You could cut the tension as the invasion day approached, but most people were saving their knives for the invaders. We got most of the civilians rounded up. The old geothermal power plant had space, as did the tunnels for the underground high speed rail. Others took shelter in old black sites. Anyone who wished to leave the island was allowed. I’d have pushed for a general evacuation, but there’s really no telling where all will be hit. That’s the same reason I didn’t recall all my agents or my wife. Informing us of the invasion ahead of time may be of questionable strategy, but it created a lot of uncertainty and confusion that can work against us in the initial strike.
Those who wanted to fight were given the opportunity for that as well. The training kept my soldiers ready and helped them focus. We could always use the manpower. Beetrice didn’t stay, but at least we have VelocityRaptor back, mostly healed from that business in Africa. He failed to kill Velociraptor. We’ve also still got Silver Shark, who decided to take up position near the beach with the Deep One militia. Bronze Rhino, another Claw creation, was pulled out of his homestead in the wilderness and sobered up to help defend the city. We needed him to fight, and his alcohol for Molotovs.
So the clocks tick-tocked away, bringing us closer and closer to a clash. I finished doing what I could to my armor. Plenty of integrated nanite-holding quilt on the inner layer, spiked blades on knees and elbows, and as many chicken grenades and explosive throwing knives as I could pack.
Venus watched me as I worked in my study. “Are you ready?”
I laughed. “Is anybody truly ready?”
“Did you have one of Max’s brownies he’s passing around? You shouldn’t have dulled reactions right now,” she said.
I shook my head and turned to look at her, “I am fully in control of my own faculties. Razor sharp, you might say.”
“You look tense.” She walked over and ran her hands through my hair. “How do you feel?”
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. “A little tense and excited. You?”
“The same. The big fights don’t announce when they’re coming. I had the Academy send me my exoskeleton through Cape Diem. Don’t worry, I repainted it in my new colors.” She stopped running my head and I reached up to hold her hand.
We stayed like that for several seconds, then I smiled and made the situation worse with singing. “It’s an emergency, call the police, you left me and abandoned the lease.” The guitar, bass, and drums started up when I put on the actual song to cover up my disastrous singing voice.
Venus giggled, then started dancing when I stood up. I heard a squeal from the doorway to find Qiang dancing there to “Gave You Everything” by The Interrupters. I pulled Venus over so I could grab Qiang and lift her up. Further down the hall, Sam rocked out, then hopped on something and played an imaginary guitar.
It was just stupid fun to music. It was right. It was what we needed and it broke the tension. And it was just in time, because pretty much everything we were using to detect an incursion went off at once. I didn’t know whether to expect a portal or a craft of some sort. We got both, but the portals were temporary and the craft were floating and flying. The things in the sky had hull like ship with a narrow angle. Could have been some sort of floating battleship or destroyer for all I know ship designations. The ones in the water were wider and more round, like if someone made a circular aircraft carrier and loaded the deck with guns.
Some of those ended up cut into pieces when the barrier went up. Explosions rippled across it from where the flying ships had fired already. Some were inside the dome of the shield already when it went up.
I dropped everything and began to suit up, sending out an address while I did so. “People of Ricca, the invasion is incoming. Stay in the shelters unless they’re compromised. If possible, we will evacuate you to areas of the world not under attack. I will not leave you. I’ll keep fighting. You might doubt me as a benevolent leader. Honestly, I don’t think any good leader can be a good person. Ha! By that metric, I’d be an excellent leader. Don’t trust me because of morality. Trust me to be a monster unleashed on your enemies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set a new world record for most bowels perforated with a single fist.”
This is why people hire speechwriters. More competent speakers give these events a certain gravitas.
I flexed my armor and reached for my helmet. Qiang held it up for me, in a smaller, less spiky version of my armor. She didn’t have her helmet on either and smiled at me. Mindful of the spikes, I grabbed her for a hug. “I love you.”
“Love you too, mommy,” she said, setting it on my head. It sealed into place and she walked over to the desk where I’d left my helmet, grabbing her knife and helmet.
“I want you underground, staying safe,” I told her. “And keep your armor on.”
“Yes mama!” she yelled, running off with her helmet past Venus. The heroine rested against the doorway, a smile visible underneath the chrome visor obscuring most of her face.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“Yeah. Time to fight the good fight,” she said, as if that line wasn’t designed to make my eyes roll.
Sam and Holly stayed behind, so it was just the three of us setting out from the palace: Max, Venus, and Gecko. Max twirled a syringe gun in one hand, a spray gun in the other, careful of the bandoleer full of smoke grenades. Venus scanned the area and pulled out a staff that extended. I called over a larger drone that attached underneath the armored battery pack on my back, adding a large pair of lasers designed for heavy use hanging off each side of me, and a stand on my shoulder on which a pair of my normal-sized drones settled with their smaller beam weapons.
Out in the waters, Silver Shark and the Deep One marines had capsized a trio of the invading ships, which shot a lot of empty buildings on the waterfront. Some of those inside tried to swim to shore despite segmented armor, but I had more Deep Ones than they had exceptional swimmers.
The seafaring ships outside the barrier had pressed against it. They were glowing some orange color and slowly easing through. I contacted my submarine, who assured me they had everything in hand. The message came through about the time I saw the explosions tear through the ships. My admiral figured that the natural compliment to a shield around the island is a minefield around the shield. There weren’t many living invaders left to argue the efficacy of that.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t even get to use my armor when white portals began to swallow the battleship aircraft outside the shield. New white portals opened in the air over the water, spitting them back out. They began to adjust targets.
The Intercept team was on it with surface-to-air missiles and drones. The first shots of the battlecraft crashed into the Directory building and probably wrecked my favorite chair. They turned to adjust aim once the first of our missiles began to blow holes in them. My guys focused on three of these things equally for way too long before concentrating fire on the closest. Whatever kept the battlecraft afloat in the air didn’t compensate for the hits and it rocked back and forth until something gave out and it crashed into the water. The other two focused on the military base. Note to self: when rebuilding the military base, include its own shield. Same for the new Directory building and the Palace.
The next craft to go down was dissected in a fucking grid pattern by laser drones. It was beautiful. It swung and dipped, just barely missing the remaining battlecraft. Gotta give them points for trying. That craft ended up smacking into shallower water, part of the hull crumpling on the beach.
The invaders changed tactics. Four portals began to open up at ground level and stayed open for thirty seconds. “Anyone left at Intercept who sees where these things are coming in?” I asked over my command channel.
“Affirmative, Empress. Intercept Field Unit is deployed. We have eyes on rifts and are passing the locations on, triaging per your orders.”
All are equal under the Empress, but some places are more equal than others. The base’s capabilities are reduced, but we need the power plant and the shield. We need the people in the shelters if they threaten any of them.
After that, more opened. I wasn’t paying so much attention to those, because one of those first sets of portals opened right in front of my group. The ones most eager to die were a bunch of guys who must have interrupted their beard-growing contest to get killed being the most prominent group. There were a few others mixed in. It was a pretty diverse bunch.
I giggled and began to dance, pumping out the next song on my murder playlist, Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage. I spun and slid onto my knees, hands in the air, waving like I just didn’t care, while the heavy lasers and the laser drones I personally commanded went to town on them. The first wave just died. Whatever segmented armor they had wasn’t that good at handling light. Some of the ones to survive were grey guys in tights and vests. A small blossom of light appeared where they were hit. Max tossed one of his grenades and hid behind me. They didn’t come out the other side of the thick blue smoke that spread all over the edge of the courtyard. The stream of enemies came around the sides, but something did walk out of the smoke. I caught a glimpse in between mowing down their buddies.
There were three clunky robots. Heavy metal plating and bolts on the torso chest, head, arms, and legs. It had a thick support connecting the chest to the legs, but didn’t bother with all those delicious parts of living critters. These were some old school robots, staring out at us through slots in their heads that glowed with red lights. Venus stepped up in front of myself and Max. She held her staff in her right hand, angled to avoid the metal spike she extended from the gauntlet. Electricity arced from it, then up along the staff which she swept over the robots. Ball lighting flew forth, throwing off smaller tendrils on its way into the middle of the robots. The others who got too close didn’t take it any better than the miraculous metal men did.
We were barely done with that group when another portal opened behind us. The future corpses who ran out of that one included some in old wool outfits and flintlocks, of all things. I held out a hand and gestured for them to bring it. Venus grabbed my arm and tugged me to the side when one of them fired at me, with Max diving behind me. Behind me, a person-sized hole appeared in the wall around the courtyard.
I targeted the flintlock shooters first after that. Max ducked beneath my legs to fire into the crowd with his gun and called out, “Thanks Venus!”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, a bit grumbly. Ugh, my nemesis I’m in love with saved my life. Time to go write in my diary about how unfair my life is and how I’m so embarrassed I’m just gonna DIE. Wait, is this not the teen drama portion of the narrative? Oh, right, I was murdering folks.
Intercept contacted me for an update after we’d finished with that bunch. “Empress, we have reports of dinosaurs loose in the city. The food growers are under siege and summoned a giant demon plant for assistance. Additionally, VelocityRaptor has responded. The Institute is under attack as well. Dr. Creeper, Bronze Rhino, and Arachnoid are defending. All fronts are holding. The sea battle is over. Silver Shark is bringing the Deep Ones ashore to flank the enemy.”
“Anywhere look like it could stand some reinforcement?” I asked.
“The skeleton crew at the water treatment plant reported an attack. We have dispatched a Flyer and squad to take it back, but we are low on available manpower.”
“I thought we told them to evacuate with the rest…” I looked to Venus and Max. “We’re heading to the water treatment plant to expel some waste. Don’t let them touch the water there if you want to keep them down for good.”
Venus nodded, but I caught something moving toward us out of the corner of my eye. By the time I turned to look, one of those grey fucks was right up in my face, pushing me. The wall we passed through stunned me a bit. You know, like they do. Wrecked my big drone, I think. The grey speedster let me go and I crashed through another wall, and another, and into a small refrigerator in someone’s kitchen. The family left a pot on the stove and rice in a bag nearby. And a superspeedster coming through a hole to stop right in front of me and punch the crap out of my armor. He grabbed my throat. I tried to put a spike through his eye, but he dodged it. I sent a straight at his gut, but he was elsewhere the moment it would have hit. I brought my arm down on his elbow and instead he was choking me with his other hand.
I looked him in his blank eyes and raised my arms. “Really dude?” I asked, despite the tightening grip that threatened to shut off my air supply. But you know what’s faster than super speed most of the time? Light. Guess who has a laser built into her helmet? This bitch. I fired the trio of lasers in my helmet into his eyes and face, for just a moment. The speedy fucker clutched his head.
I laughed my ass off and grabbed him. I pulled open the refrigerator door and pulled him in, smashing the door against his head. He stumbled back away, pushing at me. I caught a beer before it fell out and smashed it over his cranium. I put my heel into his crotch, grabbed him, and threw him against the stovetop. I didn’t need to be a speedster to stick the pot on his head and hit the lasers again. I fried his noggin in the pot. I’d have done it slow, but he was fast. Now he’s a past tense person.
I stepped out, checking on the situation. Venus and Max were on their way to the water treatment plant. I figured I could rendezvous with them, or I could turn right and see why it was suddenly a shady day. I looked, and there stood a sixteen foot tall bird staring down at me with hungry eyes. It opened its beak and roared, showing off a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth.
Command channel time. “I might kill this one, but if we happen to have a spare giant dino bird after this is all over with, I would be happy to have a new pet.” Its beaky maw snatched me up. “This one wants to play already!” It tried to chew me. I put my hands up and stopped it, then stood up on its tongue. I cut the comms channel and addressed the bird directly. “You need to remain calm and stop trying to eat me, or this relationship is never going to work. And it can work! Just look at how things turned out with Venus! All I had to do was change my life, kill fewer people, medicate, have a kid, take responsibility for a bunch of people I don’t know, set up rules for supervillains, and save the world like a dozen times.”
More crap for the diary, in between talking about who I have a crush on and what I want my prom dress to look like, like ohmigosh.
I punched the top of the birdasaur’s mouth. It opened wider and tried again. This time, it caught an elbow blade. It roared and shook its head. I fell out. I hopped up on the birdasaur’s beak and stared it in the eye. “Hey there, critter. I’m your new best friend. I’m gonna hug you and clean up after you and ride you to slaughter my enemies.”
The bird shook its head, then smashed me into the side of the building. I pulled myself up and flipped around to sit on its neck. It hopped and flapped its tiny arms, trying to get rid of me. It rolled over in the street. I don’t crush so easy. I stayed on and gave a “Yippee-ki-yay!” when we came up.
On the street below us, scaly emu things ran along, hissing and growling. I pointed down at them. “Chow down!”
The birdasaur tried to shake me off, but it knew a meal when it saw it. It snatched one up for a meal. At the end of the street, a group of the bearded soldiers and grey men stepped out. They swiped at the emus to chase them off. A soldier raised his sword to point at me. One of the grey men stepped up and raised his hands. A purple ray shot from his hands and singed the feathers on my mount.
I laughed. “Kill, my pretty! Slaughter every last one of them and feast on their bones!” It didn’t seem to need much encouragement after those pitiful attempts to shoot me. It ran into them and started biting. I even hopped down to go after that one grey guy. “That all you got? I killed a guy with super speed earlier. I’ve seen some of your buddies fly and take missiles. ‘Sup?”
He tried shooting me and all the blast did was leave a dark mark on my armor. He tried again and still did nothing. A raider sung at me from the side. I caught the blade and pulled it free from his hands, flipped it around to take the grip, and shoved it through his mouth. I grabbed the blade again and pulled it free, then kicked the body up into the air where my new pet chomped on it. When I turned back to the grey guy who shot at me, he was running. I jumped over him to land in his way. He skidded short and raised his hands in front of his face. “Please-!”
I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over. “I like it when they beg. You want me to like you? Beg more. Tell me things.” I laughed and grabbed him. “Why are you so weak when some of you things are so strong?”
“We are clones,” it told me. It shook as the birdasaur roared.
I slapped its face. “Don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. You’re clones, right?”
“We are made. Some of us have strong powers. If we are loyal and strong, we are promoted to serve the masters. If not, we serve with the vassals from the provinces.”
I brushed off his tights. “There you go. Good guy, telling me things.” I punched him and knocked him out. I saw a car nearby and carried him over. He fit pretty well into the trunk. My new pet roared at me, read for another go, but then squad of robotmen rounded the corner. I yelled back, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran for them. They raised their arms and shot bolts of molten metal at me. I could feel that, whatever it was. I could also turn invisible, and did so. Shooting like that didn’t make the birdasaur happy, and it couldn’t even eat these ones.
I watched it have fun with them from a rooftop nearby. I glanced up to look around, seeing Psycho Flyers all about. Some of them fired down on hotspots, like one over by the water treatment plant. “This is the Empress. Status update?”
“The portals have stopped, your eminence. The enemy is divided, but most large groups are breaking off to concentrate on the shield building.”
“Reinforce the building as best you can to make sure it doesn’t fall. Let them gather,” I said. I hate that kind of wait. The Institute, farm, and water treatment detachments never made it to the rally point because they got fed pavement with some serious velocity with the help of my guys. The Deep Ones and soldiers used the big gathering to start clearing sections of the city. The weird dino-bird things were the main trouble there. It’s like someone opened up portals to an alternate dinosaur era and let the wildlife run through.
And then, with more than a thousand people banging away at the power plant’s gates, water rose from manholes and drains outside of it. The army might have taken it for a minor inconvenience until the itching started. Being taken apart piece by piece will do that to you. Some tried even harder to break in, but the Psycho Flyers massed to drop my people in there and to concentrate firepower on that front. The ones who tried to run found out hard that is when your feet are falling apart. Whoops, then they fell into the water.
I guided my new feathered friend as best as I could to watch, making sure the nanites knew not to eat this one. Sure, it still tried to fight me and throw me into things, but I think we were getting used to one another. It was a good enough place to watch as the invaders found out that I am quite literally the master of this island.
When the screaming was over, I called up Max. “I got a big boy for you to tranquilize. Or girl. I don’t know how to sex a bird.”
“Come now,” Max said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I was drunk that time,” I reminded him.
“Hey, butting in here, what’s going on?” asked Venus. “Did we win?”
I added Command to the line. “Well, did we win?”
The voice on the other line gave a rundown. “The enemy is no longer a coherent force at anything but the squad level. The city has been 24% cleared. The portals are stopped, the craft are in retreat. The Battle of Ricca appears to be over.”
I clapped my hands. “Very good. I’m guessing, not everyone was as lucky?”
“The United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were all invaded by significantly larger forces of differing effectiveness. In addition, the United States and Russia are fighting traitors. There are other nations fighting, including North Korea. Some have surrendered. We are assembling a list of others who repelled their invasions.”
“There’s your answer then, Venus,” I told her. “Today, Ricca. Tomorrow… the world!”
My ambition blinded me. It lit up the sky, though Intercept broke in with and explained things differently. “Large rift opening outside the dome.”
The image I saw was basically a giant gun with engines on it to keep it afloat. And maybe something loose in the water way behind it, but the big weapon might just do it for me here. The huge barrel pointed at us glowed, then shot what looked like a miniature sun at our shield.
“Brace your sphincters, everyone,” I told announced.
The energy blast blinded us as it approached, even though the tinting functionality on my helmet’s display. It struck the shield and lashed out like it was releasing solar flares. The shield went red in a ripple that rolled out from that point, audibly crackling loud enough to drown out even the communication device sealed to my head. The shield and the sun both disappeared at once.
“Casualties at the power plant!” I heard someone call out. “Evacuate and triage!”
I didn’t tell them not to bother. I patted the birdasaur and pulled at its neck feathers until its head turned in the right direction and it began to run for the gun. “Status on our D-bomb stockpile?”
Creeper answered, “It appears an infiltrator reached Bomb Storage with an incendiary device. We have no functional D-Bombs.”
“I’m moving to intercept,” I announced.
“That’s crazy,” Venus said.
“Looks like I’m perfect for it,” I told her. I saw the gun’s barrel glowing again. I knew perfectly well I’d never make it, and never be able to do anything to it. But when there’s nothing left but death, might as well let it know you’re not afraid of it.
I had regrets, though. Plenty, including for my daughter.
A beam from high in the sky struck the rear of the gun, pushing the barrel upward. The enormous energy blast it fired went well overhead, but close enough we felt the heat. I couldn’t tell if it was going to angle back to Earth and make someone’s day infinitely more shitty, but it missed us. The gunship began to slowly turn to face whatever hit it.
A blue satellite with a barrel of its own in between a trio of large solar panel arms lowered from the sky. Below it, a yellow aircraft carrier carried a humongous green tank. A pink submarine broke the surface with a jump, and a red fighter jet soared overheard.
“Oh no,” I said.
The aircraft carrier rose up like it was flipping forward. The tank backed up it while its deck split apart. The tank reached the end and fitting onto it. A fore section of the carrier bent at a 90 degree angle as it finished becoming a pair of legs attached to a green tank torso. The sub leaped into the air again, splitting apart. One half attached to the upper left of the tank. The other caught on the upper right and swiveled around. The jet flew up and curved back down, aimed at the rear of the tank. It somehow slowed, the fighter shifting to reveal a metal face as it slid into the rear of the tank, slotted in. Finally, the satellite. The giant robot reached for the tank’s cannon. The cannon split off easily, as did the barrel of the satellite as it came down. The satellite attached to the back of the robot, two of its panels forming wings that hung down behind it. The other panel arm broke off and attached to the barrel that had come undone from the satellite, then that section fitted into the end of the tank’s cannon to form a sort of sword.
“Venus, what did you do?” I asked.
“I asked them for help, like you said,” she informed me, a hunt of smugness in her voice.
The gunship fired again, this time trying to destroy the Justice Rangers. The robot batted it away with its sword, then raised it high. The sword glowed as bright as the sun. The robot went into a stance like it was taking a step to sprint toward it. The robot flew along the surface of the water, kicking up a spray of water to either side as it closed on the gunship, then past it. The sword stopped and the robot straightened up, standing in the shallow water by the beach. Behind it, the gunship fell apart into halves that exploded.
I was saved by the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers.
There’s something very odd being treated like some sort of broken, delicate thing. Moreso when the ones doing the treating are people I’ve spent years fighting, sometimes killing. In a timeline where I’d never come to this world, the hero population hadn’t been properly culled. Kids ran and flew around outside, holding a snowball fight. I watched as a couple boys tossed snowballs at a girl, chasing her into an igloo. The igloo’s entrance closed. A block opened to reveal a barrel. Tank treads popped out of the sides of the igloo and it began to roll. With a fwoom, it fired a snowball that knocked one of the boys on his ass.
“Awful lot of snow for Cali,” I said to Forcelight. She pointed to a pole that poked out of the ground and reached up over all the buildings. A large disk on top generated snow. “Weather control seems like it’d be useful for more than just playing around at school.”
“I asked them about that. My friend, Venus, told me it only makes snow. Nowhere else wants it other than Hollywood. Everyone thinks snow is too much trouble.”
It was a festive place. Lights adorned the outside of the buildings. Even the statue of Oscar Romero in the courtyard had a red and white hat on it. We moved past a foyer and front hall with rugs and its own smaller Christmas trees decorated about, and to the noisy part of the main buildings. Formerly dead and hostile faces welcomed me when Forcelight ushered me through the door of the Master Academy’s California campus cafeteria, where children, teens, and a lot of adults milled about around a two-story Christmas tree.
Venus came bounding up, out of costume, to hug Forcelight. “You made it! Everything wrapped up in Washington?”
Forcelight nodded. “Yeah. Once the big domino was destroyed, the others fell like a house of cards. Checkmate.” Venus smiled at the joke and turned to me. Forcelight turned to introduce me. “This is Gecko. She was a huge help. She’s some sort of technopath, so she turned the big one off. Gecko, this is Venus.”
“That’s amazing. Nice to meet you,” my nemesis said as she shook my hand. I wonder if I could hit that in this continuity… I mean, is still cheating if it’s in a different timeline? The only example I can think of involved another universe, and I still don’t think I’m in one. I’m in the same one that’s been altered significantly.
“Charmed, dear Venus,” I said. “It’s quite the place you have here. The food smells delicious. I can’t wait to have something other than highway snacks and hospital food.”
“She was injured while saving Washington,” Forcelight volunteered. “She had someone who helped her with that. He fought alongside us. Put a pin it that for later. For now, go eat Gecko. Go on!”
Thus commenced an evening of feasting with my foes. I ate too much, I was flirted with, and I even got asked to dance by Sixgun. I killed him, too. Not tonight. I’m talking about in the old continuity. Tonight, he just tried to get in my new dress. There was no killing to worry about… until it got later.
My history with Christmas being what it is, I kept my guard up even as others drank and cavorted. That’s why I was paying attention when wine in a glass started rippling. Someone else, a man with pointy ears, looked up. “Something’s coming,” he said in a soft voice
He ran to go warn someone. I ran out to the yard to see what was the matter. It had become deserted as the night went on and the children were forced into beds to have nightmares about sugarplum fairies.
A giant robot with pincers for hands came to a halt outside. We’re talking a good thirty, maybe thirty-five feet tall. Very similar old-style Nazi design aesthetic, but with a visor for a windshield on the head and a pair of gun barrels poking out from underneath it like a nose. It didn’t come alone. I spotted others near its feet.
On the one hand, the upcoming fight would be none of my business and nothing’s going to be permanent over here once I give it a good editing. On the other, I wanted to punch something.
“Master Academy, come out and face your doom at the hands of Dr. Creeper and his Ho-Ho-Horrors!”
Huh. So that’s what he got up to over here. I zoomed in for a closer look at the Ho-Ho-Horrors themselves. The one that stood out the most was the gargantuan of a man covered in scars and medical staples. He had a pair of metal bolts from each neck, shot fire from a flamethrower with 8 openings. Another looked like a regular guy until he concentrated and grew into a white-furred ape-thing. Next to him stood a man in a pilgrim outfit with a face covered in a black mask with white eye holes. On the opposite side of the flamethrower-wielding Frankenstein’s monster rolled up a cylindrical robot with a facsimile for a metal head planted on top of the cylinder, which held several arms. One of the arms lit up with an electrical arc between two ends of it, while the others were an assortment of claws, drills, and at least one plunger.
Then the ninjas dropped down between us the Ho-Ho-Horrors and the school. They had the cloth head coverings like you’d expect, but with goggles and metal lower face guards. The rest of their costume was less “black pajamas” as the stereotype goes and more like winter camo with body armor and sheaths for swords and other weapons. “Also, I’ve hired the services of the Ronin-Go. They aren’t my usual minions, but these are the only ones I could find willing to work Christmas Eve.”
Yet another reason why most people don’t bother attacking on Christmas Eve: better shit to do than get into a fight with supervillains. Like getting into a fight with family.
By now, I wasn’t the only one looking at the group. I rushed to the front hall and grabbed some ornaments off the trees. Most of them were those stupid plastic non-breakable ones, but a few were the classic glass. I broke several of those up and laid them out on the floor, then waited by the welcome rug.
The door burst in and ninjas came through it, yelling and waving swords. I waited until I got a good sized group and pulled the rug out from under them. A half dozen of them found their legs no longer underneath them and a short drop to a granite floor welcoming instead. I tossed the rug back over them before they could get up and ran over the top of them to the next wave. A good four of them tried to swing at me at once from the same direction and ended up getting in each other’s way. “Should have come at me one at a time,” I said with a laugh and grabbed away their swords in each hand.
They looked to me, then two bent and fired grappling lines on either side, forming a little corridor of rope at about knee level. One of the others jumped over me, knocking down one of his lumpy friends under the rug, and whipped out a pair of sai. The other who hand’t so far done anything squeezed his hands. Long metal claws popped out of winter digital-camo colored gauntlets. “Hi-ya!” the ones on either side of me yelled. Because when you hire ninjas, you want the classic ninja experience.
“Hiya,” I said, then hocked a loogie onto the clawed-ones visor. I turned around to the one behind me. I planted all four swords I held in the floor rug, and in someone I was standing on, and used them to lever myself into a flip over that one. He turned quickly and barely managed to catch two of the blades with his sais. I grinned and winked at him as the other two swords cut his pants so they fell down his legs. “Ever been circumcised before?”
The ninjas on either side of this little rope corridor they hoped to restrict my movements with came at me but soon found themselves crunching over broken orbs and stars and such. The one in front of me turned to run and tripped through a combination of his pants being around his ankles and the fact that we were still on top of a welcome mat covering six of his now-irritated and potentially wounded friends. The one I’d spat in the face of flipped over him and landed on the pommel of one sword I held up when I figured out where he was coming down at. He fell to the floor moaning and cradling a nut that’d need to be popped out later.
A shot caught me in the chest and knocked me back until I fell off the rug. There in the doorway was the smoking old-time flintlock. And behind it stood the guy in the pilgrim costume and mask.
I coughed and felt for my wound. My hand came back bloody and holding a round metal ball that had flattened where it ran into the bulletproof subdermis of my body. Still hurt like I’d been hung by my figgin. Before I could stand, one of the ropes was cut by Sixgun and his Bowie knife. He twirled it into a sheath and looked to me. “You alright, ma’am?”
I coughed and nodded. He nodded back, then turned and squared up with the Pilgrim, throwing his coat back. “Howdy Pilgrim. That’s no way to treat a lady. Mayhap you have a shot with me instead?” The Pilgrim tossed aside his spent pistol and shifted another couple around to the front of his belt.
One of the ninjas that had hurt his feet on broken decorations fell over on one of the little Christmas trees out there, knocking off a big red bow that rolled lazily between the two gunfighters. After a moment, the Pilgrim drew. Sixgun was faster. He shot the pistol out of the Pilgrim’s hand, then popped him in the shoulder, spinning him around into the cold, dark night.
By now, fighting had erupted all over. Once I managed to get to my fight, I spotted the Were-Yeti tangling with a huge, half-man, half-sloth that I knew as the Human Sloth from my own experience. Forcelight, meanwhile, had destroyed the flamethrower of the Frankenstein and was trying to put him down before he could overpower her. I spotted cylindrical robot with the treads circle around behind her.
I jumped it and stuck my fingers to its head. “What are you doing?” it asked. “I am Qwanzaar! Release me at once. No, do not stick that in there. That is not where fingers goOO!” It voiced surprise as my nervous system joined with its computerized brain and stopped it.
“Okily Qwanzaar, you’re mine now,” I said. I looked up at the giant robot, which traded blows with a woman in a pink and black costume with butterfly wings on it. It managed to catch the Pink Pixie by a wing and tore it off, sending the heroine spinning. And I couldn’t do anything about it from the ground. Dr. Creeper’s robots were based on old analog Nazi designs meant to be worked with levers and buttons and no computer elements at all. Nothing about this big one suggested he’d upgraded that part of it.
Instead, I looked to its knees, then at a cluster of downed ninjas. It was easy to appropriate their grappling hooks and ropes, then hop back on top of Qwanzaar. Firing and latching on with a grappling hook didn’t take a lot of work either.
No, by far the worst part was waiting for Qwanzaar to slowly circle through the snow for longer than it would have taken to watch the entire opening of Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth scenes. Pink Pixie, then Forcelight, managed to keep the big guy distracted long enough, especially once they saw what I was doing. Creeper didn’t noticed I’d tied up his robot’s knees until he went to step back and it caught. “What is this?!” his voice boomed from the speaker just before the robot began to fall.
The robot knocked off the disk that made the snow as it fell onto it, then the chest began to poke upward where the pole underneath had stabbed into it and the fall damaged the chest plate from the inside. A piece of metal fell off the top of the robot’s head and a rotor popped out. The head pulled off and began to fly away.
Instead of going after it, Pink Pixie, Forcelight, and the other heroes worked on rounding up the remaining Ho-Ho-Horrors and Ronin-Go. They might have thought they had longer, but the escape pod head’s sides opened up to reveal wings and jet engines. The rotors fell off as it shot away with a sonic boom.
All in all, not a bad party.
Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hannukah, Io Saturnalia, and an early Joyous Kwanzaa, dear readers. Remember, so long as you’re still alive, doesn’t matter if they trap you in another world, you’ve still got a chance.
I’m “swearing” off women other than my wife. Yes, the square quotes are intentional. I didn’t swear actually swear or promise or make a deal about anything. I’m just going to try. I don’t know why it seems worthwhile to me. I don’t love Citra. We’re friendly but not friends. Maybe the best reason I can come up with is the dignity of my position. I mean, just imagine how hard it’d be to take a world leader seriously if I had strippers and porn stars doing tell-all interviews describing what my sex parts look like in an embarrassing way. Like saying it’s abnormally big and resembled a Sarlacc pit.
I know, it’s weird. It’s just that her feelings suddenly matter more after a few of Max’s beers. Not that they were completely out of mind. Carl, Moai, Qiang, Max… not the first people I cared about.
I confronted someone I didn’t care about, too. I visited Elda. Technically, she’s supposed to be my wife as part of a political marriage with the Bronze City over on the island of Mu. I betrayed her and put her into a coma while marrying Citra who used nanite surgery to look like her. I stopped by a special room in the hospital that no one knows about and left a sword in there. “Hello Elda. Long time no see.”
She didn’t respond, naturally. The equipment hooked up to her showed her to be healthy enough. The nanites were keeping her comatose. She’d lost weight, though. I sent out out an order to nanites and the medical staff. “A bit skinny there. I’ll work on that. I’ve wronged you, Elda. No duh, right? You had dreams of being some warrior princess and here I come to be the one to marry you. I should have worked something out with you that didn’t involve hurting you.” The nanites made sure my message go through to her, because science. Hail science!
“I’m sorry. This sword is the first of the gifts I’ll be throwing together for you. They’ll bring up clothes later and I have armor being printed off for you. Before I… there’s a fight coming up involving people who have a reputation as gods, and the powers to back it up. When I go, I’m going to make sure we drop you off somewhere. Give you a shot at being your own person, as you deserve. I’ll throw in some money and arrange for a tutor on this crazy new world you’ll be in, but I think you’ll fit in. The land I have in mind is a land of conflict, where you can find your way for good or ill. A land where you can, with effort, become who you want to be out from under my shadow.”
I stepped close and laid my hand over hers. “I am by far the shittiest spouse you could have gotten. I hope you find a better life than I obviously planned for you.”
That decision’s going to bite me in the ass at some point. But it’s still the right one. Ugh, that statement… I need a beer.
Speaking of things that can fuck me over, Hu. Hu’s attempts to get me to understand proportionality, like Citra, rubbed off on me. The dude’s still not being my liason another time, but he’s got good skills and he cares. He just fucked up. I suppose the case could be made for how I shouldn’t have killed that judge or Wong the Director, but I can rationalize it another way. Hu is still good at his job despite his poor judgment, in which he went above and beyond his authorized powers. Wong and that judge’s entire job amounted to their judgment and how they used it. They both showed themselves incompetent with the powers vested in them, which was hazardous to my nation.
Side note: Queen Beetrice, the giant bee woman obsessed with snoo-snooing me to death, has heard I did a good job on the courts and thinks I need to help out over in North Korea. They are my people too, but I guess her self-education hasn’t prepared her for making North Korea’s judicial system less gulag-y. I got her some notes, but that’s the best I could do. I have more important things to worry about than that at this point.
I have the Place du Bourg-de-Four under so much surveillance it would make a porn site feel forgotten. Do you know how many rats fart there on average each day? I do. Disturbances in the pattern of rat farts could be the only indication the Three Hares have snuck an ambush into place or deployed some form of weapon. Rat farts start petering off and then I find out there’s poison gas hidden around that’s been killing them off slowly while waiting on me to get close.
The Hares wouldn’t expect me to pay attention, but I’ll show them. I’ll show all of them. There’s an ancient conspiracy uniting ancient European, African, American, Asian, and Oceanian mythology, involving gods and aliens guiding the world while remaining hidden, and the rats will tell me if they try to kill me. Yes, the Three Hares will rue the day Psycho Gecko started taking her medication! Mwahahahaha!
So like I said, the stuff Max is giving me for my mental health has done wonders to make me a more sane and functional person. And it’s all thanks to my extensive drinking of alcohol. Couldn’t have done it without putting all that beer in me. It’s practically made me a role model compared to my old self.
That doesn’t mean all my problems are solved. In addition to keeping an eye on the Three Hares, the United States government wants me to give back Rhonda, Leland, and Kayla. I’ve refused on the grounds of Ricca being safer. The envoy from the U.S. Started to laugh at the idea that U.S. Citizens are safer in an foreign dictatorship until I showed him the front page of the latest newspaper showing brutal murders committed by police, children being rounded up and placed into internment camps, and constant mass shootings. The only response was an awkward, “We didn’t realize you subscribed to American news.”
He’d had a drink of water. It would have been so easy. An aneurysm. A heart attack. A stroke. He sat there, speaking as if I needed to do what he said or I’d be obliterated. Because how dare anybody challenge them. The rest of the world just has to let them push them around. Makes me want to find something big to shove, whole, up that guy’s ass. Reminds me a lot of myself.
Well, Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day. The Visigoths didn’t have dimensional technology. I do, so I’ve been throwing one together. It’s all part of the plan, you see. Get peace, or make them die trying. But that’s all boring. I’ve built plenty of those. The really interesting stuff happened, as it so often does, when I was in the shower.
I was sudsing myself up with all four arms, getting my curves nice and clean. The door rang. It was that pizza I ordered that I didn’t have enough money to pay for.
Fanservice over. I was farting my way through another shower when someone screamed my name. It’s not an unusual sound for the shower, but I do prefer the person screaming it be in there with me when the magic’s happening. I didn’t think too much of it, until more voices joined in. Figuring the household wasn’t turning into my own personal chorus of the damned, I threw a towel around my waist, another around my boobs, and a last one around my hair. The final towel I tightened into a spiral for self defense.
I found Silver Shark, Citra, and Rhonda all surrounding Qiang. My daughter held a box between both hands. The top of it had fallen open toward me and I read the phrase “Hold your hands on the markers for the surprise!”
I started to ask what was going on until I realized Qiang was shaking. One second I was in the hallway, the next I was by all of them at the door. Qiang looked up at me. “Mommy what is it? It said to pick it up?”
I looked down at the digital timer inside the box. It was made of a black composite material, with two things sticking up that could have been shortwave antennae until one of the tips began to glow and turned to point at me. The other light up with a hologram of a dark silhouette. “Psychopomp Gecko. The glorious apparatus will negotiate with your successor.”
The Three Hares, those slimy sons of parakeets.
“Just hold onto it… let me look.” I checked it over from various angles, then popped an eye out and eased it down between the bomb and the box. While it had pressed against the sides of the box with either pressure sensors or fingerprint scanners, there wasn’t anything like that on the other sides. “How are your arms, sweety?” I asked as I popped the eye back in.
“They huuurt!” Qiang whined.
I nodded. “I nee you to keep your hands there, but we can set them it down on something. Let’s just sit you down, ok?”
She nodded and I guided her over to a little table in the living room where she could sit down and rest herself and her arms. “A person can be perfectly strong, but holding something out in front of you with arms extended makes anybody tired quick. It’s- no, we’ll discuss Tai Chi later. What we have here is a small example of an implosive-explosive sub-molecular device. Not a big deal at all, I promise y’all.”
It was the size that was so astonishing. Excellent miniaturization. The thing wasn’t round, but it was a couple baseballs in size.
It seemed like a longshot, but I reached in with a finger and pressed it to what I’d identified as a crucial computerized part of the initiation sequence. A lot of these explosives, it’s really a matter of chemistry and physics. Fire or water can set stuff off, or simple kinetics. It often just depends on which chemicals are used in the process. Even an atomic bomb isn’t that complicated of a weapon. My ability to bond with computers would be useless against Little Boy, for instance.
The difference here is that this thing had sensors rigged up, and a timer. I’d have just put a timer on to scare someone while the thing detonated whenever I wanted. This person put one on to tell me I had five minutes to fix the problem.
When I linked up with it, I found that an internal mechanism was capable of reading when the timer reached zero to activate an internal explosive driving… ya know, unless I want this censored in that dimension, I should probably keep the specifics to myself. Don’t want Optimal Outer Control getting in trouble for teaching people how to build a nuclear weapon, regardless of the availability of plutionium over there.
Regardless, the flaw wasn’t in the fundamental function of the bomb, but in how it was meant to be triggered. The sensors on the side were fingerprint scanners, which meant they specifically targeted my daughter out of a desire to die by having as much of their body shoved up their own ass as humanly possible. They would trigger the explosives that would initiate the fission reaction if released. Otherwise, the timer would make it all happen.
It was actually pretty simple to trick the computer in there into increasing the amount of time and holding onto a false positive for the scanners. “Ok, hon, you can take your hands off.”
“You promise nothing bad will happen?” my crying daughter asked.
Oh, something bad will happen to someone for this. “Mommy promises.”
Qiang pulled her hands away quickly, then started jumping and screaming in relief when nothing happened. I managed to put the bomb into shutdown mode, then disconnected and called up the Institue of Science. Dr. Creeper practically flew. Actually, he completely flew. I heard him roar in on an old-fashioned rocketpack that looked like if Wile E. Coyote joined the Third Reich. “I vill personally deliver zis to a secure room for decommissioning, my lady,” he announced.
I leaned in to whisper so no one else would hear. “Make sure the room can contain a nuclear bomb. This one’s crude and small, but still.”
He nodded, tucked the bomb under one arm, raised a fist to the air, and blasted off again.
“There goes trouble,” said Silver Shark as she watched the trail of his rocket power through the air.
“Make it double,” I said flatly.
“Are you alright?” she asked, looking at me. “I expected you to be pissed, or to go laughing mad.”
“I’m fine, Sharky,” I said, cracking my fingers and walking back in. Even when I hugged my girl to me, the cold rage in me refused to yield.
I’ll get peace when the Three Hares rest in it. All of them.
“You did what?!” yelled Venus at me through the phone.
She interrupted me in the middle of proceeding over a bit of judicial housekeeping. One of my judges was taking kickbacks to imprison people. Unlike the Americans, we don’t give private prisons contracts that depend on them keeping a certain percentage of rooms occupied. This situation puzzled me as a result. Hu dropped me the details: he’d been taking bribes from gangs to give rivals longer sentences.
I pulled the guy aside for a chat, just the two of us, over drinks in one of the island’s many fine establishments of seductive delight. “I am honored by your presence, Empress,” he told me upon my approach to meet him at the entrance. “But I do not believe this is a respectable establishment.”
“Despite your profession, I wouldn’t judge the respectability of the workers herein if I were you.” I slipped my arm into his to guide him inside. I even paid the cover for him. I’m classy like that.
Inside, I guided us to a table next to the wall. A female Deep One with an epic rack sauntered over. “Get you something to drink, handsomelings?” she asked.
“Are those real?” I asked stopping myself short of groping the bouncy pair.
“Yeah. All natural. Touch if you want.” She jiggled them from side to side for me. “You know we mate with humans, don’tcha?”
I gave them a squeeze. “Filthy habit, laying down with those ugly humans.” I turned to the judge. “No offense.”
“Of course not, Empress,” he said, averting his gaze as I motorboated the amphibious fishwoman, raising a hand with a wad of cash from the judge’s wallet. She snatched it out of my hand and was happy to let me take as much time as I needed until I was pulled away by Venus’s call. I had to leave the judge getting a lap dance from a woman whose tattoos moved and changed.
That brings us back to Venus yelling “You did what?!” at me.
“What did I do?” I handed a bouncer some money and he ushered me through the door into the private rooms.
“You know what you did,” she responded.
“Yeah, I know what I did, but I don’t know if you know what I did. I’m not ‘fessing up to anything until it turns out you already know.”
“This is no time for jokes. You know what I mean,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “I swear to you, Venus, and you should know I wouldn’t lie about something like this… I never do only one thing you think is unforgivably wrong. If only you know where I stuck my face earlier, for instance. Let me know which horrible thing you’ve discovered and I’ll let you know what I think about it.”
“I know, I know, I let her live. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of being judge, jury, and executioner, it’s that many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Not many, but some. Maybe one in a billion if I’m being generous. Really, the ratio is heavily on the living people that deserve death side of the equation, but I didn’t indulge this time.”
“You raped her mind!”
I flopped down on a heart-shaped bed. “That’s being a little dramatic, isn’t it? How much of a mind could she possibly have?” She hung up at the worst possible moment. I’d just decided I liked the bed. They had really fluffy pillows.
Venus had kinda ruined the whole trip, so I headed back out, despondent, to find the judge enjoying the show and a beer. I slid into the seat next to him as the next girl came out. A cat screamed and the multicolor lights around the stage flickered. Rough, droning guitars began to play, a song I recognized as “It Took The Night To Believe”. A pale woman appeared on stage, her loose white dress not really working with the usual strip club aesthetic. She swayed and took a step forward, then the lights flashed off. When she reappeared, she was crab walking, showing off enough leg to see the garter for tips. Another flash, she was upright, her head twisted at an angle usually accompanied by a loud snapping sound and the cessation of life. The next flash left her spinning around the pole, arms twisted around and her mouth stretched unnaturally open. That’s when the dress came flying off, showing tattered lacy bra and panties.
I was in love, and soon short of cash. I even used some of my own money.
Sadly, this whole meeting was business, not pleasure. I dragged myself away after her dance and back to the judge. “I’m having fun, but you seem to be taking things a little too seriously. You gotta relax.”
He sighed. “It’s difficult to relax around one’s sovereign in a gentleman’s club.”
I shook my head and stood behind him, massaging his neck muscles. “Here, let me help you loosen up.”
“I’m not sure-” he started, until I slammed his head forward into the table, busting the bottle.
I grabbed his hair in one hand, the bottle of the broken bottle in another, and jammed the jagged glass into his neck. The blood sprayed into the air over a table dancing vampiress, as did the cash I threw out while yelling, “Make it rain!” The vamp ran her hands down her bloody breasts, mouth open wide in a hiss.
Venus got back to me about 6 AM locally, but I had the call routed through my brain. “Hello?”
“I’ve had time to cool off and get some sleep. We need to talk.”
“Sure, sure. Glad you don’t feel like yelling anymore.” It made it easier to keep from waking anyone on my bed up.
“You’re quiet. Are you breaking in somewhere?”
“No, I just don’t want to wake up the vampire.” Though, with her snoring…
“What are you doing with a vampire?”
I smirked. “Daisy chaining.”
“It’s like sixtynine, but I also had the fish woman and the onryo woman… I don’t think she’s really one, because I’m pretty sure those are ghosts, but I figured I’d ask her over breakfast. I make fantastic eggs, something you’d know if you were so lucky.”
She cleared her throat. “You’re trying to avoid the subject.”
“I’ve made my family safe from an enemy who is inexplicably good at finding me and who works for our enemy. Our enemy. She fooled you too. She’ll never be able to fool me again and it got us valuable information.”
“You don’t do that to people.”
“You don’t. I’m responsible for a nation. Millions of people rely on me for prosperity and safety. That means I know things they would hope never to find out about. When their lives are threatened, I eliminate the threats. When someone infects them with a disease that could kill them or take away their abilities, I’m the one who failed them. Turns out I have the perfect moral temperament for a world leader.”
She said, “You’ve gone full Nixon. You never go full Nixon.”
“This is morality, not legality. Remember how slavery used to be legal in your country? But seeing as I’m the Empress here, you don’t have any way to punish me anyway. All you can do is wake me up in the middle of some very lovely sleep and chastise me for invading Dame’s head.”
“It was despicable,” she said.
“Despicable and right aren’t necessarily incompatible. But, if it’s any consolation, tell her I’m sorry.”
“Wow. Oh my god, do you mean the nation of Ricca, is that what you mean?”
“No. I, Psycho Gecko, am sorry. I’ve gotten to know her more closely than anyone else. And whenever you remember she betrayed you too, and you get all pissed off, I want you to let her know that she may seek asylum here. There are advantages to being someone I know can’t act against me.” I felt the woman I was spooning with start to stir. Her dark hair twisted out of the way as her face looked back at me, almost completely turned around backwards. I pressed my lips to her for a kiss, my tongue dancing with what felt like a couple of tongues in her surprisingly roomy mouth.
Meanwhile, seeing as the call went through my brain, I just thought further responses to Venus that came out on her end as sound. “Geez this stripper’s hot.” As I said, my thoughts. “Anyway, I’m going to have to set up a formal meeting with you and Titan about our endgame. How’ve you been doing?”
“Surprised you’re thinking about how this all ends. Your tips were good. We found where they stored stolen artwork and other valuables in one. Another had a server farm we’re looking over. We took a few people into custody but we had to put them in the hidden cells. We can’t just beat up people guarding a building and insist the cops arrest them because of some conspiracy they’re tenuously connected to.”
“I have video evidence. And I ooooooh… sorry, real life stuff happening… and I followed that guy who was dead.” I squirmed as the Deep One stripper’s hands groped and fondled me fondly.
“The fact that you’re involved committing crimes in other countries makes it questionable. If that’s all we have, the cops will be useless.”
“Yeah, you might see if there’s a way to make them useful. Use some influence with politicians if you can to prep them for this going public. I’ll do what I can on my end, but Belgium’s of limited use as an ally in this regard.”
“You’re allies with Belgium?” she asked.
“We’re still in talks. Medical aid and technology exchange deal, but the Belgians are starting to waffle,” I told her.
“Anyone would if they had to put up with you using that joke as often as I’m sure you do.”
I started to answer, but instead I squealed like a stolen Ferrari in a getaway.
“You sound like you’re occupied with something else,” Venus said. “Let me go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up. Stay on the line. Hey, how husky can you talk?”
She hung up.
After eventually escaping my bedroom and fixing a lovely breakfast, I left the strippers pleasantly chatting with my wife, daughter, and ex-girlfriend who all showed up at the first sniff of food. I had a pretty damn important piece of info I needed to confirm with Max and Dr. Creeper over at the Science Institute in a conference call in my study.
“I’m sorry,” Max told me. “Without a vaccine, any cure is only a temporary reprieve from the disease.” He referred to the one that afflicted the brain with the condition that allowed superpowers of all sort to be disabled by the power collars.
Dr. Creeper’s faux-German accent came from the phone set between us. “Doctor Smith has failed to find a vaccination method. If subjects have a reaction, it is the severe one that risks death. Perhaps if ve could integrate the cure with the human body or nanites?”
“No can do on that,” Max said, shaking his head. “That’s now how it works.” He nodded to me, then over toward the minifridge. I nodded and he walked over to fetch us something to drink.
“You could just try!” Creeper said.
“Doc, if Max says he can’t do something with chemicals, that generally means it just can’t be done.” I waited a moment before remembering I could try to soften the blow. “But thanks for your zeal. The fact that you care so much is why I trust your people are doing their best.”
Max tapped me on the shoulder with a beer. Not my favorite, but it was a breakfast beer anyway. Seems like he’s been wanting me greased with alcohol a lot lately. I grabbed it and took a sip while he popped the top off his own. “Creeper, how are we on that shield generator project?”
“Ve vill be ready for a test soon. Do you anticipate needing it vithin the next veek?” he asked. Is it just me, or is he emphasizing his “w”s more than usual?
“Hopefully not. I just always like to have more weapons and gadgets in my arsenal. Never know when you’ll need to pull them out and surprise someone.” I said, whipping out a serrated rocket knife for emphasis to a man who couldn’t see anyway. Meanwhile, Max looked behind me, trying to find where it came from. “I want us prepared for the peace talks, because I’m going to make peace happen no matter who loses their head over it.”
“I want less emphasis on it, but don’t discourage the pursuit. Max is working on his stuff too, but any cure’s also useless if we can’t vaccinate against this thing. We could probably quarantine and cure the entire island if we had enough for everyone, but all it takes is one more boat coming in. Until there’s a vaccine, quarantines and cures aren’t going to do much,” I told Creeper via Dudebot. I left one behind in a storage closet at the Institute, right near the lobby command center. It helps keep in contact, especially since I’ve done some traveling.
Dr. Creeper was calm at least. I’d authorized him to spend some money on a massage day for the scientists, who were driving themselves to exhaustion over this and I wanted to keep morale up. Remind people what they’re fighting for. Or researching for, in this case. Brain work may not wear on the body the same way, but mental exhaustion is real. My Chief of Science had called to check in though, wondering if we should even worry about a cure. “I understand, herr Gecko. Vhile I have you on the phone, the cell you asked for has been completed.”
“That was quick. Nice going,” I told him.
“It seems ve had a similar testing room already built. The modifications were simple.”
“Thanks. Just keep it ready in case we need it. After all the trouble he caused us, I’m sure there’s another Funhouse I can get my hands on. Until then, keep up the good work.” It was a neat design to handle the issue with Funhouse. From the way the guy talked in unison, I suspect he had a hive mind. And since he was working as a spy, I suspect he was suspicious enough to not have all of his hims meet at the same place. Not unless he was insanely loyal, and I’m not sure that’s the case. He did screw up their plan.
If Funhouse hadn’t panicked, we wouldn’t know what the disease’s purpose was. We wouldn’t know powers could be restrained, even ones like mine. I suppose we’d know some shadowy cabal was behind it, but it’s pretty easy to tell when Faustus/Hephaestus is up to something, and VillainNet would give me a heads-up on others. People really like insignia, trophies, and decorative flourishes. What Funhouse led us to was an auxiliary base that saw barely any use in an abandoned temple to one of the world’s major religions.
I figured I could either start investigating all the Buddhists on Earth, or I could start investigating the design with the rabbits that was the secret door access.
I finished our little call just before heading up the steps of the museum Qiang was hopping up one at a time. We’d both dressed for London’s heat, which wasn’t so bad considering the island’s weather. The exception was that I had to wear these gloves along the length of my lower arms. I had them made because I was tired of wearing clothing loose enough to fit my arms down. Now I just have to worry about clothing that handles both pairs and hiding the extra ones around anyone I don’t want knowing they exist. These gloves are made of the same material as the camouflage of the Pyscho Flyer, but comfortable to wear thanks to an internal layer.
The Museum of Architecture was, sadly, not the best place for Qiang. Eventually, it’d be fun to take her through and teach her all about weak points and ways to sneak around, but she’s a bit young for it. I promised her we’d find something fun, like a zoo, afterward. Because, as I informed a guide, “I’m looking for information on a historical architectural symbol.”
I do so love many British accents, especially when they’re telling me things I want to hear. They were able to direct me to the area of the museum in question, though I had to dangle a donation in front of them to get some personal attention. I also let Qiang look around at scale models all over the place. She pretended to be Godzilla, but stopped short of destroying anything.
“Tell me if you’ve heard this one,” said a woman’s voice. I turned to see a blonde, tan beauty in her twenties approach, belly and sides peeking through openings in the fancy pants blue dress she wore. With a mask on, I knew her as Dame, a thief who had been known to work with heroes from time to time. “A kid, a supervillain, and the world’s best thief walk into a museum.”
“No mention of yourself in the joke?” I asked. “How do you always find me, Dame?”
She set her feet and crossed her arms. “A lady must have her secrets, but this time Venus gave you up.”
“Preposterous. Venus specifically said she was never going to give me up. Never gonna let me down. Never gonna run around or desert me.”
“Ugh, that is SUCH an old meme now. Shouldn’t you be saying ‘Gas the Jews’ over and over again these days?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, because it’s real funny when someone has to repeat the punchline thirty times hoping people start laughing. You’ve gotten better at insulting people.”
“I’m going to get a lot of mileage out of that comparison,” she said, grinning.
“Seriously, what do you want Dame?” I asked, motioning to where my daughter pretended to shoot radioactive breathe at a damaged gargoyle. “Some of us are here on important business.”
Even she enjoyed the sight of Qiang playing. “Obviously. What about you?”
“I’m trying to figure out why humans who speak English decided to associate sex with so many bad things by making the parts and actions into insults that people otherwise find quite enjoyable. ‘Fuck you, dick. Fuck you, pussy. Screw you, asshole. Cocksucker. Shit tits.”
She opened her mouth and flinched at the last one. I walked over and clapped her on the shoulder, adding, “Good to see you’re a fan, too.”
“Let’s just talk. Venus filled me in on the situation. I can tell you more about what you’re looking for than whoever they roped in to smiling pretty at the museum.” She turned and indicated the symbol in the exhibit of three rabbits chasing each other around the interior of a circle, with only three ears but each animal having a pair. “Let’s grab coffee.”
“Qiang, want to go get something as sweet as you?” I asked.
She stopped gnawing on the gargoyle and looked up, face alight. “Yeah Baba!”
Dame bent down. “You’re Qiang? You’re adorable.” She patted Qiang on the head with one hand. The other reached for where Qiang was hiding her knife. My girl pulled that knife on her, glaring.
“You think that’s bad, try to take her candy and see what she does to you,” I said. I patted Qiang on the head. “That’s my girl.” Qiang looked up at me and smiled.
We left and headed down the street, because Dame insisted, “The swill here is meant for tourists and academics. I know roasts worthy of a king.”
“As an Empress, I suppose I can lower myself to try a mere queen’s favorite coffee,” I said all snooty, raising my nose. I ignored the looks from an older lady who sniffed at the remark.
“As an Empress, you can afford to pay me. I don’t work for free,” she waved a hand. “I am a thief, not an informant. I have to make a stealing from someone.”
“I have money enough,” I told her.
“You have enough money to give it away. I want something more valuable to you.”
“Any deal involving my first born doesn’t count,” I told her. “But I don’t know what you’re hoping for that’s more valuable.”
She turned and winked. “Your crown. Officially, I’ll steal it and get away with it.”
“Only damn way you could get it,” I told her.
She raised an eyebrow briefly. “Maybe, maybe not. That’s how the story goes that I’ll get it, and you will verify it.”
“Fine, but you better give me something real or no deal. This is leaving a bad taste in my mouth already. That or it’s this coffee,” I said, sniffing at my cup. I palmed a nanite syringe from my purse with one of my hidden hands and injected myself to make sure I wouldn’t fall prey to sedatives or poisons.
“It will be. The symbol you’ve looked into is called the Three Hares. The earliest examples trace back to 6th century China in Buddhist religious spots near trade hubs. It spread along the Silk Road, moving faster when the Mongols established the Pax Mongolica. All the religions wanted it. There are churches all over Europe with the symbol in areas that imply significance and association with the Green Man, a pagan symbol of rebirth. Since Green Man is pagan, what little agreement there is on the subject suggests they are enemies. It also appears in synagogues and Islamic artwork. You can find a marvelous example of the latter on a casket in the Cathedral of Trier. You can’t go to church in Devonshire without tripping over more rabbits.”
“Ok, what’s it mean?” I asked, pretending to take another sip of my coffee. I wasn’t paranoid about it so much as I just didn’t like it.
She shrugged. “No one knows. It spread from China to England and was used by people in four rival religions. It’s connected to the Green Man, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Lazarus, the Holy Trinity, and more gods than I can count, but nobody knows what it’s for. We don’t have any writings about it.” She stopped and turned to me.
“That’s not very useful,” I told her.
“There isn’t much useful.” She raised her cup to point across the street. A cathedral stood. “But that church has the Hares in it, and nobody seems to know what happened to the air raid shelter underneath it.”
“If that’s all…”
She pulled out a couple sheets of paper. “Every location and artifact I know of featuring the Three Hares symbol and every mythological figure associated with it in case that’s important. You’re working with a titan, after all.”
I reached out for the papers. “Groovy. Ya know, cool cat, I was down at the malt shop when I heard something about this hip new thing called electronic mail. All the lamplighters and newspaper boys are talking about it.”
“I know. I knew this would piss you off more,” she said. “Almost as much as finding out I’m working with you.”
I looked at her, then turned to the church across the way. “I’d better go get my spear and magic helmet then.”
“Your spear and magic helmet?” asked Dame.
I nodded. “Spear and magic helmet!”
“Magic helmet?” inquired Qiang.
Qiang hopped up and down excited. Dame rolled her eyes. And I began to hum “Ride of the Valkyries” as I began plotting.
While the doctors worked on figuring out this thing, I stayed with my family, waiting. I know I got a call forwarded to me through the Directory. The first time, it turned out to be Venus. When I heard her voice, a laugh forced itself from my mouth. Just a short one, then I hung up. I’d originally intended some sort of crafty lie, but why fucking bother? I didn’t even pick up the next times. Should have just told the Directors not to even bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. So I just hung out in the palace. I think Qiang and Max realized something was wrong. Qiang asked a couple of times. All I told her was “Nothing, honey,” and set her on my lap.
I didn’t get much sleep, and what I did, I got in Qiang’s bed. That first night in particular, I stayed awake thinking of vengeance. A Dimension Bomb on a dead man’s trigger. An eternally replicating grey goo swarm. Nuclear attacks on the ice caps to drown the world in a nuclear flood. Or even just disperse all the infected around the globe to make sure this disease took out everyone else. I thought of setting the world ablaze to serve as the funeral pyre for myself and my loved ones. Like I’d tried to do before.
In the dark there, I remembered those times I’d read about during the Cold War. There were a couple of times when the Russians believed the Americans had launched on them and they almost launched in retaliation for what turned out to be false reports. I’d wondered on occasion about that situation. Knowing the nukes are coming, unstoppable, and will wipe me out and my people. What do you do, eh? Do you launch, and kill everyone else on Earth for the sake of people who are about to be ashes?
I could. It’d be so easy. Really, anyone capable of turning a key, pushing a button, or giving an order could. Capability of destroying the world is easy. The question on my mind as I nuzzled my daughter’s head and tried to keep her hair off my lips, is would I?
I paid Psychsaur a visit in the middle of the night. As I’d suspected, the Claw really was the sort of enterprising but paranoid evil overlord that he’d construct testing rooms capable of negating whatever invisible whammy makes telekinesis and telepathy happen. I found Psychsaur laying on a floor made up of overlapping squares of thing wire strands. I didn’t go in, but instead stood at the observation area, the cameras giving me a view inside, and looked down at a red button. “Oooh, what does this button do?” I asked no one, pressing it.
The floor crackled and sparks flew underneath Psychsaur, jolting her awake and into a jump. She scrabbled at the smooth, reinforced walls, unable to find purchase to escape the shock from the floor. I hummed a short tune before looking down at my finger still pressing that darn button. “Oh dear, look at that. Totally forgot about that.” I let up and instead pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello Psychsaur.”
“Hello Gecko. Please let me out. I need to find out-”
“I’d have left you to the chief interrogator, who is excellent at his job, but we’re having something of a labor shortage now. Lots of people out sick. Lots of people helping to move the bodies. That’s why you have the pleasure of my personal attention.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Look at that, someone turned down the temperature in the room. “I don’t know what’s going on. Let me help you! Let us help you!”
“Is that what this is? Another gambit to make me dependent and controllable? You’d be happy to help so long as I surrender myself to your custody and give up my powers? You’d have a much better chance of that if you sick bastards hadn’t gotten my daughter infected.”
Her jaw gaped open and her knees collapsed under her. She sobbed to herself. “I’m sorry about your girl. Just, please… please, please, please, how is Venus?”
“Venus? How should she be?” I asked, figuring now we’d gotten to the good stuff.
“He said it started at the party. She’s probably infected too. Oh God, and if they’re infected, it must be all over Empyreal City by now.”
I looked at her, crying there. “I’m sorry about Qiang,” she said, her voice croaking. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me see my Venus again before she…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I let a breath out and moved my and over to push a button.
The door opened.
She looked up as I stepped into the doorway, my armor on except for hood. It hung off the back above my cape. “Come on. I had to be sure because of what’s at stake.”
She got to her feet shakily, snorting at a nose stopped with mucus. “I’m free to go.”
I shrugged. “You can be. I’d rather you stay and help me, but you’re not the enemy. You’re just as infected as everyone else, though.”
“When is it going to get me?” she asked, moving toward the door. I stood back to give her room to leave, figuring she’d rather not get too close. Instead, she grabbed my arm and leaned on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “For all that in there. But I don’t know. Qiang’s not affected so far. Hardly anyone is.”
I hardly believed it either, but I escorted her to the bio lab team for a better idea of what we were facing. They’d managed to get a secure line out that let them continue monitoring the island and North Korea, both of which had maintained a quarantine. I sent off for food and drink while we were on the way, and they met us there to help Psychsaur regain her strength. While she sat in the lab chowing down on a bowl of rice and chicken, I gestured to Dr. Smith, who had been caught scratching his prominent, beaklike nose. “Explain to our guest here, whose motives I believe to be honest, what seems to be going on.”
His smile was awkward and apologetic. “The vast majority of those infected are having no adverse response that we can detect. There is the odd reaction similar to the officer in the other room, and we have collected those for further study. If you don’t mind, miss, we’d very much like to do a more in-depth scan of your brain.”
“Why?” asked Psychsaur from behind a cup of coffee.
Smith looked to me, but I gestured again. He continued, “The infection as we’ve seen it appears to be spread out across the brain. We’re still learning, and every data point we obtain helps us determine why some are having this adverse reaction, and how common it is. Is it inevitable, or a fluke?”
I butted in here. “That may be her choice, but I insist she have time to see to herself first.” I turned to Psychsaur. “I believe you wanted to check in on Venus? Maybe get a shower or some proper rest in a proper bed, right?”
She practically sprinted out of the room before she had to stop and ask how to get back out of there. I pointed to the same person who brought the rice and coffee. “Show her out and call a car to take her to my palace. Thank you,” I nodded to the man, then to Psychsaur, who smiled at me. The one I returned wasn’t quite so enthusiastic, but then I’m a pessimist.
I sent her off for rest and to make her call.
Smith came over, talking quietly around everyone. “You trust her, Empress?”
I nodded. “She was worried about her girlfriend even over her concern for a child she believed might be dying. It’s selfish. If you’re pretending to not be involved, it’s the last thing you want to do. If you aren’t involved, it’s a reasonable reaction. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
“Now that she’s gone, I should inform you we have determined more about the nature of the illness.” He tapped a tablet in his hands and a hologram projected out to show an image of the human brain with red dots around it, most concentrated at the base. “Red indicates the full extent of the infection.”
“Multiple places? Does that alter our idea of who has it?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Instead, watch what happens when nanites are directed to engage them.”
A see-through holographic body appeared around the brain. The view zoomed in close to the red at the base of the skull. A cloud of blue dots appeared, one detecting the red and pulling the rest to it. Zooming in even further, I could see blue-highlighted nanites land on red growths. That was about all they had time to do before the red opened up and wrapped around the nanites, capturing the nanites and breaking them down.
Smith spoke. “We’ve taken samples the conventional way. It’s bacterial, and engineered specifically to fight off your nanites.”
I nodded. “Not a parasite?”
He shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t manage this rate of airborne infection even if it was. Our tests have shown something else of interest. The bacteria causes acute, temporary strain on the body as it reproduces enough to spread to anyone nearby. This all started at a party, so it’s likely that’s why no one noticed at first. From what we see, it spends little time reproducing before going dormant. The infection in your officer didn’t. I must stress my assessment will become more accurate with more data points across a greater range of infectees, because I currently believe going dormant is how it is meant to function. The officer’s reaction is atypical.”
“If someone’s engineered this stupid thing, I wonder what the point of the typical reaction is,” I said. “It’s good work, and I thank you for it. I know I’ve placed a lot of importance on this, but now we know it isn’t trying to kill us all, remember to take a break. Catch a nap of your own, and something better to eat than stale coffee and sandwiches, ok?”
He nodded and said, “Thank you,” then looked back to his team. “I have something I want to finish up before I can take a moment, but thank you.”
I nodded and headed out. Creeper caught me on my way out though, moving with the assistance of a crude exoskeleton covered in the brown patina of case-hardened steel. “Psycho! You have heard the news, ja? The disease is not meant to do to us what it did to the unfortunate man they carried in here?”
I nodded and reached up to rub my eyes. “Yeah. Great news, so far. I’ve told the team in there to ease up a bit. Don’t want them too tired or hungry to think up a cure.”
He nodded. “Of course. But I have another idea. Do you know the status of the infection outside of our borders?”
I shook my head. “We ever figure that out?”
“Nein, but it would be child’s play to sample the bacteria and modify a strain. It would be a poetic weapon to unleash as payback against the world for our fates. If we are to die slow, horrible, agonizing deaths at the hands of this epidemic, that is.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Creeper, I want any samples we take now to be used for finding us a cure. That’s the only thing I want us doing with this disease.”
“But what if we die?” he asked.
I closed my eyes as I answered. “Then we die wronged and we die containing it from the rest of the world. Take care of yourself and your people, Doc. I’m going to go catch a nap and make some calls. We’ve got a disease to kill, then we can focus on whoever did this to us. We wouldn’t want to be too tired to have our fun with them, now would we?”
“Too much has been looted or destroyed. The equipment takes too much time to build, and your coffers are not limitless. I have come to the conclusion ve must acquire the equipment by alternative means. On a side note, the labs housing such equipment vill also contain other supplies we need.” Dr. Creeper laid another stack of paper on my desk. One major downside to working with an old-timey mad scientist is his insistence on leaving a paper trail when digital documents and Augmented Reality notes would do.
The head of my Institute of Science had come up to me while I was lounging on my chair in the Directory Building. Yes, they’d actually put more work into building the thing and it looked much less like a circus now. I had my own seat to watch over proceedings and make myself available for discussion, but no one had bothered me today. I spent my time remotely overseeing developments over on the military base, like the distribution of new combat uniforms. I’d had some put together so my guys are a little less expendable than most people expect, even the Security guys.
I was also enjoying the training flights with the new VTOLs. Squat, but smoothly, beautifully curved, the exterior was black by default, with the ability to shift to other patterns and colors to hide itself, born of the ability to stick a paper-thin monitor, and holodiscs, on anything. Those same curves combined with the primary alloy to make it rather difficult to get a lock on with conventional radar, and I threw in a nice electronic warfare package that didn’t require too much fuss to get working. In place of wings, it was held aloft by two large, saucers that operated via the Coandă effect instead of like a conventional jet or rotor. Fluid, in this case air, is bent to provide lift and help move the thing. They could angle somewhat for maneuvering, but didn’t have the range of motion of the rear jet. That one could turn for more agile moves, and provided most of the directional thrust when in full-on flight mode.
The men, which also includes the women, had taken to calling them Psycho Flyers. It was either a tribute to me or a description of its flight properties. More likely, it’s the first as a way to cover for the first. I need to come up with a theme, though, as I don’t want everything associated with me called “Psycho”. Just think what they’d call American sympathizers of my regime? Or that chain of motels one of my citizens is starting with his mother? Or even the paths through forests and parks meant to help citizens exercise and enjoy nature?
But enough about American Psychos and Psycho Paths. Sadly, enough with the Psycho Flyers and the new combat armor. Dr. Creeper had come and explained to me that we had an issue with important scientific equipment you can’t buy down at Bobby’s Bunsen Burner Emporium. Not being one to shy away from theft and figuring it was a pretty nice cause, I glanced at his little shopping list and said, “Sure thing, Creeper. I’ll see what I can scare up.”
He nodded and threw in the customary bow. “Now eef I have your permission, ve have a new scientist arriving and I vould like to show her around.”
“What’s her doctorate in?” I asked.
He shook his head. “She has a masters. A masters in disasters.”
“I like it, but let’s make sure it’s not like that guy with the theoretical degree in physics. I heard his head just exploded from all the equations, that true?”
Dr. Creeper’s face looked like he’d eaten a pickled egg upon mention of that idiot. “Yes. Zat is what happened. He looked at ze whiteboard and ze next thing you know, boom, his head has gone kaboom all over the place. I really must go.”
“I completely understand, Creeper. Have a nice day,” I waved him off. He turned, patted the finned, thin-barreled death ray hanging on his hip, and walked out of there to go meet our newest contractor.
That was when a Directory servant, one of many hired to help the Directors find and wipe their asse while they were distracted with other things, walked up carrying a tray holding a wireless phone on it. Not a cell phone, but a home phone without a wire.
“Who’s calling for me?” I asked.
The servant bowed. “That is correct, Empress.”
I blinked a couple of times, then took the phone and addressed the head of my Intelligence Service. “Hey there, Hu.”
“Greetings, Empress. I need to discuss a matter of urgency with you, but I was forced to leave the island on an errand.” I heard gunshots in the background.
“Must be pretty important to call in the middle of a firefight. Mind if I ask where you are?”
“It would be better if you didn’t know. There are diplomatic concern at stake,” he said.
Somewhere in the background, I heard shouting in Spanish. “Protect the ambassador!”
“You’d be surprised how many countries speak Spanish,” I told Hu.
“I am certain I would be, Empress,” he responded. “I have come to the realization that field work is not my area of expertise. My leadership skills, too, are questionable.”
“Hey, don’t say that. You didn’t do too bad a job coordinating the evacuation and salvaging what was left so it wasn’t build completely from scratch.”
“Yes, Empress. You flatter me. I should say I am a bureaucrat to my soul. The Service needs an individual with true leadership potential.”
“What about you? It’s quite a thing to give up leading the bunch. How about you stay on as second in command? Help handle all the mundane stuff that looks less inspiring for the Head to do,” I looked up as another servant approached, bowed, and held out a manila envelope. “Is this your package I’m seeing?”
“I am going to assume you mean the envelope I asked to be delivered to you. Yes, that is from me. It contains files on three candidates I feel you could trust in. I would be more than happy to coordinate a test of their abilities and loyalty for you.”
I took the envelope and popped it open. “Truth is, I’m more disappointed that everyone’s relying on paper today.” I opened it up. “And typewriters. Wow. I’m not sure I actually came back to the present after that time travel trip. Tell me, Hu, how far back did I go? Are doctors recommending smoking as healthy way to lose weight and eliminate stress?”
“My most majestic eminence, computers can be hacked. Files may be intercepted. Paper burns. Those are the only copies in all under heaven.”
“Good man. You’re right, you’re right. Same way Russia’s been able to hide stuff from people for so long.” I really need a digital equivalent, but he’s right. Any code can be broken, even the otherworldly stuff I use. I could have every damn Riccan Intelligence Service computer using my home dimension’s coding, and I’d probably just end up with someone smuggling a key to another country.
Hmm. An idea comes to mind already. Paper-thin camo sheet like that on the exterior of the Pyscho Flyers. To everyone else, it appears to be a normal poster, or magazine page, or flyer. Then the right person touches a hidden DNA scanner while wearing augmented reality contacts and it to display the image just for them. It’s brilliant and perfect for fieldwork.
It’s also more expensive than just burning paper, too. I’d be stuck with paper while everyone’s running off doing cool shit with high tech spy gizmos. Speaking of gizmos, though…
“Actually, you don’t have have to worry about a test. I have something in mind I can take these guys on.. well, not this one, I already know that.” Hu had nominated the same agent I’d personally brought back from the United States, the one whose son had refused to stay with him in the business of aiding an overseas dictator in favor of helping a bunch of teenage superhero friends instead. The father’s loyalties were clearly torn on this point. “I’ll give these two a chance helping me out with something and we’ll see how things turn out. Thank you for your Service.”
He continued speaking at his normal volume despite the abundance of shredding guitars and cutesy Japanese being sung by young girls. “The Empress honors me. If you will it, I must end this call.”
“I will it and so it shall be,” I said, trying to sound all majestic and commanding. “Enjoy your concert.” I hunt up on him then and handed the phone back to the first servant, along with one of the pieces of paper. “Bring over a trash can, set those inside, and burn them all.”
The servant bowed and hurried off to do so. The other one stayed as well, awaiting my command. I checked over the files of the two candidates left. I tore off just the name portions and handed them to the man. “Find these two and have them meet me at the military base.” I looked down and activated the augmented reality overlay, then saved encrypted files attached to the paper. They each were to get a copy of Dr. Creeper’s shopping list and instructions to find locations with the equipment, prioritizing targets that can account for as much of the list as possible at once. “Give them each their scrap and tell them to take a close look. Off with you.”
He bowed and left.
I looked around the legislature hard at work on the minutia of running the civilian end of things and stretched. Then I stood and began taking out the golden comb and other weird doodads that Citra had elaborately wpven into my hair. Some of the Directors even noticed as my lower arms began to loosen the dress I wore, but they soon found themselves staring at my new armor instead of my bare body. Form-fitting, dark grey with orange lines between each of the flexible plates. I pulled the hood up and closed it entirely, leaving not even a mouth exposed for attack thanks to several add-ons I’d made for armor and utility. I flexed all four arms, showing off the orange Eastern dragon design that ended with the heads encompassing blue-accented gloves which concealed my power sheathe technology instead of any bulky gauntlets or pistons. I reached up to the midnight blue collar and tapped the central jewel, causing a shorter version of my black and blue cape to drop from the rear of the collar armor.
I looked out at the Directors, some of whom were definitely appreciating that the armor’s lack of padding and bulk. Those didn’t enjoy being under the gaze of my visor, which dipped in the middle enough to resemble something of a frown in combination with the fanged mouth armor concealing a filter and other equipment. “Don’t mind me, everyone. Just gotta get dressed to go out shopping.”
I bounded across the face of a pyramid under a green sky. Behind me, an orb the size of a beach ball approached. It was hard enough running along the smooth, angled side of the thing, though much easier than the side of a skyscraper. It’s much harder when a floating piece of glass rides your ass and tries to blast it off with a laser beam the diameter of a beach ball. I dropped and slid down the side of the pyramid to keep from being pegged by excited photons.
The beam followed, trailing molten whatever. I was invisible, but that didn’t matter to that thing. I’m guessing the natives of this world see some different stuff than most people from Earth do. I considered using my gauntlets, either to deflect the beam or to absorb part of it, then deflect it. They were built to handle Justice Ranger small arms, but it has an upper limit. I was never capable of deflecting the sorts of attacks their giant mecha could produce. I’d rather not test them against this energy weapon unless I have no other option. Still, I began to charge up my lower pair of arms and I had the projectors stop trying to render me invisible if it wasn’t going to work.
I banked on it only being able to maintain that beam for so long, then come back and smack it with my dick. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I’d blow it away with my cock, but I don’t know what my rubber chicken grenades are going to do around this place. Without roads to cross to the other side of, they might run around like chicken with their heads cut off. But dodging I can do. Some might call it “running away” but I argue that facing unknown energy beams capable of disappearing a torso is not the time to argue over valor. I really need a reliable method of defending myself from a distance. Or, as is more accurate in my life, preemptively defending myself. I have to defend myself from people’s attempts to kill me for trying to murder them.
Then again, all the eye lasers in the world are pretty useless if you can’t use them because the thing is a giant laser orb behind you that you can’t take the time to try and shoot because of the big-ass laser beam. I think it’s just really easy to complain when you’re close to involuntary ass hair removal via big-ass laser.
Having founded my guess on the idea that most weapons can’t attack continuously for very long without running into power, cooling, or ammunition problems, I was rewarded with the thing stopping. Unfortunately, the sliding thing was tougher to stop. I had to put my fist into the side of the pyramid. It didn’t go too far. Just far enough to break some fingers on my upper left hand. When you’re as punchable as myself, you get used to a lot of pain. I leveraged myself up and jumped for the orb. The first punch with my upper right knocked it back, but didn’t shatter it or anything. Then I gave it the ol’ one-two with the bottom pair and they put cracks all through the bottom. The orb dropped and began to roll down the side of the pyramid.
I’d been heading out a little further to see what I could see of this place. Wherever we’d entered this world, it didn’t seem to be the same spot they’d sent people through before. There had been no sign of the big tentacle thing that tried to get me before, and no other real defenses. Based on how there had been a drop of a few feet, I think moving the crystal on our end affected where we came out. One of the first villains through, Powder, used her super strength to put together a mound made out of what I assume are the local personal transportation. Some of the villains were swarming all over triangular things and I’m sure some of have already been tossed through whole.
“Hide your kids, hide your wife, we’re takin’ everything ’round here!” I called down to crowds of fleeing aliens. That’s what I’m going with, anyway. I know what dimensional travel is like, so I’m guessing this is mere interplanetary stuff. And not a racially homogenous one, either. I saw all sorts running around. Pale things with long, thin limbs and big heads walked around like greys in denim. No, seriously, whatever they were wearing looked a lot like denim. Denim overalls, denim jeans, denim jackets. I saw a big ape-like furry thing in a toga and sandals, so even alien fashion isn’t so horrible as to include socks with sandals. That was reassuring, actually. Some of these things were reptilian, some had green skin, some blue. They had aliens every color of the rainbow around here, fleeing as we wreaked havoc and stole whatever we could.
“I can’t be the only one noticing it’s hard to breathe here, for sure?” asked someone. I had the comms lines in my helmet turned down low so they wouldn’t interrupt anything.
“No, you’re just a fatass,” someone else responded.
“No, he’s right,” another voice jumped in. “It’s the atmosphere.”
“Anyone know how to read gibberish?” someone else broke in. “I don’t know what I’m robbing. Is this a Whole Foods or an electronic store?”
Yet another person broke in, which just goes to show why I didn’t want to pay a lot of attention to all this. “Shove it up your ass. If it doesn’t vibrate, it’s food.”
A voice with an accent I couldn’t place broke in. “That is how I know you are an American. You would fry it first.”
“Guys, not to interrupt this wonderful attempt at recreating Reddit with real noises, but I’m getting shot at over here,” someone said.
“Walk it off.”
“Shoot them back!”
I broke in. “Cooperation is a part of this. Let’s get some people over there before we find out they have guns that turn people’s crotches into poisonous snakes or something.”
“Woah, I saw that on TV before. There’s this big purple snake thing in another country-”
I cut them off. “That’s nice and we can discuss the penis snake once we’re back on Earth. Look at it this way, you get to steal gear from this place’s version of cops or soldiers or whatever.”
I think that did the trick. There wasn’t a good way to get a sense of where people were outside of whatever they discussed over the comms, and I didn’t like paying attention to all that. Still, those sorts of weapons and equipment were high on the list of goods to take, just like on Earth. They’re valuable, easy to carry, and easy to sell. It wouldn’t be Earth’s first encounter with alien technology, but I’d try to make sure my country gets whatever insights they have to offer first. Until then, I had to do a little robbing of my own.
I landed on what I took to be a sidewalk, right in front of a fleeing thing. I’d say feminine in appearance, but I didn’t have a basis for comparison with this thing’s species. Thin, with blue skin that took on an iridescent glimmer at the curves, and some folds of loose skin where the hair would be. “Stand and deliver,” I said, pulling a rubber chicken out of my belt and pointing it at the alien ominously.
It babbled something in a language my translator program began to work furiously on figuring out. “Your money or your life!” I said again, poking at the alien with the rubber chicken. I looked it over for valuables and found it had a number of bracelets on. I grabbed for those and slipped them off, the alien giving little resistance.
I was admiring them when a pair of those triangular vehicles came humming up the street nearby. The bodies of the vehicles turned as whatever they had instead of wheels moved them from side to side in order to deftly dodge fleeing civilians. The alien tried to pull one of the bracelets away from me and, when I refused, began waving its arms at the vehicles. They came to a sudden stop next to us and these domes on top retracted to reveal three beings in each one.
They got out, another mixture of various aliens. At least one of them looked more like the one I’d just mugged, but red-skinned instead of blue. One of them held the palm of his glove-covered hand toward me and shot some little disk thing. I caught it out of the air and looked at it, at which point it began to shock me. If it had hit and attached, that would have sucked. Unfortunately for them, it clenched my hand and I crushed the darn thing. Still made me stumble back, but it also helped charge up the energy sheaths on my gauntlets thanks to how I’d redesigned them. Three of the others pulled out extending sticks, not narrowed like batons, while the last brought out a staff. I went ahead and tucked my stolen bracelets away.
The three with the sticks came at me all at once. The things looked like wood, but clanged off my armor. A punch each put the three down, but not dead. For most people, they’d be gooey salsa on the sidewalk after one of those. These guys were still intact and holding themselves, though only the sasquatch-looking guy seemed anywhere near close to getting up for another go. It was staff guy’s time for a go while the one who tried to tase me checked on the others. He gave my leg a half-hearted poke that I didn’t think anything of until a metal clamp extended out and wrapped around my thigh. Then a yellow light on the middle part of the staff lit up. He picked me up and smacked me into the street a few times before smacking me onto the armored battery pack I wore on my back.
I didn’t have to worry about the charge in my last hand anymore. I raised all four of my hands for a moment before I got my feet under me a little. I fired my suit’s elbow rockets at the same time I jumped, pulling the staff clear of the alien’s grip. My suit was at least a match for the clamp, able to tear it off, and the alien peace officer himself was less resilient to a flying person in power armor gut-checking him.
The last one fired off another pair of his shocking little gadgets at me as I approached. Once again, a ranged attack would be nice. A laser shot out from the side, severing the thing’s hand and ending the pain and involuntary muscle contractions. And, I might add, leaving the red-skinned alien standing in front of me while I had four charged gauntlets ready. Yeah, no need for the laser now. The others survived a punch each with no problems. Turns out, a couple such hits at the same time will salsafy these guys anyway.
I turned to the person who had helped me. Escorpio Encantador stood on the back of a gleaming gold and black scorpion that went along perfectly with his scorpion-motif armor. “I am sure you would have killed him without my assistance, Emperatriz Gecko. I merely hurried his death along so you have more time to do what you love.” He gave me a bow.
“Yeah, yeah. Now help me get these guys’ pants off!” I said, perfectly happy to have less attention on him helping me out. He politely refused to help me rob the downed cops blind, claiming he had to get over and help with the tentacle monster. I just made sure to gather up as much of the armor and equipment I could, including that taser-launching glove, a couple of sticks, and what may have been an advanced alien jockstrap. That’s a question for the scientists to answer, though.
I was broken away from my robbery reverie by the increasing panic from the various voices on the comms. “Tentacles everywhere!” someone called. Another person was like, “It touched my mouth, ew, fuck it! Fuck all of it!” And that last statement was not good fuck it.
Grabbing my loot, I made for the portal. I found that the fleeing crowds in that area were supervillains who were trying to get away from a large, flesh-shaped slug covered with tentacles. If it was the same one from the other portal, it would be the remnants of one last mercenary. Yeah, they did that to a human. Giant tentacle slug.
Suddenly, a large crowd of the aliens ran for the portal as well, from the other direction. What I thought would turn into a counter attack instead became a massive surge of aliens all throwing themselves at the thing, trying to beat, claw, and bite it to death. It wasn’t until I was jumping my way closer that I saw someone moving more slowly in the midst of them without being trampled. A woman with a face I’d seen plenty of times, though she now wore a form-fitting black dress. Spinetingler’s daughter.
Spinetingler himself soon appeared, though he appeared unconcerned with the writhing, wriggling mess of tentacles. When tendrils came close to slapping him, he swiped them clear with a quartet of blades on the fingers of one glove. He approached the thing and laid a hand on it. By now, I’d landed relatively close by and nodded to the guy’s daughter. I felt her telepathic abilities claw away at my mind, protected as it was by the unique neurophysiology of homo machina. Something about the way our minds interface with computers screws up conventional psionic abilities. My understanding is that it takes a hellaciously strong psychic to break in. “Everything ok here?” I asked.
She nodded. Her voice had a deep echo to it. “My father has this handled. I think everyone should go.”
I nodded again and cut into the comms. “Okily dokily, folks. I hear we better get a move on. Spinetingler’s doing something to the squirming mass over here and I think we’d better skedaddle.”
“Roger, skedaddling commencing,” someone with a mechanical-sounding voice said.
“Keep an eye out for anyone lagging behind. Anyone get caught? Anyone injured?” I asked. I was interrupted by Dr. Creeper stomping by back to the portal in a barebones robot that was more a pair of large chicken-legs with a small tank cannon on top. From his cackling, he was having the time of his life.
Meanwhile, Spinetingler finished whatever he was doing and flew past through the portal as a bunch of bats. Short as he was a few in his belfry, if he was hightailing it, that was a sign. Kinda like when you notice the bomb disposal guy running with a line of pee trailing after. But I stuck around. I got to see as the thing that had once been a man and was now a giant flesh slug began to grow and take something like a humanoid shape. It didn’t get all the formal body parts. It stayed all lumpy and flesh-colored, but it had a pair of legs, a torso, and arms, all with little arms and legs twitching out of its skin. And whatever led it to come after us villains didn’t seem to be in control anymore. It took a swipe at a nearby obelisk, sending it crashing onto more of the extraterrestrial cops.
“Sound off if you are still past the portal!” called Ouroboros over the comms.
“Gecko here. I’m still on alien soil, watching aliens soil themselves,” I answered.
After a few more seconds of comms silence, Ouroboros replied, “We’re waiting on you.”
A bolt of red energy missed my head and zapped a piece of the mound underneath the portal. I turned to see a group of four beings in multi-colored outfits walking toward the scene with short capes on the back of their outfits. They had black and silver running throughout the costumes, but each wore a different color primarily. It was the lead one in red, way too big and wide to be a human, who was aiming a sort of cross between staff and rifle at me. I got the feeling I met his gaze, despite the helmets we both wore.
“Yeah, time to go I think,” I said to myself, as well as the rest of them all. I turned and jumped through to see everyone else milling around the military base. No one had been allowed to leave just yet, as enforced by all the guys and drones with guns around.
There was just no way to handle the raid from within the Institute of Science. Sure, it had the computers and the nuclear-powered toasters, which are always handy to have in a conflict. It was too crowded. Hard to get people in and out, or get booty out. Getting a lot of people in and handling booty is as important for a raid as it is for running a train on someone. I also hated being cut off the way the Institute does to me as a consquence of being built for information security.
It turns out the crystal can be handled and moved. I had it brought out to the military base. It had plenty of room for everyone. Plus, this time all the guns would be pointed at my enemies. That includes if any of these assholes got the idea to strand me over there. Which is why they were keeping a close eye on everyone until I gave the order. “Guns down and power off. At ease.”
The soldiers relaxed. Even the surface-to-air launcher wound down and pointed its payload at the sky instead.
“Trust issues, Gecko?” asked Ouroboros, twirling his knives around.
“What? Me? Naw… just didn’t want anyone leaving before we got ourselves a group photo,” I said, pointing over to the nearby bleachers where a pair of photographers were all set up. “Come on, let’s finish comemmorating the new world order. Say ‘stolen cheese’!”
I didn’t turn around and immediately lead some villainous expedition into another world for the sake of getting rich on tech so commonplace, they gave it to science projects. They gave a lot of interesting stuff to science projects, and I had to gather up the scientists, including Dr. Creeper, Mix N’Max, Dr. Quincy, and myself, to try and figure out what had been done to these people to better understand what we were facing. Quincy didn’t appreciate me dumping the tentacle on him, not least of which because I literally dropped it in his lap while he was eating calamari. He didn’t finish his lunch for some reason.
He tried to argue with me. “I specialize in plants. Does this look like a plant to you?” he said, waving the tentacle at me.
I shrugged. “That’s what we’re hoping to find out.”
“I do not have a response to that. Fine. I hope they didn’t wreck the entire lab.”
They didn’t, in fact, wreck the whole lab. It came pre-wrecked, but it was intact enough for us to bring in the gear we needed to perform a bunch of autopsies and figure out what we were facing. The ones assigned to the metallurgy of the guns and ammunition I figured found something valuable, as they soon claimed it was all mysteriously destroyed while testing the strength of the metal, ammo included. And some shiny new watches fell off the back of a truck onto their wrists.
They soon left me alone to escape the Institute and leave me to punching dead bodies. I was boxing against one of them hanging on a hook like Rocky in the meat freezer as just part of my testing. I had to get a good idea how much punishment the bodies could take.
I took a break though, intending to go fetch Qiang. It’d be good practice for her. I stopped into Max’s work area first, to see what he was up to. “Knock knock,” I said.
He didn’t look up from where he mixed some liquids in beakers, then poured them on a leg of one of the mercs. “Hey Gex. Bored?” I noted that the liquid fizzled a bit and started to eat through the skin.
“Thought I’d bring Qiang on over, give her some experience with weird dead bodies. Father-daughter stuff. Looks like you’re figuring out clean-up.” I leaned against the doorway.
Max turned to me, perpetual Cheshire grin on his face. “You really love her, don’t you?”
I shrugged and, in the process of figuring out what to do with my extra arms, traced the fangs on my helmet. “There are some questions you don’t ask a guy.”
“Fine, guy,” he put extra emphasis on the second word there to remind me of my current sex. “I remember you hating children.”
“Yeah, I do. Hyperactive, loud, spoiled, stupid little sons of bitches. And they so rarely grow up to try and avenge their parents, despite what all the movies and TV shows tell you.”
“So she’s special to you,” Max said, winking.
I checked around to make sure we were the only ones able to hear. “Orphan taken in by a government determined to train her and use her for their own gain. They gave her to me.” I don’t know if he fully understood what that meant as far as the sort of person they expected me to be.
“Now she’s your daughter.” Max set the beakers down and turned full to me, putting his hands out cautiously, palms toward me. “Are you trying to make her like you?”
I caught myself with my fists raised and before I got close enough to actually land a punch. I’d instinctively tried to beat his ass for that question. I lowered my fists and moved to lean back against the wall. “No, ya Goth bastard. I want her to have an infinitely better life than mine. Why do you fucking ask?”
“Because since I’ve been here, you’ve taught your daughter martial arts and how to butcher an animal. You wanted to bring her to have fun cutting up dead people. You’re a doting father… mother… but are you teaching her the same things you learned?”
I pondered the question. “Well, yes, but not all the things, and not at all like I learned. No gun to her head, no threats of execution, no competition to see who has to fight to the death as the lowest scorers in the group. And like I said, I’m not going around teaching her the best way to sexually violate the human body. I mean, maybe once she’s old enough I can provide some sex education, but she’s too young for that.”
“I don’t mean to tell you how to raise your kid-”
“Then don’t,” I said, cutting him off. He kept going anyway.
“But I don’t think a kid you want to live a better, healthier life needs to poke around dead corpses all the time as part of her education. Unless she wants to be a doctor, of course. I’d be happy to tutor her.” He smiled brightly again, trying to redirect the conversation to something more upbeat.
There are more than 7 billion people on this planet I would murder for a suggestion like that. The one about what I should and shouldn’t teach my own kid. Max is a friend, though. And he might have a point about laying off on the number of corpses I show to Qiang. I know I’m contrarian by nature, probably because someone once told me not to be, but I figured I could at least think it over. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever really be short of dead bodies to show her if I need to.
That became less important of a point though when Max turned around. “Look what we have here.”
I stepped up behind him. “The good news is, you found a compound to get rid of all those nasty wrinkles and blemishes.” He’d dissolved dermal layers alone, giving us a much clearer view of some of the modifications made to the human. Underneath the skin was a layer of hardened scales. Reminiscent in color to those of the Deep Ones, they were nonetheless tougher than the fish monsters. It’s just that without the skin to cover it up, the resemblance was pretty strong as far as the shape of the thing with the scales. The claws matched up, but Deep Ones were weaker there, too. And these guys didn’t have the fins the Deep Ones had. “I’m going to go round a few people up and send for someone to nab some DNA from a Deep One. This is worth a little bit of looking into.”
It took me a half hour to get a Deep One over from the Drone Division. I brought him, I think him, in to the same lab where Mix N’Max and the rest of the Superhuman Science Crew were gathered. The Deep One gave a croak at seeing all of us there and a dead body with scales on the table. “My Empress, what do you ask of me?”
“Did that thing say Empress?” asked someone in the crowd.
“Shush, that’s not important right now,” I waved off the question, then addressed my soldier. “Just a tiny bit of DNA testing. We were attacked by beings from another world who we’ve just realized bear some resemblance to your people. We just wanted to confirm a few things.”
It doesn’t take much to test DNA, so he lived. He even got a good look at the thing on the table courtesy of Dr. Creeper. Seeing as I’d discarded the same handy-dandy quick tester I’d used to confirm the identity of Spinetingler’s daughter, it took slightly longer for us analyze the DNA and get a good look at its makeup. It was Dr. Quincy, he of the plant biology, who took the lead on this one. “We have samples from standard humans, a Deep One, and one of these creatures to compare to. We would need more samples to gain a fuller understanding of Deep Ones, but utilizing what we have here and the map of the human genome, it appears humanity and the Deep Ones share a common ancestor.”
The Deep One himself scratched at its chin before speaking in a croaking voice, “My people have mated with humans many times in our history.”
“Yeah, there are a stories to that extent,” I said. “That raises the question on whether the Deep Ones are so closely related to us because of all the crossbreeding, or if it was allowed beforehand.”
Quincy shook his head. “The crossbreeding could only have occurred because of how closely we’re related. It’s similar to how neanderthals interbred with early humans. That brings us back to this guy,” Quincy pointed with the tablet he held to the corpse on the table. “As strange as it seems, this thing that used to be human within its own lifetime now shares less DNA with homo sapiens than Deep Ones do. This thing might be so distantly related it may not be able to interbreed with us. If it were alive, I would add.”
It was a valid point to bring up. Technically, it’s hard to breed with a corpse. That’s why it’s important for horny teens to remember that you can’t get pregnant with a dead body. Joking aside, this whole DNA thing was making me glad they didn’t take me for a sample. I mean, homo machina are an offshoot of humanity and there doesn’t appear to be a problem with having someone be half homo sapiens, half homo machina, but I don’t know if it can occur naturally in the bedroom. And then there’s the idea that I might be more closely related to a human than a Deep One is.
“Empress,” the Deep One said, once again calling stares onto me. He walked right over, so it’s not like anyone was confused enough to think there were any other female heads of empires around. “There are elder truthsayers who carry ancient stories. They speak of beings from another world who made many things, such as great pyramids. They are even said to be our creators and gods for a time. May I bring one to you so that you may hear his wisdom?” He knelt before me.
On the one hand, stories about things from another world building the pyramids never struck me as particularly truthful before, but context is important. I patted him on the head. “Sure, go bring me one of those elder things.”
And so he did, leading in a being that proved you can be both scaled and wrinkled at the same time. It’s not a pretty sight, and I’m not entirely sure this guy could see anymore, but he came in to try and regale us with a long-winded tale of the creation of the Deep Ones. I actually fell asleep, but my armor kept recording so I was able to get the jist of it, which is basically just what the one guy said. Broad strokes, the Deep Ones have a creation myth going back to gods from another world creating their god and themselves before nonbelievers from the island of Mu refused to bow down. They were being beaten in battle by the gods, until a small group, aided by traitors among the Deep Ones, were able to sneak into the holy temple and destroy the path between the two worlds.
They thought they had failed, because they disrupted the rituals at the sight of the path, or more likely portal, but it didn’t fade away. In desperation, one of them stole a sacred relic from the gods and fled. The portal began to shrink then, and the gods warned that unless the relic was returned, they would fade away. This was when they retaliated by creating the monstrous Cthulhu, who was sent to sink Mu in retaliation. Or, more likely, he was insurance. Like “return the glowing crystal or your island gets it!”
So this glowing thing we got is probably that thing. And I bet those weird ruins on the west side of the island are the ones that hid this thing until someone, probably the Claw, dug it up and started studying it.
Which means… I’d better bring extra explosives for the enemy. And extra underwear for my allies. As the head of the ACLU once said in the future, don’t mess with Earth. And kill Zoidberg.
I was in the middle of a very important hair braiding experiment with Qiang when the alarm went off. The system set up by the Claw, the prior ruler, had the city broken up into different sections with an alarm going off in the center of the section to narrow down important areas of conflict. The alarm would lead responders to where a disaster or crisis occurred, while also letting civilians know to steer clear. It wasn’t as convenient for myself, but I got ears. Lots of things I can listen through have ears. I lost a little time protecting the tangled hair, knotted hair from Qiang’s braiding, but it turned out I knew where I was going. So I grabbed Mix N’Max up from where he played some VR game and dragged him with me.
There’s a good reason Claw had the Institute of Science set as the center of its own alarm section and the host of one of the alarms. I wasn’t the first there by any means. Drones had beaten me there and fired the occasional laser beam when something took a potshot at them with either gunfire or blue bolts of energy. Dr. Creeper was outside as well, huddled behind a car and occasionally firing at the entrance of the Institute with a Luger that shot lightning bolts. Next to him was one of the missing mercenaries I’d sent in there to clean up the place, having lost a significant amount of gear and wearing some sort of breathing apparatus. He held a ridiculously over-sized rifle that he used to loose a violet spread of glowing darts back into the entrance of the Institute. The Baroness was present as well, standing on the side of the building as easily as if it was the ground, plunging a knife into an arm that reached out of a hole in the wall to hold her ankle.
The Institute of Science was built to keep a lot of hidden knowledge secret. To that end, it had been built with limited entrances, including a lack of windows someone might use to spy on anything. That made the front entrance one hell of a choke point. I just needed to see what we were choking.
I landed from a low-angle jump, skidding around and lowering myself to one knee as I came to rest against the same car as Dr. Creeper and the merc, setting Max down as well. I asked them, “Sounds like the neighborhood watch has spotted some damn busybodies. What’s going on?”
Max pulled off some gloves he’d been wearing for his VR thing and reached for his syringe gun. “I second that question.”
“I was running tests on the glowing thing!” Creeper said.
Before I could deploy a Told Ya So, the merc spoke up, “Damn glad you did, gramps. I’d be back on that alien world if you hadn’t opened the gateway again. Specialist St. George, reporting for duty!” He stopped yapping and stood up to loose a burst of darts. I noticed several lights on the side of his gigantic gun that shifted from the same color of violet to white after the shot. He knelt back down, keeping an eye on it.
“Just what in there is so eager to get out, Specialist St. George?” I asked.
“The rest of my squad, sir,” he answered, giving the entrance the finger. “The things on the other side of that portal captured us and started messing with us. Experimenting, one man at a time. The last of us managed to make a break for it, made it back to the portal. It looked like we were making our last stand until it opened again.”
“And whatever’s come through can probably hold it open from our side. I’m the only one of us with a shot at sneaking past these guys. I’ll check on the Baroness, make sure she’s good to go, and pop in from where she’s at. The rest of you, keep them pinned down here. Georgie Porgie, anything special I need to know about these guys? They got a prehensile knife-dick now or anything?”
He shook his head. “Not that I saw. Most of them look barely human now, and they don’t go down easy. It’s like they have chain mail for skin and it’s harder to get through to their brains.”
“Thick-headed and slow to fellate I can deal with,” I said. “I’ve let Drone Division know to back you up in keeping them pinned down.” I also advised the Directory to stay well away from the palace grounds underground train entrance and sent orders for Security and soldiers to head there. The loyal Riccan speedster, VelocityRaptor, was already on seen keeping an eye on it and itchin’ to see some LARP-looking motherfuckers poke their heads up from underground. Max had already warned Sam and Holly what was going on before I could get word to Citra or Silver Shark, so they were all hightailing it too.
“I don’t think they’ll push anyway,” St. George said. “They’ll want to bring in as much firepower as they can before break out.”
“Then I better break-in and break ’em before they break out,” I said.
Max put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you good to go?”
“Why wouldn’t Gecko be ready to fight?” asked Creeper. “Did something happen? Is he wounded?”
I shook my head. “Nope, it’s just a holiday for me today. It’s supposed to be a wonderful day in the neighborhood. Looks like it’s time to go introduce myself to some new neighbors.”
I jumped for the side of the building where Baroness had made it too. She had gone higher, avoiding any more handsy soldiers from inside. Where she just stood on the wall in defiance of gravity, I had to at least pay the law of physics some mind by smashing a fist into the wall and grabbing hold to keep myself up. “Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,” I sang, “He’s broken every human law; he breaks the law of gravity.”
“Do you always audition for American Idol in the middle of a fight?” she asked.
“A life and death situation is no time to stop taking things lightly,” I told her. “You ok? They didn’t get you or anything?”
She shook her head and showed off her knife, slick with dark blue blood. “They tried. Careful if you go in expecting veal. These things are cooked well done and tough.”
I nodded. “I’ll make sure to tenderize any of them I need to kill. First, I need to bust on in up here so I can get in and stop them from bringing in all their friends. You got plenty of room for keep-away if they come through the other way, right?”
She let out a laugh and swept her arm over the side of the building.
“I don’t normally say this, but I’m just going to assume that’s an affirmative. Now watch your legs, I’m going in,” I charged up a fist. Energy gathered in a field around the armored gauntlet. I punched the side of the building. The gathered energy converted into kinetic form to bolster the force generated by a reinforced exoskeleton and enhancing pseudomuscles. The wall cracked easily and I forced my way through the weakened outer shell of the structure.
I ended up in one of the upper floor offices and activated the hologram system. Though not as evenly distributed, the system on this armor was still capable of hiding me from the vast majority of prying eyes. No telling if the modified mercenaries I’d be facing still had eyes I could fool. So, as would be prudent, I decided to experiment.
A room over I found the hole and transfigured merc who threatened the Baroness. He was busy repairing the arm that had been sliced nearly through, holding some sort of device over it. He looked thicker alright. He was down to underlayers on whatever uniform he’d been in. Fingers ended in claws. His bald head had little nubs along it. And his arm slowly oozed dark blue blood instead of the normal red. It was through the cut skin that I saw armor below the skin. Little overlapping armor plates caused the nubs. They were hidden as flesh and muscle rapidly grew and knitted together under the device. That seemed handy.
I decided to get a closer look, so I grabbed his head and twisted it around. Its eyes were covered in mirrored lenses and the mouth could no longer close properly. Some metal thing had been installed with a tube that twisted back around to connect to something on the front of his chest. He growled at me, though, it seems the neck was of higher quality than most humans’.
I stepped back as he brought his arms around to reach straight back for whatever had given him a new view on life. I moved to the side to see if he’d follow. Nope. So it looks like I was invisible to these guys. I put my arm into its chest and pulled out one of its hearts. Then the other. Yeah, a little tougher.
While I learned a lot from pulling out that guy’s hearts, like most good science, I had to move on. I had a lot more of these mercs to sneak past as they shambled around the Institute of Science. I hadn’t thought I’d sent in this many, which was another thing to make note of, but none of the things I encountered as I moved down through the facility appeared to be anything other than human in origin. I stepped over a couple of their dead bodies as well and even took a gun from one’s cold, dead hands. Sturdy, heavy stuff, designed to help resist recoil from ammo that didn’t look like brass, steel, copper, or lead. I set it down just before rounding a corner, right in time to trip up another of the transmogrified mercs as they rounded it.
By the time I’d gotten to the weird, glowy crystal room, I’d stopped getting passed by so many of the mercs. Inside the room, I found the central podium lit up. Instead of a crystal or a container, I saw a green sky and dark pyramidal shapes further away that could have been buildings. It was all wavy, though. A flesh-colored shape approached, but the portal got all wavy and I couldn’t see too well.
On this side, though, one of the former mercs stood at a console, a cable running from it to the base of the podium. I walked over and knelt down. Something rumbled as I got closer to the portal. A tentacle shot out at me from the portal, more literally once I pulled the cable apart and the portal disappeared, leaving behind the glowing crystal floating in its place. And the tentacle. The severed appendage slapped into me and knocked me on my ass. Meanwhile, the merc furiously punched buttons on the console before picking up his rifle and firing at me. I still had a tentacle draped all over me, after all.
The impacts rang my bell, but I found they weren’t all being deflected. I grabbed the tentacle and got to my feet, swinging it like a whip to knock the gun away from the inhuman soldier of fortune. I also tried reaching outside the Institute to let everyone know they could move in, but the place was still built in such a way as to keep people from transmitting data out.
I set that problem aside for later and jumped over, my knee smacking hard into the merc’s throat and sending him toppling with me on top. I reached down and grabbed his leg, bending it over him so I could hit in him the face with his own boot. “Why you kickin’ yourself? Why you kickin’ yourself?” I asked. He punched at the invisible fellow on top of him that he still couldn’t see. I’ve taken harder hits off bongs.
It seemed as good a time as any to see about an autopsy. Sure, he wasn’t dead yet, but that was a minor detail easily rectified by me pulling his organs out one by one until he expired. Then I had to race for the surface. The mercs had barricaded the entrance to keep any potential counter offensive’s at bay. Unfortunately at them, I’m a master at being offensive, and the threatening phone call was coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!
They hardly noticed the trio of headless rubber chickens that marched along, trying to find a road to cross. They exploded before making it to the other side, destroying the barricades and killing more than a few of the assembled post-humans. I stepped among them, stomping on heads and kicking balls until I got close enough to send out a call they also didn’t hear. “Portal’s closed. Let’s move in and secure the Institute. Soldiers of Ricca, we’re operating under Gecko’s X-Com Protocol: try to take one or two alive if convenient and safe, but don’t worry if you have to kill each and every one of them.”
Then, while drones, supers, soldiers, and peace officers flooded in, I put out another call. “Ouroboros, I think I found ourselves a group bonding activity,” I bent down to pull one of those healing gadgets from the hands of a wounded merc. I dropped down, smacking the crotch of my armor against its face until it went still from the malicious teabagging. Or whatever it’s called when you don’t have teabags at the moment. “And I think it’ll make people some serious money.”