The heroes had a job for me. Venus called me up in the middle of pulling a little prank. “Are you busy right now?” she asked.
“I could normally work through it, but I’m about to lose you in a minute. Electromagnetic interference. You’re not riding the rails on the surface, are you?” I grit my teeth a little as I delicately bent some wires toward each other with the aid of some insulated tongs.
“We’ve been analyzing the situation over here using their version of the internet, knowledge from the defectors, and information we’ve all learned in our activities.”
“Our activities? I’m the one who interrogated hostages. What did y’all do?” I’ve been out here stealing shit. I haven’t seen these heroes out and about, helping me blow shit up.
“After we fought off the planes, we have been helping out. We’re healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and helping protect people from gangsters called the Kah. We’re trying to utilize all our abilities, which brings me back to why I called. We have a few anthropologists and sociologists among the secret identities. They think-”
“Hold that thought in your pretty little head, dear,” I said. The wires touched and I fell back as my cyborg parts rebelled all at once. It took a few seconds to shake everything off and try to stand up, which got harder when some trains and individual cars started to land all around me on the cold Uranal dirt. Others smacked into the rails above me, but none overcame the magnets. It was only a brief power surge all along a kilometer of track, but it disrupted the flow of people and goods between places.
While I waited on everything to stop falling and to explode if it was going to, I called Venus back. “Ok, I’m back.”
“Do people need our help?”
“Probably. There’s probably injured,” I said. I paused as a man screamed on his way down from the tracks. He landed with a thud, then cried out again. “Yeah, definitely going to need some medical help for collateral damage.” A metal groan drowned out the man’s screams, followed by a falling train car plowing into the man. “You know, nevermind. I think the casualties took care of themselves.”
“I’m sending them anyway. Do you need a ride?” she asked.
I looked over where I left my tread cycle. I stole it off a Kah courier. “I’m good.” It disappeared under another train car. “You know what? A ride would be nice. I’m out here kinda far. Transmitting coordinates now.”
She briefed me as I waited underneath the rails in case any-friggin-thing else decided to fall off. Annoyed me, too. I liked that cycle. I want another one, with built in rocket launchers and machine guns. I’ll paint it red and call it “Minstrel II: Electric Boogaloo.”
The info I’d picked up was puzzling. I hadn’t pieced it all together yet, but a picture was starting to form of a severe labor shortage and a highly nationalistic culture where only a minority of people bought into the ideology.
Venus explained. “At some point, their capital was Earth. We don’t know what happened. The Republic’s line is that it was destroyed in some way. We don’t know what that means. Now, it lives on with a colony on Uranus that has to rely heavily on resources from provinces, which seem to be other conquered worlds. It has been a long time since they heard any news of new conquests, so they think the provinces are having trouble and that’s where they keep the majority of their military.”
I tried connecting a few dots myself. “So Paldrin was a provincial leader, maybe with a world or part of a world under his control. He went after us with his own forces that were more like the provincial garrisons or auxiliaries. Then I took him out and the main military invaded us. If you’re right about the military situation, I wonder why they threw good money after bad?”
“We wondered about that. How did you kill Paldrin?” Venus asked.
“It was a super weapon. Kinda meant to destroy everything within a certain radius, but untested. I didn’t know how much it would destroy. It was derived from D-bomb technology, but the Dudebot I sent it with didn’t get shot back to our dimension until a week later or so.”
She was quiet for awhile after hearing that, probably coming to terms with the idea that I might have killed a planet. It was self defense, but still. Whatever I am to her, I don’t expect her to take genocide well. Though I suppose I think genocide has more to do with specifically targeting a certain ethnic group to wipe them out, including using methods like sterilization. An entire planet is really too indiscriminate to be genocide.
Regardless of all that, when Venus next spoke to me, she cut to the chase. The heroes have gaps in their knowledge, and they want to figure some things out. They want me to infiltrate the primary military command center, the Tower Perilous, located in the capital city. It looked like a tall, vaguely phallic cement building inside a number of smaller stone buildings that radiated out in a sunburst. I took a good long look before I left the Domeship. Venus didn’t see me off or have anything to do with the briefing. They had Honky Tonk Hero handle that, though I noticed. Odd choice, and I suspect he lost a bet from how happy he seemed over it.
The whole thing would have been much easier with the aid of my power armor. Too bad that got dissolved away by the Praetor, eh? On top of that, they don’t seem to really bother with women in their military, and most folks don’t just have an extra pair of arms. But, fuck it, I didn’t want to stick around on the ship while everyone but my half-insect daughters gave me dirty looks. The desire to kill me was palpable, and yet they need me. It’s all feels familiar.
As if to emphasize that point, I spotted my old nemeses, the Justice Rangers. I nodded toward the red and green ones, “How ya doin’? Enjoying the ride?” As one, they gave me a salute that would be an insult in our dimension of origin. I gave them the ol’ Spaceballs salute right back.
Clone stuff. It’s all clone stuff around here, not nearly enough cybernetics. They put so much work into building things because of that. It also made it more difficult for me to throw some armor together. Luckily, I had an idea on that front. I made a people suit. Before people start getting upset, I cloned a suit of grey skin to hide myself inside and some padding to disguise my milkmakers. Grey people are allowed to have extra arms on this planet. Pour one out for Buffalo Bill; truly an inspiration.
Their security is shit on this planet. I rode the train like anybody else, got into the capital like it was no one’s business. There were some delays when the trains had to divert around messed-up rails and underneath bomb scanners, but it’s not like anybody wanted me back with the heroes quickly. From there, I had to navigate the landscape of glass and local concrete that was the big city. People looked, but not twice. As someone with grey skin and a leotard, I was someone they didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
The Tower Perilous was easy enough to find. That one had a security wall around it to keep people out, but any big wall like that has its weaknesses. Unless you have people watching it all over, it’s simple to hop the thing like I did. I checked some of the outer buildings on my way toward the jackpot in the middle. They looked like a combination of storage and trophy room. Golden statuettes full of precious gems looked a little fancy to be in a storage locker, but there they were, packed in with gold in all kinds of shapes and sizes. If every one of these buildings had that kind of stuff in it, they were fucking loaded.
Which, I realized with a smirk, is exactly the problem. You dump that much gold on the economy all at once and it becomes worthless.
They had soldiers in honor guard uniforms who nodded to me on my way through. I wouldn’t be surprised if their vents are big enough to walk through upright, these people. It was a bit tough navigating, but someone in a nice uniform smiled and approached. “May I help you?”
“Praetor M,” I introduced myself. “I have been sent to see to the Grand Executor’s files.”
His brow furrowed. “The new Grand Executor hasn’t been appointed yet.”
“The old Grand Executor. I must see to his files.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. I walked past him, toward the elevator. He followed along into there with me, not calling in security if that’s what he meant to do.
I looked to him. “We have discovered an existence of a technopath among the invaders. I need to harden the encryption on the Grand Executor’s system, whether there is a new one or not.” I held his gaze until the man punched a button on the elevator. At least this machine wasn’t too convenient for them to do away with.
The Grand Executor’s office was one nice piece of work. I think the guy had rugs on his rugs. All sorts gems, bottles of stuff, incense, bundles of scrolls, and odd little clockwork sculptures. This guy had weaponry bling all over the place, as well. A small, if ornamental, armory hung on one wall: rifles and handguns shared it with naginata, swords, and a large fang. This was not the office of a professional general, and his unfamiliarity with our world compared to Paldrin might mean I was barking up the wrong tree.
“Leave me in private,” I told the aide who showed me the way as I stepped around an ornate desk carved to resembled the base of a great redwood. The chair behnd it had the same touches, carved so that the legs looked like trunks and spread into roots at the bottom.
“Are you sure? What if the technopath attacks?” He asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Nothing you could do would stop them. Thank you for your help. I will handle it from here.”
Frowning, he left me in private. I ran my hand over the screen of the flowing shell material that made up the exterior of the computer on the man’s desk. Its curves encompassed the monitor and keyboard. I checked around for the tower. A cable ran down from the shell into the floor itself. I pulled back the rug under the desk and found the tower was the floor, hidden behind a layer of glass. I checked to make sure nobody had slipped in while I was preoccupied, then I pulled up the sleeve along one of my lower arms and dug my fingers into the skin around the wrist. A trail of blood circled the wrist where my fingernails cut it. I pulled the skin off like a glove and slipped it into a pocket. I dialed back my eye laser to cut through just the floor, just enough to get my hand into the oversized circuit boards below.
It was actually an older version of the same sort of software on their tanks and the Domeship, so it took a moment to orient myself. And then, worlds opened up to me. I established a link with the Domeship.
“Gecko here. Analyze this,” I started uploading key parts of the data. They were right. We were fighting something of a vestigial empire. Its provinces were other versions of Earth, and almost all were in rebellion or close to it after to much of their military power had been drawn off. One was successful, having almost completely routed their local Executor and Governor after all contact with other worlds had been lost for a week. “Oh wow. Turns out I didn’t kill that planet,” I said, putting that up on the screen for the heroes to see.
I thought about it. I had access to emergency overrides for Dimensional Relay Towers they used in the provinces and on Uranus to travel to other dimensions. I grabbed as many files on how they worked and began deleting the copies they had.
I had something to say to the heroes though. “I could end this right here and now. They have a force here… token, really… but I could shut down their vehicles. I could stop the trains. Cut off the cloning labs. Or I could turn them on each other. Clone soldiers loyal to us. Ram the trains into each other. I could render them helpless on all their worlds, and here. I could use their own relays to tear them apart. They’d never threaten anyone again.”
“Please, Gecko,” Venus said on the Domeship. “Shut them down. I don’t want that much death on our conscience.”
“If all we do is turn stuff off, there’ll still be plenty of death when we bring the fight here. You’re trading their lives for our lives. Lots of heroes there who may not like you speaking for them on that.”
Warman joined in. “That’s our decision, you son of a bitch.”
“We became heroes to shield the innocent,” Eschaton said.
I got flooded by hundreds of agreements. It was an overwhelming cacophony, but in the middle of it I could focus on Venus and her discussion with someone. I don’t think they knew I could hear. “Do you trust him?”
“I want to trust her,” Venus emphasized that last word. “I think she’s more than what you want her to be.”
I sighed. “Fine, emergency shutdown initiated. They’re wide open for you. Have a happy revolution doing things the hard way.”
“It’s the way that lets them live and doesn’t give them cause for reve-” Warman was saying before I cut the audio feed.
If the heroes want to kill themselves, who am I to argue? I’m getting sick of Uranus anyway. Though it did make me smile to realize my nemesis isn’t quite sick of mine yet.
Believe it or not, it takes more to end war with an expansionist foreign power than showing up with a single confiscated vessel full of people with no clue how to run it. We didn’t intend to bring it here, but we were immediately put at the mercy of the Consuls Exalted, as they called themselves. With Venus holding my hand, I made it to the command pedestal and slipped my hands free of their gloves to try and gain control over the system. If I hadn’t had all that time to practice with this army’s network defenses, I might have been kept out.
When I cracked that bad boy wide open, sections of the floor rose up to form stations and round seats in front of them. It was a circle, except for four gaps. The consoles unlocked for them as well. Quietly, not transmitting to the Consuls, I informed Venus, “I’m doing a diagnostic to figure out what this puppy can do.”
“Who put you in charge?” asked Warman. Eschaton stepped up next to him.
Venus had my back. “If you know anyone else who can fly this thing and learn what it does, be my guest.”
“What is your offer for clemency?” asked one of the Consuls.
“Y’all wanna talk?” I asked.
“Put us through,” Warman said.
“Putting you though,” I echoed, so he wouldn’t immediately start talking about having a wedgie or insulting me.
“Consuls, I’m Warman, the Man of War, and this is Eschaton. Earth’s mightiest heroes are on your doorstep. We hope you make the best choice for yourselves and your people.”
“What do you have to offer us?” asked one of the Consuls. I mentally designated him Lefty, because his image appeared on the Left on the dome around us.The one on the Right looked bored.
Eschaton spoke up. “He just told you, we have Earth’s mightiest heroes, here to stop you if you don’t.”
Righty asked, “How many armies?”
“Excuse me?” asked Eschaton, bristling.
Lefty leaned forward to his camera. “What my colleague means is what are you going to use to beat us? You come to our home, you demand things of us, and you didn’t even offer us anything to trade. If you don’t want to do this the civilized way, we wonder what you hope to accomplish against our armies.”
I got an idea what the sensors were and how they worked, and I set about figuring out what was up outside. I expected another Earth, probably another advanced one. Instead, I found myself poking around Uranus. We were on a whole different planet in the solar system, hanging over the world’s largest urban center. Environmental sensors on the vessel noted the hole and advised a quarantine, despite the presence of breathable atmosphere and decent temperature over the place.
I looked into the domeship to figure out what was up with it and all the way more urgent alerts. There was minor damage and break-ins all over, which made sense. I went ahead and unlocked everything except for an area noted to be the brig. Whatever else, I don’t think any of our people ended up there already. There was still some fighting going on at this one bay. Containers hadn’t been launched or something. I figured that meant things holding infantry, their vehicles, or the tanks. I locked that area back down and sealed it. No air in or out oughta fix things, along with dropping the temperature in that part of the ship. The problem should sort itself out in payroll.
With me in control of the intercom and these guiding lights, I could even better direct people around to any areas of other resistance. Just because almost all the soldiers were gone didn’t mean it was a simple thing to capture. This ship was big enough to house an entire army and support staff. We still had most of the support staff up here, and not nearly enough heroes or Buzzkills. We’d need to arrange a headcount to see who we have and what they can do if anything worse happens. I don’t trust these Consuls.
Some would say that they don’t trust people further than they can throw them, which always seemed like an odd saying to me. In my line of work, human pest control, I tended not to trust most people unless I could get my hands on them. I didn’t usually need to throw them to gain their compliance after that point. It’s not really a part of my fighting style. I suppose a more reasonable saying for me is that “I don’t trust them further than I can kill them.” On my new home, that’s pretty much the entire Earth. Here, it’s less than a room in distance.
I noticed a number of smaller aircraft gathering outside, not staying particularly far away. None tried to land on us, but I didn’t like the cut of their jibs.That’s when I discovered the Domeship had no weapons systems of its own. I checked over anything we could use and found that the same system that hopped dimensions could also move something within the same dimension, via wormhole. That’s interesting. With all those things gathering there, I might need something like that.
An angry statement from Righty the Consul got my attention. “Your destruction of an entire province is an affront to our republic. Your presence here signifies your need for our civilization.”
Warman folded his arms. “You attacked us out of nowhere. You don’t get to complain about your casualties.”
Venus spoke up to ask, “Why did you invade?”
“Chief Executor Paldrin saw an opportunity to add another province to our control. We would bring our civilizing presence and superb leadership to your world.”
“I’ve heard this before. Your idea of civilization means taking our resources and trying to reeducate awy our culture,” Eschaton said. He would know, given his Native American heritage.
“Our administration of the province would cost us. We only ask you pay your fair share of the expenses. It is better to surrender before the cost to you becomes too burdensome,” Lefty said.
I think pretty much all of us were ready to tell them where they could stick their civilization, though the fact that they were on Uranus killed the impact of the phrase.
On the intercom, I reached out. “If any of those Justice Rangers are onboard, we could use some city-wide offense here.”
I muted the Consuls. “We’ve got a bunch of aircraft outside and no weapons on this thing for some bizarre reason.”
“How much is a bunch?” Warman asked.
The ship was pretty good about sorting that out for me. “I’ve got 74 target locks on us currently. Don’t know how many friends you brought with you, but I don’t know what they’re packing.”
He went over to check a console. “Can you fly us over a city?”
“We are over one. Biggest one on the planet.”
“They wouldn’t,” Eschaton said.
I rolled my eyes. “I would.”
“We can take them,” Warman said, looking to Eschaton.
“I’d feel better if I knew what we had on our side,” I said. “There’s a saying I keep in mind, a joke I heard once. ‘I didn’t know how many of them it would take to whoop my ass, but I knew how many they were gonna use. That’s a handy piece of knowledge to have right there.’”
“Evasive maneuvers?” Warman asked.
“Dude, it’s basically a floating city. I think I can make it go faster than it traveled between. D.C. And E.C., but I couldn’t dodge whale dick in this thing.” I got an alert, but not much of one. The ship shook as explosions tore into it.
“What’s going on?” asked Venus.
Eschaton flamed on, but I called out, “Stop! I’ll get us out of here.”
“You said you couldn’t move that fast,” Warman growled, hefting his three-barreled cannon.
I spoke to them and over intercom at once, “Hold onto something, people. Prepare for starburst!”
A white aura surrounded the ship. It didn’t seem to last as long this time, and we didn’t catch a view o the universe divide. When it settled, we were no longer under attack, though the Consuls were still on our dome.
“Where are we?” Warman asked, stepping up close to me.
“The other side of the planet,” I told him. “It can do shorter jumps. I believe we should reopen talks with the Consuls.”
“Do it,” Eschaton said with a hard voice. Parts of him still burned.
I reopened the line and Venus is the one who stepped up. “You just opened fire on us while we parleyed.”
“There is nothing to parley,” Lefty said.
“Then we shall have to get medieval on Uranus,” I said.
“Is that supposed to be a threat? What’s that mean?” asked Righty.
“Oh, not much. Illuminated manuscript, the spread of crenallations, beating up Popes. Maybe grabbing a heavy chunk of metal and bashing in the heads of the half of your people who don’t die from plague.”
“How dare you?” asked Righty with righteous indignation.
“How dare you?!” countered Venus.
Warman came up next to me. “Cut these sister-kissing sons of bitches off, will you?”
I nodded and ended transmission. I also double-checked the network defenses of the ship and added some of my own improvements. “Done.”
“What do we do now?” Eschaton asked.
“We need to know who we have and what they can do,” Warman said. “We should get rid of their crew.”
“If I may,” a voice said from behind us. We all turned and saw a man in white coveralls who now had the stinger swords of my Buzzkill guards at his throat. “I am one of the officers. The Consuls really tried to kill us?”
“Looks like it,” Venus said.
“That is a violation of my rights as a member of a patrician family,” he said.
“What are you gonna do about it?” Eschaton said, approaching.
The man backed away from the heat coming off the hero. “My name is Sollis Raan, and I want to help you. I think many in my crew would, now.”
“You think?” Eschaton asked.
“Our leaders tried to kill all of us, from the highest patrician to the lowest plebian,” Sollis said. “I think I’m the highest-ranked officer aboard now.”
“I want a full census of your people,” Warman said. He lowered his cannon, but in a way that made it clear he’d have no issue raising it up again. Moot point, I think. If the man tried anything, I saw where at least three different stinges would be stabbed through him before Warman could twitch his trigger finger. “Eschaton here will go with you, make sure you’re an honest man. We already plan to deal with a couple of dishonest ones, so we don’t need any more.”
Sollis nodded. I nodded to the Buzzkills, who lowered their stinger swords. Eschaton damped down his flames a bit as he walked Sollis out to go see to their part.
I looked around to Venus and Warman. “I have good news and bad news.” I didn’t wait for the inevitable decision about which is first. “Good news, we are on the same planet as the Consuls. That was the capital we were just over. We can get there anytime we want, I think.”
“The bad news?” Venus asked.
“We are on Uranus. I’m going to make a lot of bad jokes.”
Warman grunted. “Keep your trap shut. This isn’t cops and robbers. This is war.”
I nodded. “You got it. I’m sure you’ll find there’s no one better suited to going to war on Uranus.”
And so began our efforts to tear Uranus a new one.
If all this sounds like things have been a bit separated so far, good. The heroes still don’t like me or trust me. A lot of the villains don’t like or trust me either. Part of that’s because we’re generally less likely to play nice with others. Plenty of them are suspicious at how often I end up helping save the Earth and my close relationship with some of the heroes. Instead of trusting me to corrupt Venus, they worry she’s trying to redeem me. Laughable, right? She is trying, but the idea of her succeeding? Ha!
The division between hero and villain hasn’t just been because of personal feelings. I don’t know who thought it up, but Venus passed on to me an idea to make it look like the heroes and villains weren’t united. She explained it to me thusly, in a private meeting we had one night in a parking garage: “The villains need to look like they only care about themselves. The heroes will be front and center fighting. When the ship gets here, we’re certain they will send down more people and try to take us out. Don’t leave us hanging.”
That was when I got here, after I kinda wrecked Master Academy’s trap.
All this separation is good for me though. The infosphere, datanet, whatever you call the collective digital world surrounding the Earth, it’s loud as fuck right now. I have people spread out all over the world and it’s overwhelming me. If I don’t concentrate so much on what’s in front of me, I begin to lose track of myself. It’s easy to jump into a helicopter that needs support in Ghana or screw with a camera system in Belarus. Checking the road ahead of refugees in Costa Rica and redirecting a GPS. Setting off car alarms in Cairo to ruin an enemy ambush.
For a long time, one of the things that worried me about my archnemesis was her ability to get me to focus on her. To concentrate to deal with her, even if it was just screwing with her. Now, it helps to keep me back in myself. I suppose the fact that she was holding me in her arms as we laid on the roof, staring up at a sky covered by the 8-pointed body of the domeship above us. “I’m not good at romance, but it would have been good to see stars, right?”
We’d met halfway between Rothstein’s, where I’d taken rooms for my guys and myself, and whatever hospital she’d been helping at. The heroes have a makeshift command center, but they don’t rest that well. Sometimes, a villain with a handy skillset slips through. Harder to tell who it is in plainclothes unless they have four arms like I do. A lot of the people who risked staying were also willing to risk nanites.
“There’s too much light pollution anyway,” she said, stroking my hair. “It’s the thought that counts.”
“I think I’ll kill them all,” I said,yawning.
She shifted to look down at me. “There’s no reason for that.”
“I hate them. That’s a good enough reason,” I told her.
She took one of my hands. “I don’t hate them and I don’t think you should either. They’re soldiers, or they’re clones who believe they only have value as weapons. We want the boss sitting in his high chair who thinks it’s their business shooting at our homes.”
It was good to have her there and to be able to focus. What came next required a lot of focus.
They attacked just before first light.
I awoke to rumbling, alone on the rooftop. Even my internal HUD clock read “You fuckin’ serious?” I looked around and saw giant rectangular containers slowing down on jets before crushing buildings and cars. One landed nearby and opened up to reveal a trio of tanks. Jump infantry landed nearby. I rushed to get my armor back on and shot Venus and her friends a message. I don’t know if they noticed me before I got my invisibility going. Satellite coverage went wonky, but they weren’t headed back toward Rothstein’s like I was. I hopped up a skyscraper and saw them converging on the square the heroes were using.
It’s a new square. So much rebuilding around here, I didn’t even bother learning this one’s name. I don’t know if they gave it some legacy name, or went for something new. Based on the number of armored vehicles heading that direction, I knew it soon wouldn’t matter if I learned its name.
They were a silent bunch, aside from the grumbling engines and the marching boots. They didn’t really try to destroy everything in their path. If it was quicker to take the road, they took it. If it was easier to smash through a wall or a building, they did that. The enemy forces were moving in a circle, but half stopped short, where they would have cover. The rest kept going until they were in rage of the trailers and tents the heros were using. They opened fire, as if the heroes were another military force.
I understand the need for a nice, orderly bunch like superheroes to have themselves a centralized location to do all their heroing from. It’s a pretty good way to handle things before the digital age. You just gotta wonder at the invaders expecting nighttime vigilantes to have slept in such a place. I watched through traffic lights and other cameras as one group realized something was up.
The bunch that backed off prematurely did so to avoid getting hit by their compatriots’ fire. They were at least out of firing range and behind buildings. I assume they weren’t ready when the heroes’ illusionist made his move. Eschaton melted tanks. Honky Tonk Hero based one to bits with his enchanted guitar. Warman tried tearing off cannons to use for himself. The Justice Rangers kicked and flipped their way through grey-skinned infantry.
The rest of the enemy army advanced on them, and they weren’t alone. The ship disgorged more infantry. Many of them hung in the air and fired down on the heroes. It seemed like overkill. I was once again reminded of the phrase I stole from a comedian. I don’t know how many of them it was gonna take to kick the heroes’ asses, but I knew how many they were gonna use. The heroes couldn’t even finish off the separated division before the rest of the army met up with them. It would look to anyone else like a slaughter in progress. I could listen in by now. I cracked the code to their communications frequencies. The invaders had a plan where they could even warp in the remnants of the first wave.
I landed in the square at that army’s back, uncloaked, a pair of Roman candles in my hands that I set off. Every comms line the invaders used screeched loud enough to make a deaf man grit his teeth. I dumped the candles away. “I believe this is when the cavalry’s supposed to arrive?” A holographic bugle appeared in my hands. I pretended to play a charge as six grey men floated closer. One of them looked a bit different because of some burns on the side of its face.
“You are but one. You cannot save your friends,” said the one in charge. “Turn off this music and surrender.”
I cranked up “Free Your Hate” too loud for me to hear anything else they said even if they shouted and ran for them. I tripped though, when the ground rumbled even more. In front of me, a line of giant drills pierced the street. The group floating in front of me turned to look at the signature Drill tanks of the Drillers opened wide. Fire, ice, and sonic weaponry covering them, a menagerie of menaces were loosed onto the streets of Empyreal City, right against the backside of the invading army. Unicorn fired a spiral beam from his horn through a line of infantry. A squad of Drillers hopped on top of a tank and started cracking it open like a safe. Crankshaft rolled up into a ball of metal and flesh that Gearshift kicked toward a soldier who reloaded his grenade launcher. She waved her hand and Gearshift kept rolling and even accelerated, bowling over the soldier and smashing into the side of another skirted light turreted support vehicle.
The jump infantry took to the air to join the supporting fire from above. They wouldn’t find the air any more welcoming. Spring is the time for bees, and Buzzkills filled the air by the hundreds. Led by Queen Beetrice, the bee people fired spines and pierced armor with stinger swords. The sky was ours.
The six in front of me turned back to face me. “We will kill you,” said the lead one.
I let a hologram walk forward while I turned invisible. “You know how ‘try’ is a synonym for annoy? You may try.”
The lead one clapped his hands together. Where the hologram stood just exploded spontaneously.
The six turned back to the battle. The lead, with the spontaneous explosion powers, gurgled in surprise when the Nasty Surprise shot through his throat. Same for the one next to him. I jumped onto the next one and crushed his skull between two other hands. Blood fountained everywhere and negated the ability of my cameras to work or my projectors to project. I grabbed onto the next closest one, who instinctively flew upward. His eyes started glowing as he glared at me. I shoved thumbs into them, cackling and yelling, “Thou wouldst stare at me, mortal?”
It’s not so funny in writing, but I guess you had to be there, covered in blood, squishing a guy’s eyeballs. He didn’t find it funny. He screamed. Screaming has to be a product of being social animals. I can’t imagine a loan predator, surrounded by enemies and prey, screaming when it’s hurt. No, it’s a social thing, letting others in your pack, herd, or gang know you need help. Benevolent person that I am, I decided I would help end this Praetor’s misery. No problem whatsoever. It was a snap!
That left me a good distance up with some rockets to ease me back down. I reached up and found myself caught my a pair of Buzzkills. The remaining two must have figured it out. The one with the burn started off, but eased back and let his comrade come first. That one spouted metal spikes. He stayed back. The spikes shot off him. I wasn’t so much worried about myself as I was my two helpers. Unfortunately, there was only so much I could do. I raised arms and legs to try and block, but the Buzzkills still went slack and began to drop. I could even still survive the fall, as long as the spikes sticking through my armor and squishy bits didn’t kill me.
I fell toward the waiting arms of the spiky son of a pin cushion, trying to think how problems like this are usually solved. The idea of solving a puzzle box briefly came to mind. Ridiculous. Laser flashed out, and I fell through the two halves of the spiky son of a bitch and right to the burned man. He spread his arms and a green wall appeared in front of him and forged a wedge that flew at me. It smashed into me and plates melted off. I had nothing left but the armored undersuit I stole off a future version of my nemesis before I killed her. Even the spikes that somehow penetrated were gone.
I couldn’t see shit through my melting helmet, but I felt when he caught my throat and began to squeeze. “The others did not realize your power is not in your body. Your spine and heart will soon join it.”
The remains of my helmet fell away, showing that I at least still had both cybernetic eyes working. “Do I know you?” I gasped out.
“It is too late to surrender and see yourself spared. You will die when those my master answered to take your planet,” Praetor M said before punching his hand into my belly. You know how you get hit sometimes and it knocks the air out of your lungs? That, plus I think one of my kidneys exploded. It was like he tried to put his arm through me. I swear, my back fucking popped.
“Look in my eye while you kill me? Face me!” I pleaded. Praetor M obliged. It made it easier when my eye warmed up and another laser shot out, lobotomizing him. I grabbed his hand and pried it off my throat while he thrashed around. Then I reached into the hole, setting my thumb on the bridge of his nose, and pulling. One, two, and then I tore the front of his face off, trying to laugh at the pain and around the lack of air. “Face me!”
I fell, but someone caught me. I was kinda having trouble there, keeping conscious. I think it was the lack of air. I looked up at a Buzzkill, who jabbed me with a syringe of what I soon realized were regenerative nanomachines. I gave her a thumbs-up. She smiled. Mandibles make it hard to tell, but I have experience because of Beetrice. When I’d gotten a bit less aerated, I looked around because I swore we were going up, not down. I looked over and saw the Domeship next to us. We rose and she set me down on the deck. All around, I saw more joining us, flying under their own powers or being set down by more Buzzkills.
I didn’t have the full electronic suite of my armor anymore, but I still had the electronics in my body. I reached out to hear Warman giving orders. “-board, board! I’m tired of being on the defense. This time, we’re invading. We’ll take this ship and we’ll take it to their world.”
Aww. I missed most of the ground battle. Though, when I looked around, I noticed something. Aside from myself and the Buzzkills, all I saw were heroes up here. Next to me, a gorilla wearing a jetpack grunted as he landed.
I waved to him. “Gorilla Awesome? They really brought everyone along, didn’t they?”
A huge explosion below drew our attention. Awesome, the Buzzkill, and I both looked down at the flames. I hissed in pain from tenderness when I bent over and straightened up. “There goes the neighborhood.”
We swarmed the ship, though the “we” seemed to be pretty much only heroes and whatever Buzzkills decided to attach follow along with me. I don’t know if that’s because of any particular orders to that effect. We didn’t see much resistance. Someone jumped out with a pistol and got a stinger in his neck, one through the cheek, and another through the temple. A woman in unusual clothing stood next to him, screaming. Gorilla Awesome jumped ahead of us and picked her up. He shushed her, then politely asked, “I am truly sorry. Where is the command center of the ship, that we might minimize loss of life?”
She kept screaming, so he set her down. The Buzzkills raised their sting swords, but I held up my hands. “Leave her in peace. We’ll find someone else.”
Gorilla Awesome held out his arm as someone tried to scuttle past. He grabbed the fleeing man and pulled him in close. “You there. Where do the people in charge work?”
“Please don’t kill me,” he said.
“Deal,” Gorilla Awesome said, grabbing the man’s hand and shaking it.
The bridge, I suppose it could be called. Sounds of fighting were ever just out of reach as we approached. It was in the large dome, inside an inner dome at the center of that one. Because so many people can’t resist putting the spot all the important people hang out in somewhere central or where they can see things, without regard to how much of a target that makes them. The outer dome had a park paved in metal mosaic tiles and walls made up of warped pentagonal shapes. As we rushed along, the outer dome began to glow red hot in one spot. It melted open and Eschaton followed, heading toward the inner dome. Warman jumped through the opening, firing cannon that spat green fire from one of three rotating barrels. The green fireballs burst through the inner dome, and Eschaton flew through. Warman landed, then followed Eschaton in a single bound.
By the time we got in there, a man in pearl white armor with a trio of horns arching up. He wielded a three-pronged spear that he used to hold back the stream of blue flame pouring from Eschaton’s hands. Warman strode up next to Eschaton and raised his tri-cannon. Gorilla Awesome raised a meaty arm, a grappling hook shooting out to wrap around the spear.
The armored man muttered something and let the spear go as Gorilla Awesome yanked it away. He slapped something on a pedestal the moment before his face disintegrated and he fell, blackened skull cracking into pieces.
The ship shook, and through the holes I saw a blinding light. I felt more than saw the next part, where an infinite blackness stretched out containing expanding droplets full of lights. We passed through something red that felt like it scraped my nerves as we passed through. The light fell away, and my head was assaulted by new information. Data, in languages I don’t know. I managed some of the encryption, but others were merely familiar. The communications came through from all around, maybe through the dome itself, and through me.
“Grand Executor, why have you returned?” they asked. I saw a pair of faces. I saw signals flying all around us.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It moved up along the back of my neck and over my hair. I raised my head, focusing again. I looked up to Venus in her black power armor. She looked down to me. “Put me through to them.”
I nodded and concentrated. “You’re on.”
She spoke, and I sent her words out. “Leaders of this invading world. I am Medusa, a hero of my world. We have defeated your army, taken your ship, and defeated your Grand Executor. I must stress that we want peace. Chief Executor Paldrin did not give us peace. The Grand Executor did not give us peace. We are here on your world and I ask you, will we have peace?”
As Christmas Eve counted down, I stood guard in my armor. That Whirlygig business was then, and this was now, even though now is later for me. Everyone had themselves an exciting night of feasting and fun, and it was winding down. Guests stumbled back to their rooms or were helped by some of the more responsible faculty when they weren’t carrying kids back to rooms. Eschaton ran off to immediately try out this new VR headset somebody left in front of his door that promised it came with several pre-loaded porn videos. I waved off someone who would have helped me with Qiang, who had passed out in the refectory.
I let them empty the place out and I watched over her, alone. Psychsaur and Venus lingered at different times, looking at me. I ignored them until they left. I was still pissed at them. I can’t really be disappointed. Of course their trust was only skin deep and dependent on me “getting help” whatever that means. No, I know what that means. That means prison and a psych ward where somebody tries to rewire my head until my thinking’s roughly in agreement with the kinds of psychos I see walking around every day. It’s a little hard for me to accept that I need to be more like people who are quieter about it.
I’ve seen what people are. I’ve done their dirty work for them. I can’t fight to defend that status quo. Turns out I can’t force a better world on them, either. Those options didn’t matter anyway, though. Inconsequential. The fight in front of me isn’t some grand, epic battle for a greater cause. This is about me and my daughter.
Midnight ticked on down and then… time stood still. It stopped passing. My internal clock even stopped counting along, though I could still move. I heard bells jingle and whistling sounds. A hole opened in reality, letting in chilling air. The giant satyr-like Krampus swung his chains back and forth as he stepped through, snow clinging to his fur and to the hair-clad Belsnickel who waved at me with a switch. Pere Fouettard, or Father Whipper in English, rolled his whip back up as he walked through. Knecht Ruprecht, the old man in the brown robe with the staff, followed after.
“It’s time to give the devil his due,” I told the Companions of Kringle.
Krampus grinned toothily and stepped up close to me. He sniffed at me, then stepped around, eyeing Qiang asleep on the table behind me. Then he jumped right over here and toward the doorway, stalking off with what should be an ominous clip-clop. Ruprecht nodded at me. I turned to look straight on at Krampus as he ran down the hall and spoke. “Eschaton, you might want to take off those VR glasses now.”
“What’s going on? That’s that Krampus guy from the movie!” he said from down the hallway.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a bait and switch on the porn there, bucko. But if it’s any consolation, maybe help a brother out when he needs it. Or she, in this case. Eh, you’ll probably be fine.” I cut the feed. I’m not known for my conscience, but I think it’d sit just fine with that one.
I heard a howl of pain from where the Krampus ran. I also caught the delightful scent of singed fur. “Tougher nut to roast over an open fire than you expected?” I asked Ruprecht.
Fouettard disappeared into snowflakes. I heard whipping noises, followed by a whoosh and a cry of pain. “Say,” I said to the two remaining Companions, “Y’all don’t seem to know a whole lot about technology, do y’all?”
“We mostly give out candy and sweets,” said Belsnickel, scratching at his hairy clothes. “The big guy gets to do all that.”
I nodded. “I hear ya. Just curious about that. And, hey, I did what y’all asked. We’re all clear, right?” I walked over to the tree and all the presents. I plucked a rather large spherical decoration off, softball sized. “Right?” I turned to look at Ruprecht, since he seemed to be calling the shots here. A rogue fireball hit a hallway wall at an angle from further along. Wow. Good construction here, because that looked like wood to me.
Knecht Ruprecht set his staff on the ground. “Yes. You have made a believer of the hero Eschaton and fulfilled your part of the deal.”
“Regarding Qiang, that means…?” I pushed him along. I wanted him to say it for clarity’s sake. And because I know this game. I’m supposed to be the devil people make a deal with who turns the letter around on someone to screw them over.
“We hold no claim to your daughter anymore,” he finished. “We can touch neither of you now.”
I suspected as much of Qiang. I doubt there are very many kids these guys can truly go after. I mean, these beings were invented when normal childhood behavior involved drinking moonshine and mugging people at musket-point. It was that or kick around the ole kickin’ rope. Fun childhood game, the kickin’ rope. Kept plenty of kids entertained, until Daddy borrowed it when that Great Depression thing started. Was a lot harder to kick around after that until they got him down. What, as if they had money to buy a second kickin’ rope?
I popped the top off the decoration and pushed a button on the inside, thinking about how bad an idea it is to extort me. I chucked the thing at Ruprecht’s head. He brought his staff up to knock it away, but it exploded into a fine mist that chewed through the staff and most of his body. He disappeared, but without blood. Maybe he Obi Wan Kenobied, maybe he Nightcrawlered. I didn’t write him off automatically just because I dropped a DIME on him.
That’s Dense Inert Metal Explosive. I tossed another one at Belsnicknel before it could react. The bomb flew through the air and, when it reached its target, the explosive inside went off. The force of it pushed out microshrapnel consisting of heavy metal for all the rockers in the house. It also turned the casing into more microshrapnel. If Belsnickel was mortal, the results would have been quite nasty for it. Within effective range, it’s like getting explosively sandblasted with stuff that can give you cancer. A relatively short distance away, it did nothing to Qiang except make her cry. The first one woke her up already, so I guess I kinda ruined things that way.
“It’s ok, baby,” I said, rushing over to hug her. Most people don’t actually like being around explosions for some reason. I turned while holding her and saw the frosty hole in reality. Carrying Qiang, I headed over to one large square present and tore off the bow, pulling out a large pin. I gave it a push with my free arm and sent it on through the portal. Then I turned and put a little distance between myself and that bomb.
Behind me, it sparked and crackled with electricity and a humming sound ramped up. Just as the sound grew its loudest and wind began to blow through the refectory… the portal vanished with a weak “bloop”. Exactly as bloopin’ planned, with a minimum of disruption on this end of it.
Qiang and I were safe over by the windows. Even the presents were probably still ok. I’ll make sure Qiang isn’t the first to open hers, just in case something slipped in from elsewhere. “Look!” Qiang pointed outside where snowmen were picking themselves up out of all the snow and began dragging their round, legless bottoms toward the school.
It seemed like a good time to walk on over to the nearest fire alarm. I can only guess that the school is actually used to people setting stuff on fire with powers and that’s why Eschaton’s fight with the Companions hadn’t set it off already. Jolted out of sleep already thanks to explosions, Qiang didn’t care so much for the fire alarm either. I’m sure the rest of the school did, but it changed things. My HUD clock went all screwy as more people awoke.
I kept Qiang with me as I ran to go see what was up with Eschaton, Krampus, and Father Whipper. I think the name’s better in English. I actually caught up to them to see Eschaton flying circles around an nude Krampus. He’s a lot less impressive furless and burned. If I had a fork, I could stick it in him. Instead, I had a kid.
Then again, a simple knife may not do the trick. Maybe Eschaton was holding back this whole time due to being inside the school.
He got his chance to shine. Whipper appeared behind him in the foyer, clinging to the wall above the door. Whipper’s whip whipped out and wrapped around Eschaton’s throat. Eschaton had enough of that shit and rocketed out through the door, blowing it off its hinges and smashing several snowmen in the process. Out there, he burned brighter. The French bogeyman of folklore had flown out with him but was dropped back to the ground when Eschaton burned through the whip. Pretty sure it was no normal whip, either.
Krampus threw his chain at Eschaton, spinning around side to side like chain shot. Eschaton held his hands together and intercept it with his own personal cutting torch that sent two pieces careening into more hapless snowmen.
Closer to home, Qiang wiggled free of my grasp. Kids do that. You try to grab hold of them, but you can’t do it without hurting them. She scooped up a ball of snow and threw it right at the closest snowman. It knocked off the hand of one of its thin branch arms. These were not tough enemies.
I saw a pair of wood hands begin to reach out of the snow behind her. I stomped them into broken pieces, then down into the snow between them just in case the thing had a head of some sort.
The cavalry arrived behind us. Heroes and children dressed for sleep arrived en masse. It was really good coordination, so maybe they have plans worked up. I think there are signs posted around the library, but I haven’t bothered reading them. Too busy microfiching Playboy for the articles. As soft as they are, I wouldn’t do it for the porn.
“I don’t know what you did, but we’ll talk later. What’s going on?” Venus said, walking up to survey the situation, which involved Eschaton fighting a whip wielding old man in a robe while a giant satyr slowly regained its fur and unburnt appearance in the midst of the snow.
“I was a little mad about the lack of trust around here, showed Eschaton these guys when they arrived to kidnap Qiang, and they went after him for some reason. I dunno, maybe he’s been a bad boy this year.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said. “Why do we have Frosties?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Happened around the time I blew up two others of these Christmas guys and the portal they used to come here. I suspect a link between them and our ambulatory precipitation here.”
“Alright, here’s what we’re gonn-” Venus started to say.
She only got that far because Ball Boy interrupted by yelling, “Snowball fight!”
If Venus thinks she was angry over someone stepping on her lines, just imagine how pissed I was that I couldn’t tell a group of concerned superheroes to stay frosty. Or maybe I’d have said “Slay Frosty, everyone.” The point is, I didn’t get a chance for either one. Thank you very much, stupid happy people.
The resulting battle was as vicious as it was fun. Just an absolute snowbath, because the snowmen didn’t have blood. Waterbath then? That’s just a bath. This metaphor’s a wash, but the fight was awesome. Just so much fun. Ball Boy himself had a great time throwing glowing balls around at all the snowmen. I’d say it was cheating, but nobody really cared.
Krampus and Father Whipper didn’t stick around much longer once reinforcements arrived. They disappeared in swirls of snow. That meant, goodness gracious, the snowmen stood no chance against Eschaton’s great balls of fire. I even joined in, but only after running back in to grab Qiang’s robe, slippers, and jacket. And mittens. A hat, too. This one shivering kid tried to grab the robe from me, but I kicked her cold ass away. Then I sighed, remembered I was supposed to help her, and just dumped all the clothes on Qiang. “Put these on, honey bunny. I’ll be back.”
I grabbed the freezing girl and hauled her inside to pile heavy blankets on her. Helping her is why I wasn’t out there when all the snow on the ground sucked itself up into a pile. The little snowmen disappeared as well, their snow contributing to the body of one far larger than the others, with arms of grand leafless maples trees. I don’t know where it got them from, but I knew a couple good stabs would give us all the syrup we’d ever need. It roared and swiped at heroes. I pulled out a grappling hook and fired it at Qiang to yank her away from where one giant maple hand smashed into the dead grass everyone stood on.
“Everyone back!” said Eschaton, being just the biggest damn buzzkill, even compared to the giant bee woman I’ve had sexy times with.
“But I wanna kill the giant thirty-foot-tall snowman!” I yelled, probably guessing its height wrong. There was no time to have my HUD add Subway foot longs for a more accurate measurement. It didn’t carry over the enormous gout of flame. Steam hissed, and warm water soon splashed onto the courtyard and came rushing toward the entrance as a wave. I grabbed Qiang, ripped my helmet off, and shoved it over her own head. Just as the wave reached us, I saw the digital numbers on my HUD clock roll over and over before settling on 12:01 and-
I sat bolt upright where I was somehow sleeping in the refectory. I looked over to the table Qiang had been on and she also sat up. The clock read 12:01 and the sound of fading jingly bells still floated on the air. I stood up and ran to the window where I thought I saw something flying through the night sky. I’d have sworn I heard the laugh, too. Ho. Ho. Ho.
Despite that, snow still coated the ground. There was no evidence of the fight, including scorch marks where Eschaton had been flaming up the place. It was while examining the absence of my explosive decorations that the rest of the school came in, similarly awakened from the dream. Qiang had been busy examining all the presents hidden on a different side of the tree.
“What the fudge was that?!” Venus wondered in a kid-friendly way. “Did you put something in the food?”
“Not this time,” I answered. “You think this was some kind of plan of mine? No. Face it, unless my only goal was to protect my daughter, I failed here. Everyone’s here and safe. I didn’t even get to enact Plan M.” I gestured toward her as if Venus knew Plan M was the one where she died.
“Here, presents!” said Qiang, holding up one for each of us.
“Who gave me a present?” I asked while Venus asked, “Who gave her a present?”
“Santa?” asked Venus after reading the tag. “It’s sweet you got all these, but I have questions. Questions that,” she glanced around as amped-up kids already tearing into all the new presents on what was technically now Christmas. “Can hold until later, pending a drug test.”
I popped open the crotch access. Venus pushed it back closed. “Later!”
It’s safe to say I hope everyone else out there had a Happy Psycho Christmas as well.
With Christmas fast approaching, I dropped my bombshell on the heroes. I feel really stupid for even forgetting it. Maybe I’m catching the Mad Cow. Maybe I’m losing my edge. Maybe I need to replace my brain completely so that it’s all compact and electronic. Then, I can make it so my head splits open down the middle and can clamp down on the arms of anyone trying to punch me in the face. Regardless, I was stupidly distracted for one reason or another and I actually forgot I had video footage. When told to make someone believe in Christmas again, I didn’t think to immediately show him the video of a mythological Christmas creature saying that.
I could try and pretend it was nothing but a plan, like to add drama, but the best excuse I have is that the heroes likely wouldn’t believe it anyway. My memory’s been all over the place and so has my brain. I think it’s the company. They keep trying to fry my brain with Christmas songs and Nativity scenes.
Regardless, my excuse about trust appeared to be a good one when I walked in on the adult heroes sitting around and enjoying a movie. I had waited for Eschaton to get there because I could and I knew he’d do so. So I just walked in, ignoring John McClane crawling around an air vent, and grabbed the HDMI cable from the back of the DVD player. Regardless of the audience’s protests, I stepped to the side of the TV, faced them. “Ok, folks. It’s time I show y’all something.”
“This better not be porn,” said Triclops.
“Porn is an option?” Eschaton said.
Psychsaur gently thwacked him on the back of the head. “It’s not porn.”
“Correct. This is… ok, so time is getting short and it’s time to come clean. For those who don’t know… pretty much just Eschaton at this point… I’m Psycho Gecko. Yep, laying that on the table.”
Eschaton looked around at everyone else. “Is this a joke?”
Venus shook her head.
“Then why aren’t we beating him up? He’s a he, right?” Eschaton asked.
I shrugged. “Originally, but you never know when a pair of boobs will come in handy.”
“Gecko is behaving herself right now,” Psychsaur said. “She even goes out on patrol with us.”
“Can we not mention that part so loud?” I asked. “People will get ideas.”
“Doing what?!” Eschaton asked.
Triclops spoke up. “You should have seen her with that fire. Broke her arms rescuing people, then part of the building collapsed under her while she was rescuing hamsters.”
“That was crazy,” snorted Minotaur. “The good kind of crazy.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, roast Gecko for Christmas,” I said. “All this is… well, I’m sure Venus has told you it’s a ploy. A hard one to live with, y’all ruining my bad name like this. I’m not turning over a new leaf. This isn’t going to end with em donning the red undies to save people. I’m just worried because my daughter is threatened.”
“Gecko has a daughter?!” Eschaton asked.
“They’ll take her,” I said.
“Who will take her?” asked Eschaton, eliciting groans from everyone else.
“This story is nonsense,” said Triclops.
I jammed the cable into my ear. For added effect, I changed the setting on my eyes to show a “Please stand by” rainbow screen while I connected to the cable.
On playback, the footage was odd. Skipped around a bit, had errors in it that screwed with seeing anything. Everything that I perceived was there, don’t get me wrong. But I was missing time, and those errors added up. I had to fast forward through that stuff to get to the relevant bits. Let’s just say a few new problems came up with the audio talking about me getting Eschaton for them all, helped by my own narration of the tale.
Still, the first question after I’d out and out shown them all these beings was simple, “What was up with all that ‘magical anomaly’ stuff?” That one came from Ball Boy.
“Oh, that’s just part of my normal HUD here.” My eyes went back to normal and I showed them the normal view.
“Wait, you’re magical?” Triclops turned to Minotaur, then back to the TV screen. “I’m NOT? I thought I had magic in me somewhere!”
It was Eschaton who spotted the analysis software matching faces and body types to names. “You’ve been looking at everyone here and figured out our identities?”
“I’ve been messing with some of y’all for years, and I had access to every top secret file in the world for a little bit.” For good measure, I flashed the identity of D.B. Cooper for a second so they could see. “But at the same time, I haven’t acted on that stuff while I’ve been here, have I? And y’all saw why. Krampus, Ruprecht, those other assholes… Pete.”
“Who’s Pete?” Psychsaur just had to ask. I cued up distorted showing of my encounter with Pete the other night.
“When you start hiring actors in blackface, this has gone too far,” Venus said.
They booed me and threw popcorn. Minotaur got up to grab hold of me but I shook him off and tore the cable from my ear, pain be damned. I stormed out of there, but Psychsaur soon caught up to me as I headed down the hall.
“Hey! Wait, don’t do something stupid,” she called.
I turned on her. I would say I glared, but that implies anger. I wasn’t angry. “I already did something stupid. I came to y’all for help.”
“You always have an ulterior motive. We knew you weren’t serious about pretending to be a hero, but we didn’t throw you out. If you want to seek help, we’re happy to give it,” she said. “Sorry, that sounds cliché, but it’s not just a line. Whatever’s wrong with you, you don’t have to be alone. If you want help, it’s never too late.”
I turned on her and had her slammed against the wall in an instant. Little miss psychic couldn’t read that one happening in time. “I don’t need that kind of help. This isn’t some cry for attention about my mental or moral state. This is a real thing, with real beings, and my daughter really on the line.”
“I’m your friend. Get your hands off of me,” she said, looking me in the eyes. I think then she realized exactly how serious I was. Maybe she could sense how cold I’d gone inside. Not frozen blood or anything. Just cold. No anger or regret. “We’re here to help, but not if you’re just going to use us and not get help. If you do that, you’ll just end up alone or leave Qiang an orphan. You’re always going to need help and that’s why you let people like Moai and Carl close, then push them away to keep them safe because the way you live is too dangerous for love. It’s push them away or change. Now you have a kid.”
I let her go. It was that or kill her, and I just barely like her enough not to kil her. Heedless of a small crowd of concerned heroes looking at me from the TV room, I headed to the library and to get dressed.
Whirlygig, not Gecko. I went out on patrol. It took a lot to not slide into my armor instead of the costume. But it’s all part of the plan. I think we’re on Plan M at this point. There’s really a lot of improvisation in these, though. For example, there’s no way I could have planned around the Greens wrecking a bunch of fire hydrants in Empyreal City’s south side. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but the stuff they were on meant they could take a beating. Coincidentally, I wanted to give a beating.
They weren’t just flooding the streets. They roamed around, a lot of regular guys with a bit more hair than normal in lighter clothes than normal for this time of year. One skinny guy in dreadlocks ripped a hydrant right out of the ground with his bare hands.
They were led by a guy who didn’t get the memo about it being Casual Friday. He had grown, bulged even, but not in the conventional bodybuilder sense. He was barrelchested and -bellied with what looked like a pelt in that low light. All that was less noticeable than the humongous antlers on his head, wider than his shoulders and curved like a moose. “Look at the rack on that one,” I said to myself. Then I put on some music and sang along to the only lyrics in it, “Oh what fun it is to ride a pimped-out getaway!”
Antlers, dreadlocks, and another seven guys, all trying to spread water and then tossing stuff into it. I looked further down the street where they came from and saw plants growing already. As far back as I could see, there were vines and tall bushes.
I started off the fight landing on one guy who had been vaping, which is what made him such a priority target. He went down with my boots on his back, but groaned and started to stand up. I jumped up and backflipped, coming down again on it. Again, he started to stand, so I locked in a sleeper hold while he stood.
With a snort from the big guy, the closest three guys came over to put a stop to me. For an ordinary man, that’d be more than enough. If the boobs are any indication, I am no ordinary man.
Three opponents. Divide and conquer. I checked around for anything and found a turned-over plastic trash can. I set it upright and held onto it while I flipped over it toward the closest Green. Upon landing, I brought the can up and over, slamming it down onto that Green with his arms trapped at his side and a LOT of thin brown liquid flowing down around his body. I grabbed him and threw him at the next closest Green.
The last of the three was bald with a large flower tattooed on top of his head. I spun toward him and sent one of the recently-repaired mechanical arms whipping around to knock him in the face. I kept up the spin to give momentum to the other arm as it came around to catch the back of his calf and drop him to one knee. I followed through to turn around and backflipped, planting a boot on his head and sending him down to the sidewalk. He stayed down, so that was nice.
Behind me, the one in the trash can still rolled around, trying to wiggle his way out of the bottom. The friend who was supposed to be helping him instead came after me. A long-haired guy with half-moon shades, actually. He got in a punch as I tried to stand after my flippy kick, knocking a tooth loose. I spat it in his face along with some blood. He paused to wipe it away and gave me a moment to stand. “You want the tooth?” I asked. Then I dropped my fangs and pumped Sriracha from my venom sacks. “You can’t handle the tooth!” I spat a red mist of hot sauce into his eyes just when he thought it was safe to look around. He screamed and tried to wash his face out in the street.
The third one, meanwhile, was still wiggling. I flipped the can upright so he was balanced on his head and jammed it between a pair of cars that were perilously parallel parked.
The big guy must have paid attention, because I barely had a moment of rest before a redhead was on me. She clawed at my hair and even ripped a few purple stands out, then pushed me down and got on top. Her first punches weren’t that good, but she got better and I began to miss my helmet. Unfortunately for her, being on my back was a pretty good base to send the mechanical arms up under her armpits and fling her off me and into a nearby car whose alarm started to go off.
Again I got to my feet and again I had a superpowered gangbanger, this one in a hoodie, came at me swinging. I caught his arm between the mechanical ones and backed up, pulling him with me while he was off-balance. He caught his foot on the edge of the sidewalk and tipped forward onto his face, at which point I jammed my heel into the back of his kidney and bladder a half dozen times until he was too busy pissing blood to fight.
I barely dodged the broken hydrant Dreadlock threw at my head. He and the last remaining mook, a Green woman with a pair of dreamcatchers for earrings, had decided not to come at me one at a time.
I stepped behind a nearby SUV for cover and a little time to breathe, then dropped down to see how they were going to come at me. Dreadlock’s shoes and dreamcatcher’s sandals stepped up to the vehicle’s front. They pulled it out and away from me. I smiled to myself and ran around to the back. I popped the rear door and easily, then crawled it. I gathered as much speed as I could and brough the mech arms up as a shield and a ram. I smashed through the windshield and grabbed dreamcatcher by the head.
I swung around on her back for a moment, pulling us back from the SUV and dreadlocks. Setting myself back on my feet, I hauled her around to face me by her earring and used the mech arms to throw her into the air. I rolled back then and used all my arms to push off the ground with my boots in the air, catching the falling Green in the face. She rolled off to the side and didn’t move, but her chest kept moving.
Dreadlock almost put his boot in my face, though. Instead it just went through the street as I rolled. My body protested the constant moving that was my advantage over these guys like this and asked kindly if I had any more of that oxygen shit it loves.
I tried to hit this last one with my mech arms, but he caught them. It seemed like a good moment to bring in my hoverboard drones. They had separated and now flew past, shooting grappling hooks as they passed. The lines wrapped around Dreadlock’s legs. He had a moment to think about what was happening before he let go of me to try and grab onto anything to stop him from being hauled off. He almost got the car. The drones flew him up into the air a good bit, aimed, and then cut the line. He crashed down on the annoying car with the alarm going off, his impact abruptly silencing it.
That just left me with several aches, short on breath, and probably something broken, to face the big moose one on one. This would be something of a fair fight. I hate fair fights. They’re a desperation move, and I wasn’t desperate yet.
I called the drones over. They locked into hoverboard mode as they approached and I hopped on, speeding away. Maybe the big moose knuckle even though I was going for real. As soon as I got out of sight over the rooftops, I circled around to catch him from behind. The mech arms wrapped around his leg and I dragged him, racing down the street. I bounced him off the road and against cars parked along the side. I flew us higher and smacked him right into this giant boxing glove sign hanging over a gym. Then I flew us up a few more stories past that and let him go. I looped around so I was right in front of him at the apex and started wailing on him. I went for the gut to knock the air of out him, pummeling with fists mechanical and biological. He his swings were slow, and I could jump off my hoverboard and bring it right back under me whenever I needed to avoid them.
Together we descended, though I still had the ability to stop short before cratering the road like he did.
It was a testament to whatever the Greens were smoking that he’d live. I just had to hope he wouldn’t enjoy it that much with those sirens on the way. The cops were more than happy to bat cleanup at that point. I didn’t stay either. I had vented a lot of frustration, and realized I needed to see to a few other things before the adrenaline left me a quivering mass of person goo in the street.
At least I managed to get back to the school and drop off the presents I had under the tree before I passed out. Venus woke me up in the morning to make the walk of shame from the cafeteria to my quarters in the library. I refused to tell her what happened, but she said something about a report from her friends in the police about Whirlygig. I did my best to avoid her face, not wanting to see the expression there. Pride, I think.
Before she shut the door to the library behind me, she decided to tell me, “You better clean up all that nose blood, and Merry Christmas.”
I held it open long enough to stick my face back out and mutter a “Bah humbug,” before slamming it shut.
Qiang is bonding so well with all these folks. They don’t seem to hate her at all for her connection to me. I’ve seen people’s reactions to being told she’s mine, and their biggest problem with her parentage is believing she’s mine. But they like her. No one’s trying to kidnap her or anything, not even the ones I figured were assholes.
I was walking along to find Qiang so we could head out to do some sledding, ya see. Figured we might go sledding. I know I have a way to convince people I’m telling the truth about Ruprecht, Krampus, and the rest, but this is about timing and precision. I really only need to convince one person, after all, and I’d rather do so close to Christmas Eve so he doesn’t have time to come up with reasonable explanations or strong drugs.
I made my way down the hall, sneaking almost. I came to a room with Venus and Psychsaur, for instance. Peeked in and found them standing there, holding each other under the mistletoe. It was nothing X-rated, or even me-13. Just girlfriends holding each other and whispering. Now, I suppose it would have been crude to eavesdrop in the hopes of overhearing anything juicy or even, ahem, wet.
“Everything looks beautiful. You should be proud. It’s like a movie around here,” Psychsaur said. Meanwhile, I was wondering if this was about to turn into the Jurassic Park porn parody. Just as a general rule, there’s ALWAYS a porn parody. Hell, there’s even a porn parody of this blog. I keep it locked up in another file. Venus would murder me if she saw it, for real.
Venus blushed. “Christmas has always been so special. It’s the time of year when I most feel I’ve made a family.”
Psychsaur nuzzled her girlfriend’s cheek with her own scaled one. “It feels like everything’s going to be alright.”
Venus smiled at that and hummed a sort of “uh huh” before she kissed Psychsaur. I noticed Psychsaur give a little wave of her hand on my side, like she was waving something along. I quietly slipped further along the hallway before I disrupted their Hallmark moment.
Another room I passed had that minotaur guy and Ball Boy in it, among others. This group had some of the same teens who gathered around to try and fool me out of information on my past that time. They thought they were so clever, too, getting me hurt from a burning building and then giving me drugs. As Mix N’Max once found out, it takes more than a little bit of drugs to get me to talk. It takes a lot of drugs. A shitload. Tony Montana snorting mountains of cocaine.
I’m kidding. It just takes ones with slightly different pathways. They don’t work quite the same way with my brain chemistry. It’s not a sociopath thing so much as a homo machina thing.
A bunch of them were all sitting around watching that one screaming kid convince some burglars to leave him alone by putting on a gangster movie and setting off firecrackers in a pan. Good movie. The kid rigs up his lair with a tarantula and a flamethrower, and hurls paint cans at people’s heads. He’s a regular budding supervillain, just without the minions. Minotaur looked up and saw me there, then snorted and raised his glass. It was either barf or eggnog, but I’m being redundant.
I narrowed my eyes, knowing he knew full well who I was and had some negative experiences with me in the past. I’m not cool with these folks. They act almost like I am, but I know it. They’re just waiting for a reason. I glared at him, pointed at my eyes with two fingers, then pointed to him with them. I got my eyes on him and the rest of his ilk. They wanna trick me, that’s what it is.
I recognized Qiang’s laughter coming from the cafeteria. There, I found Triclops and some others overseeing the efforts of some of the smaller kids to make their own cookies. They’d laid tarp down on the floor, which meant they had a pretty good idea what would happen. It was a bit of a mess, and I found Qiang chewing on hers before it even got cooked. When another kid tagged her arm, she set her cookie down and chased after him.
Look at her. Her first holiday season with me and she’s already chasing human guys in retaliation for daring to touch her. Of course, she didn’t do it because she’s a superior being to the low down humans she congregates with. I leaned against the doorway there, briefly wondering if I even could instill that in her. Her mother was human, after all, and she’ll assume I loved her. More than that, she’ll know she’s half human and that this might make her a disappointment in my eyes.
And I suppose humans may not be entirely inferior. Well, not bad at least. Ya know, when they’re not predisposed to oppress someone just for being a sub species. They’re still ugly, though, except for my daughter. They’re just a lot better here and now than where I come from. Yeah, I’ll definitely teach her she’s superior to those bastards. Screw them.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” said a male voice from behind me. I turned to see Eschaton there. He smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Michael.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Tia,” I held out my hand and shook. “Tia Mot.” If he found the name strange, he didn’t let on. It was almost disappointing, considering the play on words I came up with there.
“If you don’t mind me asking, is there something wrong?” he asked.
“You’re tense for someone watching the children. I don’t mean to pry.” He held up his hands. “I only mean to help, if it’s something I can help with. Wow, those eyes…” He leaned in to peer at them. I blinked and reopened them with the camouflage on so they appeared to be hazel human eyes.
“Yeah, my eyes.” I said, not so happy he leaned in close to me. He’s not bad looking, but I aim to fuck him over, not fuck him. “I was just thinking about where I came from and how different things are from here. My daughter is going to have a remarkably better upbringing than I did.”
He looked past me into the room. “That’s great. I know it must be weird. My dad wanted a better life for me too, but he sometimes seemed like he didn’t think I was as good as him because I didn’t grow up facing the same prejudice he did. He had to take those hard times he lived through and turn them into a kind of strength. I think there are many types of strength. If she’s going here, she’ll be just fine. They take people of different strengths and make them strong together.”
I turned back to the room. Something about that just bothered me. Teammates can die. I know, I’ve killed them. They can be subverted or given to doubts. I’ve done so. Hell, I’d cause a rift between this guy and the Master Academy capes just telling him my name. While this place seems good for Qiang, I just don’t know if I can have her grow up thinking she can rely on these other people. Even if the humans here are good for humans, a true credit to their species, they’re still people. They’re still inherently weak. They will disappoint her. They will make her hurt.
Qiang spotted me while chewing on her cookie, which hadn’t yet been baked. She waved and I caught myself smiling in spite of my mood. Why not just let her have cookie time?
I turned to step away from the door. “That was yours, huh?” asked Eschaton. He turned to follow me. “She was cute. Hey, if you think it’ll cheer you up, they’re watching movies down the hall.”
I shook my head. “Sorry there, Michael. Christmas just isn’t my time of year.”
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” he said, following me on my way back to the library.
“Ugh, the songs are one thing I don’t like. I didn’t grow up with all this, so I don’t exactly get in the Christmas spirit,” I said I turned to look at him as I walked backward.
He shrugged. “Fair enough. I haven’t been into Christmas for some time. I didn’t even think they’d invite me here this year.”
“They don’t like you?” I asked.
He scratched at the back of his head through his long, dark hair. “We had differences of opinion this year. It means a lot to me that they looked past it.” He looked back as someone called his superhero name. He turned to me and grinned. “Sorry, I need to see to that. Hey, I’ll see you around?”
I shrugged now. “Maybe if you’re around the library.”
Oh, have I mentioned I’ve taken up wearing needless glasses? Between that, the knee-length skirt, and the button-down blouse, I’m getting to live that sexy librarian fantasy of mine. Ya know, just like anyone else would.
It was in that capacity that I learned of another complication. There I was, rearranging books. “Hmm. This should be under ‘H’ for toy…” Then door opened, as if the place was just available to everyone.
The Yellow Dimension Ranger walked in. Uniform and everything. I immediately took a stance, book in hand.
“Stop,” he said in accented English that would sound like some sort of Southern accent to anyone else. Lots of planets have a south though, and the South has lots of accents. His was the same sort of accent as mine. “You are the librarian here?”
I nodded and looked around for any more of the Rangers.
Yellow pushed buttons on something on his wrist and the costume disappeared in a flash of light. He stood there in a different sort of uniform that spoke to a more militant style of Ranger. Some of them are like that. One year they’re civilians, kids even. The next, they’re a private organization of adventurers or archaeologists or mercenaries. Then they’re a government-sponsored defense force. There’s not a lot of consistency in who ends up with those abilities.
Yellow held up his hands, more like someone under arrest. “I want to find books on the history.”
I set him up with that, then rushed off to go find Venus. Couldn’t find her in the TV room, the den, the living room, the sitting room, nor the foyer. She wasn’t in the cafeteria, or the vending machine room, or the bathrooms. I looked behind doors. I checked under tables. Finally, I pulled open the window to Venus’s room. Given it was a couple stories up, she should have thought harder before she and Psychsaur threw those pillows.
“Get out of here Gecko!” She yelled and came storming over, barely covering herself with the sheet.
“Wait!” I put my wrist out where the window couldn’t shut. I pulled it out, thinking it might be fractured. I put my other one in there instead. A slam of the window later and that one was definitely fractured. I flailed both my arms backward, but didn’t fall off the back of the building.
Venus stuck her head out and looked down at me. “How are you doing that?”
I tried to shoot her finger guns despite the pain. “Baby, you’d be amazed what some of my parts can do.”
She looked at me like she wanted to go ahead and push me off. “Speak. Now.”
“The Dimension Rangers are here!” I shouted.
She smiled. “They are? I didn’t think they’d come.”
“You invited them?!” I glared at her. Hell, pretty sure Psychsaur could see my point on that one. “They hate me. They want to kill me.”
“It’s Christmas. I’ll make sure they give you a chance here if you give them a chance,” she said. She actually reached out and caressed my face. “Here, get in and stay the hell out of my room.” She helped me in, which was nice given my poor wrists. She guided me over to the door. “Just relax and make up a name or something. Keep your head down. Don’t cause trouble. Get those arms looked at, while you’re at it.”
She actually seemed rushed to get me out of the room for some reason. Don’t know why. Maybe it had to do with overhearing her say, “At least we know he can’t do anything about what he saw in here until he heals,” as she closed the door.
Well, I’m glad they’re getting fucked. With the Dimensional Justice Rangers invited, that makes three of us.
Eschaton arrived today. In all the internal injuries, I hadn’t noticed. That, and checking on the news from Ricca. The Directory’s gone and divided up into two main groups, and I had to keep up with all the political news. Political parties like that tend to be fairly different, and only a fool would stick their head in the sand and decide they’re the exact same. After all, if they were, you’d think they’d just make themselves one big group instead of dividing up like that.
Regardless, I’m keeping an eye on it. Wouldn’t want these humans wrecking things for everyone. If it goes too far, I may look all the better to everyone else for stepping in to save them from the evils of democracy. And there are evils there. For all the crappiness of World War I, it was mostly a morally-neutral affair. Then the people swept the Russian Czar out of power, Germany went democratic, and the Italians decided to elect a guy running on traditional Roman values. The democratic United States decided that was a fine time to start instituting restrictions on Jewish immigration from Europe as well.
Government by the people assumes an awful lot about the competency of the people. The same people, it should be noted, who made that annoying Youtube idiot a star. I’m not even saying who, because anybody reading has someone in mind for that label.
That’s why the people need more than just whatever the majority of them decides is a government. If they want to be safe and have their rights protected, they need something higher. Something like institutions or ideals, so that when the people are collectively tricked or extorted into sinking into their own worst selves, it stands there to protect them from themselves. And if there’s anyone better suited to kill people because they’re too stupid to do what’s best for themselves, it’s me.
So, back to the in-person side of things, I was helping hang up decorations around the school when outside the school there arose such a clatter. I stepped down from this box of wholesale soap I’d been using as a small ladder and went to go see what was the matter.
New arrivals! Some showed up with vehicles and luggage, but others just flew on in. Eschaton was one of the latter. For the talk of people not inviting him, I expected some outrage. Nope. People generally acted ok around him, so maybe it was more like that uncle you invite over who tells jokes about how fun it’d be to own a black person. I thought I’d have to smooth it all over and make a case. It’s just nice when things go right for once. Problem is, that probably means it went wrong.
So they let Eschaton in and gave him quarters like any of these other visiting heroes. They didn’t bother with masks most of the time, either. Then again, Master Academy’s been lax about that around me. Idiots, all of them. They shouldn’t trust me, even with that self-imposed notion that I owe them.
It bothered me even more than the notion that Psychsaur’s psychic bond with me caused me to take some habits from her. I get the sense in my head that they’re falling for me pretending to be turning over a new leaf. Really falling for it. It ticks me off a bit they’d think I could turn so easily, but I can’t correct them. I have to play this game. And part of playing this game is playing fewer games. I sighed looking down and went to go find Venus.
I passed a classroom along the way where some of the supers were entertaining the kids. There weren’t as many roaming around during the holidays, not that this is any kind of formal school system. Master Academy’s doors were open for all its students during the holiday if they had no place to go. I expect it has to do with how many heroes used to be orphans themselves, or come from bad homes. Better check in on the orphans back home, by the way.
I’d say Venus was expecting me, but I think she pretty much always expects me. The really weird part is I knocked on the door of her room to draw her out. When she opened it, she looked around and then right up where I was hanging onto the wall above the door. She sighed. “Hello Gecko.”
I dropped down next to her and started slipping off the climbing claws from my hands. “Heya Venus.”
“We put a lot of work into this place. Try not to destroy it,” she said.
“Properly done, an act of destruction can be just as beautiful as a creation,” I said. “By the way, y’all should have spent more on wood. That stuff’s a little cheaper than I expected from the fancy hero school so nice it has a school on both ends of a country.”
She crossed her arms over in front of her chest, “What do you want?”
“Just to confirm what you’ll soon suspect when you hear he’s here: I invited Eschaton.” I put on a big grin. Nothing disarms people like the baring of teeth. Ok, scratch that. I tried to play it up as awkward.
For her part, Venus gritted her teeth and bluntly asked, “Why?”
I held up my hands. “It’s kinda stupid, but these things after me are seasonal. They aren’t camping out with Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. It’s all cold and winter and snow, because that’s part of what created them. I figured it might help to have a really hot guy around.”
She raised her eyebrow. “You’ve really embraced your feminine side.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fire powers, and he’s got more fire than any of the rest. I’m kinda grasping at straws here, Venus. It isn’t usually a problem when I don’t know what to do.”
“Just be good for goodness sake,” she said. From her smile, I think she suspected I didn’t care for Christmas music that much. It’d probably be just fine if people didn’t play the same repetitive songs for two months straight on the radio and in public places. We get it, you like your bells and your dingaling!
I winced a little. Now it was my turn to glare at Venus. “Last time I did that, you gave up on me for stealing from a church. You have a head injury lately? You’re forgetting recent stuff.”
Her grin grew wider. “If you really wanted to help, you could join us tonight for carols and other songs in the cafeteria.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, but my singing abilities are as legendary as my knife skills, and for the same reason. It’s like my mouth is the Ark of the Covenant, only the Nazis throw me out of the bar before I melt everyone’s faces off. So that’s settled and I’ll not be attending. Buh bye now.” I turned to walk away, but she put her hand on my shoulder.
“That’s fine,” she assured me. “You can listen along. It’ll be great. I’d really love to have your support there. We’re piping it into the PA system so everyone on campus can hear.”
And that’s how I ended up taking Qiang with me to go skating that night. That’s also why we were in position when a group of Reds showed up with a flamethrower. “This is not the time for frozen water!” declared man in a shiny foil suit with a red hammers and sickles painted over it. “This is time for scorched earth!”
He was flanked by a couple of compatriots who pulled out AK knockoffs. “We don’t care about the ice. We’re actually here for your jewelry, cash, credit cards, telephones, and any other valuables. Share the wealth, comra-ack!”
Ice skates are one of the few circumstances where I am liberal with the jump kicks. Something like that is usually a pretty stupid move, unless you’re wearing sharpened metal on your feet. They’re gonna need a lot of zambonis for what I left on that ice that night. The crowd still applauded me as a hero, even if some of them lost their dinners on the ice as well.
Just great, even when I kill people, civilians think I’m one of the good guys. Eh, considering how I often try to justify my actions, it’s just a bit of the holiday blues. It was easy to put out of mind once I took Qiang by a donut shop to make up for her ice skating being cut almost as short as the guy with the flamethrower ended up. They’re gonna have to fuse his shinbones up there above his knees the way I left him. On the plus side, walking around with my very own flamethrower meant the donut people gave me a hefty discount. On top of that, it was steaming hot.
We stopped when I saw a man in an anachronistic outfit. Old fashioned, with poofy things all over. Like if Prince came back to life, I suppose, but with black grease all over his face and crazily curled hair. He smiled at me from across the street, which is when I noticed the bright red lipstick.
I moved Qiang behind me. “Pete,” I said. “I expected I’d run into you at some point.”
“Call me Black Pete,” he said in a Dutch accent.
“I haven’t heard people like you before,” Qiang said in her formal learned English. “Where are you from?”
“The Nether Regions,” I answered her.
“The Nether Lands,” Pete corrected me.
I looked subtly around and saw we’d stopped next to a fruit vendor who was in the middle of packing up. I kept my eyes on Pete, though, while readying to reach out and grab the first fruit I could get my hands on. I swear, I could hear that Western harmonica thing, “Waaa, waaa, waaa.” The wind picked up briefly and a frozen piece of newspaper coated with snow rolled past. If only it’d been high noon. As soon as the wind stopped, I grabbed the fruit and raised it to throw. I didn’t realize until I’d released how heavy it was. I’d thrown a watermelon.
“Who sells watermelon in December?” I wondered to myself. I reached out the other direction, looking for anything loose to send at Pete, who dodged the fruit and raised a painted eyebrow.
“Here, toss this,” said a voice from behind me. I gripped something, like a bucket. This time, I checked to see what it was first and found myself holding a bucket of fried chicken. I turned to give some side eye to my anonymous helper and found Pete standing there with a trollish smile on his face. I turned back to look across the street and that Pete was gone.
“You don’t have to be mean, baby,” said Pete. “I’m just here to check on you. We’re getting impatient and now you have your man here. Oh, and you still have your lovely daughter, of course.” He smiled bright white teeth at Qiang and leaned down to offer her a lollipop he pulled out of thin air. “Sweets for the sweet?”
Qiang took it from him. I took it from her and tossed it behind my back. “I’ll get you all the sweets you might need, hon. Just don’t accept anything from this guy.”
“Why? Is he bad?” she asked.
“Your momma here does not like black people,” he said.
“I like black people just fine. Hell, some of my favorite victims were black!” I noticed some people looking out of windows at us disapprovingly. I calmed and quieted my tone before addressing Pete again. “Ok, so you’ve made your reminder quite clear. It’s halfway through the month and now he’s in town. I’ll deal with this my way, you got it? It’s tough, though. There’s a high possibility of failure, and I doubt you want all these heroes knowing about y’all. It’d be better if I had a way to just call y’all in so he’d see for himself.”
Pete shook his head. “No go, Gecko. This is your project and your responsibility. We want nothing to do with anything else until it’s time for someone to be delivered to us. We trust you. No, to be precise, we trust you know what will happen should you fail. Now, I must go. My yearly duties are nearly begun.”
He bent down and picked up a large basket that I hadn’t noticed was there. It may not have been. The thing looked big enough to hold a small person or a child in it, and it was his, so this was for show. He picked it up and put his arm through a strap on it so he could easily carry it on his shoulder. Then he gave Qiang a wink and said, “See you around, darling. Merry Christmas.”
He disappeared then in snowflakes that dispersed on a wind that whipped up on us suddenly.
On the plus side, I’m glad he didn’t have any suggestion. One occurred to me that I should have thought of earlier, and I’m well on my way to it. I do, indeed, need to be bad hero. The heroes only trust me so far, too. So I need to look desperate. I need them to take the threat seriously. Then, I’ll show them absolute proof of their existence, proof I had the entire time.
After all, I thought while looking Qiang over. She was a left confused by the entire exchange, seeing is believing. No, scratch that. Seeing is the end of belief and the beginning of knowledge. And the Companions of Kringle themselves admitted that knowledge is stronger than belief any day.
Finally, the last fight. I had it all planned out, regardless of how Cercopagis wanted to do things. That’s the important thing. Can’t let him have act like he had too much power or he might start believing it. Plus, I got back to thinking about how poorly I marketed the entire thing. Sure, I pitched as an epic struggle between us versus them, but the follow-up’s been horrendous! If I had PR people, they’d have been all over this. Anyone wanna guess why I put off getting them?
So, anyway, I rented out the big Olympic stadium in Rio this time. And by rented, I stole. Admittedly, that’s a lot less badass of a thing to do as dictator of the world. On the plus side, it’s somewhat made up for due to residual badassity of having taken over the world.
See, my problem was the spectacle. This could have been so much better if we’d publicized it more. Actually put our team memberships out there, done some opposition research, run out some dossiers, come up with customized theme songs. Then again, that would have been a lot of build up with little results to show with a few of those. It’s like those MMA fights where they make a big deal about it, then it’s over in a few seconds. At least I wouldn’t have forced people to pay to see them.
But that would have required for us to collaborate instead of compete. And that’s kinda tough when it could go either way. But it’s time I stopped caring. Not caring works out much better for me. After all, I rule Earth. If Cercopagis wants this planet, he can pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Or, at least make it clear he could kill me and give me an option to give it up while still living. I’m open to negotiation, particularly when it comes to certain death versus a chance of life.
I know I gave up the ability to pick the site of our final conflict to Cercopagis Lysis, but cheating has worked out well for me so far. With Mix N’Max still not taking my calls and Max Muscles too busy doing oiled-up superhero things, I decided to take matters into my own hands. And since I, the Great and Devious Psychopomp Gecko, am not supposed to fight…I chose to bring back The Missile Patriot! Clad in Kevlar, with tactical straps on my chest, I once more masqueraded as the red, white, and blue defender of Truth, Explosives, and solving problems the American Way: mindlessly beating people up. It’s a shame that of all the extra stuff laying around, most of it’s related to not being me. Still, the eagle-beak helmet hides my face very well beind the visor. Just a shame how much the rockets on the forearms resemble those on almost all of my Electric Eyes.
Oh, yeah. Them. Kinda got a status update there. So it turns out that someone might be working against me there. I know who I suspect, but the actual list of people who might want to destroy them is about the same as the number of folks on Earth.
Near as I can tell, Electric Eye Berlin was just walking along, patrolling, trying to keep the streets quiet when BAM! Piano landed on it. I might have put it down as a simple accident, except the camera phone of an onlooker showed the piano had a safe strapped to it with an anvil welded on top of the safe. And when I got Electric Eye to turn its head, one of those baby pianos for kids fell on it, with sandbags tied to its legs.
I suppose somewhere out there could be a world where weighted pianos fall on people all the time, but this is sadly not one of them. And it’s an extremely unusual way to assassinate someone. It’s the kind of method I’d use, which also shows why it worked. I mean, important people have counter snipes and guards with submachine guns, but I’ve yet to see the Secret Service work out how to stop a mad piano bomber, and I’ve seen the plans. They had a contingency for nuclear bombs hidden in vaginas, a contingency for an android sent back from the past, and even a contingency for aliens that turn into giant monkeys. Granted, that last one involved lots of screaming, but they still planned for it. I can respect that, actually.
What I can’t respect is someone dropping pianos on EE Berlin, sniping EE Los Angeles, and EE Tokyo getting eaten by what I assume was a squid. Except I’m pretty sure squids don’t often come above water, even if he was inspecting one of the damaged nuclear plants around there. Rio is showy, but there’s something to be said for a battlefield that makes Geiger counters tick. So either that one got eaten by a mutant squid when I wasn’t looking, or Cthulhu got up for a midnight snack.
At least the sniped one made it obvious who was to blame. I should have just killed Lone Gunman back at the United Nations or the last time he was after me. That’s what I was taught. Don’t taunt too much, don’t explain an evil plan, just shove the grenade up their colon and pull out faster than the Flash if he was Catholic. Next time I see him, I’m going to hit him so hard, it’ll knock his ass off his genome. We’re talking slapping the rectum off his DNA.
So that turned out to be more to deal with after everything else. The most important thing, before all of that, would be the fight.
I didn’t make attendance mandatory or anything like that. I just set up food vendors and cameras and drew attention to myself with a small parade in my armor. I left the armor sitting up there on the throne, attended to as if it was me by three hanger-ons and Moai, who I kept around and ordered to keep a close eye on the few people I’d attached to my government. I needed to delegate and I knew I could trust Moai.
So this was the state of the Imperial Gecko Regime as of the final fight. I lost three Electric Eyes, had Moai as my Prime Minister, disguised myself to fight, and otherwise had cheated my way to victory. Overall, I’d say things were looking up and I decided to have the history books write that I had won with style instead of using a word like “cheat.”
When my final challenge went out to Cercopagis, it came in the form of a Missile Patriot dancing in an empty Olympic stadium to the song “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K. I meant it as a taunt and because I felt like dancing. As the old saying goes, “Dance like you’re threatening the entire world with death if anyone laughs.” I kept satellites overhead to make sure nobody flew overhead with any pianos, too. Or at all. They might go after the armor, but I’m not a fan of being collateral damage, especially where flying machines are concerned. Just my luck, somebody’d build a lead zeppelin just to land on my head.
This time, the gold and purple flying saucer arrived and hovered over one of the VIP boxes. Luckily, I doubt he had any pianos on board. Heh. I remember wondering if he’d send out a piano monster. And thinking how weird it is I didn’t catch any sight of the squid from other sources nearby. And thinking how tired I’d become trying to be everywhere at once. It was nice to be just one person, one body, about to punch some serious dick.
Then the saucer blared a noise like a zombie bear’s fart and their champion entered the arena. It came as something of a pleasant surprise when the man entered, wearing all black, duster and wide-brimmed hat included. He twirled his revolvers and I caught sight of a rifle barrel over his shoulder.
Lone Gunman, who used to be the sidekick known as Holdout to the hero called Sixgun. He’d been a rather nubile teen at the time and known for wearing short shorts. He’d vowed vengeance upon me when I permanently disarmed and deheaded his boss. Kidnapping him and torturing didn’t help matters. Though Holdout proved surprisingly resistant to assassination at that time, his attempted vengeance hasn’t amounted to much. There was this time he took over a criminal organization to kill me, but that worked itself out in the end. That is, I killed enough people to make it right. That’s generally how the world works.
And here I was, all hyped up to kill the lad for everything he’d attempted to do to me.
He didn’t make a good first impression on the fight by ending the twirling of his guns with a pair of shots at the armor on my throne. One went right through the head, the other where my heart would be. Then he looked to me and smirked. “The fight’s over.”
“You’re not worried about the killswitch?” I asked. Cercopagis already attempted to hijack everything to claim victory. Every time he tried, it suddenly swapped away from his gilded mug back myself and Gunman on opposite sides of a large arena.
“It’s worh killing billions to get rid of him. He’s a monster. You can’t compromise with something like him. You kill them, even if good people sometimes die in the crossfire.”
“That may be, but the agreement he made hasn’t been fulfilled. The alien scum who seeks to control this great nation has not won three fights. Until this is so,” I posed here, legs spread and arms flexing, “Then he cannot control the planet. And as a red-blooded American hero, I do not cede control of the Earth so easily! As George Washinton once said ‘My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, alien domination, banished from the Earth!’”
It’s more realistic than the real quote, where he wanted to get rid of war.
“You can’t be serious,” Lone Gunman said. He casually fired a shot at me. The moment I saw the gun barrel pointed at me, I activated my rockets. And the fight soundtrack for the television broadcast started up. I made sure to focus in really well on my leaping into action, t-shirts, lunchboxes, and the still on the back of the DVD case. The only question remaining is…bed sheets?
He only tried another shot from his revolvers before dropping them. He ignored his rifle in favor of a gun pulled seemingly from nowhere. Holdout’s power had been his ability to store weapons, and probably other objects, so that he was almost never disarmed. It didn’t necessarily matter if he was tied up properly. But as a slug whizzed past my ear, I smiled at the thought of not tying him up at all.
I’ve been dodging bullets my whole life, figuratively and literally. So many people have pointed guns at me, I have a pretty good idea of where they’re putting the bullet (excluding a whole host of other factors). And I could move. There’s not usually much else you use rockets for, after all. I jerked all over the place, heading for him. I led shots only to stop suddenly and dive in another direction. I even reached inside one of the many pouches on my armor and whipped out a flashbang. Though I’ve thought up an alternate version involving a projector showing extremely bright porn while high-pitched moans and grunts play, this was the conventional one. I caught more of the bang, but Lone Gunman took the flash.
Blinded, he pulled out everything he had and just unloaded on the air. The firestorm of lead grew from just in front of him to spread around both sides and his rear as he took potshots in all those directions. Unfortunately for him, like most humans, he neglected a very important one. One that, ironically, a hunter would have been more likely to catch. I dove at him from above.
I landed on his shoulders. He collapsed under the weight and dropped the submachine guns he had at the time, a pair of those crappy little Russian types unrelated to the AK family that everyone hates. I fired my rockets to keep my balance with my feet now sitting on his arms. I then raised my right foot and brought it down, swinging my arms down to get a little extra oomph from the rockets. Crack! Went the bone of Lone Gunman’s right arm. I almost laughed and gave myself away, too. I can’t help it. It was humerus.
A second stomp broke the left one. For added measure, I ground on his fingers with my heels while he screamed and tried to crawl away. “Yeah, writhe little man. Still feel like supporting the death sentence before anyone gets a trial?”
His answer consisted of several syllables of vowels but nothing substantive in a philosophical or legal sense, which was just fine with me.
I looked up toward Cercopagis’s saucer and announced. “Psycho Gecko wins! You have no claim to Earth.” Remembering who I was supposed to be, I put my left hand on my hip and pointed with my right. “Now get off America’s planet, alien scum!”
The bottom of the saucer slid open and a dish descended. It swiveled to aim at me as electricity danced along the dish to gather in the middle. I grabbed Lone Gunman and held him up, figuring on throwing him one direction and bolting in another as a way to confuse any targeting systems.
Before I could, I heard metal tear, which is completely different from the sound of most weapons firing. Dropping, Gunman and kicking a bit of dirt in his eyes, I looked up to find Warman standing in the stadium, a torn-off dish in his hands. Eschaton and Captain Lightning were there as well, blasting at the saucer.
It rocked back and forth before Lightning flew right up to it, pulled his fist back, and punched the saucer hard enough to send it flying into escape velocity with a hole in its side. Eschaton and Captain Lightning flew up after it.
“Good going, kid,” Warman said. He walked up and clapped me on the shoulder with one hand. “That would have been harder if you hadn’t kept him here.”
“What’s going on? You all were working for him,” I asked. I got the feeling I’d mised a few trees for the forest.
“We worked with him. The whole fight was our idea. If he won, they knew they could kick him off Earth like they’re doing now. They did it before. If he lost, it bought us time for the Master Academy to finish their project to take the Psycho out.”
I cocked my head to the side. “You put an awful lot of trust in Psycho Gecko adhering to his agreement. Do you even care about all the people dying now to his nanites?”
“I’m not responsible for what bad people do to each other,” he gestured to Lone Gunman and the dish in his own hands. “And for what it’s worth, Gecko has been known to stick to an agreement in the past. Doesn’t matter now…but let’s go make sure.”
He dropped the dish then, pinning Lone Gunman under it. I don’t think he agreed much with the younger hero. “We’ll settle up with you for what you’ve done after we go check his vital signs.”
Warman and I jumped up to the throne where the Koreans and Saki cried over my still armor.
I could almost hear Venus in the back of my head. She told me I didn’t have to pull off the helmet. I could find a way to bury empty armor and an entire identity. I could leave that darkness behind and start over fresh, like I always claimed nobody gave me the chance. Like I always said I couldn’t. I could even be a hero instead of some killer. I felt oddly sure that she’d help me.
“Why are you waving?” asked Warman.
“Just saying goodbye to a passing thought.” I stepped up to the armor. I unsealed the helmet and pulled it off.
“What the hell? Oh no, where did he go?” Warman put his finger to his ear. “Priority One is not dead. Repeat, Priority One Target is still alive and unaccounted for.”
“He’s not unaccounted for,” I said. I pulled off my eagle helmet and smiled at the hero. “It was me, Warman! It was me the whole time!”
He glared at me and raised a fist. I spat in his face. “Five people for each of you. You, Eschaton, Captain Lightning. For what you’ve done, five others will die. Other heroes’ family members. Sons and daughters. Fathers. Mothers. Maybe I’ll even pick some related to former world leaders.”
“Why? Isn’t that like shooting the person who didn’t fail you?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. I just had the idea that you hero types are just the type to not care about sacrificing yourselves or your friends. Even your good names, for a time. But are you willing to sacrifice each other’s families? Are you willing to let another person oppose me if it means your child might die as a result? Or, in your case, your old friends and their families? Maybe that woman you wanted to marry that time but didn’t because she was a spy and you were a soldier? Did I mention I did my reading on you?”
Warman lowered his fist. “You bastard.”
“Count on it,” I said and pulled my own helmet over my head. Right there, I changed out of Missile Patriot’s armor and into my own. I clapped Warman on the shoulder as I passed him by. “And good going, kid. I probably would have been blindsided if you hadn’t told me so much. By the way, I want Victor Mender and Venus of Master Academy brought before me. Don’t worry, I’ll let your little trio of superstrong mofos know, too. Be a shame if Capain Lightning let them go and your childhood friend had to pay for it, eh?”
I lept down to where Gunman struggled to tip the dish off.
Hide who I am? Pretend to be people like this who sometimes look so barely different from me except that they’re on the “right” side. Maybe I just don’t want to let them all win. Maybe I want revenge. Hell, it could be as simple as knowing there’s still no way I’d ever be able to truly integrate into society. Or even want to. I’d just end up as some hero who kills, and heroes don’t kill.
“You hear that?” I asked Gunman, who hadn’t been privy to the conversation in my head.
“Please, you won, let me up,” he groaned. I stepped around in front of him and dialed up the strength on my leg’s muscle enhancers.
“Heroes don’t kill.” I brought my foot down on his head, hard. Then I stepped out of what used to be a human head and wiped my boot off on his sleeve.
I won’t be the hero the Earth wants. No. I’m the villain the Earth deserves. I am Emperor Gecko. All hail the man-emperor of mankind.
Needless to say, Tuesday did not leave me a happy camper. Then again, no campers are happy. They’re camping. They don’t have internet, indoor plumbing, or air conditioning. It also makes them incredibly easy to kill without witnesses around. Don’t expect some sort of denial like “Not that I’d know that,” around here. Yeah, I’ve killed campers. Just cram them in the sleeping bag, knock them against a tree a few…dozen…times, then throw that shrimp on the barbie.
After my recent loss in this contest I shouldn’t have agreed to, Cercopagis and I agreed that the winner of a match chooses the champ and venue. That way, he tips his hand first. And tip he did. He tipped like a-… ya know, I don’t know of any particular demographic that tips really well. Still, he gave me tips like a horny but deeply conflicted teenager with his hot cousin. There we go. A+ work as always, Gecko.
While I tried to reach out to Eschaton or any other Earth supers I might persuade onto my side, Cercopagis called me up to let me know. “The instrument of your doom is on its way.”
Yeah, yeah, who hasn’t heard that one before? I even said it to Wildflower in bed a few times back before she dumped me for abandoning her in the middle of an alien invasion. Well, not to her face. I aimed a bit lower. Moving on.
The next fighter descended from the sky like a brilliant shooting star and landed stopped in midair over Fort Rogers, Warman’s home turf. The figure shone bright white all across his body. He looked like a star and could easily generate a huge amount of thermal energy. His name was Eschaton, and that explained why I couldn’t reach him to offer him a spot with me. That, and I’m not sure he actually wore anything under all the white light. It’s not impossible to hold onto a cell phone in that condition, but it’s a bit difficult. You certainly wouldn’t want to press it up to your ear immediately after sliding it out.
Eschaton floated up there like a shy, even more Caucasian version of Dr. Manhattan, waiting for us to make the choice he wanted us to make. In the teleconference, I knew immediately I couldn’t send Moai or Beetrice out after him. Moai can’t fly, and Beetrice would be a bug going against a bug zapper. Mix N’Max was technically on the team, but that was supposed to be a backup situation; I still don’t have enough people for him to backup!
I mean, of course I had ideas to cheat and compete anyway, but that’s a bit more iffy than I’d want. If we’d won the first time around, I’d feel more like losing this one. To bring up a more understandable comparison to y’all’s world, it’s like the story of Sun Bin and the horse race. This Chinese king invited one of his top generals, Tian Ji, to a horse race. They each had a first, second, and third fastest horse to race against one and the horses in each category were similarly matched. The fastest from each guy being about even to each other, I mean. Since they were betting on the races, too, Tian Ji asked Sun Bin, a noted strategist, for some help coming out ahead. Sun Bin had him race his third fastest against the king’s fastest, his fastest against the king’s second fastest, and his second against the king’s third.
Nice story. I originally hoped to use that strategy, except I thought I could take the Mendes Configuration. Because of that loss, the second fight forced me out of that strategy. On the plus side, Warman chomped at the bit to fight Eschaton. “I can take him! I’ve always wanted to prove it.”
“You sure?” I asked. If I had to, I could send someone weaker out there to immediately surrender. I really, really, really didn’t want to do that and risk a third round knockout, but at least I’d have my strongest pawn there. “You better be damn sure.”
“Me and him have wanted to see who is stronger for a long time. Now we have an excuse and I came with a full load.” The image panned back to show Warman strapped with a jetpack and holding his double minigun in one hand, looking an 80s Saturday morning cartoon come to life. I don’t know who thought that gun up, but they were simultaneously childish and awesome. Its destructive capabilities and usefulness still paled in comparison to the weapon slung over his shoulder. Davy fucking Crockett. “Fucking” isn’t part of the nickname for the mobile nuke launcher, but few would argue. And in fewer fights would it be considered appropriate weaponry.
I looked at it and said to Warman, “Ya know what, sure. Blast your load all over him. Have fun out there. Tell ya what, I’ll even DJ the fight. How do you like Fallout Boy?”
“Don’t call me boy, boy,” he growled and walked offscreen.
Satellite images showed he stepped out and waved to Eschaton, who lowered himself down. They stared at each other dramatically. It was a seen sadly bereft of tumbleweed, a camera angle showing high noon, or Clint Eastwood wearing a blanket. Moments like this were made to be stretched out like the chords accompanying them. A clash of titans deserves no less than the world to stop and take notice. And afterward, anyone watching a replay would turn to a friend and go, “You gotta see this. You won’t believe what’s gonna happen.”
With their eyes locked upon one another, Warman nodded his head. He stood there as Eschaton rushed forward, flames trailing and rising in the air behind him. But then he slowed. And stopped. And reached out with one finger to gentle poke Warman’s chest. Warman dropped like a shot; he landed on his back faster than if he’d been playing dildo dodge ball.
“Ooh, he got me!” Warman called out. “I’m too hurt to go on. I will surely have to forfeit.”
Eschaton landed, turning his flames off to reveal a tight-fitting outfit, and helped Warman up. The pair headed for the base’s cantina, talking and smiling.
Over in China, I sat in my office nestled in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, part of the Forbidden City Complex. I called out to the Koreans and Saki. “Ladies, would you please come here?”
They walked in, the twins and Saki shooting each other annoyed glances. I slapped my hand down on my desk to get them to focus on me. “Ahem! Good, now that everyone’s paying attention, I would like for y’all to pile everything you can lift in this office onto my desk. Except that, that’s my armor. I’ll need that.”
I stepped over to wear my armor stood on a mannequin as if it belonged as one of the Palace Museum’s displays. This place is a museum nowadays, ya see. I slid into it and felt my nerves connect, power flowing through me to activate the armor and allow me to feel the strength I’d sadly not exercised on a personal level as much as I should have lately. Meanwhile, my groupies piled decorations, my chair, and other small items onto the desk. When the finished, I waved them back, “Please, make plenty of room.”
They lowered their heads and pressed against a wall. I stepped up, grabbed the edge of the desk, and flipped it. “What the shit was that? Motherfucker! I will rain down blood, semen, and a foul vengeance upon him for this! Raaaa, angry sounds!” I stomped around a bit, put my fist through a wall, then tossed the desk up until it got stuck in the ceiling. It was much less satisfying than just offing a person, but I didn’t want to get rid of the womenfolk yet. I liked them. Their boobs too.
Women’s fun body parts aside, venting my anger on Warman himself wasn’t much of an option. Not unless I had a way to take down Eschaton as well. No, I couldn’t do that without facing a hell of a lot of threats classifiable under “Extreme bodily injury,” and “Please, my arm. Give it back. No, not in there.” As the person who usually constitutes those threats, it gave even me pause.
Plus, I could worry about that after I lost. Until that happened, I needed to make sure that didn’t happen.
Would have been great if I’d had time for that. Pouncing like some sort of belligerent, pouncing, hunting thing, Cercopagis sent out his next challenger immediately afterward in one of his little flying saucers. It headed straight for Tokyo, because it’s like the Empyreal City of shit happening in Asia.
The competitor tore the vessel apart from the inside with a pair of telescoping limbs. They slid back into place behind her as the metal unfolded to present her to the world and explained why she landed in Tokyo. The humanoid had feminine curves that stood on set of four legs. One looked to be black and ended with a chitinous heel that clashed with three metal ones that resembled sharp stilettos. The arms closest to her shoulders looked normal, for her, but a pair under that were stumps. Instead, the arms that had torn open the saucer were attached to her back.
A hot cyborg spider lady. My identification program figured out her identity from when I spent time in Japan, working for a group of bug-based villains fighting bug-based superheroes called Nature Force. Her name is Ashidaka, and she looked pissed.
Figures, though. Somehow, those damn villains always pop back up. It’s hard to keep a bad guy down.
I called up Beetrice directly. “Gecko? Sorry to hear you lost the other fight. Do you want to stop by and have some sweet time?”
“I’d love to later tonight, but I got something I need you to do. Remember how I talked about fighting someone for me?”
“I heard that glowey guy touched down…”
“No, he’s not the fighter. I need you to get to Japan, honeybee. You know how you were a royal grub all corrupted by spider DNA because a spider lady wanted your people subservient to hers?”
“Good. She’s back, she looks pissed, and she’s in Japan. She’s not Godzilla, she’s just goddammit. If you’ll get on a plane there, I’ll send you everything I know about her to read up, and you’ll have the best selection of ass-kicking weaponry available to you, understand?”
“I’m not sure about this. Can’t you just give up? You won’t have to do anything with me…”
“I promise you, Beetrice, I will be all over you the second this fight’s finished. It’ll be Emperor Gecko and Queen Bee right in the streets of Tokyo. They’ll have to replace me with a tentacle monster in local news, it’ll be so hot. You can do this. And afterward, I will tear your pussy a-fucking-sunder. In fact, put the phone down between your legs.”
A second later, I heard her voice distantly say, “Now what?”
“The instrument of your doom is on its way,” I whispered to her crotch over the phone. Then, louder, I said, “Ok, you can take it away from there if you want. Just…listen, I think you can do it. They didn’t send out someone like Captain Lightning or another Eschaton or another Mendes Configuration. I think he used up his big names to get to this point and-”
“Ok, I’m in Tokyo.”
I blinked and checked her phone’s GPS. She had managed to get to Tokyo. More than that, local cameras showed her there with a huge stinger spear, towering over Cyber Ashidaka. I did not know she could fly that fast. In fact, I checked Empyreal City in case she’d left some sort of warp trail or wormhole or something. “Did you get a hyperdrive installed?”
“Can’t talk, must fight! See you tonight.”
Through electronic eyes and ears, I saw Beetrice the large queen bee woman toss her phone away and bring her spear up to deflect lunging strikes from Ashidaka. The spider tried to impale her immediately, but Beetrice spun the spear like a cheerleader’s baton and knocked the blows aside. Ash supported herself on two legs to throw the other two forward as well, but Beetrice spun to the side. Her back stinger whipped through the air and glanced off a metal chestplate of Ash’s, further infuriating the arachnid.
Ash screamed in frustration, then reached onto a dial sticking out of her side. She turned it, and I suddenly remembered the other problem with those sorts of enemies from Japan. Ashidaka cut right to the chase and grew big enough to kick over a nearby office building. That…certainly explains why he didn’t mind sending he to bat cleanup. She didn’t even wait until they were in the uninhabited skyscraper section! That fiend!
Eh, maybe I could get Beetrice to goad her over to that Gangnam area in Korea. These assholes named NC Soft could use a good giant spider ass kicking.
Beetrice flew into the air and immeditaly dodged a strand of webbing shot right at her. She retaliated by throwing her spear into one of Ashidaka’s eyes, then dodging around a nearby building taller than the gargantuan arachnid.
Ashidaka hissed, her legs stabbing into the glass windows as they sought out Beetrice. They failed, and soon a rumbling sound made both myself and her stop and wonder if the building was coming down.
Instead, a pair of giant robots stepped into view. Does everyone have a giant fucking robot but me around here?!
One bore scars over parts made to resemble insects. From its back rose a pole with a flag bearing the Nature Force Rangers’ logo on it. Next to it, the other robot had more of a general animal theme and looked like a knight, complete with a lance that had formed out of a giraffe robot.
Damn rangers and their cursed teamups!
Oh, wait, they fight giant monsters. In this case, that’s a good thing. Go go damn rangers and your cursed teamup!
As the pair and Beetrice went to town on the spider lady, Cercopagis called me up. “This is an outrage! How dare you cheat?”
“Cheat?” I asked. “I haven’t done a thing. Whoever is in those robots, they aren’t on my team at all. They’re just citizens of Earth. A feature of the environment, you could say, and who was it that picked the battlefield?”
“This reeks of dishonesty!” Ooh, count those panties as twisted. The cameras showed Ashidaka get lanced from behind, lose one of her replacement upper limbs to the Nature Force bot, and have her cry of anguish cut off by Beetrice throwing her spear into the giant woman’s mouth.
Even as Ash’s remaining bug eyes bugged out, I rolled mine at Cercopagis’s attitude. “And what do you call Eschaton versus Warman? That fingerpoke of doom was no legitimate fight.” Ash collapsed to her knees. Her remaining hands pawed futilely at her throat. The Nature Force bot stepped back and raised its sword to the sky. The sword glowed and grew; first gaining half again its length, then another half, then another half. A tornado grew around the blade just before the rangers brought it down for one last finishing strike that carved their former enemy in half.
Beetrice flitted up to kiss the robot on its cheek before disappearing in a cloud of pollen.
I smiled to myself. “Listen, Cercopagis, if it means that much to you, how about a deal? If I lose anymore fights, you win, but I have to win two more in a row to win. That sound good?”
“That’s not a deal, that’s-!”
I didn’t get to finish hearing what it was. I hung up on him. I didn’t have all day to sit around and yap on the phone. I had a date to prepare for, and I knew for a fact she’d love to receive some flowers.
And she did.
And afterward, I had to get some nanites to heal my pelvis.
Now that I’ve got my swagger back, this whole “ruling the Earth” thing has finally become fun. I still have the nightmares and the odd flashback, but it’s easier to deal with again. That’s the difference between me and all those hero types content to make the world by playing cops and robbers: one bad day…followed by a lot of good ones. What the hell was I worried about, that the same dimwits I’ve accused of misruling the world would hate me for how I do it? Worst case scenario, I kill a lot of people. I don’t know how I’d ever live with myself.
Now one thing I couldn’t very well live with is losing the planet to every alien shrimp. Cercopagis Lysis. His ship drifted in, the egg-shaped oval core easily identified from its numerous incursions since the 1970s augmented with various extra modules added over time. He had painted the exterior, but the newest segments obscured it, and exposure to stars and dust had altered it away from the bright yellow and green paintjob. He brought his ship to the moon, where the elongated portion split open to provide a foundation for the rest of the vessel.
In that time, I tried to build a giant robot. It wasn’t hard someone like myself who has thrown a few together in the past. Such a project would hardly stand out on my original Earth, not so much for the frequency of giant robots as the heavy and varied activity of the industrial areas. On this world, I never managed the same giant robot activity. Harder to cover up.
And why, given all the impracticalities, would I or anyone from my planet use giant robots? I believe it originated in the use of some sort of energy field surrounding the planet. Maybe magic, maybe just something standard science doesn’t understand. A few beings of various backgrounds managed to tap into this energy field and use it to construct weaponry that, at first, surpassed those of the time. Technology quickly caught up and emulated the earlier designs, which proved amazingly resilient to tripping, bombing, and artillery.
I didn’t need some mystical energy field. I knew what alloys to use in the proper places. The problem was getting everything on this Earth prepared. I hadn’t given them a lot of lead time on the project, so the factories I’d confiscated were scrambling to alter their production lines to accommodate the new design. It took me a day to free up the proper materials, too. Under the right circumstances, I’m more than capable of building a giant robot out of wood. That doesn’t mean it’ll last very long, even if I used mahogany. Though, without wood, I’ll be unable to charge the “Mah Agony” beam, so that one’s out. A bit of a last ditch weapon anyway.
The plants I communicated with decided to solve the time-sensitive nature of the request by bringing on more people to work day and night. I solved the issue of incentive by telling them successful completion would lead to less necessary time working. I wish I could take credit for that one, but I discovered post-flashback that I’d forgotten a concept to ease people into post-scarcity by easing up on the work hours for less desirable jobs while allowing them to be paid the same as if they worked a normal shift. Not that we’re post-scarcity yet, but at least they listened to me this time. Though if they’re all going to keep using a money system, I should go ahead and throw my face on the bills.
Really, the economic incentive merely provided the carrot. A brilliant man like myself doesn’t believe in ruling by the stick. No, no, no. I believe in shoving the carrot up someone’s ass if they don’t do what I say and quietly informed the managers involved that failure meant termination, usually within the presence of a grabber drone demonstrating its ability to squeeze a cinder block to dust.
That was the military position I found myself in when Cercopagis Lysis paid me a visit. The physical position itself looked different, as I’d expected his visit and redecorated my throne room with a nice rug, more lights, and a trio of North Korean dancing girls. The throne didn’t look very regal either; I forced the producers of the TV show Game of Thrones to lend me the Iron Throne. I added a nice pillow to make it more comfortable, then sent off a request for a new formal throne.
The last one built for me didn’t quite suit my style with the whole “hero torn apart” motif, but this one made to resemble a bunch of swords gave me an idea. Soon, I shall rest my world-dominating buttocks upon a work of art. It shall depict me in my armor fighting and defeating a number of the world’s most well-known superheroes, arranged into a comfy chair. I’ve already ordered the people at Dr. Scholls to study the effects of their gel cushions on the human ass. If they fail, I’ll examine the effects of their gel cushions on the interior of their asses. That’s what we in the tyrant business call motivation.
I counted on Cercopagis wishing to address me conqueror to conqueror, or otherwise being so arrogant as to gloat. I knew he he’d do this because I, the Great and Devious Psycho Gecko, have such an astounding ability to predict my opponents’ actions! Which reminds me, better make sure the contest for control of Earth has nothing to do with chess.
Also, note to self: make sure the statue throne gives me the absolutely correct huge bulge in the crotch region. Unless they decide to have me sit on my own lap.
Indeed, my humble palace at The Hague soon shuddered under the arrival by Cercopagis, who I saw descend in a smooth, golden sphere. Six pieces of the outer sphere peeled away and bent down to serve as legs for the ship to land on. Then one portion of the exterior rippled and reformed into an escalator that carried the conqueror in his warsuit.
It looked like segmented armor made of platinum with a gold tinge most noticeable at the sides where the plates weren’t looked at straight on. It had two larger toes with a third facing backward. The hands copied this three-digit look, all three of them. The third stretched out of the being’s back and stuck out through a solid dark red shell that hun down to resemble a rigid cape. Portions of the shell crossed over the front to resemble thick X-shaped straps. The shell continued and formed the back portion of a helmet. The face appeared the same platinum color as the rest of the armor, in the shape of a scowling visage that looked quite normal for humans save the single tusk and single and single horn that, from the side, made the helmet resemble a weird crescent moon.
Yes, a helmet. Unlike the Fluidics, Cercopagis couldn’t originally breath on Earth. He used to wear a helmet all the time, though the records also say it’s extraneous at this point as he’s incorporated a cybernetic filter into his circulatory system. If only I could crack that little system, this whole situation would be much easier. I checked him over on approach and found nothing giving off any signals except something in an alien system that bounced between him and the moon. I’m not the only one who likes to have a trick lined up just in case.
He stepped into my small, rather plain room and looked around. Whether befuddled by the lack of pomp and ceremony or the dearth of defenses, he took longer than I expected to take on little ol’ me on the throne in my armor, the Koreans sitting next to me on floor cushions.
“Greetings, Cercopagis Lysis!” I held my hand up high like a toast. “Are you perhaps here to play the world’s largest game of pinball?”
The armored alien bastard regarded me silently for a long second, then said, “Who are you?”
Ouch. That hurts. Gonna need some aloe for that burn. “I am the Great and Devious Psychopomp Gecko, Supreme Benevolent Dictator of Earth. If you’ve come to see a parade thrown in my honor, you’re just in time. I’ve been waiting for a reason to throw one.”
He paused again, I guess taking in the turn of events. When he finally spoke this time, he said, “I expected someone else.”
“That made it easier for me to sneak around and pull it off, true. Though, who exactly did you expect to be in control of Earth right now?” I turned to the side so my upper body rested on one armrest and legs on another.
Cercopagis raised his chin, then brought it back down. I didn’t understand the gesture in this context. “I am here to liberate Earth from its evil conquerors and install myself as the better choice of ruler. Where are the Liquoids who installed you?”
“Liquoids? Are you talking about those aliens with slimy black fluid bodies and a nasty habit of using mind control? Ridiculous name for them.” I suddenly decided to televise this meeting with a five minute delay. Fuck censorship, the delay’s there to make me look better. Fill in gaps for comebacks, maybe autotune my voice.
“I made sure they received knowledge of Earth, particularly the one known as Adolf Hitler. They were quite taken with his philosophy and example. He makes a fine ambassador for Earth and convinced them you humans would be a ruthless tool in their desire for revenge. So where are they?!” He raised a foot and slammed it into the floor, cracking tiles that didn’t do anything wrong to him.
I shrugged. “I killed ’em.”
“You and what army?” he asked.
“Not the Nazi army, that’s for sure. I didn’t like the idea of being invaded. Neither did the rest of the planet. Their hearts, my mind, your ruined plans. I got Earth prepared, Earth fought, the Fluidics lost. It sounds like you had quite an idea there: you directed them here, figured we’d bloody each other, then you’d show up at the last minute and take over the place, maybe look like a better option than the Fluidics. Mind control and world domination; I find you despicable.”
I am the kind of guy that gives speechwriters a job, talking all haphazard like that. Though, I told the truth about finding him and the Fluidics despicable. It’s a general principle that anybody trying to control the world who isn’t me is wrong. Tell me if you’ve heard this one: so a crazy guy with a Southern accent and subpar language skills meets with an alien that doesn’t understand English fluently…
“You did the same as I would have. Your many enemies have an option now. Perhaps I shall let them toy with you before your execution.” He raised a hand and pointed at me, then brought it to his chest to pound on the plates there. I think he expected me to be intimidated. He sure didn’t make a very compelling case for handing over the reins of power.
I sat upright in my chair. “I’m sure that speech sounded better when you made it up to deal with other extraterrestrials having taken over. Now, it doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as, say, calling for Eschaton, Warman, and Captain Lightning.”
In a flash, literally in Captain Lightning’s case, the three appeared through a new hole in my roof. Eschaton and his white hot flaming body, very much insists he isn’t gay no matter how many times I ask if he is. Warman, the super soldier dressed like a soldier trapped under a pile of Kevlar, whose idea of concealed carry involves a double minigun. Captain Lightning, the aging red, white, and gold hero of World War II and onwards. My nanites flowed through none of the heroes’ veins, but in enough others to convince them to stand by to take on a wannabe alien conqueror. He didn’t seem to have much of a plan, beyond standing there and getting caught. The heroes took one of his legs off before securing him firmly in their arms, but otherwise made no move to kill the guy for me.
I stood up and began charging my armor’s forearm energy sheaths. They grew brighter as power directed into the array wound around my forearms and projected into a field floating just over the surface of my gauntlets. I punched into Cercopagis’s chest with one hand, the energy carrying my first in to puncture it. Circuitry and fluids came out with that fist. The next punch smashed the helmet open, to reveal the dead body of the alien wannabe-lord…wasn’t in there.
I pulled the helmet wrecked apart, but it appeared mostly hollow except for a voice module and sonar. “I apologize for not meeting you in person, Psychopomp Gecko, but I assure you our business is not yet finished. You give me a lot to think about.”
He chittered something like a laugh. Captain Lightning must have recognized it, because he took the initiative to toss the armor into the sky where it detonated in a green mushroom cloud that lacked any electromagnetic pulse.
“Thank you, heroes,” I complimented the group before dismissing them with a wave of my hand. “I suspect you’ll be less helpful when one of us next makes a move, but I’m sure folks appreciate your willingness to serve for the good of others.”
They all glared at me as I sent them off like servants. I fumed underneath my helmet. My incredible luck at having the enemy walk right up to me turned out to be anything but, and now he’s planning something on the moon while I’m down here waiting.
Sure would be nice to have space-capable giant robot right about now.