rectangular cuboid building almost seemed brutalist. In reality, I think someone designed this building to be nothing but a place people consigned mountains of paper to be organized and held in the dark. Most people have heard of the phrase “knowledge is power”; this place held the kind of knowledge that could fuck up being a doorstop.

It’s the file folders, you see. They slide.

I had a name, but it had been a bit more than that. A name, an age, even an image in a mirror. Empyreal City has a population greater than some countries. If you count all the people who lived there in the past, pretty much any name repeats, starting right at the front with Aaron A. Aaronson.

So I broke on into the dull old building whose most exciting accomplishment had been briefly having an alien shuttle crashed on top of it, and set about looking for the records. I had a few key areas to hit on. Old birth certificates, foster care paperwork, adoption papers; I could find this. Eventually.

So I had a lot of digging ahead of me. Unsexy, boring digging. Sometimes being a supervillain means lots of preparation, at least if you want to be good. There have always been hacks, mucking about, only to end up dead. Or in jail, never able to put it together again. It helps if they have an easy gimmick to cling to, like the Nazi stuff. Sure, it’s making a revival nowadays, but Son of the Hun had enough working against him even before the Third Reich got curbstomped by the Red Army.

That reminded me, in light of the gang of wolves I spotted earlier, to put out feelers for the local gang activity. While I was physically busy looking through records nobody had ever had time to scan onto computers, I ran an automatic search of local news through my head. It wouldn’t be as effective as hitting up bars and shaking people down for information, but those required I be elsewhere.

At least there I found something interesting. An article showed the local Reds gaining in power after recent catastrophes, pushing their message of a universal basic income, a more progressive tax system, and equal treatment under the law for men and women of any color or creed. “Nobody ever blew up a city fighting over their next meal!” they quote one of the Reds saying at a protest. He has a point. I’ve had the occasional sale on my services, but most hitmen prefer to work a job that’ll make them some good money for the risk. Just like how most thieves prefer to steal from someone who has valuables. You don’t see a lot of corporate sabotage work offered by the hot dog cart against that damn bodega.

So I can sympathize, except for the times they’ve burnt down bank branches completely. “Reds Run Scorched Earth Campaign,” stated the headline on a story. It showed them standing around with some fairly heavy weaponry for a street gang. A flamethrower, several AKs, and a guy carrying a light machine gun. Rumors, at least the ones fit to print, say they run the dockyards.

The Greens, another gang in the area, had changed a bit as well. Bad weed. That’s no joke. Something, some chemical or drug, got into the water supply. The cops managed to seize some plants from one of their grow houses before they got too bad, but the stuff in the water affected a strain of their pot. At first, it was thought they just couldn’t feel pain anymore when high. Then there’s a story about a guy who got super baked and took a few shotguns blasts to the chest and back without a problem. The Greens had been pushed to the outskirts of the city, but now they’re pushing back, with some of them looking a lot bigger and hairier, with antlers.

Whatever drugs they sell now seem to have more an edge to them. They’re stronger, maybe because the Greens are resistant, but people risk it because some of it is still doped with stuff to give people very weak enhancements. The only ones who get the good stuff are the Greens themselves. They’ve also taken to wrecking the city’s water purification systems.

Finally, the idiots I ran into. I don’t think they’re an offshoot of the old Yurples gang from around here. They call themselves the Wolfpack. A reporter who embedded with them for awhile painted a picture of them being the city’s regular folks who just want the protection of law and order that the city, state, and federal government let lapse. Interviews with people on the street instead paint a picture of extortion, theft, and murder. They’re a little more spread out because of that, and the one with the pettiest crimes. Some of them have been seen running as fast as cars and leaping small buildings in a couple bounds, but authorities are baffled by that.

Can’t say I mind the gangs getting more colorful in my absence, so long as they leave me and mine alone. The interesting thing is that they have some notable clashes in the northeast of the city, where their territories all butt up against one another. They have fights all over the place, except for one neighborhood. If not for looking up the gang stuff, I may not have noticed the oddity there. For years now, a street there has had no crime whatsoever. No domestic violence, no noise complaints, nothing. It wouldn’t stand out much, since people don’t file reports about crimes not happening, but for the lack of gang violence by the shifting gang situation.

And what really makes that odd is I found a file on the mother and her daughter. The mother had some psych issues, got CPS called on her, and ended up taking a long, moonlit walk off the side of her apartment complex, leaving the girl to be taken to a group home. No records of her ever having left, despite the fact that she’s older than eighteen by now. Jamie Scrimm, her last name taken from her mother’s side, has no other records on the internet that I’ve found. Nothing hidden in any government conspiracy files right next to Khrushchev thinking Dallas cops murdered JFK. The trail for Spinetingler’s daughter ends, as far as I can tell, at that group home in the same neighborhood whose last reported criminal complaint dates to the day before Jamie Scrimm arrived.

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Seasons Change 5

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One of the reasons superpowers are so tough to nail down is that they aren’t entirely based on genetics. It’s a bit iffier with normal kids or teens who end up with powers but who seem to have normal parents. Was one of the parents a secret super? Did one somehow get depowered? Maybe there’s just some sort of potential to have superpowers instead that’s activated by environment or something a parent went through. Maybe this is all about grandparents and genes skipping generations.

The other way around isn’t much better. There’s no guarantee the child of even two supers will have powers. Complicating matters, most supers don’t like the identity of their children getting out, so I’m working off limited experience. Some of that’s personal experience, from killing the parents.

Sometimes the DNA helps. Sometime’s it’s useless. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but supers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and origins. One guy can fall into a vat of experimental radioactive goo and come out with acid spit, another with cancer.

But what about myself and Qiang? I’m part of a mutant race of humanity. It’s not all adamantium claws and psychic firebirds, though. That’s not how mutations work if you’re talking its own separate group. Homo machina powers can’t be turned off if in any of the few and tenuous ways people have to disable superpowers because we’re not technically supers. We just naturally have an ability regular homo sapiens lack. Like how birds are naturally better at flying than humans, or how dolphins are naturally superior at gang rape. Grass grows, birds fly, son shines, and brother, I hurt people. Or, well, I biologically merge with certain materials commonly used in computers and other devices. The hurting people part is an acquired skill.

My point bringing all this up is to excuse the slow progress here. I might be looking in entirely the wrong place, but I’m pretty sure Spinetingler’s kid would have powers. I’m just not sure on a few details… age, maternity, ethnicity, area of birth, who she was raised by, where they might have gone…

Still, what’s a guy like me to do if not tilt at a windmill? To dream the impossible dream?

That sounds a lot better than “I didn’t fucking think this through.” Note, go back and edit this part out before sending it on.

I’ve taken to reserving the day for Qiang and using the night for working on this. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Today, we took in some haunted houses. It was fun until we got to the one where the only things they had to offer were cold spots and promises that there’d be orbs in any photos we took.

It was trickier this particular night, because I needed to do some consulting with someone about the job. Bereft as I was of loyal retainers, I had to hire a temp to show Qiang to a spot where she might be safe. I told Qiang I wanted her to see Master Academy, but that I wasn’t supposed to go there. It disappointed the person I’d hired online that they seemed to be playing babysitter, but I let it drop that I’d pay them a quarter-million dollars and they’d get to hang out with supers for a bit. I didn’t tell either of them about the danger, which may or may not have been a good decision.

It all depended on the fellow I was to meet with. I rented out a cheap motel room instead of bringing him to the hotel room. I set up a big mirror on the wall with a table up against it, which I sat at. I lit a candle, turned out the lights, and sat at the table. “Spinetingler, Spinetingler, Spinetingler.”

Against the reality warper or empowerer or whatever the king of the supernatural supers is, an entire campus of capes might be adequate protection. To be fair, it’s a hell of a lot harder to protect people than it is to kill them.

My HUD displayed drastic pressure increase. I heard a dissonant, scratchy growl. In the mirror, a pair of red eyes opened over my shoulder. “Hello again,” I said to Spinetingler. “I came in peace.”

“Why do I doubt that?” he asked. Spinetingler hung back, just outside the glow of the candle, leaving my imagination to fill in what form he took in the darkness.

I shrugged. “Probably from those unpleasant run-ins we’ve had in the past. I’d say we should forget all about those, but a recurring subject in them has come up. See, the reson why I’m even in this city at this time of year, calling your name, is because I’m finally working on that goal you’ve been seeking help for. In the interest of hoping you and I can bury the hatchet, I’d like to find your daughter.”

A puff of snortd air passed over my mirror self’s shoulder. “Tell me why I don’t kill you for trying to kill my daughter.”

I held my hands up. “This isn’t about killing or hurting her in any way. You and I don’t like each other, we got off on the wrong foot, that’s fine. But I’ve taken on some different priorities lately, and I’ve decided I could use one less enemy. Not an ally, just not an enemy. I didn’t actually want to bring this up to you until I found her.”

The eyes cocked to one side, then the other, trying to figure out my angle. “Are you proposing… a deal?”

I love a good deal, and I expect Spinetingler does too. Telling the good guys the truth they hate to hear rather than the lie they wish you gave them. Following the letter of a contract while shredding the soul. Wonderful. “That term is a bit too loaded for us. A simple agreement. I return your daughter to you, and you and I avoid each other avoid each other. I mean, if you happen to walk into the coffee shop or bar I’m drinking at, no big deal. But no knowingly getting involved in each other’s plots or going after the other’s family or friends.”

“As the more powerful party, what do I get out of this?” asked Spinetingler. This time, the words came out as a whisper just behind me. My cameras showed nothing in the room with me. The only visual representation of Spinetingler’s presence was on the other side of that mirror.

“First, your daughter. Second, you’ll finally be safe from me.” I reject the length of your dick, Spinetingler, and substitute my own. Measure this beauty right here. Yes, I did have the little bowler hat hidden there this entire time. It really does make it look dignified, doesn’t it? Yes, I did shave my pubes into the shape of a handlebar mustache. “I think we both know we could have a hell of a war, but think of all our loved ones it would endanger.”

My reflection disappeared as the red eyes moved closer. Spinetingler appeared as a person made of shadow. He sat across from me then, red eyes contemplating me unwaveringly. I held a hand out to break the stalemate. He looked at me. I looked at him. “I could have just stayed away from the city and never called you. I don’t even need you watching my back on this. I’m laying my cards out on the table. I’ve even been checking around.”

I reached down slowly to pull out the machine I’ve been using. “Quick and easy paternity test. Been checking a few around town with gimmicks and power sets I thought could be part of it, but I’m working mostly blind here. I still got files in my head that I’ve checked, but even the Feds don’t seem to know your kid.”

“If what you say is true, that speaks to a greater conspiracy. Those are few and far between, and regularly thwarted by interested parties’ investigation.” He didn’t blink or look away from me. No mouth had opened up to speak the words.

The minutes dragged on without resolution of this dilemma of trust. There it is again. Trust. Who do ya trust? The heroes? They’re at home, washing their tights!

“I love this season. Good movies. Well, ok movies. Horror movies don’t typically get ranked highly, but they’re fun. I find I’m more of an Eighties fan. Lost Boys, Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons. Oddly enough, I prefer Fright Night 2 over the original. You strike me as a slasher fan. Any favorites?”

He leaned forward a little. “Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s different than others.”

I cocked my head. “Oh yeah?”

The shadow nodded. “Slashers seem conservative to people who grew up with Scream. They think the killer murders youths who drink and fuck and party. They think too much about Jason Voorhees. Mike Myers is a barely-human shape who hunts his family. Chucky is a Satanic killer’s soul in a doll that kills whoever he can. They don’t fit, but Freddy counters the idea completely.”

I pondered it. “He goes after a certain town’s kids, regardless of what they do.”

Spinetingler pointed a shadowy finger at me. “No. Freddy was a child murderer killed by people who took the law into their own hands like a slasher would do. He was created by the type of person who has no tolerance for police and courts when they can string a man up.”

“The sort of person who wishes they could have been there with their gun when somebody started shooting people,” I responded. “Not the first time the humans created their own monster. The kid thing was a dick move, but you can hardly blame a guy for wanting revenge for being killed. Not a lot of people would be ‘oh, sure, just kill away good chaps’.”

I chuckled. Spinetingler did as well. After a moment, I added, “I could justify taking revenge on you. You could justify taking revenge on me. I’m willing to break the cycle so we can get back to doing what we love best: taking revenge on the world, knowing there’s no more big ‘versus’ crossovers on the horizons. Come on, let’s stop clenching our buttholes and go have some fun.”

I certainly didn’t intend to go barhopping with one of the most powerful supervillains in the world, but it worked out. It turned into a trust-building exercise. I walked in, dropping the projection. This not being a super bar, the folks there weren’t happy to see me. They liked it even less when the howling started. Then the backdoor crashed open and a hulking shadow brute stepped in.

The whole mess ended with us sitting around, listening to the jukebox, glasses in hand. I filled mine up from the tap, he filled his up from the bartender.

When I dragged myself into the hotel suite in the light of the rising sun, I knew I was going to have a hell of a bad day dealing with a little kid. But I also had the name, and a plan. Sure, I find myself lacking electronic records, you’d be surprised how far behind a big city can get on transferring paper records over.

Yep, hardcopy research. I had to be drunk to think of it. Still better than how Spinetingler got after drinking that meth head.

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Seasons Change 4

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Empyreal City… still looks a bit like crap. I guess the abandoned hospital should have been an indicator, but the city’s rebuilding is taking awhile. And not just while because it takes forever to get stuff built. It looks like they straight-up haven’t tried in places. I see the marks of charities, but there’s only so much Cape Diem can do. The Salvation Army isn’t lining up a fleet of bulldozers, cranes, and contractors to rebuild anything. Scratch that, they have an incredible new building in this one neighborhood. Marble all over the place and an indoor waterfall. It’s their latest local headquarters. Even the “No homos” sign out front is gilded.

The more amazing sight involves the flying machines. Not planes, and I’ve come to doubt using the term “ship” for things that fly. Navies will get no such favoritism from me anymore. So they have craft, a bit blocky with some concessions to aerodynamics. Like if they designed shuttlecraft to look like a humvee. About time they got these sorts of craft, actually.

However, it took a long time for them to accept medical nanomachines, and that acceptance was forced by crises. Now they don’t, because I used them as part of a long-reaching plot to kill billions around the world that I converted into taking over the world.

Humans are a fearful, superstitious lot. With anti-gravity craft they use for limited construction. I’m beginning to doubt the prudence of my recent friendlier outlook.

That said, Qiang and I had no problems. We traveled unmolested and I showed her some of the sights. I’ve decided I’m going to get this girl hooked on musicals, even if it’ll be awhile before she appreciates the darker ones. I took a picture of her in my eye, standing on the observation deck of a skyscraper, the sun setting behind her. She was smiling as she looked out over the city, hair captured in place by whipping wind. To her, the city wasn’t unspoiled. She never knew what it had been, only what it was now that she got to see it.

I felt the cool anticipation seemingly carried by every Fall breeze when the sun leaves the world in the darkening season and mankind puts on its nightward face. It held memories of dangers past and teasingly kissed my face with the idea of new adventures.

I barely contained myself long enough to have dinner with her and see Qiang off to bed in the hotel room. Then, I was in my armor and leaping into the night.

The hunt took me first to a closed restaurant. I couldn’t make out the name on the sign, as it had been stolen. I noticed a faded graphic of an animal mascot wearing a hat, but couldn’t tell the species. Why was I there? Well, I’d tapped into such lovely satellites. The United States watches itself intently. Several other countries watch it, too. I had dug into them until I found one with decent enough infrared imaging to help me check the place for humongous snakes and rat tsunamis. And I had managed to find something here.

That’s why I pieced together a flamethrower to bring as well. The ingredients for a basic one are widely available, as anyone knows. It’s just a matter of bringing enough fuel. So I kicked the door down with a couple tanks worth on my back and began stomping through a mess of rats. “Hello in here! I’m looking for your leader, you plague-covered pests. Direct me to the Vermin Supreme.”

They scattered, as if the entire floor was nothing but rodent. You just look down and see the entire floor in the dark move. Except scatter was the wrong word. That implies they headed in different directions. They flowed toward something laying in the corner. I hit the light amplification I left off originally in case I needed to start a bonfire upon walking in. There I saw a mass of rats all connected by the tails. They all stared directly at me before sliding underneath the ragged dress of a woman laying in a heap against the wall behind them. They bulged through the skin, the body twitching, before it helped itself up, each limb acting with a mind of its own.

When the “woman” opened its mouth to speak, each word came out in short squeaks of language. “What do you want?”

“Well, I was going to check and see if you were a certain person. Were you ever human at all, or have you always been rats?”

“We are the Rat King. The end of humanity is nigh,” is all it said.

“How nigh are we talkin’?” I asked.

“In mere days, we-” it stated to say, but by then I’d cut the light amplification and fired the flamethrower. I figured there still may be a chance that thing was Spinetingler’s daughter, but he’d probably be ok with me killing it at that point. Plus, my own daughter was in town. This was not a good time for this thing to be making threats about killing lots of people around. If only it had tried this last month or next month, then I’d be fine.

Well, maybe. All those rats actually repulsed me on an instinctive level. They sure do scream. They tried to swarm me and bring me down, but I ran in place before backing my ass up out the door with the building on fire behind me. I hosed that whole building down with fire as much as I could just in case, figuring I’d make sure to be a little less trigger-happy on the next go-round.

That changed when I saw another costumed individual approach. A giant pumpkin sped rapidly up the road. Before I could figure out how I was going to strangle Linus and Charlie Brown, it stopped and the top popped open. Out jumped a person in a costume of brown sackcloth with a Jack O’Lantern for a head. They scrambled down to the road, turned to the flaming building, and began to suck the flames out of the building and into the Jack O’Lantern. Its light grew brighter as it did so.

Curious, I stepped up beside it, looking for a good opening to poke it with the paternity tester. It turned when I got too close and grabbed me by the throat, lifting me clear off the ground. “What do you think you’re doing?!” It asked. Strong son of a bitch. I went ahead and jabbed it with the needle under the arm. If it noticed, it didn’t bother saying anything about that. “With the firefighters stretched thin, any fire is a potential catastrophe these days!”

The ground shook then as column of rats broke through the roof of the restaurant and stretched up. And up. And up. It was a massive rat spout. A ratnado, if you will. Perhaps not the best known of animal-related weather. Most people know to watch out when it rains cats and dogs, and it can be bad when planes fly into heavy snake condensation, but the true danger is when encountering a sharknado.

“Oh, sure, yeah. That fire sure is dangerous,” I said. I hit this pumped-up gourd in its elbow so it didn’t hold me straight and dropped to the ground. I got a beep from the paternalator that this person, who I hadn’t yet made out as even male or female, was unrelated to Spinetingler. I put up the device, gathered up my makeshift flamethrower, and gave the Jack O’Lantern a mock salute. “Well, good luck with that thing.”

“You have to help me!” it said.

I shook my head and stepped back into shadows, my hologram projecter helping to cloak me from view. “You broke it, you bought it.”

I didn’t just up and go completely, though. I stuck around to watch some of the fighting. I was prepared to step in if it moved toward our hotel, but it wasn’t my job to help out. I had already tried to stop this before it even started with judicial application of orange juice and… no, I should keep the rest of the ingredients to myelf. Optimal Outer Control couldn’t post this stuff from prison.

It was in the middle of all this that I got another opportunity, though. It came in the form of what I at first mistook to be a large penis sliding over the sidewalk. From what I remember, Dong Man was never that big. Sure, a decent size, but his superpowers basically boiled down to taking a drug that made his dick inhumanly hard and strong, but at the cost of potential physical harm if he stayed like that for four hours or longer at a time. I lost track of his adventures years ago, back when he was getting double teamed by Robo-Pelvis and the Lube Garou. I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t think they were all just a marketing ploy.

And if you agree, just go to Adam and Eve dot com and put in the promo code- never mind, I’ve gotten sidetracked.

So while the squirming column of rats moved through the city devouring anything in its path, I spotted a tubular thing slide along the streets toward it. Then I caught a glimpse of a reptilian maw flashing out to bite at it, again and again. It seems that a roiling pile of rats proved tempting bait for the giant snake woman. Yeah, let’s pretend I planned it that way.

I hopped off in her direction, only to find her nowhere in sight when I landed. I checked nearby manhole covers and didn’t find anything wrong with them, so she hadn’t retreated down there. The distinctive sounds of vomitting drew my attention to a nearby basement stairwell. I found a chubby, curly-haired woman there in a costume with a scale pattern. It didn’t do her any favors, and there’s a reason you don’t see curly hair free a lot with supers. It’s for the same reason you don’t see many football players on the field with giant nose rings. Easy handhold.

“You ok?” I asked the woman.

She shook her head as she gagged, prompting me to step up and force her into a higher angle. “You don’t want to go parallel. Then it’ll try to come out your nose and get lodged in your sinuses.” I pulled out the paternalizer and ejected the prior needle top I used for checking the Jack O’ Lantern. A new one slid into place and I gently poked snake lady from behind as she bent over heaving another small flood of black fur, white bones, and red guts out. She didn’t seem to notice the prick. “Had a bit too much to eat?”

She didn’t answer me for a couple of minutes as I helped her away from one puddle to some clear ground to sink to her knees. I reached into a pouch reserved for chloroforming and pulled out some clean napkins. “Here you go, you’ll want to get that off your mouth.”

“Thank you. Normally, I don’t eat that much. I’m good until next week, but these things…” she trailed off, looking up. She looked puzzled. “Do I know you?”

I rolled my eyes under my helmet. “I’m kind of a big deal.” I raised the paternomatic in my hand. “And you’re not the droids I was looking for. Shame.” I turned to go.

“Wait,” she said, getting her feet under her again. “I’m Sister Serpent. Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome. The name’s Gecko,” I told her, watching shock appear on her face. I turned to walk away and continue my own hunt. And, to enjoy the moment, I listened to the sound of Alice Cooper singing that, yeah, he’s back, the man behind the mask.

As a side note, I heard the next day that several street vendors had huge clearance sales on hot dogs and burgers. Something about a sudden influx of meat. Sadly, my daughter and I had plans that had us eating elsewhere.

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Seasons Change 3

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Some might ask “Gecko, why are you visiting the United States right now?”

By some, I mean everybody. Every. Fucking. Body. I’m getting phone calls, texts, and emails. Hell, I’m getting emails in addresses I didn’t even know I had! I swear, something started vibrating in my colon that MIGHT have been a fax. Or I forgot an egg up there. Regardless, a lot of people seem to think my sudden and unexplained trip is their business. As it happens, dear reader, it is at least partially yours, since you have to slog through all this to get to the part where I turn people into juicy bits.

See, it’s a rather special time of year again. October. Halloween approaches. While I’ve always found it fun, I’ve also lately made an enemy of someone who seems like he’d take advantage of that day. A fellow named Spinetingler. I believe there’s some dispute over his exact powerset, though he would count as a deity if he’d been born into pretty much any other period of this Earth’s history. He himself is rather monstrous looking, somehow able to alter his body and survive attacks that can liquefy many others. He’s still mortal, however. He can be beaten. So can his lackeys, who he usually ends up collecting and/or empowering into horror-themed villains that bring their own brand of terror to the world.

I have had to work around him ever since I inadvertently freed him from the Cube, an illegal, abusive, complex prison. To be fair, my motives were more about freeing myself. It just so happened that he got free as well. Then he tried to turn Empyreal City, something of my home city in this dimension, into hell on Earth. Or transferred it to a pocket dimension meant to resemble hell. I beat him that time, but I figured he’d be back. Horror franchises like him are notoriously difficult to kill.

I’m here to make some peace by giving him the very thing he moved hell and Earth for: his daughter. I hope I can find the bitch.

Entry to the United States was no problem. I’d been spying on the food cult of Old Man Hoodless and he got a big settlement from the Scientologists who had tried to sue him. Summoning that demon did wonders for his countersuit. And one of the things I’d happened to see was the whole gang getting pictures with a well-known actor. Lest I bring down the curse of the litigious Scientologists upon my readers, I won’t bother to name names. Let’s just say he was a pretty short guy, but Hollywood’s been more than up to the impossible mission of hiding that. And he brought his private jet.

The guy was a bit kooky, though. I think it was from the pills and alcohol his handler kept giving him, which didn’t partner well with him insisting on flying the plane. That gave me a chance to test out the profanity filter on Qiang’s armor. It’s a good thing hypocrisy only applies to people who aren’t me. “Those fucking pussies in Hollywood didn’t say anything bad about my man when he was raking in million-fucking-dollar box office receipts. What does poon-grabbing matter when you’re a star? They’re worried someone gets to touch it for free before they get rich enough to charge for it?”

Qiang tugged on my arm and spoke, “Daddy, why is that man talking so much about ‘funky cats’?”

There were advantages to not speaking in English, like being able to plot behind a white man’s back or talk about why we don’t like him. In this instance, I just said, “He’s a little weird. He thinks alien ghosts live in his head.”

“What are you two ching-chonging about back there, huh? You’re in America now. Speak American.”

In English, I asked, “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with an abundance of superfluous breath?”

“What’d you call me?” asked the overly-sensitive and likely coked-up famous actor with lots of money for lawyers.

“I was quoting Shakespeare,” I told him. “You might look into his play on King John.”

“Maybe I’ll do that,” he said, turning back to look out the window. “Maybe.”

He had us land in Los Angeles rather than continue on to the East Coast, but I made the best of it with my deftness at arranging transport. I stole his plane, refueled it, and flew out of there. I still hadn’t heard anything about it being stolen, even as I landed us in Empyreal City. The staff recognized the plane and were more than happy to welcome such an illustrious guest, allowing Qiang and I any kind of security. The holograms helped.

As for a fancy car and hotel stay, I paid for those courtesy of a bank I infiltrated before I even headed to Ricca in the first place. It was a Canadian bank, but the ones and zeroes transferred perfectly well to American machines, and my illicit bank account had grown fat on the detritus of millions of transactions.

I got us our own floor of a hotel under the name Julius Marx and decided to teach Qiang the value of de-odorizing her armor. She fell asleep before we were finished, so I left her armor hanging up to dry and headed out myself.

I’d been checking the news. A bunch of stuff in there lately that could drive a man to drink… drain cleaner, that is. Like some guy who blew himself up to kill a busload of kids, but his suicide note claimed he was doing it ironically as a way of mocking identity politics. They found similar notes about how his Hitler poster was ironic, and his mother, when interviewed, claimed he had been ironically fucking their dog, too.

You know things are bad when I’m the part of the world making sense. Nah, the news more on my mind involved a certain class of super. And, especially with myself gone, the supers had quite a time in Empyreal City. I went to go find one of the folks I’d been keeping an eye on. The question was which one?

There had been a woman who turned into a giant snake, but she was harder to pin down. There’s been something big and scaley operating out of the sewers, but that thing’s shaped like a human, not a snake. Someone’s been running around in a pig mask, doing their best to ambush nighttime vigilantes and scare the crap out of them. A mad scientist woman has been spotted operating out of an abandoned hospital and unleashing deformed mutants on people. Some woman’s been gathering an army of rats and used them to pull off crimes. There’s even been a hero, Skelly, who has a bone to pick with crime. Most people wouldn’t consider “being a skeleton” to be a superpower.

Out of all of those, the only one who had something of a known address was the scientist, so I headed for her first. The neighborhood was one of many wrecked ones, with cracked and potholed roads, hardly any working street lights, and nobody walking around on the streets except for one wobbly shape with inhuman proportions. That thing seemed to fade into the shades from a distance, though I could pick up a wet plopping sound moving away when I landed on the street in front of the hospital, projected a disguise, and knocked on the door.

I caught a light flick on to the side. A cheap security camera that just saw a man in slacks and a white shirt. I made a show of knocking again, then turning to look back behind me. The door burst open and bulging, vaguely-humanoid things reached out at me. I dropped the disguise, pulled off the two nearest arms, and proceeded to bitch slap some mutants with their own limbs. That still left one of them with at least two arms, I soon realized. I also quickly figured out that, gross appearance aside, they weren’t particularly fearsome guards.

I ended up chasing them around the hospital a bit when we came to a room with actual lights and equipment. A woman sat there in dirty lab coat that I doubt was meant to be brown originally. She looked at me with one eye. She had two, but the other one was staring elsewhere. Her hair was supposed to be in a ponytail, but some strands had gone rogue. “Who are you? What the fuck do you want?” she asked, standing up and grabbing for the closest thing she could find.

I nodded toward her hand. “You plan to fight me off with a glasses case?”

She looked down at it, then over to where the pair of mutants who had attacked me fled through a hole in the wall. She looked back to me. “I have more mutants, whoever you are.”

I shrugged. “I can handle them. I am, after all, Psycho Gecko. Sorry, Emperor Psycho Gecko. I’m not used to making that introduction yet.”

“Are you here to kill me?” she asked quickly, trembling.

I shook my head.

“Then this is a warning to stop?” she asked, which caused me to tilt my head.

“I don’t care if you stop or continue whatever it is you do here. I just need a DNA sample real quick.” I approached her and began opening up one of my belt pouches for my little handheld paternity tester. My time in control of the entire world and accessing the U.S. government’s secrets left me with all kinds of data I haven’t all gone over. Some of that includes Spinetingler’s DNA.

“I don’t believe you,” she said, throwing the glasses case at me and turning to run. It wasn’t some sort of hidden weapon or gimmick, either. The glasses case bounced off me harmlessly as I jumped on the woman and pinned her down. While the tester worked fine with swabs, it could work perfectly fine if the user pinned a woman to the floor and shoved bits of it into her mouth to forcefully get a sample. Of course it would; I built it. I can fit a replaceable needle on it as well.

“Who’s your daddy?” I asked as I held her down to get the sample. I sat on her as I waited a minute for the result.

Eventually, she stopped struggling. “What do you want? I’m not hurting anybody!”

“The mutants there might disagree, but I’m just doing a favor for someone. A bit of freelance detective work hunting down a lost daughter and you are… not it.” I stood up. “You’re free to go continue whatever thing you’re thinking I don’t like you doing.”

She got to her knees and looked up at me and a wall fifteen feet to my right. “Really?”

I patted her on the head. “Pat, pat. Yep, you’re fine. Go back to disfiguring people if you want. I have no quarrel with you.”

“Not even for trying to make your machines obsolete?” she said, standing up. I sometimes think that it’s a chronic weakness of villains that they have big mouths at the worst time.

“Is that what you’re doing? I think you’ve got a ways to go yet,” I said, pointing over to where I’d tossed an arm in the earlier fighting.

“I can grow that back,” she said. “Growing isn’t the problem. I have trouble making them stop at the right time.”

“Working on regeneration?” I asked. She would hardly be the first person to cross some lines in the name of healing.

She nodded. “I can take a multiple amputee and restore them to full functionality. Er, uh, sort of. There’s a problem with the formula.”

One of the mutants stepped into the light. It already had another arm starting to grow from its chest to replace the one I’d yanked off. It might have had a human face, if you can picture a human face stung by bees until the eyes are nothing but folds in swollen tissue.

Regeneration of human limbs and tissue is one of those things people have been after for a long time. The nanites I abuse so much just rebuild according to the body’s genetic blueprint, including whatever phenotypical changes I or someone else programs into them. Whatever this thing was, it’s like the process caused the body itself to grow but with lots of mistakes. Maybe something damaged the DNA or messed with the replication process. What had been a person now resembled a kind of warped tumor man. That’s basically what they are even if they didn’t have cancer with its own growth enhanced by what this person was doing.

I looked back to the woman. “It looks like you have a ways to go. You using radiation?”

She shook her head. “It’s a chemical I found. Most would call it a waste by-product. I just need to limit it and I’ll revolutionize medicine without the risk of you controlling people. Uh, if that’s fine with you, sir?”

I shrugged again. “Knock yourself out. I don’t have a clue what you could possibly be using that does this to someone.” I held out my hand toward the tumor man. “But you might want to move soon. Your presence here isn’t a secret. And maybe you’ll last longer at the next place if you don’t attack whatever random salesman knocks on the door at night.”

“I thought you were a Mormon!” she said to explain her trying to grab me with mutants. She shut her mouth and brushed a stray hair out of the way that had escaped from her ponytail.

“Fine,” I admitted. “That was a reasonable response for what you saw. If you want, maybe I could arrange for a proper work space and better equipment for you?”

She stepped back, her face screwing up like I just slapped her with a used tampon. “Why?”

“Why not? You can’t be making much headway like this. How do you even pay for anything?” I looked all around the room. The place was shit. Mold grew all over the walls. “And just think if whatever you’re using got into the fungus around here.”

She looked around. “I send my patients out to steal. If they don’t, I can’t fix them. You are a liar and a trickster. You just want to control everyone through your machines for your masters in the United Nations. The United Illuminati, ha!”

Yeah, she didn’t end up working for me. I left her to her fate of constantly struggling to make even the littlest headway with wrecked equipment and test subjects manipulated by hope. She wasn’t worth putting up with that much, and soon she’ll be strapped to a bed being fed a four course dinner of pills. But I made the offer.

At least I won’t have to disappoint Spinetingler by revealing his daughter to be that loon. If I did, he’d probably beg me to put her down like Old Yeller. And like Old Yeller, I’d use rabies to do the job.

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Seasons Change 2

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“Alright men, women, and that technicolor rainbow in-between,” I said, walking along a line of my new guardsmen. Some were made up of the same probationary people I’d brought onboard to help scout things out and keep the peace. “I’m going to quickly review the actions of the probationary members all by myself. I may be quiet a bit while I do all this in my head, but I am here, and I can’t be pantsed. I put a lot of work into my armor’s anti-pantsing technology.” I spread my hands so that people could take take in the glory that is my armor.

Then I fast-forwarded through a long period of time involving body cams, satellite footage, and global positioning. A couple hours later, I noticed the new Security Department rushing back into place or standing up. I feel like I should judge them on that, but I don’t know whether to be a dick and focus on the ones who stayed in place despite an unreasonable request, or favor the ones who weren’t stupid. In the end, I decided not to bother either way because it didn’t matter that much in light of everything else. I should start hiring some sort of middle management and let them worry about it for me. As the head dictator of the nation, I worry about bigger things. Hmm. I might have an idea there.

I folded my hands behind my back, ignoring the penis-shaped balloon hat on my armor. I’ll review my eye footage to see who dropped it on me, but getting mad at a penis hat is the sort of thing that only justifies a penis hat. I wore that penis loud and proud for all to see. So I walked along the line of Security folks, head and penis held high. “So, I see y’all have been busy. Drug deals, home invasions, muggings… The veteran Riccan police officers here have clearly been taking advantage of me being distracted.” I stopped in front of one of the repeat offenders. “Seriously, dude, the old folks home?”

He held that distant stare of someone at attention for a few minutes. When he figured out I wasn’t moving on, he finally offered an explanation for his actions. “I thought they would enjoy it. They don’t get a lot of men jacking it to them anymore.”

His offenses were entirely focused on exposing himself to geriatrics who, it should be noted, haven’t complained. I don’t know if that’s due to the longstanding corruption of a tyrranical governent or genuine appreciation. Long story short, his explanation satisfied me enough to move on. “Good man,” I patted him on the shoulder and gave him my penis hat.

I stepped away to call out one of them. He stepped forward, smug. “Yes, Emperor?”

I waved him even further, away from the others. I kept at it until he stood right in front of me. I clapped him on both shoulders, then pulled him into a hug. “I just wanted to tell you… I know about the children.”

Then I tossed him over head and activated his killswitch in my head. Kaboom! “Ok, now I need the guy to come forward who has been picking up people for his personal home dungeon, and I don’t mean the kinky kind.”

That one took off running in the opposite direction. The others looked back, but I held up a hand. “No, no, I got this… You see, folks, I have just one question for all of y’all, as people who are meant to keep everyone safe but who are tempted to abuse the power of your position to fuck things up… explosions?” The death of their fleeing comrade added emphasis to myquestion.

I sighed then. “I know, I know. I’m the last guy who should be talking about law and order, and I’m sure there’s some half-assed justification I could use to explain away both my affinity for chaos and my current desire for a little bit of domestic stability. Perhaps that is, indeed, some fundamental clash faced by all people. Regardless, guys, I have a big trip planned. Don’t make me have to murder all of you? Help me help you by not blowing you up! Oh, that reminds me,” I shot finger guns at some guy with a love of date-raping everything. That petting zoo will never be the same, and I didn’t even get to visit it first.

The line of Security personnel ducked for cover in time to avoid explosion. I continued on, interlacing my fingers together. “Listen, if y’all want me to inflict pain and suffering on the great White Satan, it’s really important that we keep the peace here. If people get rebellious, it gives those imperialist Western dogs an excuse to invade. If you aren’t police, there could be a police action. Plus, the better this place stays, the more reason I have to break shit off the island as opposed to coming back and asserting myself.”

I stopped to turn and look at one of them, who jumped. “I swear, I only took the bribes because I needed them to feed my family and buy cool new clothes!”

“I’m not killing you. Just step forward. Come on.” I let him approach, cautiously, like a tender baby deer. I looked to the others. “Now, as part of this, I want to go over a few things y’all shouldn’t do in normal interactions with the public. See, it’s about proportionate response. If I just go around blowing people up for taking bribes as I do for someone who drugs and fucks cuddly baby goats, it causes a bit of a problem. Sure, people might cut out all the little things… but more than likely, it’ll drive people to do more extreme things to match the sentence they inevitably know they’ll be facing, or to hide what they’ve done. I don’t want to be that guy. I’m with it. I’m groovy. I’m dyn-o-mite!”

I consider some of my address to be part of the punishment. For the newbies, it’s a warning. “So as a basic tip, when just casually interacting with the public, none of this.” I elbowed my current victim in the belly. He doubled over, gasping. “Nor any of this,” I stomped on his foot, causing a crunch. “Or this!” I kneed him in the balls. “And whatever you do, don’t, under any circumstances, resort to this…” I grabbed his ear and twisted it. That was really important as a final touch, because people with broken toes, reverberating balls, and the wind knocked out of them like to fall down.

With that taken care of and a couple more guards disciplined with “mandatory” prostate exams, I left them in the likely-incapable hands of the Directory. When I thought about it, I realized I could dump the responsibility on them to nominate someone to be head of the police force. I don’t know the constitution allows this, but I also don’t care, so I think it all works out.

I also had a talk with them about the possibility of nanite dispensers as cover for what I’d ordered to slip them into the water. And because I’d like some for the palace. But it was just while I was on my way out to go pick up the machine.

Some might ask why I’m even bothering. Well, I realized that one of the things I wanted to do was help this island I’ve taken over. Being me, I have to help in my own way. I’m just no hero, even when I do good things. I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad.

See, a more heroic person might set up helpful dispensers all over the island where the public can access them anytime they want, including people who are just abusing the service or stealing from them. A better person would set up a system of people to refill these dispensers, also becoming targets to people like me. It’s boring, it works, it feeds the criminal element, and it’s what anyone would expect.

Instead, I’m setting up a conspiratorial, secret system to pump them into the water in a controlled release that helps everyone. One place to deliver materials to, one place to guard, one set of workers to pay a little extra to keep their mouths shut. Besides, they deserved the extra money after keeping the entire place running during the recent crisis.

Yep, I seem to have taken everything into account… or so I thought until I checked in on the Bronze City and found Citra assaulting me with what may have been a spitoon. I shook the Dudebot’s head. “Sorry, dear, I was elsewhere. What seems to be the matter?”

“I want to come home. I hate this place. Do you know what this is?!” she held up the metal container she hit my robot duplicate with.

I shrugged my double’s shoulders. “Your very own spitoon. I’m not a chewer, myself, but I’ll support you if you take up the habit. We can have a big parade with the 1812 Overture and a twenty-one spit salute.”

“This is a chamber pot. This is what I have had to use instead of a bathroom!”

She raised it up high, as if to dump it on me. Then she took, as if remembering my leniency has limits, she threw it out a nearby window. From the sound of things, it made quite an impact when it landed. On a horse.

“I hope you’re happy,” I told her, “If you’re done beating a live horse with a jar full of piss, I can answer you. Yeah, sure, fine. Come on home. I’ve got to go on a trip anyway, so we’ll send over some ambassadors. Maybe someone who pisses you off. Oh, and hey, we can even see about getting your old body back.”

She hugged me for some crazy reason. Eh, you know how sensitive the womenfolk are when you force someone to change their identity, take away their indoor plumbing, and surround them with chauvanistic hedonists who like to fuck drunk people. They must have trouble thinking straight due to all the blood flowing to their dicks all the time.

But enough about chicks with sensitive dicks.

My final act of preparation, at least for now, involved me holding my hands over Qiang’s eyes. My daughter had often wanted to travel around with me when I’m in my armor, and I often refused. I do dangerous things, after all. “You know how you keep wanting to go on adventures with Daddy?” I asked her, then had to help her up after she stripped over a girly pink sandal. “Also, this is a good reminder about picking up your shoes out of the middle of the living room.

She picked up the one she’d tripped over. “Dad, this isn’t mine. It’s too big!” She held it up to see.

“I see it, hon. Just hold onto it for now,” I told her. Then, when I had her positioned just right, I moved my hands. “Ok, let’s take a look…”

I think she shattered a window. It was hard to tell, because my ears adjusted to block harmful noises. My eyes worked just fine, though. Qiang loved her new armor. She ran up and hugged it and jumped up and down. It followed a lot of my design aesthetics: padded nanomaterial underlayer with curved armor plate strips to deflect attacks and increase flexibility. No shoulder pads gives her full range of arm movement. The leg armor is a little lacking, primarily focused on the thighs and shins, but with the underlayer doubled. There IS a powered exo-skeleton, which isn’t so exo if it’s built into the armor, but I put some restrictions on it to keep her from doing anything like breaking her own limbs. If she does, she’ll have the benefit of a few built-in nanite distributors that I can activate remotely.

I don’t know what Qiang was saying due to the pitch and volume, but I got the sense she wanted to get in and try it out. I showed her how to undo the environmental seals and pull it on before slipping on her new helmet, with armor strips running along the head and the visor looking more like a scowl. I built it to resemble my old standard armor, complete with 360 cameras. Like the nanites, I can turn off some of it to prevent sensory overload.

This is a weapon, with some restrictions I can turn off at will. And, once she got into it, I held up her left arm and pointed it away from me. “Now, can you feel that thing hiding in there?”

She nodded her cute little helmet. “Want me to use it?”

I smiled. “Do it.”

A thin cable shot out of the underside of her arm. It hit a light in the air and shorted it with crackles and sparks. “That would be the electricity. You can turn that part off if you want. Now listen, this is a weapon. This hurts people. If it’s turned up enough, it can kill someone. Do you know what that means?”

She nodded quietly. I hugged her. “You have the option, but you don’t have to take it. Do you want me to turn off the electricity?”

She nodded again, so I shut it off. “Daddy, I don’t wanna hurt people.”

“You don’t have to, but now you have armor of your own,” I said. She hugged me tight, just us in our armors.

Empyreal City better watch out. I got a Little Psycho on my hands. No… not a psychopomp. She shouldn’t have to bear that label. A Little Dragon.

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Seasons Change 1

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Citra made it out just fine, it turns out. She’s barricaded herself in our rooms at the Bronze Palace, but he’s fine. My Dudebot’s making excuses for sending her back to Ricca, so I’ll see about getting her on a ship back over there when I’m not busy with more important things.

Like measuring my daughter for a new outfit, which is what I was doing when I got interrupted by official duties in the form of a messenger from the Directors.“Sir, the United States wants to talk to you. They are unhappy you set foot off the island in violation of the treaty.”

I rolled my eyes, patted Qiang on the head, and picked her up. “Come, my dear, it’s negotiate with that country that used to be a world leader.”

I spoke with a man with close-shaved hair and a hard face. He looked like they picked him for his ability to look angry and constipated. No wonder my guys said they were unhappy. I stepped up to the screen. “And who do I have the displeasure of wasting time on?”

“You’re in enough hot water as-is, you jumped-up carjacker. What are you doing off your island?”

I looked around, then down. I stomped on the ground a few times. “I don’t know where you think I am right now, but I seem to be on the island.”

He held up spy satellite pictures of me in Ricca fighting the Dimension Rangers and me in the Bronze City meeting the delegation. I glanced at them. “Do you have timestamps?”

“You know damn well we do so we can prove you-”

I reached over to put my and on the Giant Screen I’d been talking through, cutting off this guy with images of my own. They showed footage of the landing and of the fight, alongside footage of a Dudebot gladhanding people on Ricca. “As you can see, either I can be in multiple places at once, or you’re looking at a copycat. Perhaps some despicable doppelganger trying to sully my good name. I’ll have you know I would have you know I haven’t violated any treaty I’ve signed with your country and I am insulted by the implication. Not insulted enough to attack you or anything, but mighty peeved, I tell ya what.”

I was being honest, too. Beetrice forged my name on the original treaty, meaning I never signed it myself. Not that it matters, as I’m quite at fucking the truth sideways in the ass, but I like being able to lie while telling the truth. The best truths are the ones that destroy other people.

After my righteous indignation, the posterboy for frustrated abstinence pointed his finger through the screen at me. “One of you is a goddamn robot, that’s what it is. Probably you.”

I wasn’t in my armor, which made the statement all the more odd. Completely lifelike robots are extremely difficult to maintain. There are sound considerations, movements, smells, and keeping the skin alive. I raised my finger. “Qiang, honey, stab daddy’s finger.”

Qiang looked between the angry man on the screen and me. I smiled at her. She slid her knife out of her dress and held it overhand to gently prick my finger. I turned the prick toward the other prick. “Do I not bleed? Do I not have a loving and obedient daughter to take care of? Have I not recorded this entire conversation to present to the world if you try any of that He-Man macho preemptive bullshit? And before you say it, I know that wouldn’t stop you.” I smiled and chuckled, before looking him in the eye. “I would.”

I shut off the screen, then kissed Qiang’s forehead. “Good job, sweety. That’s what daddy likes to call ‘proof of life.’ See, sometimes people need to be sure someone is alive. Usually, that’s just a matter of holding up that day’s newspaper next to the person, but sometimes you have to resort to blood, or even body parts. Any questions?”

After our impromptu lesson on one of the basics of hostage-taking, I brought Qiang along with me to tour the water treatment plant. She decided she’d rather go play, so I dropped her off with Silver Shark to go find a Cao Cao’s Pizza. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese, but with a man in a Japanese samurai outfit who goes around cutting pizzas with his sword. They have lots of games for kids. I tried looking up their history, but the internet had nothing on them except for news archives about children disappearing.

See, this is why I taught my daughter how to kill people and employ a cyborg shark-woman as her babysitter. It keeps me from becoming one of those awful helicopter parents.

Anyway, the water treatment plant. It’s one of the more manageable aspects of my future plan. I was surprised I neglected this place in my first run-through of the island’s facilities. I mean, food’s doing ok. I believe they settled with the Scientologists. I sometimes see Old Man Hoodless roaring by the beach on his new speedboat. Power’s going well now that we’ve got multiple crews trained. I’ve approved the repatriation of the kidnapped nuclear plant crew via quietly dumping them in out of the way places on the Japanese mainland. But I haven’t had a crisis about water so far, and that’s actually pretty awesome.

Lots of systems are like that. The invisible cogs of the world that most don’t think about so long as they work. They can be a real fuckwaffle to fix or get started. That’s why I brought gift baskets for my visit. Sake, cheese, and some sort of medals the Director found for loyalty and hard work. They wouldn’t tell me which of the brothels sell gift cards, so I left those out.

It wasn’t a fancy operation. They had it parked on the south end of the island, right on the coast. Despite my good intentions, I suspect many of them were eager to swim away as I stepped inside to greet them. “Goooood morning my loyal aqua engineers! H2Oh boy aren’t y’all glad to see me? Water y’all doing this fine day?!”

Bad jokes are only a tiny part of the reason I went there to see the bright and shiny faces of the people keeping us hydrated. They didn’t have so many of the bright and shiny faces. Weary, sure. They pulled off confused and curious as well, but the place didn’t have much of a PR department. Then again, when your selling point is “Support us or have no water,” you don’t need a lot of tact to make a deal.

They had a mixed crowd of men and women working there, which is nice to see. They sent forward a man to represent them. “I am Shu, the spokesman for the Water Collective.”

“Collective?” I asked. “I am unfamiliar with y’all and assumed I’d be speaking with a manager or supervisor or something. Please enlighten me.”

Shu and I walked and talked as he took me on a tour of the water purification systems. They showed me the water treatment, ozone, and filters, and I pretended to be fascinated. It was still handy information to have in case I ever need it or need to help fix it, but it also wasn’t as cool as the laser room. Turns out they separate salt from water using a delicate process involving a large industrial laser. Some of the steam from that can be diverted to power an on-site turbine, which kept it self-sufficient while the power was off. They’re also selling the sea salt.

I nodded along hearing how it all came together in what Shu described as a wonderful and complex cycle of water up until they fired it off for me. I couldn’t help but get excited watching stimulated light boil the water into leaving behind salt crystals. “There are doors that close over there so we can get to the salt and access for maintenance… Emperor?”

Shu had to ask after me because I was hugging the observation window and emitting a high-pitched pleasure noise. “It’s ok. I’m just wondering if it has any penis-sized holes.”

“No sir, and we don’t like the laser breaking down,” he said. “But you are the Emperor.”

I unstuck myself from the observation window reluctantly as the laser powered down. I shook myself off to get the tingly feelings off the back of my head. “No, it’s fine, it’s fine. Still, I’m going to need a few things now.”

“We will do our best, sir. What can we get you?” asked Shu.

“I’m gonna need either a crapton of popcorn, or a secret agent. Even better, find me a secret agent and stuff him full of uncooked popcorn.” I was already looking up to find out where they popcorn grows and if we export any.

“I do not believe we can do this. Would you like to continue the tour instead?” he bowed, perhaps to hide his expression in the face of my reactions while also showing respect.

I nodded along with residual enthusiasm from the water-slaughtering death machine they’d demonstrated. “Sure, sure, I got ya. Listen, let’s just cut to the thing I showed up here for in the first place. What I need to know is if you have something already built to pump chemicals into the water supply.”

Shu raised his face back up, his smile failing to reach the corner of his eyes. “Of course. This way, my Emperor.”

It’s not really a surprise they built the place to do that, too. “Here it is, Emperor.” Shu presented me to a set of tanks hooked into the outgoing water supply. “These are the flouride tanks. We haven’t had flouride in them for years, though.”

“Flouride? I’m surprised Claw cared so much.”

She scratched the back of his head. “The rumors say a scientist told him he could use flouride in the drinking water to make people into mindless followers, when he was really a foreign operative meant to trick the Claw. The project did nothing but improve people’s teeth.”

“Interesting,” I said, climbing up to examine some of the tanks. All empty, but I think they’ll work. “Who did he work for? CIA? KGB? MI-6?”

“The American Dental Association,” Shu responded, getting a laugh from me.

“A dentist, eh? They stick him in a chair and take a drill to him for interrogation? Now that’s some poetic justice.” I rubbed my hands together, nearly salivating at the idea.

“No,” Shu answered, “The man had a cyanide tooth. They checked him for such, but the tooth was perfectly installed and eluded detection.”

“Well,” I said, slamming a hand down on the side of the tank. “These things are perfect, and tooth enthusiasts like that dastardly dentist may yet get their wish. I’ve got an idea. We’re going to inundate the local waters, you see. Special nanomachines that don’t quite operate the way the medical ones do.”

“Sir?” he asked.

I clapped my hands together. “Imagine if all you anyone needed to do to get over illness was enjoy water from the tap? Get over a cut off limb by soaking in a bath, even. It’s one of the first ideas I have in mind for improving things.”

The guy seemed a bit jumpy. He didn’t need to know about my planned instructions to mess around a bit with people bodies. See what I can do to impress some of those same abilities into people, much in the way I’ve upgraded my own flesh. I resolved to think more on whether it should all be controlled manually or subject to a program running experiments.

I had plenty of time to think about it after I left the treatment facility to head back to the palace and begin work on a child-sized suit of power armor. Unfortunately, the surprise was ruined when Silver Shark and Qiang burst in looking like they’d been in something of a tussle.

“Problem, dears?” I asked, smiling at them.

“We are never going back there again!” Silver said. I took it to be a normal allergic reaction to kid saturation until Qiang added to the conversation.

“They had robot animal samurai on a stage to play music, and then they let them walk around, and, and, and then one of them tried to take me in the back for a prize. He turned out to be a person in a suit with a knife, so I stabbed him, like this!” She demonstrated a hard, swift stab at the air in what would be crotch-level for a grown adult.

“Good girl!” I said, clapping for her.

“In your name, I beat the crap out of him and dropped him off at the base. If I didn’t have Qiang with me, I’d have taken my time,” Silver said. “You really need a police force to help with all this. You stay busy.”

“I have a lot I’m doing,” I told them. “Have to get the island ready for a brief absence, and that sounds like another area I need to work on.” And it’s true. I’m not just handling busy work. There’s much to prepare before I take my kid along with me to visit the United States. Speaking of, I may have to teach her to HALO jump.

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Gecko Says Mu 11

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Everything seems to be coming up Gecko lately. In all the excitement of smacking down the Rangers and viciously murdering a plant, I noticed a loose thread I’ve worked on snipping off. And I had every intention of snipping Vercingetorix. I’m good with knives and other sharp objects.

Truth is, I expected him to be at the tree instead of the Dimension Rangers. Or I expected him to make a move at some time during my Dudebot’s arrival and coronation. A drunken orgy is a pretty good time to get some killing done. Some of them will even help you if they think someone’s into auto-erotic asphyxiation. Awful hard to scream for help around a ballgag.

But enough about drunken, murderous sex and debauchery; let’s return to talking about my life.

As I said, I expected to be ambushed sooner. It’s a good thing I was wrong, because fighting the barbarian warrior and the Dimension Rangers at once could have gone badly for me. For whatever reason, he held off. It’s not a matter of presence, either. The miniscule Riccan Navy found his boat, but with no signs of life. I suspect he rendezvoused with the Rangers again. They’re probably all buddy-buddy for some reason.

I didn’t stay paranoid over him, though. I’d had ideas stemming from a certain clarity related to my desires. They were a different sort of ambition. I’ve been looking over the tattered infrastructure of this island and getting ideas on how to improve it. A way to make this place a real gangster’s paradise in which someone could live all their life, even if the Directors think that my mind is gone.

I mean, I’ve got these miracle machines. They keep me alive, and others, but my antics have likely blinded most of the world to their true potential. That’s not entirely a bad thing. I’m not going to get all paternalistic and say I’ve kept anything from people for their own good. I’ve made it clear that I keep stuff from these people for my own good. Have fewer of these savage homo sapiens running around, able to heal in a fight or regenerate from the brink of death and losses of limb. I’d say something about imagining the possibilities, but I’m it. Who knows how many times I’d have died by now?

So I’ve started drawing up a plan. I got ideas about this place now. Ideas that’ll change the world. Move it into the future. And that means letting go of the past. That’s not a metaphor. The Bronze City is Bronze Age. I’m really not seeing the hype here. I think it’s because I’m sober. Well, technically, I’m represented by a robot, and those don’t get drunk off alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are nasty drunks. You don’t have to worry about fight bite, but they pull hair. You have to come at them waxed or oiled. Then digits go everywhere and things get kinda weird. I preferred being oiled.

You know, it’s more like Bronze City than I realized at first.

My Dudebot’s been touring the place, seeing the city from the ground with my own robot copy’s eyes via wireless connection. The lovely fighting pit. The bazaar and its wonderful cultural items, like big-donged fertility statues. The great library and its wonderful poetry, with such wonderful cultural works. Learned a new beer recipe.

The only thing of any value was the damn money. Electrum. But gold, silver, and copper are only so valuable. I think I really got screwed on this marriage. Speaking of Citra, she really didn’t take the fighting pit very well. They wanted to show us a fight, so they brought out a trio of prisoners, all oiled up and shaved. I asked the guide about it. His title translates to something like a consul, and he’s milking that job for all the beard oil he can get. Slick and curled like a mofo. I bring him up because I turned to ask him why they bothered with the oiling up. It was a weird coincidence, given my other thoughts on oil. It’s like when you hear a word for the first time and start noticing it everywhere.

“Your majesty,” he began. “The oil is very important. It beautifies the prisoners for our viewing. Just look at that man’s beautiful arms. Those are the arms of a smith who forged counterfeit coins. And that woman there needs all the oil she can get. Just look at those tiny breasts. She needed serious help.”

I looked down on high. The King’s platform was the highest along the oval rim of the pit. Everyone else had these wood benches around the lip that gave a limited view of anything too close. They were also at least thirty feet above the worn grass of the pit’s floor where the armed prisoners stood. “What did she do? Prostitution?”

He gasped. “We would never think of sentencing someone to the pit for prostitution. Whoring is not against the law. What kind of uncivilized brutes do you take us for?”

I pointed to the woman. “So what did she do?”

“She was discovered to be the infamous Fish Gutter. She tempted young boys away from virtuous love, but that’s not all. She would gut and clean the boys like fish. She is insane.”

I need to install penises on my Dudebots for times when I get so aroused I need more than one body to express it. I wish I could see her work, but I’ll settle for seeing her boobs. Petite, but rather nice and shapely, with such tiny, pink areolas. They’d shaved her head clean. For whatever reason, they didn’t bother with the armpits, pubes, and ass when it came time to make the prisoners look good for fighting. Such uncivilized brutes.

Still, the day looked pretty good with bloodsport on the menu. The crowd hushed around us all as they wheeled out a cage. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the big, bad beasty was a cuddly, if somewhat large, koala. The Consul spoke up. “Oh my, they sent no word this was the entertainment of the day.”

Just to be clear, koalas are Australian, which makes them both intrinsically cuter and incredibly deadly. The same can be said of their women and beer. If y’all are waiting for the word “respectively,” there than you’ve never seen a bottle of Aussie lager or risked the deadly embrace of a Tasmanian She-Devil.

Mmm. I should see what Tasmanian She-Devil’s up to these days. Things ended badly, but I grew those pieces back. I think she still has my copy of Iron Maiden’s The Best of the Beast.

Enough with the distractions. I must get back to the bread and circuses. A bunch of these tunic-loving guys rolled out the cage, then moved around behind it. With a tug, they used a rope to pull over a lever on the front that dropped the cage’s door open. They sprinted out of there as fast as they could run, while the koala just sat there. The crowd actually gasped when it began to crawl toward the prisoners. All three looked shaken and slippery.

The koala finally reached the edge of the cage, looked up, then opened its mouth to expose finger-thick fangs. It pounced from twenty feet away and began tearing out the throat of the forger smith. The screams were amazing. So was the gore. It had terrible table manners. I wondered how I could domesticate one. Not all animals will chew down through the throat into the chest cavity. “What is that thing? That’s no normal koala.”

Citra covered her face with her hands, getting a few looks. Elda, who she resembles, was better known as rebellious and trying real hard to be independent. The Consul glanced at her before focusing on me to answer. “That is a gravity bear. The beast from above. They can be found in the wilds of our lands, hidden in trees to drop on the unwary and unfortuante.”

It gutted the Fish Gutter. “A koala bear that drops down from trees and murders people?” I asked. “Sounds delightful. Does this one have a name?”

“Like a pet?” asked the Consul, eyes wide. A scream from the pit drew both of our attention back to it. The last prisoner tried to crawl away, one of his legs held in the mouth of the koala. He was still free to escape, though, as that leg was no longer attached to his body.

“A pet wouldn’t be a bad idea if it could be- fuck!” The platform under us groaned and tipped forward, spilling the consul, Citra, a couple of guards, and some sycophantic nobodies into the arena. I went to catch myself on a rail, but the wood gave way under the weight of my armor and I crashed down to.

The monstrous marsupial mauled a man. Could tell that from the screams, even with Citra yelling her head off. I looked up to see the thing chowing down on the consul. The beard will be missed.

Unlike the doppelganger of Vercingetorix, which was an upgraded humanoid drone, this one was built to this purpose. It wasn’t a problem to get it to its feet and grab the creature in mid-jump before it could spoil Citra’s face. It claws and bit at my armor, but couldn’t penetrate. Even if it did, there was no blood to be spilled. Instead, punched straight through its chest and tore out its heart, then dropped it on its ass. From that position, I punted its head off into the crowd, eliciting gasps and cheers.

Though they enjoyed the spectacle, and Citra was glad to be alive, I wasn’t celebrating just yet. I turned to see what had happened to our platform and found Vercingetorix looking out over the wall by the shattered wood supports that had held up the King’s box. He ululated and more people began crying in panic as doors around the edges of the fighting pit opened and animals flooded out. I grabbed Citra. “Time to go, dear.” I tossed her up into the wealthy part of the crowed, where all the fat people sat and were busy trying to get up and flee lions, wolves, and other things that had been meant to die for their entertainment.

It cost me a hit across my back by Vercingetorix, who had hurdled the wall and advanced with a spear in one hand, a woodchopping axe in the other. He’d tried to shishkebab me, but it didn’t penetrate. I turned and tore the spear’s point off, but he just raised the axe meant for splitting logs and tried to split my noggin. One swing and a miss. Two swings and a miss. I caught the third one on my gauntlet. Yeah, embedding it didn’t do shit except let me grab it and pull it straight out of his hands. I headbutted him to stumble him, but it did jack squat.

He headbutted me right back, which also did nothing. So I gave him one back next, and then he returned it. Instead of a third, I chopped his wood with the axe. Yep, I swung it low to high into his loincloth. He dropped to his knees. When I brought it down overhead, he grabbed my arm and, for a short time, strained enough to hold me at bay. He gritted his teeth and spoke to me then, his voice showing his exertion. “You are a fake. I will not be the last man you have to slay to secure your rule. You can not step over corpses forever.”

His eyes betrayed him, but too late. He glanced to the side. A bolt as thick as my unarmored arm shot into my side, cutting in and pushing me down. I dropped the axe from the blow. What I’d missed in all the distraction was his sidekick had wheeling in a smaller ballista, avoiding lions and all sorts of nasty predators that had since found their way to the crowd. They hadn’t bothered me for the same reason the giant bolt didn’t bother, I believe.

Vercingetorix grabbed the axe and raised it overhead for a killing strike. I raised the Dudebot’s right arm and fired the rocket on that arm. The forearm detached from the rest of the arm and latched onto Vercingetorix’s throat. He dropped the axe to struggle with the choking hand at his windpipe. I caught it with the Dudebot’s left and buried in the barbarian’s stomach. I chopped and chopped, but at a human body and spine instead of a tree. When he fell, the hand dropped away and the axe removed from him his now-purple head.

“I am the future,” I said, dropping the axe and reattaching the right arm. I didn’t have a crowd, as everyone else had fled. Even those guards. Oh wait, there they were, or at least their bodies. They got mauled by something. “And I am the death of the status quo. The apocalypse of the old ways has begun.”

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Gecko Says Mu 10

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Ah, the complications of being ruler. I have to do so much, it’s like I’m required to be in multiple places at once. Luckily, I have the Dudebots. My magic metal me’s. It’s not that hard if you’re used to that sort of thing. Like texting while evading police in a high-speed chase while masturbating. I was going to say “jacking off,” but there was this one time it was Jill instead of Jack. Tricky, that. Pushing the wrong button means stomping on a pedal at the wrong time.

So I got more than one “me” out there, all controlled by the real me. One Dudebot sped into the Bronze Harbor of the Bronze City to meet the Bronze Men, all on a speedboat. It had to pass underneath the Bronze Colossus too, a giant statue of a guy in armor, armored skirt included. I, by which I mean the robot in this instance, stood upon the deck beside Citra and pointed up at it as we passed beneath. “It’s like a penis, except smaller.”

Yep, handling multiple Dudebots isn’t so much a problem unless my mind wandered. My mind wandered. I kept thinking about having to lock Qiang in a bunker again in case something goes wrong with this outing. I wanted to be back with her. She shouldn’t be locked away, guarded by men with guns, unable to see her father. I should be there with her, playing or taking care of her or just teaching her something useful. Like basic field first aid.

They had a delegation meet us at the docks, with a whole parade, and several servants carrying wine. I didn’t think they were that eager that I’d defiled their princess and claimed their throne as an outsider, but that wasn’t enough to keep them from having a party with lots of alcohol. I could see myself finding common ground with these people. This place would make a hell of a market for all kinds of goods. Personal razors, toothbrushes, and deodorant. Especially deodorant. When I saw Citra’s new nose crinkle, I leaned over to fix a pine tree necklace around her neck. Even if I wasn’t king, I could own this place with nothing but a boatful of pine car fresheners and a dream.

“Greetings, Bronze City of Mu,” I began, having my armor put out a deeper and more commanding tone. “I am Emperor Gecko of Ricca, king of the Bronze City by marriage of the Princess Elda.” Here I indicated Citra, who stayed quiet. One minor flaw in my plan is that Citra, while way easier to control, doesn’t know how to speak the language. I hooked her up with an earbud that can translate, but she’s stuck to smiling and looking pretty for the moment.Ya know, there might be some problems with this plan, but I DID say I wouldn’t go through with marrying Elda.

I continued on with my speech, by the way. Just in case anyone was forgetting that. “You will be no lesser subjects to me than those I already serve the interests of.” So what if they smell funny and act backwards? They’re only human, which is just another way of saying they smell funny and act backward anyway. “And I shall do all I can to see a great merger of our nations and our ascendancy to greatness! Glory to Ricca, and to the Bronze City!”

I don’t know if I’m just that good at speaking, or if they’d already broken into the wine, but I was a big hit. They got the party rolling on down the road, with myself and Citra on a chariot, waving at people. The palace awaited.

Meanwhile, I dropped out of a cargo copter within the near-lifeless crater in the center of the continent of Mu. My HUD could read an unusual life profile from the tree, though. It was no normal plant. Oddly, nothing picked up by my armor pointed to it being a magical anomaly. Those tend to be rather distinctive due to their incompatibility with my physiology and most of your more advanced smart technology.

The chopper lowered a couple crates of supplies I cut free, in case things need to get violent. Only after I had those firmly on the ground did I bother approaching. As the old proverb goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound on your own face.”

It was when I turned to finally make my approach that the problems started. Five colored streaks shot from the sky and slowed to land between tree and me. The color faded and there before me stood five young men and women with attitude. And before them stood a rubber chicken struggling to get to its little feet and find a road. The one in the red shirt had enough sense to kick it away, but it detonated close enough to knock them all flat.

I jumped over and very nearly planted my knee in the chest of the red ranger on landing, but the one in the slim, void black armor ran up as if it’d just been hiding there and held its molecular blade out for me to impale myself on. I threw my weight back hard to alter my fall and saved myself from yet another sword to the lung. It knocked the air out of me, but I forced myself to get to my knee. The only ranger who had me beat in that regard was still this Black one, who ran and swiped to take my head off.

I rolled toward him and kicked up, hitting wrist with heel and snapping that blow well away. I dropped back and kipped up to my feet. I caught the ranger’s wrist and twisted to break it, then slapped him upside the helmet with my other hand, and then again with a backhand. “Ranger? I don’t even know ‘er! No one else will either, before too long.” I went to chop his throat, but his armor shifted and pushed me away as it was replaced with the bulkier armored version.

“You stepped out of your safe haven and into a grave, Psychopomp,” the black ranger said.

“Don’t get too eager. I’ll have to spank you and send you crying to your daddy.” I quipped back.

“You killed my father!” he yelled and rushed forward.

I jumped back, even as holograms projected off of me, seemingly sending me flying everywhere. With the weaker hologram system on this armor, I couldn’t pull off this many flawless projections, so I didn’t even try. They were all ghostly and see-through, but they were everywhere, obscuring me. The ranger stopped, looking around at me and swiping experimentally.

Something bonked off his helmet. He caught it before it could drop down. It was a rubber chicken head. That’s when he looked down and when the chicken grenade blew up.

He flew into the air, sparks shooting out. I jumped up after him, grabbing his leg with one hand so the artificial muscles in my armor’s legs could propel us both further into the air. The song Higher And Higher blasted from my armor.

The gauntlet not gripping the hero began to glow as an energy sheathe glowed into existence around it. At the apex of our climb, I turned and wrapped my legs around the Black ranger’s waist. He tried to stick me with his sword, but my free hand kept the blade under control with the aid of the rockets built into the elbow. Indeed, I used the other arm’s rocket to help power us down even faster from on high. I cut it seconds before impact to pull my hand back, unhitch my legs, and punch on impact.

Now, there’s technically no thing as “pure energy” as it’s all about how much work something can do. When applied to a field around someone’s forearm and fist and unleashed through a punch, thiscan include burns and a devastating increase in the force exerted. Add in gravity, rocketry, and an exoskeleton.

I was momentarily blinded by sparks upon impact with the ground and the Black ranger’s body. The ranger’s armor burst away from all the damage and the person behind it all lay there staring up at me with a chest that had been cratered with a hole straight through at the nadir.

He’d tried to kill me to avenge his father. Now being a father, I kinda hope Qiang would do that for me if someone killed me. Except it didn’t work out quite so well for this guy, I suppose. And she’ll never be my equal. I’d never let her go through the things that made me. A parent should want a better life for their child, after all. I realized that if the black ranger’s dad had loved his son, there’s no way he would have wanted them to follow a path that would lead to this.

I began to have those things, kinda like anger, hatred, loathing, hostility, rancor, animosity, enmity, disgust, irritation, scorn, spite, repugnance, revulsion, and sexual arousal. Like feelings, I guess, but confused. Lucky I didn’t have to think too hard on it because of all the pains hooting through my body from my arm.

I stood up slowly, having taken the fall a bit roughly in spite of the punch helping to counteract that as well. In fact, my right arm wasn’t responding. I reached over to jam it back into socket, which also hurt like getting kicked in the dick by someone wearing hornets for high heels. It would have given me better motion except for the breaks. Never know when first aid’s going to be handy. However, I had better aid. I reached down with ol’ lefty, the reliable stranger, to search out a container of nanites for injection. I pulled one loose, but a plasma bolt burst it in my hand. I turned to seek out the origin and found the remaining five rangers morphed, all holding the pistols of this iteration. They always have the pistols, or some equivalent.

“Dead or alive, you’re-” the Red one started, but Green opened fire prematurely. Given it was a woman, I’m inclined to believe she doesn’t usually go off prematurely. I raised my left arm, the system absorbing the energy to power a shield while recharging my suit’s batteries. The other rangers joined in then. The first few fizzled away harmlessly; the next bounced off. I opened my hand and caught one, though it was really held by a glowing barrier before it could touch the palm of my gauntlet. That one I threw at the green one, who flew backwards in a shower of sparks.

Red and Blue ran to check on her. The last two, White and Yellow, charged for me. Two rangers, and I was down an arm. Too bad for them that left me a free head, arm, and both legs. They never stood a chance. The White one ran around to get behind me, an axe appearing in her hands. Yellow drew a pair of daggers and swung them at me. I aimed my left arm back and hit the rocket. It dragged me back and bumped into white, who fell down in mid swing, the energy adding much more to the strike than I put into it. Then I threw a projection of me accellerating in a rocket punch right at Yellow. Yellow swung for it and was left open when I did so for real, sending him flying.

That gave me a sorely needed moment to grab an injector of nanites. It wasn’t my favorite way to heal up, but I opened up the crotch panel on my armor and jabbed away. I stood there and looked at the rangers. They’d taken the time to regroup and stand all in a line opposite me. I raised my right hand and tested it, then swung my arm around. “Now that I don’t have one hand tied behind my back, we can really start playing.”

I noticed they had the body of the Black ranger pulled up behind them. I nodded toward him. “Were you close?”

“What do you care, psychopath?!” yelled the Green ranger.

I raised a finger as I made my point. The Rangers not being so used to this world’s culture, they may not have realized the index finger is the one I was supposed to have used. “Psychopomp. But he meant something to you, right?”

She pulled her pistol and fired again, which I snatched out of the air. “I’m assuming that’s a yes. So I’m going to do something for you. He died because it was his life or mine. If we continue, maybe, maybe you inch out a win. But you don’t all survive it. I killed him easily, and just beat the crap out of two of you with just one hand. Just walk away. Leave me here and I’ll spare your lives. Just walk away and I’ll give you a safe passage out of these wastelands. Just walk away and there will be an end to your horror today.”

“What if we want to risk it?” asked Blue.

It was a risk, showing trust. It’s not entirely bad. Just look what happened when Master Academy took a chance on me! Nevermind, look away from when Master Academy took a chance on me. Especially with that robot I sent them in the mail.

The crate that had been dropped for me burst out. A swarm of copter drones spread out around a trio of tanks. Red and I looked right at each other for several long seconds before he nodded. He reached down and grabbed the body of the Black ranger. The all zipped away in their colored lights.

I took a breath then, and turned to this Tree of Wonders. I stepped carefully overs its roots that I would have sworn moved out of the corner of my eye, even though my helmet gave me such a wide view of the area around me.

Things kept coming to mind. Venus. Taking over the world again. Wiping the Rangers from existence. Making the world know I am right. Anything I wanted, I had here, in the palm of my hands. I didn’t quite realize when I’d reached out and touched it. Supreme power. Immortality. I wondered briefly if I could magic one of Venus’s eggs fertilized. Or kill her. Or force her to love me. Ugh, I should magic myself into getting over her.

I could finally die. I could make my past never happen, too, though what would that do to Qiang? Or the world, I suppose, given how many times I’ve ended up saving it. Mainly Qiang. And did I even care for real, or just because I knew I should?

I pulled away. What I could do is one thing, but what did I want? I wanted to live, and I had what I needed for that. The Rangers? I could handle them. Hell, I’ve gotten so strong I can scare them away instead of having to kill them. Take over the world? Done it once. Can always do it again.

I wanted to destroy this tree and go teach my daughter how to pop her arm back into her shoulder. I took a step back and tripped over roots that had risen. They moved quickly to wrap up my arms, but I pulled free with my armor. Why would I want to go free? I could have everything I wanted if only I stayed. I could have it all, but I didn’t want it all. And I didn’t want some stupid plant putting thoughts into my head.

I tore my way free, having to crawl over reaching tendrils of root. They tried to pile on anyway, weaker, but incredibly numerous. But I had numbers, too. The drones swooped in and concentrated their fire all around me, tearing through roots and giving me a chance to pull free. “I didn’t just kill a man to die to a plant.” I brushed myself off, then pointed back with my thumb. “Let’s burn this bush.”

I didn’t leave until that tree and its roots were ashes. Then I went to go see my damn daughter while ignoring Citra’s pleas to return to Ricca after my Bronze City coronation turned into a drunken orgy.

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