I feel like Venus might be a reality warper. Somehow, she slid into the whole group with ease. I know Qiang likes her. They have some good history together from Qiang’s time at Master Academy. I didn’t expect Max to be cool with her though. Even his assistants, Holly and Sam, are more accepting of her than they were of me for a long time. I pulled Max aside to talk about that, “You were a real asshole to them at first.”
“I don’t see how,” I said.
“You were an asshole to me too,” he said.
“You said that was cocaine, too,” I reminded Max.
He looked around, “That’s neither here nor there. Besides, the erection went away eventually.”
“After four months. You told me I had to bone guys,” I said. It wasn’t all bad. I still have some fond memories. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier with guys. You never have to wonder if they’re in the mood, for instance.
He shrugged. “I said it had something to do with being the same gender, and I’ve learned new things about you since then.” He motioned to my boobs and crotch.
I folded all four of my arms across my chest, unamused.
I remain unamused. And confused. Maybe it’s her plan. Maybe that’s just how messed up I am. At least, that was Sam’s take on it. I was asking her about her thoughts on Venus. “Why are you so interested in what we think of her?”
Next thing I knew, I was laying on the couch. “I suppose I’m seeking outside confirmation that she’s untrustowrthy and this whole situation is fucked up. Because even though I want her to like me, I recognize that people actually liking me, or even loving me, usually means they want something from me or are so messed-up that I don’t bother them.”
Sam nodded. “I can see why you’d believe that based on everyone I’ve ever seen in your life, and that includes your daughter. I’m wondering why you jumped on your own couch and started talking when I asked you a question?”
I wiggled into the cushions to get comfy. “I can’t really say what started it, I guess. The first real romantic relationship I ever had followed this pattern.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sam asked. “I don’t care.”
“The fact that you don’t care is why you’re the perfect person to tell,” I informed her.
She facepalmed. “Fuck, that makes sense.”
“After everything I went through on my home Earth, the fights and my own government cutting ties with me, at some point I ended up involved in a revolutionary movement. The pay sucked, but I was doing it for the art. Killing someone with a pencil is easy; it takes an artist’s soul to murder someone with a crayon. Or it takes slamming an artist’s head into a crayon over and over again. It helps that I used the brick color.”
Sam cleared her throat, eager to be done. “Ok, fine,” I continued, “I got involved with a woman who was my number two. She had it all… boobs, ass, legs, a pretty mouth… in retrospect, I might have been a bit shallow. Smart, too. Looking back, it might even make more sense. I really didn’t think I was unclear on my goal to use the dimension bomb to pretty much end all life on Earth. You wouldn’t even need to take half the planet’s mass away. It’s really more a matter of location. She betrayed me right at the end of it all and stopped me.”
“It’s my expert opinion as someone who doesn’t care that one of the things Max and Qiang get from you is that they care about you and people who care about each other act certain ways. If they’re fucked up people, that means they need it even more. Speaking of which, Venus isn’t like that. You used to go on about her being your ideal hero, the one destined to kill you, and then she was too good a hero to do that. Take a hint. She likes you even though you’re only person weird enough to run the show on this island. Enjoy being with her while she still puts up with you.” Sam stood up and headed for the office door, unlocking it.
I raised a finger. “You seem to be under the impression we’re dating.”
She raised a middle finger before she left. “Yeah, figure that out, genius.”
I didn’t have time to, as Venus attached herself to me pretty quickly and asked, “What are we doing today?”
“Oh, just a demonstration of a science project. Anything new on the hero front?” I asked.
She cocked her head. “Yeah. Old friends told me about some political prisoners in Egypt.”
“Oh? Is Venus dipping her toe into villainy for realsies, not as undercover work?” I asked.
She laughed. “This is how I’m making this work for me. I have an opportunity to do some good I don’t normally get to do.” She kinda swung her shoulders forward and back, looking cute and excited. “Mind if I come with you? I need to grab something to eat, so I can split off from you when we get to where we’re going if you don’t want me there.”
I shrugged. “Sure, we can pick up something on the way. There are some good street food carts near the Institute if you don’t mind spicy food.”
“Any taquerias?” asked Venus.
I shook my head. “Not a lot of that here, but plenty of spicy food if you’re a fan.”
“Sure, let’s make it spicy,” she said, taking my hand as we started walking.
We went over the prison in question. She had access to the city’s augmented reality network, so we were able to go over a 3D blueprint of the prison she had. When she saw my surprise she’d somehow slotted into that so easily as well, she told me, “Citra set up clearance before she went back to college. My friends sent me the blueprints and Qiang showed me how you find programs to do this.” She spun the image around, then stopped it and pointed to a basement section under one corner of the rectangular complex. “They only hide it enough to satisfy the Americans.”
“The world is built on open secrets as much as real ones,” I observed. “Floor looks kinda thin there. Could blow the place open on that side and blast a way through, but that risks damage to the staircase. Carve your way through, I guess.”
“Any ideas that minimize danger to the inmates?” she asked, as if that was a ever my major concern.
I shook my head. “Not if you want a big opening. You want to protect anyone, you’re going to have to take your time. Or, and this can be somewhat riskier, you need to blast your way out, not in.”
By the time we got our food and were approaching the Institute, we’d laid out a plan to use her local contacts to smuggle her. They think she’s food, she pops out and starts handing out asses like she’s on the campaign trail for chief butthole surfer. Plastic explosives are cheap enough coming through here and we get stuff from all over.
At the Institute, Dr. Gralz was more than happy to show us the progress made on the Arachnoid exoskeleton. They had a full-sized model ready with a volunteer, a fellow of African descent in a wheelchair he pushed along using cybernetic arm prosthetics. “Empress Gecko, this is Cassius Isaac. Mr. Isaac will be piloting the armor for us. Mr. Isaac, this is her Imperial Majesty Psychopomp Gecko and her wife, the Empress-Consort.”
I shook hands with our Arachnoid user, faking a smile at Gralz’s introduction. “Someone certainly did a number on you.”
He smiled. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m here because of these legs. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have my spine healed and to extract revenge from the people responsible.”
“May I ask who that is?” Venus asked.
Cassius bobbed his chin up at her. “Routine traffic stop. They didn’t even charge the officer. Insurance company refused to pay. I thought I had a way out when your majesty,” he nodded to me, “took over, but my brother and my mother convinced my wife to keep me from the hospital when healthcare was free. I finally got the money to visit here.”
“You must feel it’s pretty extreme circumstances to put yourself at the mercy of Gecko,” Venus said. See, that’s what gives me trust issues. Statements like that.
“All due respect, ma’am, I faced possible execution every time I went to get groceries. This is my chance to be made whole, physically and spiritually. I’d risk death for that,” he said.
Dr. Gralz motioned us toward the elevator. “If you please, I have a demonstration room set up. We can talk further on the way.”
I lagged behind with Venus for a quiet conversation as we walked., “I didn’t tell people you were my wife.”
She gave me a knowing look with a little smile. “Lots of people think I am. I understand you had Citra look like me?”
“She did that on her own to appeal to me. She thought it would help us as a couple,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows, but instead of commenting on my marital issues, she said, “Irregardless, we talked about it. She’s fine letting me borrow her identity.”
“The question is more whether you can stomach agreeing to be known as my wife,” I told her, stopping so we wouldn’t walk right into the elevator where Gralz and Cassius Isaac waited for us.
She winked at me. “You forgot. I’m not locked this with you.” She brought her forehead to mine and spoke in a faux-gravely voice. “You’re locked in this with me.”
The Arachnoid exoskeleton was beautiful. Gralz showed it to us while lab techs prepped Cassius for it. It rested on gleaming limbs that looked more than capable of impaling a human body. The antigrav system had been integrated into the thorax, which made the bottom more vulnerable. “The arms are capable of reaching beneath it,” Gralz assured us.
“What other weapons we got here?” I asked.
“The rear contains a grappling hook and line. We built them with the possibility of being fired into people to pull them closer. We have a webbing spray system on the front. It fires a net of foam that hardens and constricts movement. The original design called for the spray system and a pair of modular mandibles that could serve as bladed weapons or be replaced with other mission-specific loadouts: machineguns, flamethrowers, rocket pods. However, the prototype was built when we were working on the integration of plasma-based weaponry. It will be more precise, but space and power requirements forced us to leave off mandibles and have the plasma cannon mounted above the net system.”
“You up for running this bad boy?” I asked Cassius.
He had a custom-built suit with armor on the back and a helmet. He had waved off the pulley system they had and used his arms to climb up the thing and set his legs into slots, then removed the prosthetic arms. Underneath were stumps that stopped a little past the elbows. He looked down at me. “Ma’am, my country trained me before it threw me away. In addition, I have passed multiple qualifications and other tests with the Arachnoid prototype exoskeleton and integrated weapons systems. I can say with 100% confidence I am the most-qualified person to pilot this armor.”
I nodded to him. “Have at it, then.”
He dropped down into the groove where his body was meant to lay, arms sliding into their slots. The armor on his back blended with the smooth edges of the exoskeleton. As it powered up, four pairs of lights on the top of his helmet began to glow, one pair at a time.
“We’re going to remove the lights,” said Gralz. “There’s no need for a visual indicator of the system’s activation to anyone who isn’t piloting it.”
Arachnoid rose on its hind legs in the small gymnasium-sized room we were in. Arachnoid pawed at the air with his front legs. The weapons were shown off first. The legs punched through a cinderblock wall to impale a mannequin on the other side. Another was dragged from fifty feet away while wearing a set of plate mail, the barb on the hook having penetrated the armor. When it got close, the cable detached and he fired another into the mannequin’s helmet, then detached it as well. A third mannequin was sprayed with net spray, the gunk net clinging to his front and legs before hardening. A fourth got picked up, sprayed with the net, then wrapped up entirely like spider with a fly. It was then set down in front of the third one and Arachnoid fired its plasma weapon. It left a flaming hole through the chests of the dummies.
Cassius put the armor through its paces, scrabbling around the floor. After a bit of experimenting, he even found a way to do it without gauging the floor. It got up to a pretty good speed, too. For as big as it was, it jumped hurdles with ease, and he pulled off a nifty move taking a corner using a grappling hook to maintain speed and swing around.
They didn’t have room for the climbing test itself, so he squeezed it out through the door, down the corridor. We ran after and watched as Arachnoid pried open the maintenance elevator and began climbing the shaft. I tapped Gralz on the shoulder, “Is that thing below or above us?”
“I made sure it would be held at the top floor,” he informed me as we approached the shaft. Looking up, we watched him climbing the shaft with ease. Then a grappling bolt shot down and stabbed into the floor by us. Arachnoid let go and started pulling himself down the line as if he had to climb it. “That is the antigravity on now.”
“Was it on for the climb?” Venus asked.
“No,” Gralz answered, pointing to gauges in the wall. “It can be much gentler with the antigravity on, but it has to be more careful in its movement. Imagine taking a step and not being able to put your foot back down.”
An alert interrupted me. Some sort of unidentified super that appeared in the skies above the island. “I need to go,” I told.
“What is it?” Venus asked.
“I have to go deal with something. My island, my responsibility.” I told her, walking over to Arachnoid’s cable. I called up to him. “I need a lift to the surface.”
“I’m coming with you,” Venus said.
“Well, I can’t stop you from following.” I grabbed hold of the cable and kicked the barb loose. I just sorta drifted up slowly for a moment. Looking up, I saw Arachnoid still getting its footing underneath it on the sides of the elevator. That left plenty of time for Venus to run up and wrap her arms around me, beaming at me even when Arachnoid pulled us up quickly. He pried open the ground floor’s elevator and swung us onto it.
He followed us outside.
There, a grey man in a simple white leotard floated above the city. “Intercept detected something screwy, then this guy came flying in. Hasn’t done anything so far.”
Way off in the sky, the grey guy surveyed the city, head shooting around in quick and jerky motions until he got to me. He turned his whole body in my direction and begin floating down. “Well, crap. There goes sneaking off and grabbing the armor.”
“Can’t you use nanomachines to form a personal armor around you?” Arachnoid asked.
I snorted. “That’s not armor, that’s just a bunch of tiny robots surrounding me, and it’s not like nanites magically form different computer systems or lasers when they fit together.”
By then the grey guy got close enough where I was pretty sure he’d hear us talking. I stepped forward. “Hail, visitor. As Empress of the great Empire of Ricca, I would like to extent my greetings and ask you what the fuck you’re doing here.”
He was an odd duck. His skin was grey, as I said, and he was hairless. Not one piece of fur on his noggin. His eyes seemed normal brown, though they stared through me like he wasn’t really using them. “I am designated Praetor M. I have been dispatched to inform you of the imminent invasion of your universe by my master, Chief Executor Paldrin.”
I waved him away dismissively. “I’m not home right now. Shoo. Tell him to come back another time.”
“You may surrender now and see yourself spared. You will be given position in the new order. Or you can die when my master lays waste to your planet,” Praetor M said, still not looking at me so much as through my head.
I laughed. “Like I haven’t heard that one before, pal. Nobody’s laying waste to this planet but me, you hear me?” I paused as Venus whispered something in my ear, then added, “And climate change. I mean to get around to that too, I’ve just been busy fighting for my life for six years on a near-constant basis.”
“Your answer is noted. Be warned, my fellow Praetors are extending this offer to those worthy. It is doubtful your defiance is as unyielding, their ambitions so checked. You have five days to prepare.” Without moving, a bubble appeared around him with little waves of blue moving over its surface. It expanded quickly, knocking Venus, Arachnoid, and myself back, and cracking the ground beneath the Praetor. He flew up quickly and turned at a sharp right angle to speed out of there faster than a locomotive.
Venus raised a fist at his fleeing form. “Yeah, we don’t negotiate with terrorists!”
I helped her up, but had to correct her. “What are you talking about? Of course we negotiate with terrorists: always money down, no financing.”