New Direction 4

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Like most people, I’d gone my entire life avoiding Alabama. I’d been to Paradise City, FL before, but I tried to go there through Georgia. Not much better, though Georgia does have marginally fewer pedophile politicians. I would know. I have all their FBI files. That’s why nobody in the state ever reported an unregistered jet flying in with a power-armored visitor onboard. I wanted to save some of the information for later, so I slipped them some counterfeit money instead. They’re just Alabamans. No need to spend the good money on them.

I had various contacts in the criminal air travel industry, some old, many new. One of them flew in on his very own black, unregistered helicopter. Again, I know shit about Alabama politicians you wouldn’t believe. This state has a problem.

It was the black helicopter that flew me out to Abnormal, Alabama. I didn’t name the fucking place. They have a place called Normal, Alabama in the northern end of the state. Turns out they have an Abnormal, Alabama in the south. Abnormal, Alabama has finally lived up to its name. Somehow Ricca’s Special Intelligence Service was the first to figure out there were a shitload of unusual incidents. It became a freaky intersection of magic, extraterrestrials, and superhumans, all warded off by a plucky team of teenagers with attitude.

I read through Ricca’s specific dossier on the whole thing. Interesting adventures, if not really world-threatening. I’m sure they had lots of drama of their own, but the part I was most interested in involved the Riccan agent’s own child being the team’s sidekick. I’m sure it’s all fascinating, but I’m here to help pull him out of a risky situation. The situational briefing said he’d been working to try and turn or sabotage the team while maintaining cover and manipulating events from behind the scenes as a prominent member of the community.

I had Hu let the agent know I was on my way. He included a postscript revealing that I’m cool and unlikely to murder him for failure. I didn’t even have to tell him to put it, either. He activated an emergency transponder to lead myself and my freelance pilot right to him. When smoke drifted up from the location off in the woods, we knew we were close. And fashionably late.

We came to a stop above a clearing with a log cabin in it. A large and formerly expensive truck sat nearby. On fire. Hence the “formerly expensive” designation. Out in the yard, a teenage boy stood looking back at the cabin from near the truck. In the cabin doorway stood our man, rifle in hand. By the clearing stood four people in makeshift costumes. That’d be the teens’ team. The boy by the truck started to walk toward them, but our agent fired a beam that swept across the ground in front of him and left a line of fire for a brief second.

I couldn’t make out all the things shouted back and forth among tears and flames, so I figured I’d drop down and give a listen. I landed with a lot of give, hitting my knee briefly before popping up onto my feet. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for a good time.” I cracked the knuckles on my gauntlets here for emphasis. “Have I found it?”

“This must be the freak your dad works for,” said whatever teen heartthrob died and made his own self leader of the group. “Step.”

Before I could figure out the brass balls on some teenager trying to tell me to step, I saw one of them in a blue and white spandex suit blur.

Now, my cybernetically enhanced brain can easily overclock to think fast enough to handle super speed, and my eyes can even keep track of it, but my all too fleshy reflexes and muscles just aren’t designed for that sort of thing. That’s why they were back in Ricca, pinned down by a sleeping Qiang who I didn’t want to move in case she woke up and stopped making such a funny and cute face.

Fun thing is, a robotic body can be much more responsive. The three “eyes” on the helmet of the Dudebot I sent fired lasers. I like lasers. They’re colorful, there’s less lead exposure, and they move pretty darn fast. Fast enough, in fact, that the nubile teen… boy, I guess? Let’s go with that. The boy skidded to a slow stop, holding his smoking shoulder. “I thought that was spot on. I’ll have to get that adjusted when I have time for it. Should have plenty of time to do that here in a minute or two.”

The main one looked to the other two in the group, a black girl with headphones on, and a white girl in more spandex. With the black bottoms on, the latter looked more like a ballet dancer. He called out to them, “Pop and Lock time.”

The ballet girl held her arms out to the side and my Dudebot did the same despite me not telling it to. The motors in its arms struggled against whatever force held it in the girl’s position. The hands could still move, but the arms wouldn’t lower no matter how much I tried. The other girl put her hands on her headphones and tapped a button on the side. The resulting cacophony of sound jolted me into nearly waking up Qiang until I had the Dudebot mute it. It was like a bunch of little sonic booms going off next to the Dudebot’s head, at least as far as sound is concerned.

The guy said something I couldn’t make out without sound. I could read his lips a little since his mask was basically a red bandana, but something about “Dime to show us all.” He leaned forward and sent dirt flying as he sprinted toward me with all the speed of a horny teenager.

I fired off the rockets in the gauntlets. They separated from the Dudebot’s arms and flew around, curving to smack Pop and Lock in their heads. They both fell, putting an end to my arm raisings, but still left me with a charging teen. With full motor control once again possible, I slammed the Dudebot’s head down in a headbutt… to the groin. I unmuted the situation in time to hear him mutter something about. “My one weakness,” before he clutched them and bent over.

I recalled the bot’s hands to their proper places, then raised raised his chin up with the left one. “A little higher, just a little more. There, perfect.” I wound up and clocked him one in the jaw that sent him flying. He embedded in a tree that then fell over in this direction, pinning him there. But the robot’s fist and head were registering significant blunt damage to the internals, so I suspect he’d live through it all. I figured the leader of this bunch as a brick. With my help, he briefly became a flying brick.

“Hussle!” shouted the black girl and the uncostumed kid still standing around. They both rushed to the other guy’s side.

As for me, I turned to my agent. “It’s time to go. Will it just be you joining me on this flight?” I cocked the bot’s head back toward the teens. “It sounds like you’re expecting at least one guest.”

“I’ll never go with you!” yelled the man’s son.

The man appeared more sheepish now, in his dress pants and his longsleeve shirt and holding his laser fire rifle. “He and his mother don’t understand. They were part of my cover,” I looked back to them. Perceiving a threat there, the father hurriedly added, “And I love them both.”

“They are loose ends,” I pointed out.

“Who are they going to tell? Who would believe them?” he asked. Stupid questions, but I noticed the way his hold on the rifle twitched. He wanted to point it at my back.

I whirled on him and approached. He bowed quickly and held it. Quietly, so only the pair of us could here, I said, “Pst. Beg me to spare them loud enough so they can hear.”

“Your Imperial Augustness?” Oooh, Augustness. Don’t hear that one often. Maybe I should keep a tally on each new form of address.

“No, trust me, go with it,” I assured him. Louder, I asked, “What was that?”

“No- My-… Emperor, if my service has been of any value to you, I ask you a kindness just this once. Spare them. He’s my son, and they are his friends. They just… misguided.” He never rose from the bow, though.

I let those words hang in there are for a couple of seconds, then placed the robot’s hand on his head. “Fine then, whatever your name is. Just this once. Now hurry up and into the chopper.” I signaled the pilot, who began to descend. I turned to the teenage hero team. “But just this once. Pray you don’t encounter me twice,” I told them. Then I grabbed the agent and hopped into the chopper with him.

The flight out of there was much more pleasant, I thought. After closing the doors, I pushed a cooler over to the man trying to figure out what to do now that the life he built collapsed. “Here, have a cold one. Have as many cold ones as you need right now. The debriefing can wait until after your hangover.”

He took me up on it. I like to think I’m not that bad of a boss.

He was still sleeping the whole thing over when I loaded him into the jet and we stopped off at Paradise City International Airport. I left him behind on the jet and passed some cash to the luggage people. “If anyone gets the drug sniffing dogs out, I’d appreciate it if y’all could get some of whatever they find and send it to this guy in here, especially if it’s pot. He’s had a hell of a week.”

The baggage handlers smiled and pocketed the money.

The Dudebot was welcomed through the oh-so-conspicuous front door of the Paradise City Casino, for lack of a formal name, the seat of power for Ouroboros. Ouroboros isn’t the biggest or strongest, but he managed to become the crime lord, and de facto boss, of Paradise City. His casino is a major source of revenue for a beach-front tourist city that lacks any other major source of income. As I found out from the last time I was in Paradise City, he’s adept at handling a major drug cartel and the Yakuza.

Also, he locked me in a vault to hand over to the superheroes chasing me. My visit could have gone better.

I didn’t actually enter the lavish temple of cash and chance this time. I couldn’t get any signals coming in or out of the place, so I didn’t risk sending the Dudebot in and handing over a deactivated robot with a bunch of fancy stuff attached to it.

I stopped the Dudebot in front of the place and waited patiently. My table would be arriving shortly. That wasn’t some expectation of being served by the guy, either. I had a table loaded in a rocket and shot across the world. The thing drifted in carried by a quartet of drones. Another two carried a reinforced chair strong enough to hold the Dudebot, and I sat it down there, waiting with fingers folded. He knew I was in town, and he had to have some inkling I wanted to talk. I’d left him a drunken voicemail, after all.

Ouroboros is not stupid, which led to a couple contradictory courses of action. I’m still the best assassin around, so it’d be smart to not meet me outside. I’m also a world leader making my nation a one stop shop for illicit everything. I heard we even have a store that sells both exotic snakes and exotic snakeskin boots. They sell hats and belts, too. They’d never get through the anacondas otherwise. Great jerky place next door. I took Qiang out for some, seeing what she likes. She had fun playing with some of the animals, too.

But that was in Ricca. In Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty, I sat near the dead grass and stared at a woman made hideous by lack of sleep and surplus of booze. I didn’t wait all night. I was willing to wait pat of the time, as a show of good faith, but I did leave before he got there. I even included a little note on the table, courtesy of the Dudebot’s lasers.

“Keep the table, and this lovely chair. It is the only seat you will have at the table.”

Minor backfire there, him not seeing me. I meant to pick a big name here to legitimize the whole thing, like when someone who knows their stuff endorses something. But it’s not all for naught. I got an RSVP in the affirmative for Mix N’Max, a lot of interest from some others, and a yes from Spinetingler. I didn’t even know I knew his email address. I didn’t even know there were still bellsouth.net addresses active.

I also received emails from villains leading crews for the Yakuza and the local cartel. They sense an opportunity, so I’ll stick around. After all, I’ve got a spare seat to fill.

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New Direction 3

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I wish drunk Gecko could handle the problems he created here. Well, inconveniences. I had enough sense while drunk not to really give out my phone number, so I have that going for me. It’s my email inbox blowing up instead. Yay, now I’m organizing an event.

First thing’s first, a little bit of basic body modification. I ate a big meal, hung one of my batteries around my neck, put on a snug armored undersuit, hugged a butchered pig, slipped on a suit covered in all sorts of material, and took a dip in a pool of nanites.

I’d put a lot of planning into what I wanted to change. Adding a little lift to my butt is one thing; adding a new pair of limbs is quite another. I thought about just having it grow a new pair of organic arms in line with whatever I had, but then I remembered I could be more awesome than the humanoid standard. So I pivoted to purely cybernetic prosthetics. Robot arms. Laser fingers, man. Maybe the hand turns into a minigun.

When I first thought about melding flesh and metal, that’s when decided to take a look at Beetrice’s arm. The human form is quite inefficient in many ways, and I thought I’d look at an alternative version. I could have gone for tentacles, I suppose, but then women would just launch the pussy at me 24/7. Think the London Blitz, but unrelenting bombardment by lady parts. And, sure, some guys with nice asses.

Eh, like I care that much, but people like to think I’m interested in finding one particular pussy to settle down with and fuck. Or, if we’re being fair, one particular dick to slide into my ass until it gapes alone for it the rest of my life. I mean, let’s be fair. I can take some serious dick. The secret is to not think so much about it while it’s going in.

I’ll have to go into all this another time. I’m getting sidetracked from the changes I made to myself. I grabbed the side of the tank with four hands. It took some getting used to the new appendages sticking out from where my arm pits used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I still have arm pits. I have double the arm pits. That’s why I had the stink glands removed. Boom, problem solved.

First stop, the kitchen. “Baba’s a spider man!” called Qiang as she saw me walking around the extra arms. I practiced waving at her with each hand in turn, then grabbed knives.

“Spiders are eight legged freaks, my dear. Insects have six legs. So I’m a bug now.” I made a cutesy voice and drew my arms in close. “Dun squish me, Qiang! Nuuuuu!”

She fell over herself giggling and I began to juggle the knives, trying to get the hang of my new arms. It was rough at first. The blades fell against my skin plenty of times, but the nano material I’d incorporated has rendered my bare skin stab proof and mostly bullet proof. I mean, there’s only so much you can say anything’s bulletproof in a world where the .50 cal exists, but I can handle most things you’d see at a shooting range outside of California.

Well, Qiang saw me juggling knives and ran up with her own knife to try. One failed juggle later, I dunked Qiang into the nanite dip. Now she has stabproof skin. She’s a growing girl, though, so I don’t know how that’ll play into things.

I couldn’t sit around juggling knives and loaded firearms with my daughter all day, and not just because we ran out of ammo. The emails kept piling up and I knew I had to go before the Directory. My plan was simple. Go up there and ask, “Hey, remember that time I saved y’all’s asses?” And hide the extra arms under my dress. It’d be easier if I put them lower down on my torso, but it worked out better mechanically to stick them right under the main ones. I picked out something with a little slack in the sides so I could hold them down there in case of a surprise attack by rebellious fiends whose first attack cuts off my arms.

When I ascended to the stage and announced my intention to hold a large conference with every supervillain in the world, they were surprisingly supportive. There were no official objections to me throwing a giant shindig with all those villains. I even got some applause. Always nice to have people confident in my success, no matter the audacious plan. So after the applause calmed down from my announcement, the first thing I needed help with was the venue. “Anyone know of a place, like a big stadium or anything, where we can fit everyone?”

“The Imperial Hippodrome, Empress Regnant,” said the Secretary Pro-Tem. It was a different guy from the other day, however they decide it, but these Pro-Tem guys seem to have preference for answering back to me among all these guys. “It was originally built for the 1940 Olympics, but the games were canceled. We were permitted to use it for football. With your permission, Imperial Eminence, may we authorize the resumption of our league after the convention is finished?”

“Hey, that’s a great idea!” I said, sitting up in my recliner. If I’m going to oversee this thing from time to time, I want to be comfy. “In fact, you might see if some of the visitors we have might want to participate. I’d emphasize that no powers would be allowed on the field, but this is great.” I really do. Sports is a pretty good way to get a lot of petty frustrations out of the way. Good distraction, builds a community, and it can be quite profitable. Especially, soccer, if you think about it. All you need is a ball and some simple goals. Much less startup cost than American football, or even baseball. Plus, you’re not training your peasantry to beat people up while wearing armor or how to properly use a club.

The fact that I’m utterly bored by it shouldn’t detract from the soccer idea.

As I walked out of there, a number of men met with the Directors. I spotted bank folks, people from our burgeoning arms industry, and some drug representatives. And when Ricca says drug reps, we’re not talking Sudafed and Viagra. These are the kinds of guys who make the cocaine Sudafed pushers snort at their fancy decongestant parties in Vegas with all the hookers. Most didn’t pay me any mind, perhaps due to a sign Qiang held up for me. It read, “Solicitors will be disemboweled, then fed their bowels.” I’m so proud of how she did on that assignment. Her spelling is good and her penmanship is a lot better than mine.

“Empress, a moment of your time!” said someone in a suit who couldn’t read. Qiang turned toward him as he rushed forward, knife appearing in her little hand. D’aww, who’s mommy’s little stabber?

“My name is Hu,” he said. “I worked for the old Special Intelligence Service. I desperately need to speak with you.” Despite that, he didn’t try to disarm or harm my daughter, so smart move on his part. Since he was the only one to approach, I decided I’d hear him out.

I nodded, and he moved past Qiang, only for me to grab him and flip him onto his back on the pavement. I had to hold Qiang back, and didn’t realize until I’d done so that I’d used one of my lower arms for the task. Nobody could see the arm, just a bulge under my dress. I let it flop down in front of me and pretended to scratch balls I didn’t currently have. Give ’em something to guess about. Then I picked up our very Special intelligence agent and guided him into the Palace Residence for a talk.

As soon as I walked, I called out for Citra. “Dear, we have a guest.” She’d been hinting about trying to be romantic, so I didn’t want us all walking in to find her reclining somewhere wearing nothing but cherry blossom petals.

“I’m thirsty, Baba. I want a drink,” Qiang said as I walked with the intelligence guy to a side room that had been intended to be the study of the apartment. I motioned toward the kitchen. “Go on and get yourself something. Bring me back something as well, please. And you, Hu?”

Hu bowed his head. “The Empress honors me, but I would not impose on her gloriousness or the heir to the throne.”

Qiang had run off anyway, so I gestured for Hu to sit. He refused up until I lost patience with him and sat anyway. “So, Special Intelligence Service. It makes sense the Claw had spies, but I’m surprised I hadn’t heard from them.”

He adjusted the glasses on his face and reached into his coat to remove a disc small enough to fit inside the palm of his hand with room left over and held it up for me. “If you do not have the augmented vision glasses, I have a spare pair, as it is important to see through them for our discussion.”

I smiled and tapped my head beside my eyes, shifting to the Riccan government’s augmented reality frequency. “I have that capability built in. Go on.”

He pressed a button on the disc and a screen appeared for only us to see. “The Service has been devastated by the events that led to your coronation, Empress. This is not a criticism, merely statement fact.” He looked uncomfortable stating uncomfortable facts.

I shrugged. “Facts have the ultimate authority. It is we who must bow to them. I value the truth from subordinates. Go on.”

He brought up a roster. “This is a list of our Non-Official Cover agents. They serve under the guise of civilians. As you can see, the status of many is unknown.” He scrolled down the list, showing that very thing listed under the heading of status. “We lost contact with them. Due to their cover identities around the world, it may be difficult for them to check in. If there are dead drops or secret back channels, many of those who oversaw them either died or abandoned their duty. Some defected, bringing the identities of other agents to their new masters.”

He stopped on one of the agents listed as KIA. It showed CCTV footage of a Chinese takeout restaurant in Dublin suddenly being raided by a special operations team of some sort. One of the cooks tossed hot noodles at them from the grill while the delivery boy pulled a gun out of a paper box with dragons on the side. As small as a one of those tiny Walther guns James Bond used, the shot penetrated three men in body armor before piercing the engine block of a black SUV pulling up outside, and seemed to continue onward. He didn’t too many more shots in, going down under a hail of gunfire. The cook in the back turned and fled out the back. The spec ops team thought they had the old lady at the register, but she whipped out a pair of chopsticks and soon had a group of highly trained specialists down on the floor.

It was then the wall became see-through and someone shot her from the outside. A man stepped in wearing a dark blue suit with gold necktie, his eyes hidden behind glasses. I still recognized him as the Riccan agent who brought me in when I’d offered the secret of my dimensional bombs for sale to the highest bidding nation. Looks like he offered himself up to another country.

“Those are not the only threats,” Hu said. Off from the kitchen, I heard something shatter. “Do you need to see to that?” He asked. I shook my head in the negative. Good thing I gave Qiang that stabproof skin. I didn’t kidproof the house, I houseproofed the kid.

When he seemed satisfied I cared more about what he had to say, Hu scrolled down to another name, listed as Incarcerated. This one brought up a pair of video screens side by side. He played the one on my right first, showing an Egyptian hero swinging a khopesh sword, curved forward rather than backward. Every swing, sand burst up and and swiped at a group of what I at first took to be ninjas. It wasn’t he stabbed it into the ground and hands of sand grabbed them that enough of one’s face mask came loose for me to see it was a mummy.

Before you could yell “Curses!” someone ran up. It looked like a man praising the hero and thanking him profusely, until the needle came out. Whatever it was in the hero’s veins, it knocked him out quickly. The thankful man then pulled the sword out of the sand and motioned for the mummies to help him carry off the hero.

When that finished, Hu put on the next video, showing inside a home with the same kidnapper from before. He hears something, and goes to open the door. Sand floods in, moving in and knocking over his wall. The ceiling collapses. The camera gets rolled around quite a bit before it settles on a view of the Riccan agent kneeling, pleading to the same hero from before accompanied by a few faces I remember. They were some of the heroes and villains kidnapped and brainwashed by The Claw, former Emperor of Ricca, with a drug that could block access to memory. I’d arranged for them to be healed by nanites and get the drug out of their systems. They were vindictive enough to end The Claw right when he was about to kill me. Looks like some of them kept on being vindictive.

“It sounds like we need to figure out what’s become of our people and resources,” I said.

He sat up straighter. “Yes, Empress. I was a desk agent, but I am one of the Service who remains loyal to the Empire. Please allow me and my confederates to reform the Service. I can promise you there is much to be salvaged. Agents are making contact. Some will link up and return. Others will hold their cover or maneuver into new areas. Others will need our help.”

He gave me a glimpse of the file of one of our agents in Alabama of all places. He was requesting aid due to the meddling of troublesome teenagers with superpowers. His last query had been asking if it would be appropriate to break cover and seek asylum with Ouroboros, the supervillain ruler of nearby Paradise City, Florida.

Hmm. Ouroboros would be a good place to start. He’s got some pull among villains himself for being canny enough to take over and hold a city without being one of the really scary powers.

I smiled. “I think I would like to see to this one. It may play well into my own plans.”

He nodded respectfully, then looked up as Qiang ran in, soaking wet somehow. She handed me a juice box, then turned and shoved a Yoohoo into Hu’s hand. She sprinted out while yelling an apology, “Sorry for the big water thing in the kitchen, Baba!”

Tsk, tsk. That daughter of mine. We really need to work on her escape artistry. I’ll have to pick up some straightjackets for her in America. If anyone will have them to spare, it’ll be Alabama.

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New Direction 2

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As the dictator of my own nation, it’s nice having people who listen to me and do what I say. The world would be a better place if more people did that. Alas, they just weren’t ready. But that doesn’t mean large swathes of the world won’t listen. The ones that do are just plain nice, though.

Starting with the Directors. They were exceedingly grateful to be rescued by me. Really reaffirmed their loyalty, but I did have a few things to discuss with them. I’d have had a few of them over, but they didn’t really have a hierarchy now that the last one made such a bad impression and I had to kill them. Instead of inviting a few of them over to discuss some issues, I had to go to the Directory. Keeping with my casual attitude, though, I dragged along my armor for a little cleaning and maintenance.

I carried my armor in there and sat on the stage previously reserved for the High Directorate. Pulling out a gauntlet, I turned it around so I could inspect its nozzle. The Directors were in the middle of some sort of roll call procedure, so I had time enough to spray on solvent and let it work on the gunk. The stuff I use is great for dissolving all sorts of crap, especially stuff I’ve neglected to clean off. The stealth aspect has generally been more important for my use of the armor, so I’ve let the rockets sit uncleaned for way too long. Plus, this stuff has a strong smell shortly after use.

“Emperor… Empress… I must apologize, my lord or lady. Our first concern appears to be your form of address?” asked the secretary pro-tem.

I raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me, my form of address? First thing on your minds after an attempted coup is what to call me? Am I correct in assuming this is about whether to treat me as male or female?”

“That… is correct, your Imperial Eminence,” said the secretary. “Do you prefer to be called ‘Emperor’ or ‘Empress’?”

I waved my hand. “Whatever.” If they weren’t going to focus on the serious stuff right away, why should I help them jack around? I had some important stuff to clean. Scrub, scrub, scrubbing with the copper brush took precedence over helping these guys waste time. That’s why I brought it, and it’s important to really get in there with a little muscle. And just because I went from handsome to pretty doesn’t mean I stripped out the enhanced muscles I’ve given myself. Hell, I can compact muscle like y’all wouldn’t believe. I could snap a man’s neck with my kegels. Like a pair of steely, sexy nutcrackers, except used on a guy’s neck instead of nuts. Would not want to actually fit the head up in there, though.

Another Director stood up. “To reflect our sovereign’s current state, I propose we use the word ‘Empress’.”

Another stood up, “We have Empress Elda. We would need to rename her as well.”

That gave me pause before I remembered Elda. Red-headed, tanned chick. Nice body, crooked teeth. She was the Princess of an important bronze-age nation state on the recently resurfaced continent of Mu. I married her, then betrayed her and almost killed her. Citra, my former servant girl-turned consort, insisted that we keep Elda alive and comatose. It was a wedding gift to her, as Citra’s my de facto wife. She even took on the appearance of Elda to make it look good and everything.

She was a bit shocked to see me back as a woman, while I was suddenly reminded I told her she could look normal. And so she did indeed look like her normal self, but with Elda’s red hair and tan skin. She took it well, all things considered. Awkwardly trying out a kiss, then realizing she didn’t mind it so much. Plus, we can do each other’s nails now, get our hair done together. I’m actually a better fit for a lot of her old clothes since she kept some of Elda’s dimensions, too. No sex yet, and she doesn’t want to be seen with me in public. It’s been an adjustment for her.

As this inane debate in the Directory attests, it’s been an adjustment for many, like when one skinny Director with an impressive pair of shoulder pads in his suit stood up and declared. “We can’t have an Empress married to another Empress? They’re both women!”

Heads looked at him, then at me. “Gay marriage, people. Legalize it. Equal rights for them. Oh, and transgender people.” I wouldn’t say I’m trans mentally. I’ve changed so much of my body around I could have easily lost track of it but for the Psychopomp program only picking boys and making damn sure the training reflected that. Spending awhile as a woman is just a thing I do sometimes. I’m secure enough in my masculinity to wear dresses and boobs and just the CUTEST sandals. Hell, I think every guy should give it a try at some point or another if they can.

But enough about my super manly love of skirts. I stared down the Directors, who must not have thought of that so much. Unlike them, I don’t need to blink. I actually don’t. It’s the cybernetic eyes. And even if I did need to, they can hold liquids. I could just fill them full of saline and expel it in small enough doses so I wouldn’t have to blink. The wonders of cybernetics. I’m actually thinking about putting in some new teeth, like a new row of them. Or a couple more arms might be nice. I’ve been considering that one off and on since I made the Whirlygig arms, and it came to mind again when I only had enough limbs to throw three knives at the High Directorate.

The Directors relented. The Secretary Pro-tem turned to the others. “All in favor?” Everyone said “Aye.” He turned back to me, “The ayes have it.” Damn straight they do. Cyber-eyes. Because when you stare into the void, the void loses the staring contest. “We will work out the specifics later. More importantly, we have decided to declare Psycho Gecko Empress Regnant. For brevity’s sake, this may be shortened to Empress. Empress Elda is officially the Empress Consort, to be shortened to Consort.”

A small cheer went up from the assembled Directors as if they accomplished something. “Alright, you bunch of old ladies, now that you’ve figured out what you’d like to call me, we need to get back to figuring out some shit. We have some work to do here, people. We’re gonna need more submarine pens, bigger docks, larger airports. I’ve got a scientist I kidnapped eager to turn Mu into the breadbasket of the empire. Possibly the hash capital of the world, too, he started asking questions about poppies. I still see it as a win. We’re not just finding our feet again after a stumble; we’re hitting the ground running and then launching into a spinning roundhouse kick that’ll knock the rest of the world on its collective ass.”

I spent the day taking a tour of the island all over again. The Farm cult’s still working along, organizing a mission trip. Old Man Hoodless didn’t seem to enjoy my company so much now that I come with my own door knockers, but he mentioned he’d been speaking with our mutual friends at Cape Diem. Cape Diem were looking for volunteers to go to countries experiencing famine. The Cult intends to head over there, hand out food, and invite people to join them on their multi-story farm compound where they have no shortage of food. Sounds like a winning strategy.

As a welcome-back present, Old Man Hoodless officially presented me with several jars of moonshine that could serve as drink, improvised explosive device, and engine degreaser. I thanked him and told him it would take a prominent spot in the Imperial liquor cabinet.

Then it was off to the military base to hand out medals. The men were a little off their game saluting a commander in chief in a kimono with her hair up. We worked out a way to do medals for the Deep Ones, who hadn’t entirely grasped the concept of modesty. Probably because their penises were retractable. “In thanks for your actions putting down the attempted coup, I award you the Order of Loyalty.” And then I stuck it on the drone operator’s slimy scales. It’s based on some sort of old explosives technology, something called a Lamprey mine.

After the ceremony ended, I ordered a few kegs of beer to be delivered to the base. Even threw in some of that new “seabrew” crap. I understand Ricca’s the first nation with its very own seabrew distillery, which is made from kelp somehow. I had a bottle brought to me for tasting once. More like the makers dropped off a bottle as a gesture of goodwill. I smelled it coming from outside the door and the jar had a warning label to avoid opening in rooms with too many lights on in case it started a fire. I awoke the next morning with a dry mouth and a surprising amount of wood furniture missing its varnish. Decent stuff. It’ll go well with the moonshine Old Man Hoodless gave me.

That said, I stumbled downstairs and found myself caught in the squeeing hug of a giant bee woman.

“I’m so happy to have you back Gecko, I love you, love you, love you!” Beetrice, Queen Bee of the Buzzkills said as she picked me up and spun me around several times.

“Please don’t do that, Beetrice, or you may end up quite dirty,” I said. She stopped, nearly giving me ass-whiplash, and hugged me tight. “I thought you preferred me with a penis. What are you doing here?”

“You called me!” she said. Oh, for fuck’s sake, I drunk dialed my ex. But then, I like to think that this world as a whole is my ex, and I’m just waiting for it to fall in the dumps and want to hook back up with me again.

“I believe I was drunk, so what did I invite you here for, exactly?” I asked. I looked up into some of her eyes, being unable to properly look her in all of them at once.

She flexed one of her large, exoskeleton-clad arms. Unlike my power armor, hers is a natural part of her body. She’s better about clothes than the Deep Ones, though. “You wanted my body. You said something about making arms.”

That sounds like me, so I nodded. “Right. I’ve been thinking about extra arms. I don’t suppose there’s anything else I did last night?”

“Um, you said something about calling a bunch of other people,” she said. She set me down and stepped back to a notepad half-embedded in the wall of the hallway. “These people.”

“Odd, I don’t use paper that much.” I took it from her and found it filled with names and numbers. Men, women, and the technicolor rainbow in between filled up one side; the other had phone numbers and email addresses. Every single one was checked off. Every single one also hit in my recognition software as supervillains. I dropped it on the floor. “Well crap, looks like we’re moving faster than intended.”

“We are?” Beetrice asked, bending down to pick up the list. “You only called them last night. What are we doing?”

I reached out and took Beetrice’s hand, running my fingers over the shiny but firm natural armor where it grew out of her body. “I’m going to host a conference. It’s high time we set up a new system. The heroes have academies and social networks. We need a network of our own. A formal network. A union of sorts. The Mafia once had The Commission to govern all of organized crime within the United States, with their own problem solvers for anything that threatened the greater group. I think we need something similar.”

“You think all the bad guys will join forces?” she asked.

I shook my head. “No, just come to an agreement. Something to help us set boundaries, make sure people aren’t stepping on each other’s toes. Help people find like-minded individuals for heists. If the heroes want to come at us with huge super groups, we have to be able to call on something similar with a lot less hassle. Maybe we’ll even solve that problem of he rest of us kicking the crap out of anyone to do a good job of taking over the world. On top of that, set up a few rules of conduct we can get the heroes to agree for both sides. Murder, rape, that kinda stuff.”

Beetrice giggled as I traced a finger around a particular armor plate on her palm. That hand brushed at my elbow. “Mmm. But you like killing people. Oh, and how will you get criminals to agree to rules like that?”

I smiled up at her and raised her arm and the hand up to nuzzle. “My dear, no matter what form governance takes, there is one thing human nature requires of all of them: an enforcer. If crook or crimefighter steps out of line, I’ll be the one to make sure they don’t do anything wrong ever again. Something tells me I’ll have no shortage of supers to murder. Just disappointed I probably won’t get a shot at Venus.”

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New Direction 1

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Back in Ricca, the High Directorate helped themselves to a wonderful dinner just for themselves. It was a five man group, mostly from the ranks of the formerly disadvantaged lower classes of Riccan society. Chief Director Hsin-hung showed off his status with a well-tailored, gold-pinstriped suit. On the wall behind him hung a disc. He did not wear the disc when he and his supporters pushed through a resolution creating a High Directorate, but he did when they named him Chief Director. It gleamed as he announced that the High Directorate was to see to the administration of the island in the absence of the Emperor. Of paramount importance was the island’s defense.

They insisted the military and police should follow their orders. Luckily, I had the loyalty of one group and the fear of the other. The High Directorate then learned a valuable lesson when it comes to a group of civilian politicians bossing around a military: it’s kinda hard to force a military to do anything since, by definition, the military has all the really good shit for blowing things up. Now, a clever bunch of people with popular support could figure out all kinds of ways to undermine the military. The High Directorate turned out to be lacking there. They tried to recruit their own paramilitary group.

I’d call it an amateur move, but I’ve seen amateurs do better. I’ve supported amateurs doing better. That’s one reason I know that most revolutions can’t afford to pay professionals anyway. I mean, they’re generally the result of middle or upper-middle class privileged people wanting to be the upper class, but nobody focuses that much on paying debts during a revolution. Not financial debts, at least. Some people are all too happy to take advantage of a little chaos to settle other sorts of debts.

All the members of the High Directorate had come back for those debts. Financially, they dressed and ate well. One of them carried a number of engraved and plated weapons on his person, even after disarming for dinner. Guns have some uses, especially for the unimaginative folk, but most people have a limited number of hands to use them with. Rifling through the coat closet, I’d found where he dropped off an automatic rifle, an LMG, a bolt action rifle, and a .44 magnum revolver with a sniper scope on it. Not that they’d be useful, but I hid the ammo.

I know, I keep bringing up myself, but where am I in all this? To answer that question, let’s go back a few hours to before this little dinner. Just making it clear I got ahead of myself at the start here and we’re now backin’ dat ass up so as to prevent confusion. Well, more confusion than usual.

I snuck back into my own country. No one was trying to stop me, but it seemed handy. I’d kept up with the news while oversees, and now seemed like a good time to do something about it. My arrival proved timely, as well.

I’d snuck up to the building they’re throwing together right in front of the Palace remnants. It’s still partially tent, but they’ve got a lot more walls and supports up. I didn’t wear my armor, and sent Qiang along to practice sneaking into the palace. I got looks wandering around like that, but that’s because I’m beautiful and colorful. I’d never been female on the island.

I got there and saw a large group of mostly young men standing around. They wore jackets with a sunrise of some sort. Like a half circle cut by a horizontal line, and a bunch of smaller lines reaching up from the half circle, as well as an arrow cutting through the half circle to point upward. I saw the same symbol graffitied around with the phrase “New Direction” underneath it. They all hid their faces one way or another. I saw them in bandanas, surgical masks, face masks, and some even resorted to facepaint. There were a lot of them milling about, pretending they were guards or something.

I went to pull open a door and a pair of these guys rushed up to stop me. “Nobody goes in!” one of them yelled from behind a plastic mask in the shape of a guardian lion. One of those statues, that is, somewhat resembles a dog or a lion. The other one had red facepaint with squiggly black lines of it, but I didn’t recognize the pattern if it took inspiration from anything. That one stuck some cheap revolver gun in my face, a Rohm knockoff. Really cheap gun, and a potential danger to people on either side of the barrel. It was a testament to my abilities as an actor that I managed to look a little bit afraid.

“You’re pretty. Why you want to go in there when you could come with us?” asked the one with the gun.

“Why would I want to go with you when I can cut my nose off?” I asked.

He raised the pistol. “I could shoot it off.”

“Hey man, she’s too pretty to waste,” a third one said as he walked up, holding a long and hard piece of wood in his hands. A baseball bat, that is. He grabbed my arm. “Come on, don’t cause trouble.”

He led me away from there. “You got some nerve, girl. I like that, but most of these boys are intense. Just stay out of our way.” He let me go when we got twenty feet away from all the rest of them before letting me go. “You don’t want to be here today.”

“What’s going on here today?” I asked, putting all my weight on one leg and a hand on my hip. Trying to emphasize the hips and chests here with a nice stance.

He held up the bat to point at me while holding it near the top. He didn’t do it in a threatening way. His eyes were wide open, all concerned. “Don’t ask questions like that either. Just go.” He swept the bat off to the side. “Get out of here before you get caught up in this.”

If not for all the new construction going around so close to the former palace grounds, it might have been tough to maneuver around. I also had an opportunity to grab a goat and seaweed kebab from a small place catering to the workforce. Not bad. I didn’t like the seaweed, but not bad.

I circled around. Despite the debris being cleaned up, these New Direction guys didn’t cover the whole area. I managed to sneak in despite broad daylight working against me to look in on the Directory at work.

I edged forward, hearing a gavel bang on wood repeatedly. “The Lessers will sit down and know their place!”

That was from the central of five people sitting on a platform above the rest. In front of them, even more Directors jumped up from their chairs to yell at them. One of them, wearing a pair of sashes that criss-crossed his front and back, jumped onto a desk and shouted above the rest at his colleagues on high, “You will not usurp the power of this institution or of the Emperor himself!”

One on the far right pulled out a gleaming pearl and gold derringer and pointed it at that one. “You are acting like insolent dogs. This is why only we can be trusted to lead Ricca into its new direction.”

Seeing as I am the Emperor, that would have been a good time to step in and assert myself, but the High Directors had given some sort of signal. New Direction goons ran in with their varied arms. Some of them gave war cries as they forced the regular Directors down to the floor in short order. The one with the sash was hit in the legs until he fell down. Others were attacked with blunt weapons or pistol whipped. Some just needed to be held at knife point, but they were all put on their knees.

The High Director banged his gavel again. “You are all to be tried for treason against the state tomorrow. We shall see how cooperative you are to the High Directorate then. Take them away to the Yomi cells.”

The New Direction whooped enthusiastically as they led off the governing body of the island to some sort of holding center not related to my own military or police. I transmitted orders to the Deep One Drone Division to keep an eye on this group and surveil wherever they go, but without crowding around and making it obvious.

As for me, I went to go retrieve my armor from the docks, where it had been airing out after my latest cleaning. I think even some of the fish were gagging on the smell. Once I’d acquired my famous formal wear, it was time to crash the High Directorate’s congratulatory dinner.

I moved carefully, despite the heavier armor. I had to do a lot of cleaning to get my hologram projectors up and running again. Still, sneaking is something I do well enough. It got me the gun-lover’s ammo easily.

I very nearly killed the servants for convenience. They belonged to this head guy, Hsin-hung, but they were still my citizens, so I had to do things a little differently. Like when I snuck up behind the chef in the kitchen, tightened a cord in my hand, and jumped up behind him. The apple fell into his mouth naturally enough, obstructing his ability to cry out. The cord yanked back on his head, and I tied it around there easily enough. The chef turned around, eyes wide, only to see the fanged grin of my mask there. “Hello. I just needed you quiet. By the way, got a cup of sugar I can borrow?” I swung a bag of sugar right into his balls, knocking him to his knees where he could be easily handcuffed to the stove.

“Now then,” I looked around the kitchen, “Next course is going to be dessert.” I looked around, trying to see something I could whip up in a hurry. Ooh, whipping cream. I could make that work.

In the dining room, the High Directorate were no doubt surprised to see a giant cake wheeled out just before the main leg of lamb was supposed to be sent out.

“What is this?” asked Hsin-hung. “The cake is too early. Send it back.”

“I am afraid I can’t, sir,” said the waiter I’d roped into helping out.

“I am the High Director. No one’s orders supersede mine,” he responded.

The waiter spoke quietly. I couldn’t hear it from my position. Hsin-hung had some problem with it, too. “What did you say?”

“The Emperor’s orders do!” the waiter shouted. I heard the scrape of metal as our resident Director Gun Nut pulled a piece on the waiter. Then nothing much.

“Why isn’t is shooting?!” asked the disappointed would-be killer.

I exploded out of the top of the whipped cream shaped like a cake, topless. Bottomless too, I suppose I should say. What I’m trying to get across is my nudity. I was naked, with boobs covered in whipped cream. If I had a camera, I know what I’d be putting on a calender as a national fundraiser. So I popped out of the whipped cream cake. I threw a pair of knives and spit a third one like I was rapping a sick rhyme. As bad as my singing is, my rapping is downright lethal. So is a knife to the throat, and that took care of three of our High Directors.

“Whew. That takes care of those,” I said, looking around. I turned to wink at Hsin-hung and the gun guy. “Heya. How are y’all doin’?”

“What treachery is this? Guards!”

I held up a finger and stepped out of the box the cream had been shaped around. “Yeah, there aren’t really too many of those left now after someone sent them the soup. I know some chemicals that give people the jungle shits, I shit you not. Didn’t want anymore people running in to arrest people in the name of the Emperor. Funny thing, that, I didn’t authorize arresting the Directors.” I climbed onto the table, shaking off a bit, and quickly stepped around an ice sculpture of an Eastern dragon.

“This woman is not the Emperor,” said our resident firearm lover. Click, he tried another gun. Another gun. Another gun. Another gun.

“Yeah, I could convince you, maybe put my armor back on, but why? So, you guys arrest and execute directors in my name now?” I kicked Hsin-hung’s knives away before he thought to pick them up. I leaned down to look at him. “Awful lot of power for a director to admit for me, the ability to just execute the legislative body of the island.”

I heard the other one jump out of his seat. I grabbed a silver plate and turned, bashing him upside the head and laying him out on the table, then smashed the edge of the plate down on his throat repeatedly until I left a bent plate embedded in his flesh while he bled out. Then I turned back to Hsin-hung, smiling around the blood that had sprayed all over my face. “Don’t get me wrong, I say I have that power anyway. Nice to have you admit it, though.”

“What do you want, you crazy bitch?” Hsin-hung asked.

I booped his nose. “A world my daughter will be safe in. And that means not having a stupid revolving door of people who think they have what it takes to challenge me. You want that crazy shit, take it off the island.”

Hsin-hung folded his hands up in front of him. “My mind may be open to this proposal, Emperor.” He emphasized the word as if to admit acceptance of the delusions of a madwoman.

I made a clicking noise with my mouth, then grabbed the ice dragon off the table and smashed it into Hsin-hung’s head over and over again until brain oozed out onto his gilded hardwood chair. “Yeah, it’s important to stay open-minded.” I snapped my fingers and the waiter rushed over. “Fetch my armor. It’s brisk outside.”

H e nodded and ran off. Meanwhile, the Riccan Security team and Deep One Drone Division received the order to move in and rescue the Directors and eliminate any of the High Directorate’s thugs who got in the way.

Now that the country’s back in order, I can finally move the world in a New Direction.

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Attack On Titan Labs

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The helicopter hovered over an otherwise-unimpressive building in the southern burrough of Empyreal City. I looked down on it, briefly wondering if they’d renamed the neighborhood recently. Blow it up, rebuild it, blow it up, rebuild it. So much of the city’s been replaced recently, it seems pretty meaningless to keep the same name.

I jumped out of the helicopter. The cape didn’t do much to break my fall, though the glass skylight and vinyl floor helped. I landed in an upstairs hallway of the fifth-story. Five above ground, two below. My target would be aboveground. As I looked around to figure out which way to go, I caught a glimpse of the place’s logo: a giant handing fire to really tiny people. They’d taken the size connotations of the name “titan” quite literally when depicting Prometheus. It’s a good thing for them I don’t keep eagles, otherwise I’d be tempted to emulate more of that legend.

No alarms went off as I headed down the hallway. My sudden approach may have been surprising and destructive, but this wasn’t like a lab developing chemical weapons or advanced AI. Everything I’d read about Titan Labs showed it to be the kind of place trying to revolutionize life in less violent ways. Food production, non-toxic lubricants and cleaners, and better water purification. I hear ya on that last point. I don’t like seafood anyway, let alone when they’re loaded full of anti-depressants and birth control pills.

A place like this probably had security that would look into the helicopter and my sudden arrival, but I didn’t expect anything too tough to handle. I’d landed on the cleaning level. The worst challenge ahead of me was the testing they did in the hallway. I came around a corner to the elevator and spotted a pair of people in coveralls, with hoods, surgical masks, and bags covering their shoes. They ran for it away from me, then dove and slid along the floor. Vinyl floor is a little conducive to sliding, but these people just went on and on and on. Further along the hallway, two groups of people in similar outfits cheered the slider on their side as they approached. A quick check of the rangefinder showed the finish lines were a hundred and fifty yards from where they started. It wasn’t a question of if they’d make it, but which one first?

I’ll have to raid this place again if I give myself a truly massive wang. In the meantime, I had a scientist to kidnap. I put on some music, an older song called “Old Time Rock & Roll” and ran for the elevators. They were along the corridor that had been slid along. I found out how that worked as I got close and felt my feet try to fly out from under me just as the piano was starting up. I maintained control long enough to stay on my feet, but skidded right past the elevator. I had to punch into the wall and stop myself, then flying myself back that way. The second pass of the piano and the elevators worked out.

Truth is, that kind of lubricant would make an astounding area denial weapon. It’d make an attempt to sneak up or charge into risky business.

The people were puzzled by my appearance, but the approach of the racers proved more important. Before I could hit the call button for the elevator, it lit up with an arrival. I stepped to the side and projected invisibility. It’s not so much invisibility as an extremely accurate projection of the environment around me on different sides to the extent that it doesn’t look like I’m there. It worked wonderfully on the two guards who stepped briskly out of the elevator and onto the floor, then landed hard on their asses.

I didn’t have to hide from them, but then I’d have missed moments like this. I stepped in and pushed the door close button until it finally closed on me. Once that was done, I scanned the corners of it for a camera. Found the little son of a gun and pulled out a spray can. The monitor watching it would have gone dark almost instantaneously, followed by a little bit of additional white letters that read “Out Of Order”. Once I’d finished that little masterpiece, I dipped the brush in some odorless paint thinner and beat it off against the corner of the elevator, ending the invisibility projection in the process.

They’d installed one of those security keycard readers to restrict people’s movements to whichever floor they were headed to. I slipped off a glove and fingered the slot until my body worked its magic. “When I get that feelin’, I need sexual healin’,” I said, cutting the music in my head. But only after I’d already done some singing, for safety’s sake. I didn’t have the external speakers on, or else the infrasound of my voice may have caused vomiting, headaches, and anal leakage. It was a tight fit, getting my fingers in there, but the biological merge worked and let me worm into the system.

They didn’t make it as simple as labeling the floors, but I had time to fight my way through if need be. And I hoped no one would be stupid enough to work on water purification on the upper stories of a building with unrelated labs underneath it. You’re asking for a flood.

Next floor had some special restrictions in place to keep people out. Seemed as good a place as any to start. It turned out to be amazingly white and clean. The place looked new, except for the polished bones of a skeleton laying on the floor. Maybe it’s some sort of statement about effectiveness? I didn’t have to guess long. I tossed a sphere the size of a baseball out that bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. The clear plastic rolled along, an internal pair of cameras staying parallel with the floor. If I can take an eyeball out and use it to scout a room, I could afford to make a cheap scout capable of moving on its own.

It moved along, rear and fore cameras giving me a remote view. Before I could even really get that far along, though, a siren approached it. One of those thick disc robots, like a giant Roomba, came around the corner in front of it. The thing shot my scout with a hard stream of some gunk that began to dissolve the plastic around it. Then it moved forward to finish the job with scrubbing brushes.

It appears I’d wandered into some sort of testing zone for cleaners. I think they’d made the stuff a bit too strong if it can eat through plastic. A mite indiscriminate too, if the skeleton’s any indication. While a fun diversion, though, these were not the droids I was looking for.

The next floor was more my style. My armor detected high levels of methane and shit almost immediately. Fertilizer. Could cause a lot of chaos if I grabbed that cleaner bot… but nah, I still needed to make sure this was the right place. Just in case this floor had patrolling robotic cows that destroy scout drones, I tossed a few of them out. They spread out along a few corridors, but I soon found the place was primarily centered around a few large rooms where all the action happened. It was a little bit like the farming cult back on my island of Ricca.

I stepped out to see what plants they were messing with in these indoor fields.

On one side of me bloomed a gigantic cocoon, or so I took it for at first. As my gaze traveled up it and I saw the cocoon had split, I found myself staring at a corn cob. A humongous corn cob. And despite the size of the cob and the leaves, the kernels were all of normal size. On the other side of the hallway, cocoa pods hung from trees growing beside sugarcane plants, but it wasn’t a greenhouse. There were no heaters, no stronger lights. I slid a window open and my armor registered a decent 74 Fahrenheit.

“Cool beans,” I said while poking a cocoa pod.

Suddenly, a door at the end of this corridor opened and a man stepped out. “What’s this?” he asked. At the same time, he pulled out an eggplant and threw it at me. Not threatened by eggplants, I didn’t try to do anything in particular other than swat it aside. It burst and poured thick purple smoke around. I ran on through and caught a tangerine that exploded, presumably with flavor as well as concussive force. It knocked me back a step, I must admit, but then I ducked low and kept on going. I could see the fruit chucker pulling back to toss a watermelon at me, so I went to go re-invisible and found the projectors had been stained and unable to function.

He didn’t have enough oomph to get the watermelon very far. It fell and broke apart into a mass of vines. The reached up and grabbed me as I jumped over. Part of the melon grew up and opened into halves, showing off rows of dark seeds that gleamed wet. That was a surprise, so I used one of my own. A cable shot out from under my left forearm. It lit up with electricity as I whipped it from side to side, slicing through the watermelonster. I retracted it, then pulled the vines off.

The fellow assaulting me with plants tried to run past, but I shot out the cable again, sans electricity, to knock him off his feet.

“Please don’t hurt me!” he shouted as I pulled him up to his feet.

“Hurt you?” I brushed him off. “This was pretty fun, actually.” I looked him straight in the face, getting a positive ID. “Dr. Quincy, I see. Just the man I was looking for. Nice to meet you.”

“Are you here to kill me?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m here to offer you a job.” I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over, then whipped out the zip ties. With him secure, I had time enough to break into his computer and steal as many files as possible. He even had a refrigerator there with important-looking samples. I laid Dr. Quincy against it,

I saw the elevators ding open and a large force of security guards take up position. I distracted them with the scout bots rolling under foot to trip them up. Then I radioed the helicopter. “I’m ready. Set depth for floor three and then drop.”

Above me, the crew of the chopper punched in the setting on the barrel of a rocket tube and fixed a cable from a spool to a hook on the rear of it. The lackey aimed down at where an augmented reality site showed I’d set a target. They fired, launching a tapered rocket at the building that fixed onto the target. It punched through two floors, creating a larger hole in its wake. Then it bounced against the floor there in front of me. I dragged Dr. Quincy and his sample fridge out, attached both to the metal end, and gave it a tug.

The device had been designed to hold the weight of my armor plus another person, so a small refrigerator didn’t hurt it. I just didn’t go up with it. I jumped through after it, landed on the roof, then made the leap up to the chopper on my own to help load the wriggling, panic scientist in.

“Trust me, Doc. You’ll love your new country,” I assured him. “Plenty of room to grow all these nifty plants, and you’ll live well. Yep, you’ll be shitting in high cotton. Just not in the cotton you design to smother people when they least expect it, alright?”

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Frozen Over 9

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“You made explosive devices and hid them on the Christmas tree!” Minotaur yelled.

I sat in the middle of Victor Mender’s office, and in the middle of a small inquest into what the fuck actually happened. Raising a finger to interject, I said, “I fail to see how y’all didn’t expect that from me.”

“There were children there. Children!” said Venus.

“They could only be armed biometrically,” I lied. No they fucking couldn’t. I didn’t even have to take my gloves off.

“I do not understand the nature of the device you say you used to destabilize the portal,” Victor Mender’s computer said for him.

I leaned forward, “Ok, so it shares some moving parts with the Dimension Bomb, but it’s more of an audio-vibratory-physio-molecular transport device. Basically, its primary purpose was to generally disrupt what you might call a wormhole or a portal. The source was magic, but I am familiar with the effects and have some knowledge on how to disrupt them.”

“What was your game?” asked Psychsaur. It was an astute question, coming from the only one of them to spend any time in my head, thinking my thoughts. “You always have some plan hidden behind everything.”

I held my hands out to my side like “What are you going to do?” I didn’t say that, however. Instead, I said, “I wanted to protect my daughter. What else could make me come here, ask y’all for help, prostate myself before you, and submit to patrolling as a hero?”

Minotaur came in again. “You crawled through a burning building to save a couple gerbils. I think you’d do whatever you needed to accomplish your goal.You don’t trust us so you probably didn’t tell us what you were doing.”

I leaned forward. “Look at it this way… I told y’all these things were real. They turned out to be real. I told y’all they wanted to take my daughter and I wanted to stop them. I fought them, my daughter is still here, and they are stopped. Nobody died. They didn’t snatch up anyone else. So even if I did have some other plan, it didn’t happen. I used up my explosives, and the little anti-portal device. I didn’t even get to fight Frostzilla because your stupid kids were running around without enough clothes on. They were having too much fun. How many more times are we going to go over this?”

“Why is this meeting kept from us?” asked a person with what could be mistaken for a Southern accent. I sat back in the chair and reached out with my mind to see what I had available to get me out of this situation. I’d come to this little inquest without armor on. So long as the Dimensional Rangers didn’t morph and the heroes didn’t join in, I could handle this.

“This is no concern of yours,” said Mender’s voice.

I heard the team shuffle in. Five rangers. There’s almost always a sixth, but I’d already killed that one. I saw the one with a red top step between myself and Victor Mender’s desk. He took a long look at me. “We find ourselves in odd circumstance. Your allies hide you well.”

“We are not her allies,” Venus said.

I nodded at that. “Merely enemies on good terms with one another.”

“Psycho Gecko is here under truce,” said Victor Mender.

The Red ranger looked to Mender. “You people must want to die. This man honors no truces and lives only for death and destruction.”

“Baba is in here?” asked Qiang from outside. The door creaked as she pushed her way in. I raised my hand to wave at her and she ran around to me for a hug. “Baba!”

“Hey there smooshylumpikins. I just had to answer a bunch of boring questions about all that stuff on Christmas Eve.”

“Who is this? Baba?” asked Red as he looked at Qiang.

She pressed closer to me to get away from him, her hand moving toward where she kept her knife on her. “Hello. My name is Qiang. This is my daddy.”

“Your daddy?” Red asked.

“Yep,” I said. “Bet you didn’t see that coming?”

“You’ve changed,” Red said.

“He has?” asked Venus.

Psychsaur interjected here. “Regardless, I believe we’re done with Gecko for now. She’s going to leave this room and we’re not going to fight about this, right?”

“You better hope not,” said Red. “Our people don’t want this relationship to sour, but hiding Psycho Gecko is a sure way to cause problems. We still want him.”

Venus crossed her arms. “We have our rules and we stick to them. Even Gecko doesn’t violate our truces.”

I nodded, and so did Qiang. “Ya know, I believe I was dismissed. Let me get right on that.” Red didn’t do anything, but neither he nor the rest of his color-coded costumed crimefighters tried to stop me.

Still, it was time to move on out. No interaction with those Rangers was going end well, and I had shit to do now that the Winter boogeymen had been put in their place. The break’s over, and I got a couple of important details to work out.

I ran into a problem. Qiang didn’t want to go. She hugged onto my leg and cried her little head off. “Daddy, I like it here!”

“I know you do, sweet, but we can’t stay. They don’t like me, and those people you saw in there will try to hurt me. I can’t stay here.”

Her crying didn’t stop, and reasoning with her just didn’t work. So I picked her up, threw her over my shoulder, and went about dividing up the things to take, things to leave, and things to burn in a fire to erase evidence. Excess panties went into the third pile. I’ve caught adolescent supers staring. On the plus side, interest in the library jumped way up. The way I’ve walked around here, lots of things jumped way up. I’m not a big believer in pants.

I stuffed Qiang into a suitcase with her head sticking out the top and slipped into my armor, getting ready to make a run for it.

Nobody made a big deal about the bonfire, surprisingly. A librarian burning a lot of stuff should be cause for concern, especially indoors. It’d have made a good Yule log if I ever cared to watch one of those.

I’d lost track of time, because Psychsaur interrupted me watching those beautiful flames. “You’re running again?”

I turned toward her swiftly, so as to make it look dramatic with my cape. “I ain’t looking to get deported back to that place and end up put on trial for war crimes. And y’all will. Cozying up to them like that. There’s always going to be friction between these two universes so long as I’m a refugee in one. It’s only a matter of time before I get handed over. And maybe y’all don’t shove me through a portal yourselves, but you stand by and let it happen.”

“What are you talking about, Baba?” asked Qiang.

I patted her on the head. “Sorry, just something about those people with the same uniform in different colors.” I stepped closer to Psychsaur.

“You don’t trust us,” she said.

I pointed a finger at her. “Stop that. That goes both ways. This isn’t trust. This is guilt. Fucking guilt. You talked a big game about trusting me so I’d trust y’all, but I needed you and the others. That’s why I came here: I needed you. Guess what, y’all didn’t help. I might as well have not been here. I had to trick y’all just to get some help, and I could have done that anywhere. Instead, I get people saying I need to reform. Go to jail or the loony bin. So this isn’t really about trust. This is about tolerating me until you can guilt me into going to jail without giving me any help I actually need.”

“We saved your life,” she started.

“THEY saved my life,” I pointed off into the air. “They being those idiots with all the jingle bells who came after Qiang. They saved my life without asking me first and decided I owed them a job. If I didn’t do it, they got Qiang.”

“You could have told-”

I put my hand over her mouth. “Master Academy saved my life without asking me first and decided I owed them a job dealing with The Claw. Now that’s done, but y’all think I should change the way y’all want. And I’m sure y’all will be more than happy to take in Qiang when I’m sent off to the funny farm where life is wonderful all the time.”

“You want Baba to go to prison?” asked Qiang, struggling to try and look at us. She squirmed until the suitcase fell over with her on her back. She hit her head a little, but didn’t cry. You know why? Because she’s a Gecko. And Geckos don’t cry over a little thing like traumatic brain injuries. Geckos don’t actually have a lot of defined things we do, since there’s only the two of us. But still, I respect her ability to get hurt without whining about it. Instead, she cried about all these people she thought were friends trying to put her female father in prison. And she’s got a very different idea of what prison is. She used to live under a dictatorship.

I unzipped the luggage to let little Qiang out. Meanwhile, Psychsaur tried to salvage things. “It’s not about prison. We just want him to go to a place full of people who will keep him away from people and give him drugs so he can get better.”

“My daddy’s already awesome!” she said. She picked up a book and threw it at Psychsaur. Now, I know what people are thinking: was the book ok? Good news, it was hardcover, so it didn’t take any damage. Bad news, it was young adult, so it didn’t hurt Psychsaur very much.

So I took my daughter and walked out to the front lawn. The Rangers all stood in front of the gate, unmorphed, as if challenging me to try and pass through. It was a dumb gesture. I could jump over, or go to the side.

They looked really stupid when a helicopter lowered down to the lawn for Qiang and I to get onboard.

“Where to, sir?” asked the pilot.

“We need to pick someone up while they’re in town. I’ve been meaning to stock up on scientists.”

After that, it’s time to finally use my position as emperor and supreme dictator of Ricca to make a change for the positive. Not everything the heroes said was nonsense, and seeing the Master Academy as this hub of heroes has given me an idea. I think it’s time the supervillains got organized.

But first, let’s go kidnap a geneticist!

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Frozen Over 8

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As Christmas Eve counted down, I stood guard in my armor. That Whirlygig business was then, and this was now, even though now is later for me. Everyone had themselves an exciting night of feasting and fun, and it was winding down. Guests stumbled back to their rooms or were helped by some of the more responsible faculty when they weren’t carrying kids back to rooms. Eschaton ran off to immediately try out this new VR headset somebody left in front of his door that promised it came with several pre-loaded porn videos. I waved off someone who would have helped me with Qiang, who had passed out in the refectory.

I let them empty the place out and I watched over her, alone. Psychsaur and Venus lingered at different times, looking at me. I ignored them until they left. I was still pissed at them. I can’t really be disappointed. Of course their trust was only skin deep and dependent on me “getting help” whatever that means. No, I know what that means. That means prison and a psych ward where somebody tries to rewire my head until my thinking’s roughly in agreement with the kinds of psychos I see walking around every day. It’s a little hard for me to accept that I need to be more like people who are quieter about it.

I’ve seen what people are. I’ve done their dirty work for them. I can’t fight to defend that status quo. Turns out I can’t force a better world on them, either. Those options didn’t matter anyway, though. Inconsequential. The fight in front of me isn’t some grand, epic battle for a greater cause. This is about me and my daughter.

Midnight ticked on down and then… time stood still. It stopped passing. My internal clock even stopped counting along, though I could still move. I heard bells jingle and whistling sounds. A hole opened in reality, letting in chilling air. The giant satyr-like Krampus swung his chains back and forth as he stepped through, snow clinging to his fur and to the hair-clad Belsnickel who waved at me with a switch. Pere Fouettard, or Father Whipper in English, rolled his whip back up as he walked through. Knecht Ruprecht, the old man in the brown robe with the staff, followed after.

“It’s time to give the devil his due,” I told the Companions of Kringle.

Krampus grinned toothily and stepped up close to me. He sniffed at me, then stepped around, eyeing Qiang asleep on the table behind me. Then he jumped right over here and toward the doorway, stalking off with what should be an ominous clip-clop. Ruprecht nodded at me. I turned to look straight on at Krampus as he ran down the hall and spoke. “Eschaton, you might want to take off those VR glasses now.”

“What’s going on? That’s that Krampus guy from the movie!” he said from down the hallway.

“Yeah, it was a bit of a bait and switch on the porn there, bucko. But if it’s any consolation, maybe help a brother out when he needs it. Or she, in this case. Eh, you’ll probably be fine.” I cut the feed. I’m not known for my conscience, but I think it’d sit just fine with that one.

I heard a howl of pain from where the Krampus ran. I also caught the delightful scent of singed fur. “Tougher nut to roast over an open fire than you expected?” I asked Ruprecht.

Fouettard disappeared into snowflakes. I heard whipping noises, followed by a whoosh and a cry of pain. “Say,” I said to the two remaining Companions, “Y’all don’t seem to know a whole lot about technology, do y’all?”

“We mostly give out candy and sweets,” said Belsnickel, scratching at his hairy clothes. “The big guy gets to do all that.”

I nodded. “I hear ya. Just curious about that. And, hey, I did what y’all asked. We’re all clear, right?” I walked over to the tree and all the presents. I plucked a rather large spherical decoration off, softball sized. “Right?” I turned to look at Ruprecht, since he seemed to be calling the shots here. A rogue fireball hit a hallway wall at an angle from further along. Wow. Good construction here, because that looked like wood to me.

Knecht Ruprecht set his staff on the ground. “Yes. You have made a believer of the hero Eschaton and fulfilled your part of the deal.”

“Regarding Qiang, that means…?” I pushed him along. I wanted him to say it for clarity’s sake. And because I know this game. I’m supposed to be the devil people make a deal with who turns the letter around on someone to screw them over.

“We hold no claim to your daughter anymore,” he finished. “We can touch neither of you now.”

I suspected as much of Qiang. I doubt there are very many kids these guys can truly go after. I mean, these beings were invented when normal childhood behavior involved drinking moonshine and mugging people at musket-point. It was that or kick around the ole kickin’ rope. Fun childhood game, the kickin’ rope. Kept plenty of kids entertained, until Daddy borrowed it when that Great Depression thing started. Was a lot harder to kick around after that until they got him down. What, as if they had money to buy a second kickin’ rope?

I popped the top off the decoration and pushed a button on the inside, thinking about how bad an idea it is to extort me. I chucked the thing at Ruprecht’s head. He brought his staff up to knock it away, but it exploded into a fine mist that chewed through the staff and most of his body. He disappeared, but without blood. Maybe he Obi Wan Kenobied, maybe he Nightcrawlered. I didn’t write him off automatically just because I dropped a DIME on him.

That’s Dense Inert Metal Explosive. I tossed another one at Belsnicknel before it could react. The bomb flew through the air and, when it reached its target, the explosive inside went off. The force of it pushed out microshrapnel consisting of heavy metal for all the rockers in the house. It also turned the casing into more microshrapnel. If Belsnickel was mortal, the results would have been quite nasty for it. Within effective range, it’s like getting explosively sandblasted with stuff that can give you cancer. A relatively short distance away, it did nothing to Qiang except make her cry. The first one woke her up already, so I guess I kinda ruined things that way.

“It’s ok, baby,” I said, rushing over to hug her. Most people don’t actually like being around explosions for some reason. I turned while holding her and saw the frosty hole in reality. Carrying Qiang, I headed over to one large square present and tore off the bow, pulling out a large pin. I gave it a push with my free arm and sent it on through the portal. Then I turned and put a little distance between myself and that bomb.

Behind me, it sparked and crackled with electricity and a humming sound ramped up. Just as the sound grew its loudest and wind began to blow through the refectory… the portal vanished with a weak “bloop”. Exactly as bloopin’ planned, with a minimum of disruption on this end of it.

Qiang and I were safe over by the windows. Even the presents were probably still ok. I’ll make sure Qiang isn’t the first to open hers, just in case something slipped in from elsewhere. “Look!” Qiang pointed outside where snowmen were picking themselves up out of all the snow and began dragging their round, legless bottoms toward the school.

It seemed like a good time to walk on over to the nearest fire alarm. I can only guess that the school is actually used to people setting stuff on fire with powers and that’s why Eschaton’s fight with the Companions hadn’t set it off already. Jolted out of sleep already thanks to explosions, Qiang didn’t care so much for the fire alarm either. I’m sure the rest of the school did, but it changed things. My HUD clock went all screwy as more people awoke.

I kept Qiang with me as I ran to go see what was up with Eschaton, Krampus, and Father Whipper. I think the name’s better in English. I actually caught up to them to see Eschaton flying circles around an nude Krampus. He’s a lot less impressive furless and burned. If I had a fork, I could stick it in him. Instead, I had a kid.

Then again, a simple knife may not do the trick. Maybe Eschaton was holding back this whole time due to being inside the school.

He got his chance to shine. Whipper appeared behind him in the foyer, clinging to the wall above the door. Whipper’s whip whipped out and wrapped around Eschaton’s throat. Eschaton had enough of that shit and rocketed out through the door, blowing it off its hinges and smashing several snowmen in the process. Out there, he burned brighter. The French bogeyman of folklore had flown out with him but was dropped back to the ground when Eschaton burned through the whip. Pretty sure it was no normal whip, either.

Krampus threw his chain at Eschaton, spinning around side to side like chain shot. Eschaton held his hands together and intercept it with his own personal cutting torch that sent two pieces careening into more hapless snowmen.

Closer to home, Qiang wiggled free of my grasp. Kids do that. You try to grab hold of them, but you can’t do it without hurting them. She scooped up a ball of snow and threw it right at the closest snowman. It knocked off the hand of one of its thin branch arms. These were not tough enemies.

I saw a pair of wood hands begin to reach out of the snow behind her. I stomped them into broken pieces, then down into the snow between them just in case the thing had a head of some sort.

The cavalry arrived behind us. Heroes and children dressed for sleep arrived en masse. It was really good coordination, so maybe they have plans worked up. I think there are signs posted around the library, but I haven’t bothered reading them. Too busy microfiching Playboy for the articles. As soft as they are, I wouldn’t do it for the porn.

“I don’t know what you did, but we’ll talk later. What’s going on?” Venus said, walking up to survey the situation, which involved Eschaton fighting a whip wielding old man in a robe while a giant satyr slowly regained its fur and unburnt appearance in the midst of the snow.

“I was a little mad about the lack of trust around here, showed Eschaton these guys when they arrived to kidnap Qiang, and they went after him for some reason. I dunno, maybe he’s been a bad boy this year.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she said. “Why do we have Frosties?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Happened around the time I blew up two others of these Christmas guys and the portal they used to come here. I suspect a link between them and our ambulatory precipitation here.”

“Alright, here’s what we’re gonn-” Venus started to say.

She only got that far because Ball Boy interrupted by yelling, “Snowball fight!”

If Venus thinks she was angry over someone stepping on her lines, just imagine how pissed I was that I couldn’t tell a group of concerned superheroes to stay frosty. Or maybe I’d have said “Slay Frosty, everyone.” The point is, I didn’t get a chance for either one. Thank you very much, stupid happy people.

The resulting battle was as vicious as it was fun. Just an absolute snowbath, because the snowmen didn’t have blood. Waterbath then? That’s just a bath. This metaphor’s a wash, but the fight was awesome. Just so much fun. Ball Boy himself had a great time throwing glowing balls around at all the snowmen. I’d say it was cheating, but nobody really cared.

Krampus and Father Whipper didn’t stick around much longer once reinforcements arrived. They disappeared in swirls of snow. That meant, goodness gracious, the snowmen stood no chance against Eschaton’s great balls of fire. I even joined in, but only after running back in to grab Qiang’s robe, slippers, and jacket. And mittens. A hat, too. This one shivering kid tried to grab the robe from me, but I kicked her cold ass away. Then I sighed, remembered I was supposed to help her, and just dumped all the clothes on Qiang. “Put these on, honey bunny. I’ll be back.”

I grabbed the freezing girl and hauled her inside to pile heavy blankets on her. Helping her is why I wasn’t out there when all the snow on the ground sucked itself up into a pile. The little snowmen disappeared as well, their snow contributing to the body of one far larger than the others, with arms of grand leafless maples trees. I don’t know where it got them from, but I knew a couple good stabs would give us all the syrup we’d ever need. It roared and swiped at heroes. I pulled out a grappling hook and fired it at Qiang to yank her away from where one giant maple hand smashed into the dead grass everyone stood on.

“Everyone back!” said Eschaton, being just the biggest damn buzzkill, even compared to the giant bee woman I’ve had sexy times with.

“But I wanna kill the giant thirty-foot-tall snowman!” I yelled, probably guessing its height wrong. There was no time to have my HUD add Subway foot longs for a more accurate measurement. It didn’t carry over the enormous gout of flame. Steam hissed, and warm water soon splashed onto the courtyard and came rushing toward the entrance as a wave. I grabbed Qiang, ripped my helmet off, and shoved it over her own head. Just as the wave reached us, I saw the digital numbers on my HUD clock roll over and over before settling on 12:01 and-

I sat bolt upright where I was somehow sleeping in the refectory. I looked over to the table Qiang had been on and she also sat up. The clock read 12:01 and the sound of fading jingly bells still floated on the air. I stood up and ran to the window where I thought I saw something flying through the night sky. I’d have sworn I heard the laugh, too. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Despite that, snow still coated the ground. There was no evidence of the fight, including scorch marks where Eschaton had been flaming up the place. It was while examining the absence of my explosive decorations that the rest of the school came in, similarly awakened from the dream. Qiang had been busy examining all the presents hidden on a different side of the tree.

“What the fudge was that?!” Venus wondered in a kid-friendly way. “Did you put something in the food?”

“Not this time,” I answered. “You think this was some kind of plan of mine? No. Face it, unless my only goal was to protect my daughter, I failed here. Everyone’s here and safe. I didn’t even get to enact Plan M.” I gestured toward her as if Venus knew Plan M was the one where she died.

“Here, presents!” said Qiang, holding up one for each of us.

“Who gave me a present?” I asked while Venus asked, “Who gave her a present?”

“Santa?” asked Venus after reading the tag. “It’s sweet you got all these, but I have questions. Questions that,” she glanced around as amped-up kids already tearing into all the new presents on what was technically now Christmas. “Can hold until later, pending a drug test.”

I popped open the crotch access. Venus pushed it back closed. “Later!”

It’s safe to say I hope everyone else out there had a Happy Psycho Christmas as well.

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Frozen Over 7

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With Christmas fast approaching, I dropped my bombshell on the heroes. I feel really stupid for even forgetting it. Maybe I’m catching the Mad Cow. Maybe I’m losing my edge. Maybe I need to replace my brain completely so that it’s all compact and electronic. Then, I can make it so my head splits open down the middle and can clamp down on the arms of anyone trying to punch me in the face. Regardless, I was stupidly distracted for one reason or another and I actually forgot I had video footage. When told to make someone believe in Christmas again, I didn’t think to immediately show him the video of a mythological Christmas creature saying that.

I could try and pretend it was nothing but a plan, like to add drama, but the best excuse I have is that the heroes likely wouldn’t believe it anyway. My memory’s been all over the place and so has my brain. I think it’s the company. They keep trying to fry my brain with Christmas songs and Nativity scenes.

Regardless, my excuse about trust appeared to be a good one when I walked in on the adult heroes sitting around and enjoying a movie. I had waited for Eschaton to get there because I could and I knew he’d do so. So I just walked in, ignoring John McClane crawling around an air vent, and grabbed the HDMI cable from the back of the DVD player. Regardless of the audience’s protests, I stepped to the side of the TV, faced them. “Ok, folks. It’s time I show y’all something.”

“This better not be porn,” said Triclops.

“Porn is an option?” Eschaton said.

Psychsaur gently thwacked him on the back of the head. “It’s not porn.”

“Correct. This is… ok, so time is getting short and it’s time to come clean. For those who don’t know… pretty much just Eschaton at this point… I’m Psycho Gecko. Yep, laying that on the table.”

Eschaton looked around at everyone else. “Is this a joke?”

Venus shook her head.

“Then why aren’t we beating him up? He’s a he, right?” Eschaton asked.

I shrugged. “Originally, but you never know when a pair of boobs will come in handy.”

“Gecko is behaving herself right now,” Psychsaur said. “She even goes out on patrol with us.”

“Can we not mention that part so loud?” I asked. “People will get ideas.”

“Doing what?!” Eschaton asked.

Triclops spoke up. “You should have seen her with that fire. Broke her arms rescuing people, then part of the building collapsed under her while she was rescuing hamsters.”

“That was crazy,” snorted Minotaur. “The good kind of crazy.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, roast Gecko for Christmas,” I said. “All this is… well, I’m sure Venus has told you it’s a ploy. A hard one to live with, y’all ruining my bad name like this. I’m not turning over a new leaf. This isn’t going to end with em donning the red undies to save people. I’m just worried because my daughter is threatened.”

“Gecko has a daughter?!” Eschaton asked.

“They’ll take her,” I said.

“Who will take her?” asked Eschaton, eliciting groans from everyone else.

“This story is nonsense,” said Triclops.

I jammed the cable into my ear. For added effect, I changed the setting on my eyes to show a “Please stand by” rainbow screen while I connected to the cable.

On playback, the footage was odd. Skipped around a bit, had errors in it that screwed with seeing anything. Everything that I perceived was there, don’t get me wrong. But I was missing time, and those errors added up. I had to fast forward through that stuff to get to the relevant bits. Let’s just say a few new problems came up with the audio talking about me getting Eschaton for them all, helped by my own narration of the tale.

Still, the first question after I’d out and out shown them all these beings was simple, “What was up with all that ‘magical anomaly’ stuff?” That one came from Ball Boy.

“Oh, that’s just part of my normal HUD here.” My eyes went back to normal and I showed them the normal view.

“Wait, you’re magical?” Triclops turned to Minotaur, then back to the TV screen. “I’m NOT? I thought I had magic in me somewhere!”

It was Eschaton who spotted the analysis software matching faces and body types to names. “You’ve been looking at everyone here and figured out our identities?”

“I’ve been messing with some of y’all for years, and I had access to every top secret file in the world for a little bit.” For good measure, I flashed the identity of D.B. Cooper for a second so they could see. “But at the same time, I haven’t acted on that stuff while I’ve been here, have I? And y’all saw why. Krampus, Ruprecht, those other assholes… Pete.”

“Who’s Pete?” Psychsaur just had to ask. I cued up distorted showing of my encounter with Pete the other night.

“When you start hiring actors in blackface, this has gone too far,” Venus said.

They booed me and threw popcorn. Minotaur got up to grab hold of me but I shook him off and tore the cable from my ear, pain be damned. I stormed out of there, but Psychsaur soon caught up to me as I headed down the hall.

“Hey! Wait, don’t do something stupid,” she called.

I turned on her. I would say I glared, but that implies anger. I wasn’t angry. “I already did something stupid. I came to y’all for help.”

“You always have an ulterior motive. We knew you weren’t serious about pretending to be a hero, but we didn’t throw you out. If you want to seek help, we’re happy to give it,” she said. “Sorry, that sounds cliché, but it’s not just a line. Whatever’s wrong with you, you don’t have to be alone. If you want help, it’s never too late.”

I turned on her and had her slammed against the wall in an instant. Little miss psychic couldn’t read that one happening in time. “I don’t need that kind of help. This isn’t some cry for attention about my mental or moral state. This is a real thing, with real beings, and my daughter really on the line.”

“I’m your friend. Get your hands off of me,” she said, looking me in the eyes. I think then she realized exactly how serious I was. Maybe she could sense how cold I’d gone inside. Not frozen blood or anything. Just cold. No anger or regret. “We’re here to help, but not if you’re just going to use us and not get help. If you do that, you’ll just end up alone or leave Qiang an orphan. You’re always going to need help and that’s why you let people like Moai and Carl close, then push them away to keep them safe because the way you live is too dangerous for love. It’s push them away or change. Now you have a kid.”

I let her go. It was that or kill her, and I just barely like her enough not to kil her. Heedless of a small crowd of concerned heroes looking at me from the TV room, I headed to the library and to get dressed.

Whirlygig, not Gecko. I went out on patrol. It took a lot to not slide into my armor instead of the costume. But it’s all part of the plan. I think we’re on Plan M at this point. There’s really a lot of improvisation in these, though. For example, there’s no way I could have planned around the Greens wrecking a bunch of fire hydrants in Empyreal City’s south side. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but the stuff they were on meant they could take a beating. Coincidentally, I wanted to give a beating.

They weren’t just flooding the streets. They roamed around, a lot of regular guys with a bit more hair than normal in lighter clothes than normal for this time of year. One skinny guy in dreadlocks ripped a hydrant right out of the ground with his bare hands.

They were led by a guy who didn’t get the memo about it being Casual Friday. He had grown, bulged even, but not in the conventional bodybuilder sense. He was barrelchested and -bellied with what looked like a pelt in that low light. All that was less noticeable than the humongous antlers on his head, wider than his shoulders and curved like a moose. “Look at the rack on that one,” I said to myself. Then I put on some music and sang along to the only lyrics in it, “Oh what fun it is to ride a pimped-out getaway!”

Antlers, dreadlocks, and another seven guys, all trying to spread water and then tossing stuff into it. I looked further down the street where they came from and saw plants growing already. As far back as I could see, there were vines and tall bushes.

I started off the fight landing on one guy who had been vaping, which is what made him such a priority target. He went down with my boots on his back, but groaned and started to stand up. I jumped up and backflipped, coming down again on it. Again, he started to stand, so I locked in a sleeper hold while he stood.

With a snort from the big guy, the closest three guys came over to put a stop to me. For an ordinary man, that’d be more than enough. If the boobs are any indication, I am no ordinary man.

Three opponents. Divide and conquer. I checked around for anything and found a turned-over plastic trash can. I set it upright and held onto it while I flipped over it toward the closest Green. Upon landing, I brought the can up and over, slamming it down onto that Green with his arms trapped at his side and a LOT of thin brown liquid flowing down around his body. I grabbed him and threw him at the next closest Green.

The last of the three was bald with a large flower tattooed on top of his head. I spun toward him and sent one of the recently-repaired mechanical arms whipping around to knock him in the face. I kept up the spin to give momentum to the other arm as it came around to catch the back of his calf and drop him to one knee. I followed through to turn around and backflipped, planting a boot on his head and sending him down to the sidewalk. He stayed down, so that was nice.

Behind me, the one in the trash can still rolled around, trying to wiggle his way out of the bottom. The friend who was supposed to be helping him instead came after me. A long-haired guy with half-moon shades, actually. He got in a punch as I tried to stand after my flippy kick, knocking a tooth loose. I spat it in his face along with some blood. He paused to wipe it away and gave me a moment to stand. “You want the tooth?” I asked. Then I dropped my fangs and pumped Sriracha from my venom sacks. “You can’t handle the tooth!” I spat a red mist of hot sauce into his eyes just when he thought it was safe to look around. He screamed and tried to wash his face out in the street.

The third one, meanwhile, was still wiggling. I flipped the can upright so he was balanced on his head and jammed it between a pair of cars that were perilously parallel parked.

The big guy must have paid attention, because I barely had a moment of rest before a redhead was on me. She clawed at my hair and even ripped a few purple stands out, then pushed me down and got on top. Her first punches weren’t that good, but she got better and I began to miss my helmet. Unfortunately for her, being on my back was a pretty good base to send the mechanical arms up under her armpits and fling her off me and into a nearby car whose alarm started to go off.

Again I got to my feet and again I had a superpowered gangbanger, this one in a hoodie, came at me swinging. I caught his arm between the mechanical ones and backed up, pulling him with me while he was off-balance. He caught his foot on the edge of the sidewalk and tipped forward onto his face, at which point I jammed my heel into the back of his kidney and bladder a half dozen times until he was too busy pissing blood to fight.

I barely dodged the broken hydrant Dreadlock threw at my head. He and the last remaining mook, a Green woman with a pair of dreamcatchers for earrings, had decided not to come at me one at a time.

I stepped behind a nearby SUV for cover and a little time to breathe, then dropped down to see how they were going to come at me. Dreadlock’s shoes and dreamcatcher’s sandals stepped up to the vehicle’s front. They pulled it out and away from me. I smiled to myself and ran around to the back. I popped the rear door and easily, then crawled it. I gathered as much speed as I could and brough the mech arms up as a shield and a ram. I smashed through the windshield and grabbed dreamcatcher by the head.

I swung around on her back for a moment, pulling us back from the SUV and dreadlocks. Setting myself back on my feet, I hauled her around to face me by her earring and used the mech arms to throw her into the air. I rolled back then and used all my arms to push off the ground with my boots in the air, catching the falling Green in the face. She rolled off to the side and didn’t move, but her chest kept moving.

Dreadlock almost put his boot in my face, though. Instead it just went through the street as I rolled. My body protested the constant moving that was my advantage over these guys like this and asked kindly if I had any more of that oxygen shit it loves.

I tried to hit this last one with my mech arms, but he caught them. It seemed like a good moment to bring in my hoverboard drones. They had separated and now flew past, shooting grappling hooks as they passed. The lines wrapped around Dreadlock’s legs. He had a moment to think about what was happening before he let go of me to try and grab onto anything to stop him from being hauled off. He almost got the car. The drones flew him up into the air a good bit, aimed, and then cut the line. He crashed down on the annoying car with the alarm going off, his impact abruptly silencing it.

That just left me with several aches, short on breath, and probably something broken, to face the big moose one on one. This would be something of a fair fight. I hate fair fights. They’re a desperation move, and I wasn’t desperate yet.

I called the drones over. They locked into hoverboard mode as they approached and I hopped on, speeding away. Maybe the big moose knuckle even though I was going for real. As soon as I got out of sight over the rooftops, I circled around to catch him from behind. The mech arms wrapped around his leg and I dragged him, racing down the street. I bounced him off the road and against cars parked along the side. I flew us higher and smacked him right into this giant boxing glove sign hanging over a gym. Then I flew us up a few more stories past that and let him go. I looped around so I was right in front of him at the apex and started wailing on him. I went for the gut to knock the air of out him, pummeling with fists mechanical and biological. He his swings were slow, and I could jump off my hoverboard and bring it right back under me whenever I needed to avoid them.

Together we descended, though I still had the ability to stop short before cratering the road like he did.

It was a testament to whatever the Greens were smoking that he’d live. I just had to hope he wouldn’t enjoy it that much with those sirens on the way. The cops were more than happy to bat cleanup at that point. I didn’t stay either. I had vented a lot of frustration, and realized I needed to see to a few other things before the adrenaline left me a quivering mass of person goo in the street.

At least I managed to get back to the school and drop off the presents I had under the tree before I passed out. Venus woke me up in the morning to make the walk of shame from the cafeteria to my quarters in the library. I refused to tell her what happened, but she said something about a report from her friends in the police about Whirlygig. I did my best to avoid her face, not wanting to see the expression there. Pride, I think.

Before she shut the door to the library behind me, she decided to tell me, “You better clean up all that nose blood, and Merry Christmas.”

I held it open long enough to stick my face back out and mutter a “Bah humbug,” before slamming it shut.

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Frozen Over 6

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Qiang is bonding so well with all these folks. They don’t seem to hate her at all for her connection to me. I’ve seen people’s reactions to being told she’s mine, and their biggest problem with her parentage is believing she’s mine. But they like her. No one’s trying to kidnap her or anything, not even the ones I figured were assholes.

I was walking along to find Qiang so we could head out to do some sledding, ya see. Figured we might go sledding. I know I have a way to convince people I’m telling the truth about Ruprecht, Krampus, and the rest, but this is about timing and precision. I really only need to convince one person, after all, and I’d rather do so close to Christmas Eve so he doesn’t have time to come up with reasonable explanations or strong drugs.

I made my way down the hall, sneaking almost. I came to a room with Venus and Psychsaur, for instance. Peeked in and found them standing there, holding each other under the mistletoe. It was nothing X-rated, or even me-13. Just girlfriends holding each other and whispering. Now, I suppose it would have been crude to eavesdrop in the hopes of overhearing anything juicy or even, ahem, wet.

“Everything looks beautiful. You should be proud. It’s like a movie around here,” Psychsaur said. Meanwhile, I was wondering if this was about to turn into the Jurassic Park porn parody. Just as a general rule, there’s ALWAYS a porn parody. Hell, there’s even a porn parody of this blog. I keep it locked up in another file. Venus would murder me if she saw it, for real.

Venus blushed. “Christmas has always been so special. It’s the time of year when I most feel I’ve made a family.”

Psychsaur nuzzled her girlfriend’s cheek with her own scaled one. “It feels like everything’s going to be alright.”

Venus smiled at that and hummed a sort of “uh huh” before she kissed Psychsaur. I noticed Psychsaur give a little wave of her hand on my side, like she was waving something along. I quietly slipped further along the hallway before I disrupted their Hallmark moment.

Another room I passed had that minotaur guy and Ball Boy in it, among others. This group had some of the same teens who gathered around to try and fool me out of information on my past that time. They thought they were so clever, too, getting me hurt from a burning building and then giving me drugs. As Mix N’Max once found out, it takes more than a little bit of drugs to get me to talk. It takes a lot of drugs. A shitload. Tony Montana snorting mountains of cocaine.

I’m kidding. It just takes ones with slightly different pathways. They don’t work quite the same way with my brain chemistry. It’s not a sociopath thing so much as a homo machina thing.

A bunch of them were all sitting around watching that one screaming kid convince some burglars to leave him alone by putting on a gangster movie and setting off firecrackers in a pan. Good movie. The kid rigs up his lair with a tarantula and a flamethrower, and hurls paint cans at people’s heads. He’s a regular budding supervillain, just without the minions. Minotaur looked up and saw me there, then snorted and raised his glass. It was either barf or eggnog, but I’m being redundant.

I narrowed my eyes, knowing he knew full well who I was and had some negative experiences with me in the past. I’m not cool with these folks. They act almost like I am, but I know it. They’re just waiting for a reason. I glared at him, pointed at my eyes with two fingers, then pointed to him with them. I got my eyes on him and the rest of his ilk. They wanna trick me, that’s what it is.

I recognized Qiang’s laughter coming from the cafeteria. There, I found Triclops and some others overseeing the efforts of some of the smaller kids to make their own cookies. They’d laid tarp down on the floor, which meant they had a pretty good idea what would happen. It was a bit of a mess, and I found Qiang chewing on hers before it even got cooked. When another kid tagged her arm, she set her cookie down and chased after him.

Look at her. Her first holiday season with me and she’s already chasing human guys in retaliation for daring to touch her. Of course, she didn’t do it because she’s a superior being to the low down humans she congregates with. I leaned against the doorway there, briefly wondering if I even could instill that in her. Her mother was human, after all, and she’ll assume I loved her. More than that, she’ll know she’s half human and that this might make her a disappointment in my eyes.

And I suppose humans may not be entirely inferior. Well, not bad at least. Ya know, when they’re not predisposed to oppress someone just for being a sub species. They’re still ugly, though, except for my daughter. They’re just a lot better here and now than where I come from. Yeah, I’ll definitely teach her she’s superior to those bastards. Screw them.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” said a male voice from behind me. I turned to see Eschaton there. He smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Michael.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Tia,” I held out my hand and shook. “Tia Mot.” If he found the name strange, he didn’t let on. It was almost disappointing, considering the play on words I came up with there.

“If you don’t mind me asking, is there something wrong?” he asked.

“What? Why?”

“You’re tense for someone watching the children. I don’t mean to pry.” He held up his hands. “I only mean to help, if it’s something I can help with. Wow, those eyes…” He leaned in to peer at them. I blinked and reopened them with the camouflage on so they appeared to be hazel human eyes.

“Yeah, my eyes.” I said, not so happy he leaned in close to me. He’s not bad looking, but I aim to fuck him over, not fuck him. “I was just thinking about where I came from and how different things are from here. My daughter is going to have a remarkably better upbringing than I did.”

He looked past me into the room. “That’s great. I know it must be weird. My dad wanted a better life for me too, but he sometimes seemed like he didn’t think I was as good as him because I didn’t grow up facing the same prejudice he did. He had to take those hard times he lived through and turn them into a kind of strength. I think there are many types of strength. If she’s going here, she’ll be just fine. They take people of different strengths and make them strong together.”

I turned back to the room. Something about that just bothered me. Teammates can die. I know, I’ve killed them. They can be subverted or given to doubts. I’ve done so. Hell, I’d cause a rift between this guy and the Master Academy capes just telling him my name. While this place seems good for Qiang, I just don’t know if I can have her grow up thinking she can rely on these other people. Even if the humans here are good for humans, a true credit to their species, they’re still people. They’re still inherently weak. They will disappoint her. They will make her hurt.

Qiang spotted me while chewing on her cookie, which hadn’t yet been baked. She waved and I caught myself smiling in spite of my mood. Why not just let her have cookie time?

I turned to step away from the door. “That was yours, huh?” asked Eschaton. He turned to follow me. “She was cute. Hey, if you think it’ll cheer you up, they’re watching movies down the hall.”

I shook my head. “Sorry there, Michael. Christmas just isn’t my time of year.”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” he said, following me on my way back to the library.

“Ugh, the songs are one thing I don’t like. I didn’t grow up with all this, so I don’t exactly get in the Christmas spirit,” I said I turned to look at him as I walked backward.

He shrugged. “Fair enough. I haven’t been into Christmas for some time. I didn’t even think they’d invite me here this year.”

“They don’t like you?” I asked.

He scratched at the back of his head through his long, dark hair. “We had differences of opinion this year. It means a lot to me that they looked past it.” He looked back as someone called his superhero name. He turned to me and grinned. “Sorry, I need to see to that. Hey, I’ll see you around?”

I shrugged now. “Maybe if you’re around the library.”

Oh, have I mentioned I’ve taken up wearing needless glasses? Between that, the knee-length skirt, and the button-down blouse, I’m getting to live that sexy librarian fantasy of mine. Ya know, just like anyone else would.

It was in that capacity that I learned of another complication. There I was, rearranging books. “Hmm. This should be under ‘H’ for toy…” Then door opened, as if the place was just available to everyone.

The Yellow Dimension Ranger walked in. Uniform and everything. I immediately took a stance, book in hand.

“Stop,” he said in accented English that would sound like some sort of Southern accent to anyone else. Lots of planets have a south though, and the South has lots of accents. His was the same sort of accent as mine. “You are the librarian here?”

I nodded and looked around for any more of the Rangers.

Yellow pushed buttons on something on his wrist and the costume disappeared in a flash of light. He stood there in a different sort of uniform that spoke to a more militant style of Ranger. Some of them are like that. One year they’re civilians, kids even. The next, they’re a private organization of adventurers or archaeologists or mercenaries. Then they’re a government-sponsored defense force. There’s not a lot of consistency in who ends up with those abilities.

Yellow held up his hands, more like someone under arrest. “I want to find books on the history.”

I set him up with that, then rushed off to go find Venus. Couldn’t find her in the TV room, the den, the living room, the sitting room, nor the foyer. She wasn’t in the cafeteria, or the vending machine room, or the bathrooms. I looked behind doors. I checked under tables. Finally, I pulled open the window to Venus’s room. Given it was a couple stories up, she should have thought harder before she and Psychsaur threw those pillows.

“Get out of here Gecko!” She yelled and came storming over, barely covering herself with the sheet.

“Wait!” I put my wrist out where the window couldn’t shut. I pulled it out, thinking it might be fractured. I put my other one in there instead. A slam of the window later and that one was definitely fractured. I flailed both my arms backward, but didn’t fall off the back of the building.

Venus stuck her head out and looked down at me. “How are you doing that?”

I tried to shoot her finger guns despite the pain. “Baby, you’d be amazed what some of my parts can do.”

She looked at me like she wanted to go ahead and push me off. “Speak. Now.”

“The Dimension Rangers are here!” I shouted.

She smiled. “They are? I didn’t think they’d come.”

“You invited them?!” I glared at her. Hell, pretty sure Psychsaur could see my point on that one. “They hate me. They want to kill me.”

“It’s Christmas. I’ll make sure they give you a chance here if you give them a chance,” she said. She actually reached out and caressed my face. “Here, get in and stay the hell out of my room.” She helped me in, which was nice given my poor wrists. She guided me over to the door. “Just relax and make up a name or something. Keep your head down. Don’t cause trouble. Get those arms looked at, while you’re at it.”

She actually seemed rushed to get me out of the room for some reason. Don’t know why. Maybe it had to do with overhearing her say, “At least we know he can’t do anything about what he saw in here until he heals,” as she closed the door.

Well, I’m glad they’re getting fucked. With the Dimensional Justice Rangers invited, that makes three of us.

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Frozen Over 5

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Eschaton arrived today. In all the internal injuries, I hadn’t noticed. That, and checking on the news from Ricca. The Directory’s gone and divided up into two main groups, and I had to keep up with all the political news. Political parties like that tend to be fairly different, and only a fool would stick their head in the sand and decide they’re the exact same. After all, if they were, you’d think they’d just make themselves one big group instead of dividing up like that.

Regardless, I’m keeping an eye on it. Wouldn’t want these humans wrecking things for everyone. If it goes too far, I may look all the better to everyone else for stepping in to save them from the evils of democracy. And there are evils there. For all the crappiness of World War I, it was mostly a morally-neutral affair. Then the people swept the Russian Czar out of power, Germany went democratic, and the Italians decided to elect a guy running on traditional Roman values. The democratic United States decided that was a fine time to start instituting restrictions on Jewish immigration from Europe as well.

Government by the people assumes an awful lot about the competency of the people. The same people, it should be noted, who made that annoying Youtube idiot a star. I’m not even saying who, because anybody reading has someone in mind for that label.

That’s why the people need more than just whatever the majority of them decides is a government. If they want to be safe and have their rights protected, they need something higher. Something like institutions or ideals, so that when the people are collectively tricked or extorted into sinking into their own worst selves, it stands there to protect them from themselves. And if there’s anyone better suited to kill people because they’re too stupid to do what’s best for themselves, it’s me.

So, back to the in-person side of things, I was helping hang up decorations around the school when outside the school there arose such a clatter. I stepped down from this box of wholesale soap I’d been using as a small ladder and went to go see what was the matter.

New arrivals! Some showed up with vehicles and luggage, but others just flew on in. Eschaton was one of the latter. For the talk of people not inviting him, I expected some outrage. Nope. People generally acted ok around him, so maybe it was more like that uncle you invite over who tells jokes about how fun it’d be to own a black person. I thought I’d have to smooth it all over and make a case. It’s just nice when things go right for once. Problem is, that probably means it went wrong.

So they let Eschaton in and gave him quarters like any of these other visiting heroes. They didn’t bother with masks most of the time, either. Then again, Master Academy’s been lax about that around me. Idiots, all of them. They shouldn’t trust me, even with that self-imposed notion that I owe them.

It bothered me even more than the notion that Psychsaur’s psychic bond with me caused me to take some habits from her. I get the sense in my head that they’re falling for me pretending to be turning over a new leaf. Really falling for it. It ticks me off a bit they’d think I could turn so easily, but I can’t correct them. I have to play this game. And part of playing this game is playing fewer games. I sighed looking down and went to go find Venus.

I passed a classroom along the way where some of the supers were entertaining the kids. There weren’t as many roaming around during the holidays, not that this is any kind of formal school system. Master Academy’s doors were open for all its students during the holiday if they had no place to go. I expect it has to do with how many heroes used to be orphans themselves, or come from bad homes. Better check in on the orphans back home, by the way.

I’d say Venus was expecting me, but I think she pretty much always expects me. The really weird part is I knocked on the door of her room to draw her out. When she opened it, she looked around and then right up where I was hanging onto the wall above the door. She sighed. “Hello Gecko.”

I dropped down next to her and started slipping off the climbing claws from my hands. “Heya Venus.”

“We put a lot of work into this place. Try not to destroy it,” she said.

“Properly done, an act of destruction can be just as beautiful as a creation,” I said. “By the way, y’all should have spent more on wood. That stuff’s a little cheaper than I expected from the fancy hero school so nice it has a school on both ends of a country.”

She crossed her arms over in front of her chest, “What do you want?”

“Just to confirm what you’ll soon suspect when you hear he’s here: I invited Eschaton.” I put on a big grin. Nothing disarms people like the baring of teeth. Ok, scratch that. I tried to play it up as awkward.

For her part, Venus gritted her teeth and bluntly asked, “Why?”

I held up my hands. “It’s kinda stupid, but these things after me are seasonal. They aren’t camping out with Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. It’s all cold and winter and snow, because that’s part of what created them. I figured it might help to have a really hot guy around.”

She raised her eyebrow. “You’ve really embraced your feminine side.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fire powers, and he’s got more fire than any of the rest. I’m kinda grasping at straws here, Venus. It isn’t usually a problem when I don’t know what to do.”

“Just be good for goodness sake,” she said. From her smile, I think she suspected I didn’t care for Christmas music that much. It’d probably be just fine if people didn’t play the same repetitive songs for two months straight on the radio and in public places. We get it, you like your bells and your dingaling!

I winced a little. Now it was my turn to glare at Venus. “Last time I did that, you gave up on me for stealing from a church. You have a head injury lately? You’re forgetting recent stuff.”

Her grin grew wider. “If you really wanted to help, you could join us tonight for carols and other songs in the cafeteria.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, but my singing abilities are as legendary as my knife skills, and for the same reason. It’s like my mouth is the Ark of the Covenant, only the Nazis throw me out of the bar before I melt everyone’s faces off. So that’s settled and I’ll not be attending. Buh bye now.” I turned to walk away, but she put her hand on my shoulder.

“That’s fine,” she assured me. “You can listen along. It’ll be great. I’d really love to have your support there. We’re piping it into the PA system so everyone on campus can hear.”

And that’s how I ended up taking Qiang with me to go skating that night. That’s also why we were in position when a group of Reds showed up with a flamethrower. “This is not the time for frozen water!” declared man in a shiny foil suit with a red hammers and sickles painted over it. “This is time for scorched earth!”

He was flanked by a couple of compatriots who pulled out AK knockoffs. “We don’t care about the ice. We’re actually here for your jewelry, cash, credit cards, telephones, and any other valuables. Share the wealth, comra-ack!”

Ice skates are one of the few circumstances where I am liberal with the jump kicks. Something like that is usually a pretty stupid move, unless you’re wearing sharpened metal on your feet. They’re gonna need a lot of zambonis for what I left on that ice that night. The crowd still applauded me as a hero, even if some of them lost their dinners on the ice as well.

Just great, even when I kill people, civilians think I’m one of the good guys. Eh, considering how I often try to justify my actions, it’s just a bit of the holiday blues. It was easy to put out of mind once I took Qiang by a donut shop to make up for her ice skating being cut almost as short as the guy with the flamethrower ended up. They’re gonna have to fuse his shinbones up there above his knees the way I left him. On the plus side, walking around with my very own flamethrower meant the donut people gave me a hefty discount. On top of that, it was steaming hot.

We stopped when I saw a man in an anachronistic outfit. Old fashioned, with poofy things all over. Like if Prince came back to life, I suppose, but with black grease all over his face and crazily curled hair. He smiled at me from across the street, which is when I noticed the bright red lipstick.

I moved Qiang behind me. “Pete,” I said. “I expected I’d run into you at some point.”

“Call me Black Pete,” he said in a Dutch accent.

“I haven’t heard people like you before,” Qiang said in her formal learned English. “Where are you from?”

“The Nether Regions,” I answered her.

“The Nether Lands,” Pete corrected me.

I looked subtly around and saw we’d stopped next to a fruit vendor who was in the middle of packing up. I kept my eyes on Pete, though, while readying to reach out and grab the first fruit I could get my hands on. I swear, I could hear that Western harmonica thing, “Waaa, waaa, waaa.” The wind picked up briefly and a frozen piece of newspaper coated with snow rolled past. If only it’d been high noon. As soon as the wind stopped, I grabbed the fruit and raised it to throw. I didn’t realize until I’d released how heavy it was. I’d thrown a watermelon.

“Who sells watermelon in December?” I wondered to myself. I reached out the other direction, looking for anything loose to send at Pete, who dodged the fruit and raised a painted eyebrow.

“Here, toss this,” said a voice from behind me. I gripped something, like a bucket. This time, I checked to see what it was first and found myself holding a bucket of fried chicken. I turned to give some side eye to my anonymous helper and found Pete standing there with a trollish smile on his face. I turned back to look across the street and that Pete was gone.

“You don’t have to be mean, baby,” said Pete. “I’m just here to check on you. We’re getting impatient and now you have your man here. Oh, and you still have your lovely daughter, of course.” He smiled bright white teeth at Qiang and leaned down to offer her a lollipop he pulled out of thin air. “Sweets for the sweet?”

Qiang took it from him. I took it from her and tossed it behind my back. “I’ll get you all the sweets you might need, hon. Just don’t accept anything from this guy.”

“Why? Is he bad?” she asked.

“Your momma here does not like black people,” he said.

“I like black people just fine. Hell, some of my favorite victims were black!” I noticed some people looking out of windows at us disapprovingly. I calmed and quieted my tone before addressing Pete again. “Ok, so you’ve made your reminder quite clear. It’s halfway through the month and now he’s in town. I’ll deal with this my way, you got it? It’s tough, though. There’s a high possibility of failure, and I doubt you want all these heroes knowing about y’all. It’d be better if I had a way to just call y’all in so he’d see for himself.”

Pete shook his head. “No go, Gecko. This is your project and your responsibility. We want nothing to do with anything else until it’s time for someone to be delivered to us. We trust you. No, to be precise, we trust you know what will happen should you fail. Now, I must go. My yearly duties are nearly begun.”

He bent down and picked up a large basket that I hadn’t noticed was there. It may not have been. The thing looked big enough to hold a small person or a child in it, and it was his, so this was for show. He picked it up and put his arm through a strap on it so he could easily carry it on his shoulder. Then he gave Qiang a wink and said, “See you around, darling. Merry Christmas.”

He disappeared then in snowflakes that dispersed on a wind that whipped up on us suddenly.

On the plus side, I’m glad he didn’t have any suggestion. One occurred to me that I should have thought of earlier, and I’m well on my way to it. I do, indeed, need to be bad hero. The heroes only trust me so far, too. So I need to look desperate. I need them to take the threat seriously. Then, I’ll show them absolute proof of their existence, proof I had the entire time.

After all, I thought while looking Qiang over. She was a left confused by the entire exchange, seeing is believing. No, scratch that. Seeing is the end of belief and the beginning of knowledge. And the Companions of Kringle themselves admitted that knowledge is stronger than belief any day.

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