Geez, it’s hot. Someone ought to turn out that sun for a bit. I took my daughter and the superkids to an amusement park and I actually began to miss being frozen in ice. My suit isn’t quite as good at regulating away heat as it is protecting me from the cold. That’s something I ought to work on and leaves me visible to thermal imaging.
Conventional cameras caught enough of a view of myself and all those kids, though. They didn’t make a huge deal about it in California, but I guess dreary, muggy Kingscrow really doesn’t like to see people enjoying themselves. I spotted vigilantes watching us. It worried the kids, too. In the end, they didn’t find a good time to come after us. Even messing with a ride was too likely to cause serious injury, but it still brought down the childrens’ mood.
Escape was as simple as a pair of Psycho Flyers dropping smoke grenades around us and loading us all up. Almost all of us. I had to stop and give Psychsaur a hug goodbye. “Good luck with whatever you do from now on,” I told her.
“Try to be good,” she told me. I think she actually meant it.
“Aww,” I said, then reached out and snatched a bola out of the air. I tossed it back through the smoke at where it’d been thrown and saw a shape skid on the ground. “Why be good when I can be great? You just let me know if you need a hand.”
She patted me on the helmet. “I wish you were this giving to people who weren’t your friends.”
I shrugged. “I tried, but they didn’t want me as their leader.”
“You’re not mine either,” she noted, then stepped back, just before a boomerang would have smacked into her. She raised a hand and the boomerang reversed course back to where it came from. Someone outside the smoke yelled. “I guess you better go.”
“I’ll be back!” I declared, throwing a fist up. “You haven’t seen the last of me!” I turned and jumped into the back of the waiting Psycho Flyer. The loading bay closed up behind me as we raised up and began to make a break for the Pacific.
The trip could have been an absolute nightmare. A dozen kids on a long road trip, but with the power to freeze stuff or create plants? It’s a good thing they were all tuckered out from the trip to the park. They slept a good chunk of the way there and saved me a huge headache.
I can’t have a huge welcoming party every time I come back from somewhere. I’m away too much for that. So instead, I disembarked with Qiang and called up leftover Directors from Housing and Education to see to the kids. I should create a Child Supers program while I’m at it. I need an agency to help care for and train children with superpowers on my island, as well as being able to identify them among the general populace and help aid families who have trouble caring for them. I sent Director Pagan and Dr. Creeper a message about working together to find someone reliable, educated, and caring to help me manage the situation. It wouldn’t do for children of Ricca to be snatched up and sold off to some underground fighting and sex ring right under my nose.
With all that handled as much as it can be for now, it was time to deal with other problems. That meant doing things like reviewing test results on interdimensional vehicles for the expedition back to Uranus. It seems the data I stole from that other universe included some nifty new designs for increasing efficiency and stability in the dimension-breaching process, including a way to build devices that craft the portals to allow sending people through without also sending through a device.
There have also been some rumblings from the Lost Continent of Mu. The people of the Bronze City have learned to accept my ambassador as if he’s one of their own, but they’d really like to see their own sometime. I technically married Citra to forge bonds with Ricca, though she looked like their princess in order to fool the Bronze City and forge a bond with them. I forwarded her the email to see if she might be willing to fool them in between semesters of college. I suppose I could hunt down the original, who was last spotted saving Pennsylvania from a rampaging extradimensional T-Rex with the help of Veloci-Raptor, but she’s probably still pissed at me.
There was also a court case that was an issue. People had been appealing to a higher power, meaning me. Then a vigilante broke the person out and it became a non-issue. Or, more accurately, it created a new issue. Someone caught selling info to foreign powers broken out by a superpowered person. I don’t know if this means a superhero or a supervillain. The way this island works, it’s not so clear. Security and the Military have both been put on alert, especially at the ports.
Finally, there’s Venus. I had plenty of time to work on those other issues because I was waiting for her to get back to me. Because, causing my paranoia no end of worry, she wasn’t on the island anymore. According to Max, she disappeared with the Pink Justice Ranger. They were last seen getting on some sort of pink hovercycle that probably belonged to the Justice Ranger. They always get cool toys like that out of nowhere. I even tried spying on her phone, but she left it behind at the residence.
So it was that I went to sleep one day, just myself cuddled up with my daughter. And the next, I woke up to four people in Ranger tights and helmets. I sat upright and screamed, throwing the nearest object at the one in red. He caught my daughter, at which point I pointed to her. “Bastard, give me back my kid!”
By now, Qiang awoke. She kicked him right in his crotch. It wasn’t a hard shot or else they’d have sparked, but it doesn’t take much of a hit to the balls to get someone’s attention. He dropped her. It was Blue who held up his hands. “Can we calm down please?”
I held a pillow up. “Not when you’re sneaking into my room to catch me sleeping!”
“We wanted to talk,” said the Red Justice Ranger.
I tore the pillow open and pulled out a meat tenderizer. I pointed it at the green one, “Then why’s he got duct tape?”
Qiang and the Rangers all looked at the duct tape the Green Ranger held, and watched as he dropped it. “Misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstand my foot up your ass,” I said, leaping to my feet.
“Let’s talk about this. We’re trying to find our missing teammate,” Blue said.
The door burst in and a smoke grenade rolled in, spewing pink mist. Mix N’Max came in, syringe gun in hand. Sam stood behind him with a water pistol. Holly held a wooden stool like a bat, ready to wing. Qiang hopped onto the bed with me and whirled on the Rangers, knife in hand.
The Green Ranger turned toward them, pulling a piece of tape taut in his hands. Yellow and Blue pulled guns, but Red raised a sword out of nowhere. Almost as an afterthought, a Dudebot stepped out of my closet.
“Seems we have ourselves a Riccan stand-off,” I said.
Red turned between me and Max. “This doesn’t have to go bad.”
“We’re prepared for bad,” Max said. He’s right. Villains are exactly the sort to jump in and make the first move in a stand-off like this. We usually don’t have as much to lose, or just don’t care about collateral damage.
“Believe me, I’d give a lot to see Psycho Gecko die,” Blue said.
Green stumbled. “I’d rather not if it’s all the same. We were supposed to be a force for defense and de-escalation.”
Red looked to Green, then lowered his sword. “Rangers, stand down.”
Green lowered his duct tape and Yellow her gun. Blue looked to Red, “This is our best chance.”
“Technically, your best chance was in the other universe, on Uranus,” I said. “Nice try, but it didn’t take.”
“If it was me, it would have,” Blue bragged.
Red grabbed Blue’s gun out of his hand. “How many people aren’t going to live if you die here today?”
“Kinda surprised you’re even bothering with talk of defense and saving lives the way you bunch spend all your time over here, dealing with our problems.” With the Rangers all off guard, we could have easily gone ahead and attacked them. Part of me ached to do so.
I lowered my tenderizer. “Get the fuck out of my room. Everyone. You want to talk, Red? Give me a minute to get indecent.”
Minutes later, with Qiang running to go change out of her pajamas, I walked into the living room. Sam was playing bartender for Holly while giving the Rangers some side eye. Max lounged on a chair, syringe gun in one hand, flask of glowing green goo in the other.
My armor on and arms crossed, I stood in front of the waiting Rangers. “Talk.”
“Ranger Pink has gone missing,” Red said. “We thought you knew something.”
“But you didn’t think it was me?” I asked.
Red shook his head. “We thought you might have evaded our surveillance when you went missing, but then you appeared in Kingscrow.”
“The Pink Ranger is no more special to me than the rest of y’all as far as I know,” I said. “I don’t like you, but I’m tolerating you for helping us in the past.”
Blue jumped in. “So you don’t know who she is?”
“I suspect she tried to kill me when we were all off fighting a war in another dimension,” I said.
Blue flinched, but Red sat up straighter and said, “What did you do with her?”
Wow. I think I might be right about Pink. “I didn’t do anything. A superhero was investigating the attempted murder. They were last seen together. I know when they left, but not where to. I would think you have some fancy ways to track each other.”
Yellow lowered her head. “That is at our command center. Nowhere on this whole planet has technology sophisticated enough to track the bio-force signature of a morphed Ranger.”
I smiled under my helmet. “Almost nowhere. I bet we have a few handy tricks around here.”
“What do you want?” Red asked. “You want us to help you find her so you can kill her?”
Hmm. Good point. They’d never go for it if I did that, but I really don’t feel like letting my potential murderer go free. “I want you and any other Rangers to leave my island alone forever. Don’t get close. And as for the Pink Ranger… we have courts here. Good folks, I want what ever victim wants. Justice.”
Yes, I got a kick out of saying that last word to the Justice Rangers. No, I didn’t have to change my underwear afterward. Wasn’t even wearing any.
Some might reasonably ask how I can trust Venus, now Medusa, to run around on my island and elsewhere. I know this for a few reasons, one of which being Mix N’Max, my old amigo, has provided that perspective. He called me up while I waited for Meecer’s people to get back to me, video chatting with me while Qiang was zonked out. I sat there listening to my ASMR, getting an audio-only ear massage from a woman wearing dish gloves while I scrubbed away at my child’s armor. I put it on pause when I saw he was trying to talk to me.
“Hey there, Maxxy,” I greeted him.
“Hi Gecko. Are you having fun over there?” He asked. He was standing in my living room, in front of the giant monitor that doubled as a TV in his poofy white shirt. Without his jacket, it didn’t stand out so much from his pale skin, but at least his red lips broke up the image.
I shrugged to myself. He couldn’t see anything more from me than a floating head because the call was coming from INSIDE THE BRAIN. “Eh, could be better. This guy’s not very punctual. I as good as left him a note saying, ‘call me’ and he’s taking his sweet time getting around to it. It’s a very rude way to react to someone who stole his ego painting.”
“Do you know what Venus is up to?” he asked.
“She prefers Medusa now. She’s supposed to be figuring out who tried to kill me when we were on that other world.” Ugh, dried dog drool with food gravy still in it. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
“She’s talking with the Justice Rangers. A lot. I’m not sure you should be trusting her. I asked Sam and Holly if they’d keep an eye on her.” He crossed his arms. Behind him, Sam Hayne walked into the camera view briefly, eating a bowl of cereal. She’d gone spiky and bright orange with her hair now. Max’s punk assistant gave a little wave, then stepped back off screen.
“Oh yeah? Anything interesting happen?” How does a girl lose this much hair in her helmet and not go bald?
“They had a girls’ night out. Medusa invited the Pink Ranger along. Sam doesn’t trust them.”
Sam called from offscreen, “That’s right!”
I shrugged again. “Sam doesn’t trust me.”
“That’s also right!” Sam added.
“Guys, I get it, I do. You think I trust her? I have no idea what she sees in me, how she can actually have any feelings for me after all we’ve been through against one another. I’m half-convinced this is all an elaborate plan of hers to get back at me by making me paranoid while getting some good sex from me.”
Holly rose from the bottom of the image, eating popcorn from a bowl. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Tell me more!”
“I didn’t know you were that way, Holly.” I said, eyeing her. She had long blonde hair with pink highlights now.
Max shooed her out of the frame. “She’s not. She’s just a fan.”
“Mhm!” Holly said just before leaving the call to just Max and myself.
The image I projected showed my eyeroll. “I completely understand the concern and it isn’t without justification. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m choosing to take the W on this one and trust her. It’s good to know I’ve got a friend like you who is looking out for me, though, and I’m sure if she does try anything, you will be part of the way I pull through it.”
“Get a room, you two!” called Sam.
I pretended to narrow my eyes. “Max, just how attached are you to having two assistants?”
“It’s getting to be a hassle to feed both of them,” he smiled.
“I’ll eat Holly then,” Sam said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Wow, they’re both like that. And all this time I thought Max was taking his work home with him…”
He laughed it off. “Try to enjoy your vacation, your evil majesty.” He gave the last three words a cheesy emphasis. He’d have to be careful not to take that tone publicly. Lots of people take that Empress thing seriously.
His comment about vacationing gave me an idea. When I finished with Qiang’s armor, I set it aside and started poking her. “Hey, wake up. Wakey, wakey. It’s morning.”
My drowsy little pumpkin stirred. “Huh?”
“I’m tired of waiting. Let’s hit an amusement park.”
We had a load of fun. We went to the front of all the lines. They tried to keep Qiang off a few rides, but she had these extending stilt things in her boots to raise her up in case I thought she needed to reach stuff higher up. Then she found a water pistol and pretended it was a real weapon. The park people bought it.
Our trip back was just a hop and a skip back with our armors on. Well, a few more than just one hop and skip, but y’all get the point. When we reached the street our little house we were staying in was on, I noticed an extra car on the street. A real nice one. And a window shade was drawn that hadn’t been before. “You stay back,” I told Qiang. “And stay hidden. You notice anyone sneaking up on me, or on you, you let me know immediately, got it?”
She nodded and ducked behind a car.
It’s about time they found us. I wasn’t even subtle, renting it under the name Psycho Gecko. Maybe he thought I’d have gone for a hotel suite, but I wanted to change things up this time. A small two bedroom in a nice neighborhood lacked room service, but it had a certain charm, and an ability to sneak up on where you stay that’s better than a hotel. There, you don’t know until you’re either inside or in the confined hallway just outside. Here, I have a whole street, with cars to duck behind. I left Qiang ducking behind one.
When I stepped out, a ripple swept across my armor. The coloring of my chest was replaced by the landscape on the opposite side of me, adjusted to counteract distortions. Holographic emitters worked with the armor’s own color-changing abilities to render me invisible. I stepped lightly in the less cumbersome armor and made a circuit of the house before going in.
A man in an expensive dark blue suit waited in the living room, the sun glinting off his dusky, bald head. His backup laid in a pile by the back door. As a courtesy, I left them alive, with complimentary ball gags so they wouldn’t talk. I grabbed myself a drink from the kitchen and stepped up beside the guy, leaning on the chair and turning visible. He jumped as I appeared. “Hello there, visitor. May I interest you in a frosty beverage?”
I stuck the straw against he fanged “mouth” on the outside of the helmet and played a slurping sound.
The man stood up and backed off, hands coming up just a little. He covered by grabbing his suit jacket and buttoning it up. “I don’t believe I will, madam Gecko.”
I gave a little wave with one lower hand. “Oh, please. Just call me the Great and Devious Empress Psychopomp Gecko. Madam Gecko was my mother. Heck of a brothel owner, that one.”
The man looked at a loss as to how seriously to take this statement. I giggled and set the drink aside. “I take it you’re a decently-paid, if expendable, goon here on behalf of a certain wealthy client?”
“Actually, I’m a private investigator on retainer for that wealthy client. I suppose that makes me expendable enough.” He smiled at that. “Lucky for me, I’m not here for a fight. My employer asked me to see what we can do to persuade you to return a possession with sentimental value. We thought it best to simply ask, rather than go to all the trouble of a fight.” He flashed a winning smile.
“Aww, look at you, trying to lube me up like that. It’s a good thing you’re not looking to fight, though, because those guys you brought were a pushover. What was it, just five?” I pointed toward the backdoor, outside of which they were all incapacitated.
The man winced. “Will it help my chances if I say I didn’t want to bring them along?”
I held a hand up parallel to the ground and wobbled it. “Eh. You’re right, it’s a fortuitous day for you. I wasn’t hoping to get into a fight either. I fully intend to see about a deal with you and your boss about the possession in question, which you no doubt already tried to find.”
The man motioned to a couch nearby. “Please, may I sit?” I nodded; he sat. “If we’re both in agreement that this is a time to deal, not a time to kill, then please help me understand what my resourceful client may do for you?”
“I’m aware that your client takes human resources very seriously. You know, let’s stop beating around the bush. I know your boss beats around some trafficked bush.”
“This is about the drugs, then,” the man said.
I shook my head. “I actually meant the parties with special entertainment for those invited. Just men and women enjoying some company and some fucking.”
The man’s face went still, but the smile no longer reached his eyes. “Oh. That is a more complicated subject.”
“I’ll bet it is.”
“I will have to confer with my client before I can make this deal. I hope you understand, this isn’t something I can do from here.” He slowly reached into his pocket and produced a cheap flip phone that he tossed to me. I caught it. “I’ll contact you with his answer.”
“That’s fine. Go talk to whoever you need to in person. I’ll be here with the painting,” I waved him off.
He started to go, then sighed, and started for the backdoor. “Let me get them before I go.”
“Oh please, I’d hate to throw them in the recycling,” I said.
I didn’t get confirmation until the next day, via text. “You are in. Seattle. 5/20. We will find you.” I set the phone aside and went back to examining the day’s paper, where a section on local events showed a memento picture from a ride.
“Son of a… Qiang, dear, come look at this. They said they couldn’t give us the picture because of someone showing more than they were supposed to.” There we were, strapped into seats, our arms up in the air. With our helmets on, you couldn’t see our screaming faces. You could see those of the other riders, their eyes fixed on us as we plunged down a steep incline.
The headline read, “So Much Fun, It’s Criminal!”
I didn’t hijack Dame’s body for too long. A day, maybe. Made sure she got to safety, let her sleep, and pulled out. I find the idea of stealing her body appealing in a certain way, but March 20th was coming up. It goes against the spirit of Mr. Roger’s Day to hold onto it. Kinda ties my hands mopping up the interdimensional infestation, but one way people give a thing meaning is by purposefully fettering themselves for it. I typically refrain from acts of evil on the day.
I needed some recovery time. I’d spent a bit more time away from my body than intended while fighting in ‘Nam. The extra time as Dame didn’t do me any favors. First thing’s first: I had an IV to pull out of my arm, an adult diaper to dispose of, and some food to chow down on. Then I could worry about being a neighbor.
There’s more than enough managing a country to keep me busy, including opening our hospitals to the wounded and rushing medical nanites to people unfit to move. Cape Diem’s camp is running over with displaced people being helped by the international aid supers. Even if I can kill people all day, the world needed a moment to stop and catch its breath. Too bad it was only a moment.
The invaders said “fuck it” to anything they didn’t have a firm handle on. It was purely defensive, no matter how close they were to taking it. It saved Spain’s ass, but Portugal’s under occupation for a little while. Good thing, too. That Basque area between France and the Iberian peninsula can be vicious. It’s not just Portugal getting fucked over by occupation. When you figure up the amount of armored raiders, thunder riflemen, robotmen, and Praetors they sunk into this place, they’ve picked up relatively little territory. The fauna they unleashed aren’t actually capable of holding territory for them. There are poachers and hunters all over the world living out fantasies.
That hasn’t helped areas in rebellion. Ukraine, for instance. It sided with the occupiers to take back occupied areas from the Russians. Russians are fighting Russians. Americans are fighting Americans. The Irish… actually, they’re cool. Some crappy English people decided to throw their lot in with the invaders, lost, and tried to take over Ireland. I think they accidentally declared war on Scotland while they were at it. Some got really drunk and invaded Wales instead, which drove popular Welsh support against joining in on the invaders’ side. Don’t even get me started on Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. I’d have to learn a lot of history before I could even scratch the surface on that nuanced situation.
It’s got my people changing shipments in transit sometimes. I’ve had reports forwarded to me where one of our agents in Slovakia bounced hither and thither between five different buyers before finding one we want to help. Gotta make sure we’re selling ammo and bombs to the right people. That stuff can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Divided as we are, we came out of it pretty well. So while other people finished up fighting and killing, I did what I could for the folks in my courtyard. Qiang opened up the courtyard around the Directory tent and the Imperial residence for refugees brought in by Cape Diem. I made sure to get some nanites for them. Then, I and others brought in some movie projectors and soccer balls for entertainment. Some fireworks, too. They had food, water, and shelter, but the things that help people stay alive don’t mean much if the person doesn’t feel alive.
The first indication I had that they might not stay that way was when I felt a new Dudebot. To be a pedant, I felt a Dudebot appear again. It was over Vietnam, in a gunship that fell rapidly. Its descent slowed just before it hit the ground, and that might be why the Dudebot remained active. When I slipped back into it, I found it holding a panicked young man wearing green coveralls. He struggled to escape, saying he didn’t know anything about a bridge.
Now, this presented me with something of a puzzle. It had been days since I set off that modified D-Bomb. This guy was answering questions like they’d just been asked, and the Dudebot’s clock was wrong when it reappeared. Time had stopped on the other end of that portal.
I wanted the gunship, but even crashed it was too big. I had nothing that could move that thing that would be able to get it back to me. The Dudebot wasn’t destroyed in the crash, but its legs were severely damaged where it couldn’t walk. I dispatched a team to retrieve it and the prisoner it held onto with all of its hands. Military engineers were sent on another team to examine the wreckage for any useful salvage. Lastly, a combined Intel and Institute team were sent to retrieve as much data as possible. The weapon was incredible and the ship’s flight was unrelated to conventional flight principles. It reminded me of the lost spherical drone from my home dimension in that regard. I never managed to figure out how it floated before I lost it.
We’re still going over the information they brought back. The team got me my prisoner and Dudebot and did what they could, but they still ended up having to fry a few things and get out of there before the Vietnamese could turn this into an international incident. That’d be an unpleasant turn of events after the recent conflict.
The Dudebot went in for repairs; the prisoner was lead to his luxurious new hotel in one of the old blacksites. His accommodations include a toilet hole and a slightly worn part of the floor where someone slept for years. I made it clear I wanted him interrogated, not tortured. Interrogation is for getting information; torture is for getting your jollies. I saw a grown man get a car battery clamped to his nipples and the only information learned was that the guy had a freaky looking erection. He died happy, though. Darn Hungarian mafia didn’t understand the all the necessary conversions between their measurements and American car batteries. I find the American ones fit better up the anus, but there’s likely some bias in that survey; I wasn’t the one biting my lip and taking it all in.
I had other things to do than see to every prisoner. I still ruled, and occasionally helped cook some rice for the courtyard refugees. When the actions are simple and similar enough, I can control a few Dudebots at once, and I did a great job at it until the Intel folks had something for me. They sent over the video where our captive had been most helpful in saying things.
“I am Paldrin the Younger,” he said. “Son of the Chief Executor, assigned aboard the striker ‘Deserion’. My father will pay for my safe return.”
The interrogator’s notes stated the prisoner was more than happy to give us a radio channel and code to transmit for negotiations. Useful info, but not all that strategic. I mean, when would we even have to worry about portals to another dimension again? As far as I know, I wrecked that world. In all honesty, there wasn’t likely anything to learn from him. That’s why I concurred with the Interrogator rejecting Paldrin the Younger’s request for a villa, a sumptuous meal, and lots of wine.
So when the portals opened up over the United States, I dropped my spatulas, turned off a quartet of grills, and started bouncing some signals around. When a giant flying eight-pointed star-shaped landmass the size of the District of Columbia with a floating dome on top appears after I thought I solved the entire problem. It rained men, and not in the fun way with glistening abs and thighs, but with grey skin or armor plates.
The code I sent off via the communications satellites got me a response shortly after they occupied a capital city that’s spent a few years getting plowed by everyone from its own rulers, foreign rulers, its citizens, and yours truly. While I’m glad I helped sluttify Columbia up a bit, a gangbang with thousands of soldiers isn’t what gets me wet at this moment.
I stood in front of a giant monitor in the latest iteration of my throne room. Behind me, a green screen showed me to be in another location so as to make my location difficult for them to trace by visual cues. That’s why I addressed them from the bridge of the Death Star when an image appeared of a stern-looking man in a green and yellow uniform with a design around the shoulders that vaguely resembled segmented armor strips. “I am the Grand Executor, Julius Enoch. Who has possession of the surviving Paldrin for negotiation?”
“I am the Empress Psychopomp Gecko. I captured Paldrin the Younger, son of the man who declared war on my world.”
“Protocol is the family negotiates for the hostage’s release. That is not, it seems, possible. What price do you seek for his return?” the Grand Executor asked.
“Oh, I figured I’d start small… the removal of all of your invasion forces and never coming back.”
He laughed just the once, like a bark. “You people don’t murder a provincial Chief Executor and destroy his province world, and face no consequence for it. Ask for something to ease your subservience to our Imperator. Nothing you can offer will stop us.”
I folded my arms behind my back. “You do not know the power of the dark side of my forces. One world has fallen to ours already. Keep up your fight and your Imperator’s is next.”
The Grand Executor cut the transmission. Good. He didn’t have to see me frantically double-checking the status of the island’s shields and sending off orders for our fabricators to cook up as many freaky-style D-Bombs as possible. I want a lot, because the United States announced its official surrender a short while after Congress and the President were seized. The image broadcast around the world shows the Pentagon cracked open like an egg.
After that, the big, floating, star-pointed dome-thing started floating north. The swarm that departed like a flood returned, their armor propelling them into the air. I don’t think the guy in charge of this bunch knows I’m the one who offed his predecessor if he’s taking the scenic route to get here.
I went ahead and called up the adult members of the family, who were somewhat scattered around helping with the war effort. Including Venus. Sam, Max’s more punk-looking aide, took one look and asked, “You didn’t build a superlaser capable of obliterating a planet, did you?”
“No,” I said. Behind me on the green screen, the Death Star zapped Alderaan into space dust. “If I did, our next problem would be so much easier.”
“Who did you kill now?” Venus asked. “Dame has been blowing up my inbox.”
I waved a hand. “The exact numbers are a bit hazy to me for good reason, but it seems I took out the guy invading us. Unfortunately, killing him seems to have drawn interest from his superiors, who just gave the U.S. Legislative and Executive branches atomic wedgies until they surrendered. Now, I think they’re headed toward either Empyreal City or Canada. And I have had a profoundly stupid idea.”
Venus groaned. “You have a plan, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Not really. Anything I got right now’s a bit cliché, and that’s now how I like to think. We need this whole war over. We need these others eliminated as a threat. We’re probably gonna need a couple of my bombs.”
“There has to be a better way than killing billions,” Venus insisted.
“There is,” said a voice out of nowhere. On my side, the image snowed partially over, the snow resolving itself into a hairless, unremarkable face.
“Who are you?” I asked “I’m getting a lot of freaky extradimensional visitors today.”
“I am Mr. Omega, leader of the Dusk Club. We are a group of occult enthusiasts, witches, enchanters, and other mages dedicated to research into the world of magic and safeguarding the planet against mystical threats.” The snow face’s voice reverberated like it didn’t work right coming through the screen’s speakers.
I snorted. “Never heard of you, and I’ve had to kill plenty of occult threats by now.”
Mr. Omega’s face fell. “We have few members now. The Club’s existence hasn’t been continuous. The war has reawakened our need to fight and the world’s need for us. I come before you now because I know a way to lock the invaders’ world away. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is far worse for all of us.”
I shrugged. “Eh, if it’ll save my home, I’ll tug whatever Harry Houdini you like playing with out of your hat for you. What do you need to defend the world?”
“Time,” Omega said. “I need the ship held still.”
Venus tried to say something, but the interference that created the snowy face of Mr. Omega distorted and muted her. So I asked, “Just holding it still? For how long?”
“It will take forty hours,” he answered. “Forty rites, one every hour, on the target relatively immobile. It is a large thing to banish. The rites will remove them and will provide a catalyst to lock away their world.”
In my mind’s eye, I eyed the projections NATO had where the floating city headed toward Empyreal City. “Good news, everyone who can still hear me. Looks like we’ve got to hold a line in EC.”
Mr. Omega smiled. “I love frightful last stands. They’re my favorite part of the movie.” He disappeared.
The whole family spoke up, but Max spoke up loudest, “You don’t trust this mysterious face, do you?”
I shook my head. “It sounds like a trap. I think we better discuss alternative plans in person. Maybe evacuate Ricca, draw them in, put up the shield and…”
Venus smiled. “Meet me in Empyreal City and help defend it.”
“Uhhhhhh, why?” I asked.
“Because I want you to fight beside me against them,” she said.
I ignored the status alert that popped up on my HUD warning me of an abnormal heartbeat. “I might be very busy coming up with more plans…”
“You can do that at the same time. It would mean a lot ot me if you were there, and you’d like to see what new tech they have.”
I sighed. “You’re gonna be the death of me, woman.”
She’s right in line behind the Grand Executor, Mr. Omega, and almost everyone else on this Earth and a few other Earths. This is spiraling out of control, no matter how many people I kill.
You could cut the tension as the invasion day approached, but most people were saving their knives for the invaders. We got most of the civilians rounded up. The old geothermal power plant had space, as did the tunnels for the underground high speed rail. Others took shelter in old black sites. Anyone who wished to leave the island was allowed. I’d have pushed for a general evacuation, but there’s really no telling where all will be hit. That’s the same reason I didn’t recall all my agents or my wife. Informing us of the invasion ahead of time may be of questionable strategy, but it created a lot of uncertainty and confusion that can work against us in the initial strike.
Those who wanted to fight were given the opportunity for that as well. The training kept my soldiers ready and helped them focus. We could always use the manpower. Beetrice didn’t stay, but at least we have VelocityRaptor back, mostly healed from that business in Africa. He failed to kill Velociraptor. We’ve also still got Silver Shark, who decided to take up position near the beach with the Deep One militia. Bronze Rhino, another Claw creation, was pulled out of his homestead in the wilderness and sobered up to help defend the city. We needed him to fight, and his alcohol for Molotovs.
So the clocks tick-tocked away, bringing us closer and closer to a clash. I finished doing what I could to my armor. Plenty of integrated nanite-holding quilt on the inner layer, spiked blades on knees and elbows, and as many chicken grenades and explosive throwing knives as I could pack.
Venus watched me as I worked in my study. “Are you ready?”
I laughed. “Is anybody truly ready?”
“Did you have one of Max’s brownies he’s passing around? You shouldn’t have dulled reactions right now,” she said.
I shook my head and turned to look at her, “I am fully in control of my own faculties. Razor sharp, you might say.”
“You look tense.” She walked over and ran her hands through my hair. “How do you feel?”
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. “A little tense and excited. You?”
“The same. The big fights don’t announce when they’re coming. I had the Academy send me my exoskeleton through Cape Diem. Don’t worry, I repainted it in my new colors.” She stopped running my head and I reached up to hold her hand.
We stayed like that for several seconds, then I smiled and made the situation worse with singing. “It’s an emergency, call the police, you left me and abandoned the lease.” The guitar, bass, and drums started up when I put on the actual song to cover up my disastrous singing voice.
Venus giggled, then started dancing when I stood up. I heard a squeal from the doorway to find Qiang dancing there to “Gave You Everything” by The Interrupters. I pulled Venus over so I could grab Qiang and lift her up. Further down the hall, Sam rocked out, then hopped on something and played an imaginary guitar.
It was just stupid fun to music. It was right. It was what we needed and it broke the tension. And it was just in time, because pretty much everything we were using to detect an incursion went off at once. I didn’t know whether to expect a portal or a craft of some sort. We got both, but the portals were temporary and the craft were floating and flying. The things in the sky had hull like ship with a narrow angle. Could have been some sort of floating battleship or destroyer for all I know ship designations. The ones in the water were wider and more round, like if someone made a circular aircraft carrier and loaded the deck with guns.
Some of those ended up cut into pieces when the barrier went up. Explosions rippled across it from where the flying ships had fired already. Some were inside the dome of the shield already when it went up.
I dropped everything and began to suit up, sending out an address while I did so. “People of Ricca, the invasion is incoming. Stay in the shelters unless they’re compromised. If possible, we will evacuate you to areas of the world not under attack. I will not leave you. I’ll keep fighting. You might doubt me as a benevolent leader. Honestly, I don’t think any good leader can be a good person. Ha! By that metric, I’d be an excellent leader. Don’t trust me because of morality. Trust me to be a monster unleashed on your enemies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set a new world record for most bowels perforated with a single fist.”
This is why people hire speechwriters. More competent speakers give these events a certain gravitas.
I flexed my armor and reached for my helmet. Qiang held it up for me, in a smaller, less spiky version of my armor. She didn’t have her helmet on either and smiled at me. Mindful of the spikes, I grabbed her for a hug. “I love you.”
“Love you too, mommy,” she said, setting it on my head. It sealed into place and she walked over to the desk where I’d left my helmet, grabbing her knife and helmet.
“I want you underground, staying safe,” I told her. “And keep your armor on.”
“Yes mama!” she yelled, running off with her helmet past Venus. The heroine rested against the doorway, a smile visible underneath the chrome visor obscuring most of her face.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“Yeah. Time to fight the good fight,” she said, as if that line wasn’t designed to make my eyes roll.
Sam and Holly stayed behind, so it was just the three of us setting out from the palace: Max, Venus, and Gecko. Max twirled a syringe gun in one hand, a spray gun in the other, careful of the bandoleer full of smoke grenades. Venus scanned the area and pulled out a staff that extended. I called over a larger drone that attached underneath the armored battery pack on my back, adding a large pair of lasers designed for heavy use hanging off each side of me, and a stand on my shoulder on which a pair of my normal-sized drones settled with their smaller beam weapons.
Out in the waters, Silver Shark and the Deep One marines had capsized a trio of the invading ships, which shot a lot of empty buildings on the waterfront. Some of those inside tried to swim to shore despite segmented armor, but I had more Deep Ones than they had exceptional swimmers.
The seafaring ships outside the barrier had pressed against it. They were glowing some orange color and slowly easing through. I contacted my submarine, who assured me they had everything in hand. The message came through about the time I saw the explosions tear through the ships. My admiral figured that the natural compliment to a shield around the island is a minefield around the shield. There weren’t many living invaders left to argue the efficacy of that.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t even get to use my armor when white portals began to swallow the battleship aircraft outside the shield. New white portals opened in the air over the water, spitting them back out. They began to adjust targets.
The Intercept team was on it with surface-to-air missiles and drones. The first shots of the battlecraft crashed into the Directory building and probably wrecked my favorite chair. They turned to adjust aim once the first of our missiles began to blow holes in them. My guys focused on three of these things equally for way too long before concentrating fire on the closest. Whatever kept the battlecraft afloat in the air didn’t compensate for the hits and it rocked back and forth until something gave out and it crashed into the water. The other two focused on the military base. Note to self: when rebuilding the military base, include its own shield. Same for the new Directory building and the Palace.
The next craft to go down was dissected in a fucking grid pattern by laser drones. It was beautiful. It swung and dipped, just barely missing the remaining battlecraft. Gotta give them points for trying. That craft ended up smacking into shallower water, part of the hull crumpling on the beach.
The invaders changed tactics. Four portals began to open up at ground level and stayed open for thirty seconds. “Anyone left at Intercept who sees where these things are coming in?” I asked over my command channel.
“Affirmative, Empress. Intercept Field Unit is deployed. We have eyes on rifts and are passing the locations on, triaging per your orders.”
All are equal under the Empress, but some places are more equal than others. The base’s capabilities are reduced, but we need the power plant and the shield. We need the people in the shelters if they threaten any of them.
After that, more opened. I wasn’t paying so much attention to those, because one of those first sets of portals opened right in front of my group. The ones most eager to die were a bunch of guys who must have interrupted their beard-growing contest to get killed being the most prominent group. There were a few others mixed in. It was a pretty diverse bunch.
I giggled and began to dance, pumping out the next song on my murder playlist, Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage. I spun and slid onto my knees, hands in the air, waving like I just didn’t care, while the heavy lasers and the laser drones I personally commanded went to town on them. The first wave just died. Whatever segmented armor they had wasn’t that good at handling light. Some of the ones to survive were grey guys in tights and vests. A small blossom of light appeared where they were hit. Max tossed one of his grenades and hid behind me. They didn’t come out the other side of the thick blue smoke that spread all over the edge of the courtyard. The stream of enemies came around the sides, but something did walk out of the smoke. I caught a glimpse in between mowing down their buddies.
There were three clunky robots. Heavy metal plating and bolts on the torso chest, head, arms, and legs. It had a thick support connecting the chest to the legs, but didn’t bother with all those delicious parts of living critters. These were some old school robots, staring out at us through slots in their heads that glowed with red lights. Venus stepped up in front of myself and Max. She held her staff in her right hand, angled to avoid the metal spike she extended from the gauntlet. Electricity arced from it, then up along the staff which she swept over the robots. Ball lighting flew forth, throwing off smaller tendrils on its way into the middle of the robots. The others who got too close didn’t take it any better than the miraculous metal men did.
We were barely done with that group when another portal opened behind us. The future corpses who ran out of that one included some in old wool outfits and flintlocks, of all things. I held out a hand and gestured for them to bring it. Venus grabbed my arm and tugged me to the side when one of them fired at me, with Max diving behind me. Behind me, a person-sized hole appeared in the wall around the courtyard.
I targeted the flintlock shooters first after that. Max ducked beneath my legs to fire into the crowd with his gun and called out, “Thanks Venus!”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, a bit grumbly. Ugh, my nemesis I’m in love with saved my life. Time to go write in my diary about how unfair my life is and how I’m so embarrassed I’m just gonna DIE. Wait, is this not the teen drama portion of the narrative? Oh, right, I was murdering folks.
Intercept contacted me for an update after we’d finished with that bunch. “Empress, we have reports of dinosaurs loose in the city. The food growers are under siege and summoned a giant demon plant for assistance. Additionally, VelocityRaptor has responded. The Institute is under attack as well. Dr. Creeper, Bronze Rhino, and Arachnoid are defending. All fronts are holding. The sea battle is over. Silver Shark is bringing the Deep Ones ashore to flank the enemy.”
“Anywhere look like it could stand some reinforcement?” I asked.
“The skeleton crew at the water treatment plant reported an attack. We have dispatched a Flyer and squad to take it back, but we are low on available manpower.”
“I thought we told them to evacuate with the rest…” I looked to Venus and Max. “We’re heading to the water treatment plant to expel some waste. Don’t let them touch the water there if you want to keep them down for good.”
Venus nodded, but I caught something moving toward us out of the corner of my eye. By the time I turned to look, one of those grey fucks was right up in my face, pushing me. The wall we passed through stunned me a bit. You know, like they do. Wrecked my big drone, I think. The grey speedster let me go and I crashed through another wall, and another, and into a small refrigerator in someone’s kitchen. The family left a pot on the stove and rice in a bag nearby. And a superspeedster coming through a hole to stop right in front of me and punch the crap out of my armor. He grabbed my throat. I tried to put a spike through his eye, but he dodged it. I sent a straight at his gut, but he was elsewhere the moment it would have hit. I brought my arm down on his elbow and instead he was choking me with his other hand.
I looked him in his blank eyes and raised my arms. “Really dude?” I asked, despite the tightening grip that threatened to shut off my air supply. But you know what’s faster than super speed most of the time? Light. Guess who has a laser built into her helmet? This bitch. I fired the trio of lasers in my helmet into his eyes and face, for just a moment. The speedy fucker clutched his head.
I laughed my ass off and grabbed him. I pulled open the refrigerator door and pulled him in, smashing the door against his head. He stumbled back away, pushing at me. I caught a beer before it fell out and smashed it over his cranium. I put my heel into his crotch, grabbed him, and threw him against the stovetop. I didn’t need to be a speedster to stick the pot on his head and hit the lasers again. I fried his noggin in the pot. I’d have done it slow, but he was fast. Now he’s a past tense person.
I stepped out, checking on the situation. Venus and Max were on their way to the water treatment plant. I figured I could rendezvous with them, or I could turn right and see why it was suddenly a shady day. I looked, and there stood a sixteen foot tall bird staring down at me with hungry eyes. It opened its beak and roared, showing off a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth.
Command channel time. “I might kill this one, but if we happen to have a spare giant dino bird after this is all over with, I would be happy to have a new pet.” Its beaky maw snatched me up. “This one wants to play already!” It tried to chew me. I put my hands up and stopped it, then stood up on its tongue. I cut the comms channel and addressed the bird directly. “You need to remain calm and stop trying to eat me, or this relationship is never going to work. And it can work! Just look at how things turned out with Venus! All I had to do was change my life, kill fewer people, medicate, have a kid, take responsibility for a bunch of people I don’t know, set up rules for supervillains, and save the world like a dozen times.”
More crap for the diary, in between talking about who I have a crush on and what I want my prom dress to look like, like ohmigosh.
I punched the top of the birdasaur’s mouth. It opened wider and tried again. This time, it caught an elbow blade. It roared and shook its head. I fell out. I hopped up on the birdasaur’s beak and stared it in the eye. “Hey there, critter. I’m your new best friend. I’m gonna hug you and clean up after you and ride you to slaughter my enemies.”
The bird shook its head, then smashed me into the side of the building. I pulled myself up and flipped around to sit on its neck. It hopped and flapped its tiny arms, trying to get rid of me. It rolled over in the street. I don’t crush so easy. I stayed on and gave a “Yippee-ki-yay!” when we came up.
On the street below us, scaly emu things ran along, hissing and growling. I pointed down at them. “Chow down!”
The birdasaur tried to shake me off, but it knew a meal when it saw it. It snatched one up for a meal. At the end of the street, a group of the bearded soldiers and grey men stepped out. They swiped at the emus to chase them off. A soldier raised his sword to point at me. One of the grey men stepped up and raised his hands. A purple ray shot from his hands and singed the feathers on my mount.
I laughed. “Kill, my pretty! Slaughter every last one of them and feast on their bones!” It didn’t seem to need much encouragement after those pitiful attempts to shoot me. It ran into them and started biting. I even hopped down to go after that one grey guy. “That all you got? I killed a guy with super speed earlier. I’ve seen some of your buddies fly and take missiles. ‘Sup?”
He tried shooting me and all the blast did was leave a dark mark on my armor. He tried again and still did nothing. A raider sung at me from the side. I caught the blade and pulled it free from his hands, flipped it around to take the grip, and shoved it through his mouth. I grabbed the blade again and pulled it free, then kicked the body up into the air where my new pet chomped on it. When I turned back to the grey guy who shot at me, he was running. I jumped over him to land in his way. He skidded short and raised his hands in front of his face. “Please-!”
I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over. “I like it when they beg. You want me to like you? Beg more. Tell me things.” I laughed and grabbed him. “Why are you so weak when some of you things are so strong?”
“We are clones,” it told me. It shook as the birdasaur roared.
I slapped its face. “Don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. You’re clones, right?”
“We are made. Some of us have strong powers. If we are loyal and strong, we are promoted to serve the masters. If not, we serve with the vassals from the provinces.”
I brushed off his tights. “There you go. Good guy, telling me things.” I punched him and knocked him out. I saw a car nearby and carried him over. He fit pretty well into the trunk. My new pet roared at me, read for another go, but then squad of robotmen rounded the corner. I yelled back, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran for them. They raised their arms and shot bolts of molten metal at me. I could feel that, whatever it was. I could also turn invisible, and did so. Shooting like that didn’t make the birdasaur happy, and it couldn’t even eat these ones.
I watched it have fun with them from a rooftop nearby. I glanced up to look around, seeing Psycho Flyers all about. Some of them fired down on hotspots, like one over by the water treatment plant. “This is the Empress. Status update?”
“The portals have stopped, your eminence. The enemy is divided, but most large groups are breaking off to concentrate on the shield building.”
“Reinforce the building as best you can to make sure it doesn’t fall. Let them gather,” I said. I hate that kind of wait. The Institute, farm, and water treatment detachments never made it to the rally point because they got fed pavement with some serious velocity with the help of my guys. The Deep Ones and soldiers used the big gathering to start clearing sections of the city. The weird dino-bird things were the main trouble there. It’s like someone opened up portals to an alternate dinosaur era and let the wildlife run through.
And then, with more than a thousand people banging away at the power plant’s gates, water rose from manholes and drains outside of it. The army might have taken it for a minor inconvenience until the itching started. Being taken apart piece by piece will do that to you. Some tried even harder to break in, but the Psycho Flyers massed to drop my people in there and to concentrate firepower on that front. The ones who tried to run found out hard that is when your feet are falling apart. Whoops, then they fell into the water.
I guided my new feathered friend as best as I could to watch, making sure the nanites knew not to eat this one. Sure, it still tried to fight me and throw me into things, but I think we were getting used to one another. It was a good enough place to watch as the invaders found out that I am quite literally the master of this island.
When the screaming was over, I called up Max. “I got a big boy for you to tranquilize. Or girl. I don’t know how to sex a bird.”
“Come now,” Max said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I was drunk that time,” I reminded him.
“Hey, butting in here, what’s going on?” asked Venus. “Did we win?”
I added Command to the line. “Well, did we win?”
The voice on the other line gave a rundown. “The enemy is no longer a coherent force at anything but the squad level. The city has been 24% cleared. The portals are stopped, the craft are in retreat. The Battle of Ricca appears to be over.”
I clapped my hands. “Very good. I’m guessing, not everyone was as lucky?”
“The United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were all invaded by significantly larger forces of differing effectiveness. In addition, the United States and Russia are fighting traitors. There are other nations fighting, including North Korea. Some have surrendered. We are assembling a list of others who repelled their invasions.”
“There’s your answer then, Venus,” I told her. “Today, Ricca. Tomorrow… the world!”
My ambition blinded me. It lit up the sky, though Intercept broke in with and explained things differently. “Large rift opening outside the dome.”
The image I saw was basically a giant gun with engines on it to keep it afloat. And maybe something loose in the water way behind it, but the big weapon might just do it for me here. The huge barrel pointed at us glowed, then shot what looked like a miniature sun at our shield.
“Brace your sphincters, everyone,” I told announced.
The energy blast blinded us as it approached, even though the tinting functionality on my helmet’s display. It struck the shield and lashed out like it was releasing solar flares. The shield went red in a ripple that rolled out from that point, audibly crackling loud enough to drown out even the communication device sealed to my head. The shield and the sun both disappeared at once.
“Casualties at the power plant!” I heard someone call out. “Evacuate and triage!”
I didn’t tell them not to bother. I patted the birdasaur and pulled at its neck feathers until its head turned in the right direction and it began to run for the gun. “Status on our D-bomb stockpile?”
Creeper answered, “It appears an infiltrator reached Bomb Storage with an incendiary device. We have no functional D-Bombs.”
“I’m moving to intercept,” I announced.
“That’s crazy,” Venus said.
“Looks like I’m perfect for it,” I told her. I saw the gun’s barrel glowing again. I knew perfectly well I’d never make it, and never be able to do anything to it. But when there’s nothing left but death, might as well let it know you’re not afraid of it.
I had regrets, though. Plenty, including for my daughter.
A beam from high in the sky struck the rear of the gun, pushing the barrel upward. The enormous energy blast it fired went well overhead, but close enough we felt the heat. I couldn’t tell if it was going to angle back to Earth and make someone’s day infinitely more shitty, but it missed us. The gunship began to slowly turn to face whatever hit it.
A blue satellite with a barrel of its own in between a trio of large solar panel arms lowered from the sky. Below it, a yellow aircraft carrier carried a humongous green tank. A pink submarine broke the surface with a jump, and a red fighter jet soared overheard.
“Oh no,” I said.
The aircraft carrier rose up like it was flipping forward. The tank backed up it while its deck split apart. The tank reached the end and fitting onto it. A fore section of the carrier bent at a 90 degree angle as it finished becoming a pair of legs attached to a green tank torso. The sub leaped into the air again, splitting apart. One half attached to the upper left of the tank. The other caught on the upper right and swiveled around. The jet flew up and curved back down, aimed at the rear of the tank. It somehow slowed, the fighter shifting to reveal a metal face as it slid into the rear of the tank, slotted in. Finally, the satellite. The giant robot reached for the tank’s cannon. The cannon split off easily, as did the barrel of the satellite as it came down. The satellite attached to the back of the robot, two of its panels forming wings that hung down behind it. The other panel arm broke off and attached to the barrel that had come undone from the satellite, then that section fitted into the end of the tank’s cannon to form a sort of sword.
“Venus, what did you do?” I asked.
“I asked them for help, like you said,” she informed me, a hunt of smugness in her voice.
The gunship fired again, this time trying to destroy the Justice Rangers. The robot batted it away with its sword, then raised it high. The sword glowed as bright as the sun. The robot went into a stance like it was taking a step to sprint toward it. The robot flew along the surface of the water, kicking up a spray of water to either side as it closed on the gunship, then past it. The sword stopped and the robot straightened up, standing in the shallow water by the beach. Behind it, the gunship fell apart into halves that exploded.
I was saved by the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers.
Venus was kind enough to offer me the hospitality of the Master Academy while I waited on my ride. After everything that happened, we all agreed I needed access to as many showers and fresh clothes as possible. Plus, and she didn’t actually state this, I think she was worried about all the laughing I’d been doing. Couldn’t help myself. It kinda had to do with the intersection of Gecko and Tripura. She was so nice, and she was me.
Too bad she had to kill. I just can’t catch a break, even when I don’t know hardly anything. But she killed to save an entire city, except for that part when she murdered someone for being a dick to her. The ratio of assholes to innocents makes it clear how much better a person she was. I could try and argue something about tabula rasa, but most people have really weird ideas about that. Like, they think being born with genetic preferences that can change over time somehow means the mind is born with knowledge. You know, because we should really call a baby’s inborn preference for cinnamon at birth “knowledge”.
Eh, this Earth will grow out of that at some point, maybe realize that a stream bed’s curves determine what path the water travels, but it’s not a stream without the fluid.
This sounds nice, but part of the reason I was tittering to myself so much is my ability to recall the name of that thingy on the table that salt falls out of. A mind is a terrible thing to lose, and now I’ve got mine back. And so many things are being reevaluated that it’s caused me the legitimate giggles, and some instances of laughing to spite the alternative.
It disturbed everyone around Master Academy West. They sat me in a common room with, like dark woods and a tv and books all around. If it was a social spot, it wasn’t after I got there. So I kept staring off into space, comparing memories, reconciling things, and catching up on the news. Like, seriously evolutionary psychologists? A paper about why the Jews are genetically predisposed to dominate the world? No wonder the brownshirts are marching.
In the middle of sitting down, arms around my legs, laughing my head off to myself in a dark room with the lights turned off, I noticed a guy arguing with Venus. “How long is she staying here?”
That snapped me out of my thousand-yard stare. “Hey, stop assuming my-”
“She’s a criminal, a murderer, a- a- I don’t even know what she’s committed so many crimes. And she’s transphobic,” said the teen boy to Venus.
“I’m not transphobic. There are very few people I hate more than I hate almost every one of you damn humans,” I said.
The guy actually responded. “I don’t hear you dropping the N-word or any other racial slurs.” He walked into the room, staring at me. A bit androgynous and chubby, with a wide nose that almost makes me think it’d been smooshed as a kid.
I grabbed him and pulled him onto my lap, cradling him with four arms. “It’s ok there. Shh, shh, shh. Let me tell you a little story.”
“Gecko, let him go,” Venus said. I held up a finger.
“Just a quick story and he goes free unharmed, deal?” I asked.
From my lap came the teen, “I’d rather just go if I have any say in this.”
I patted him on the head. “Hush, Venus is speaking for you.”
“You promise not to harm anyone? This is just a story?” she asked.
I nodded a bunch. “I wouldn’t dare hurt the snuggly little Master Academy students here.” I gave the student a shake. The wind picked up in the room and blew some curtains a bit too much to be the AC. “It’s just a brief story of an assassin who learned how to use medical nanomachines to perform reconstructive surgery to alter the assassin’s looks. Colors were easy, adjusting flesh and cartilage as well. Muscles, harder, bones harder still. So many things were changed… face, hair color, eye color, even skin color. And in all that time, nobody who knew the assassin’s identity questioned anything about the assassin’s personality over the fact that the assassin changed appearances so often.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Venus spoke up.
I blew her a raspberry, then continued. “Then one day the assassin grows a bodacious pair of boobs and starts wearing skirts. Suddenly, everybody starts wondering if they should call the assassin something different over THIS change. THIS change was unusual. This change caused them to worry about the assassin’s mental state more than usual.” I chuckled at that part. “The assassin just changes and doesn’t think much of it. The assassin thinks it’s stupid to assume anything off about a person just because they want to be a woman.”
I pushed the teen off my lap. “Story time’s over kid. Now get out of here.”
The tean dusted himself off and looked at me. “Inside, what do you feel you are?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I’m always just me, no matter what.” I closed my eyes and sat back, hoping they’d get out of my long, beautiful hair.
Venus ushered the teen out, then turned to me. “Maybe it would help you with all your self-loathing. That can be a sign, you know.”
I waved dismissively. “Not all that important right now. But thanks for the tampons and the brief tutorial.” I opened an eye just to wink at her.
“I know about your self-loathing. Do us all a favor and find a version of yourself that’s happier. And just because changing sex isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s a small thing for someone to be made whole on this Earth, you douchecanoe.” Venus crossed her arms as she looked at me.
“If you hate me so much, if the world’s better off without me, why save me?” I asked her, leaning forward, and maybe squeezing the gals a bit for better viewing. She’s not immune to boobs. Hell, these days, the power of boobs reaches far beyond men to all sorts of genders. “Not like anyone there knew what was happening. You could have let me die.”
“We have this talk a lot, but I refuse to go through life believing the best way to solve my problems is to kill everyone,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, “But isn’t saving me a way of condoning my actions, especially when I kill people like The Claw?”
She shook her head. “Your choices are your choices, but I’ll always hold out hope for you, and I’ll always be here if you want to change. It’s never too late.”
Ugh. It’s like she’s got a psychic around to figure out the best way to annoy me. Oh, right, she’s fucking the only surviving psychic to be in my head. I was more than happy when the Psycho Flyer arrived with an honor guard of soldiers in power armor. We made quite the sight, Psycho Gecko walking up a ramp flanked by Riccan soldiers while a force of Master Academy heroes stood guard.
One long, long, long ass trip later that involved a stopover in Mu for refueling, the Flyer passed right over the military base and landed between the Palace Residence and the Directory Legislature building. The Directors were quite curious to see what all the hub bub was about, and were surprised when the soldiers lined up and I stepped out in my armor. Not a copy, or a replica. Not a Dudebot. Me and my armor.
One of the Directors was pushed by his comrades to come meet me. “Empress, we weren’t aware you were away. We have been denied news and prevented from an audience.” He quickly bowed.
My bow wasn’t so deep, but then I’m the Empress. “It was necessary, unfortunately. If it’s any consolation, I’ve missed y’all too and I’ll be more than happy to provide more information after I meet with my family.”
I maintained a properly dignified dictator-walk until I reached the stairs to the Palace Residence. That was when Qiang got loose and came running down the steps to meet me. I pulled my daughter up in a four-armed hug and carried her up to the top of the stairs where I pulled in Citra, my (politically-motivated) wife. Then Mix N’Max, Silver Shark, everyone I could grab. Even that friend of Qiang’s, Kayla, and her parents who I’ve banged.
I got the 411 inside while snuggling Qiang. Max had a whole presentation lined up, starting with the slide, “Infiltrators, Detainment and Punishment, A Play In Three Parts”
“You may be wondering what we did with Dame, the woman you informed us was made to look like you,” Max said. “First step, identification.” The first slide after the start showed photos of the crowd all photoshopped to wear different clothes. Sam Hain, Max’s assistant, looked very pretty in Citra’s dress. Another slide showed a picture of me labeled “fake” either hugging or kissing.
“Second step, capture,” Max said. The next slide showed Sam’s head pasted to the body of a black lingerie model, perhaps to make it obvious this isn’t Sam’s body. Then a cage falls on the fake me. Then there’s a trapdoor, followed by a picture of an alligator, a school of piranhas, and a train.
“This movie sucks,” I said. “The pacing’s terrible, the acting’s subpar, and what’s with this sound design? Nobody knows how to hold a boom?” Max, ever-present grin on his face, flashed me the middle finger.
I held up one of my own toward him, then made a circle with some fingers and moved it up and down around the middle finger.
“Ahem,” said Holly, the preppier of Max’s assistants. “I worked really hard on this, and would appreciate if you paid attention.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the punishment stuff. More photoshopping, along with stills from movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Passion Of The Christ. “Bottom line,” I asked once we reached the end, “Where is she?”
Max sighed and clicked on to a last slide that said, “TL;DR, she’s in the military base.”
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. I hugged Qiang to myself, then set her down. “I’ll be back in a bit, sweetest of hearts. Mommy has to go see the bad lady.”
And I did. The men, human and Deep One alike, were happy to have me back. They showed me down to a special room, one that’d be hard to find for anyone not familiar with the holding cells. Recently, I’d been the one sitting in a darkened room, with a circle of light. She knelt in the circle, arms and legs held to the floor. She was covered by a thin white dress, barely more than a scrap. I could practically see through it.
I stepped up and pulled out a can of spray cheese. “Wakey, wakey, dearest Dame.”
She looked up wearing a copy of my face. She started to say something, but I filled her mouth with cheese so cheap. I had to find the can in a flop house by the dock where sailors passing helped themselves to a high while they were on the island. “I don’t know how much they’re feeding you. I assume some food’s involved. Wow, I know how to put together a body shape, don’t I?”
She fought to get through the cheese. Since she had nothing to say, I kept on going. “This whole game of spy versus spy and who is better at planning and counterplanning, it’s just needlessly complicated and annoying. Never knowing who to trust… it’s just no fun. So today, I make you a promise. If you cooperate, I won’t kill you. Won’t order you killed or anything like that.”
“Your guards beat the shit out of me every day,” she growled through cheese.
I patted her on the head. “And they’ll stop now because you’re going to be my own personal project.”
Her eyes fluttered and she shook her head. “Whaaaaa-why is everything… doing that?” She looked all around.
I knelt and stroked my lookalike’s hair. “It’s just the nanites, dear. I made sure you only go the best cheese.” I held up the can and shook it, smiling under my mask as if she could see it. Then I sighed. “Not quite so fun knowing what’s going to happen.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, kneeling forward, trying to rest her head on the floor.
I rubbed her head sat beside her, moving her head into my lap as the nanites set to work. “I don’t like where your mind’s at, so I’m changing it. Making a few alterations where I can. Looks like you’ve got that little disease that can inhibit superpowers too, even if you use a gadget for your fun. I had a lot of time on my flight to review everything we know about Unity, the same drug they used to make me thing I wasn’t me. Same drug I bet you were trying to steal from Ricca when they first captured you. Neural pathways to access long-term and short-term memory. Funny thing is, it’s entirely possible to start using these nanites to replace parts of a brain with a, what do you call it, cybernetic alternative. There may be a few hiccups, but that’s why I’m trying this trick on you instead of someone I care about.” Here I felt a little bit of Tripura tug at me. Dame started to scream until I forced her to stop via well-placed nanites.
I leaned in to whisper to Dame. “You know, I felt so normal and innocent there thanks to what your people did to me. Then I get my memory back. All of it. Poor Tripura… but that time gave me so many wonderful ideas about how to deal with you, them, and any other problems that come up. Losing my mind has been incredibly refreshing; I highly recommend it.”
I stood up. “Don’t worry about screaming. You got a mouth, but you won’t be able to. New process like this, I told it to take it’s time. A couple of days and I’m sure whatever you’re feeling will go away. Or you’ll suffer brain damage. Either way, I’ll be back later to pick your brain.” I stopped and waved my hands, jazz hands style. “I’m thinking something old school, maybe wrinkly, but cute and… ya know, pink’s a great color.”
I giggled at her shaking her head and waved it off. “Oh, don’t worry about your silly opinions. I’ll replace those later.”
Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?
We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.
Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.
Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.
It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.
Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.
There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.
Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.
“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.
“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.
Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”
“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.
I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.
Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.
“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.
“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”
Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”
There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.
I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.
“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”
“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.
“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.
“I said I got it,” I told her.
She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”
I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”
She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”
I cringed back a little. “Why?”
“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.
She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”
“This is something you have to do?”
I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”
I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.
The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.
That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”
Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”
“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”
“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”
Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.
“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”
“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.
“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”
Woot! What comes before Part B? Part A!
The whole damn island’s having itself a good time to celebrate the birthday of my little baby girl, complete with an impromptu parade from the palace to the Cape Diem compound. When the first fireworks went off, Max took cover and I grabbed the nearest object, a painting off the wall, and prepared to beat wholesale ass with it.
“Watch it, Cinderella,” said Sam said from over by the living room windows. “It’s just fireworks.”
Citra moved up to take my arm and squeeze my hand in both of hers. “Yeah, it better be,” I said, before tossing the painting to the side and checking to make sure I hadn’t ruined anything on the new dress. Qiang said princess party and the tailor did his best to accommodate her wishes for a special dress to wear. It was a Western dress, very much in keeping with the Disney movies that I’ve been known to throw at her, but not any specific one. I told the tailor to make her Moana, Mulan, any of them she asked for. Disney’s not as anal about what constitutes a princess as I am, but my daughter can damn well dress as whoever she pleases.
Instead, she went with a darker pink with lots of frills up and down the front, and her own tiara. With my approval, the tailor went easy on the tiara. Most people don’t realize it, but wearing a lump of gold and gemstones on your head is hard work. Royals build up to that over like weeks or days leading up to official events. So Qiang’s tiara is better than a flimsy gold tiara. It’s durable, light, and gilded.
My own number resembled hers, except I went with a vibrant green that probably looks more at home in Rio during Carnivale, and had a little more space to hide my second pair of arms. If it hadn’t been for all these outsiders, I’d let them out. But I always gotta keep something in reserve when my nemesis is around.
While I was picking at it and making sure Qiang had hers all together, Citra took one look out the window and suggested, “Why do we not make a small parade?” I really should look into what the transit system’s like on this island. Damn delegation. Regardless, I know plenty of things fall off the back of a container ship around here, so I called up my guys in our local police force. They helped a car dealer clear a little space for more merchandise. It’s good for ’em, helps them rotate the inventory.
So my family had a parade of sorts. Nothing all that special to it, only Max was throwing treats at the crowd, and I didn’t really feel the need for security. Anybody who fucked up my dress was going to get a high heel up the urethra. And if they messed something up for Qiant? Oh, even a cyanide pill wouldn’t save them. I’d bring them back to life, and then I’d really fuck ’em up.
While I was keeping an eye out, Citra actually hopped out of our slow procession and carried Qiang down with her. I hopped out after them as they greeted some of the visitors. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“A princess should meet her subjects, and I think it is good for us,” she said.
I narrowed my eyes at her briefly before stopping myself. We were approaching another group who were getting all respectful and bowing. I stepped back and watched as Citra asked after them, how they were doing, other such platitudes. Empty stuff. Might as well ask how the weather is for all we can do about it. But they liked it. And not just them.
“You want to walk some, Qiang?” I asked the birthday girl.
“Yeah, Baba. I can ride in the car again when I’m tired. I get to be a princess!” She was hopping up and down and running along, eager to follow Citra’s example. As for me, I suppose I can’t fault her for having a will of her own. She is still another separate person, if one thrust into position and events far beyond what her life intended. Chaos can certainly be a ladder, or a pit. So while they were all smiles and spreading good Imperial cheer among my people, I kept a close eye out in case someone decided they wanted to hurt the Empress Regnant on our way to the Cape Diem compound.
Now, even though I was fully prepared to let visitors to my world come in peace, even provide an escort to me, the leader, it turns out the Master Academy people worked something out with Cape Diem. I didn’t see anything change hands, but Cape Diem’s whole portal deal with the UN isn’t something they’d risk losing. I wonder what the cost is for using the world’s only portal network to bring a bunch of kids to a birthday party on an island run by a supervillain. I suppose there are benefits for neutrality. But it’s neutrality that goes both ways.
My minions helped prepare everything, payment being they get to enjoy the party too. As my prior discussion of the cake ratio shows, I put a lot of thought into bribing people with food, fun, and bouncy houses. That even includes the guard detail who escorted the various princesses from the pink castle they temporarily called home. All of them formed a receiving line for my daughter on her way to the cake.
The cake itself loomed over the party like a small castle all its own. It was too big for the compound itself. It’s bad hat to kick your guests out of their own home by bringing in such a giant cake. People mostly contained themselves until we got there, at which point Qiang lost her shit with high-pitched squeals of delight and ran off into a throng of her friends who were being held back by their chaperones from Master Academy. We managed to separate them and, before everything devolved into the inevitable entropic pack of playing people, I let Qiang see all the various princesses. She was excited to meet them, and luckily they’d all calmed down a great deal. Something about being in public, with superheroes around, knowing they were going to be set free, and that this was all about my daughter’s birthday party.
Finally, barely able to contain her excitement and glee, it was time for my daughter to stand in front of her cake. And like all great cakes, it required men with flamethrowers hanging from flyers in order to light the candles. Ok, so required isn’t so accurate a term for lighting five candles. Let me think… fun? Awesome? Nevertheless, she stood there in front of a lower part ready to be cut and served to people. Then I unleashed the real humiliation. “Ok, time to sing Happy Birthday!”
Once I’d finished completely embarrassing her with the help of her friends and a huge crowd of strangers, she finally got a piece of cake, and then servants made sure everyone got cake who wanted it, including themselves. And from there, people mingled, people ate, people played games. I even caught this minotaur-looking super from Master Academy snorting in frustration as he kept missing at the clown dunk. The clown itself had a white face, a big forehead, and red hair. He’d also do this little dance in between throws, glaring right at the minotaur.
And it seemed to go ok. It was more like a big fair for a pretty good amount of time. Heroes and villains and me and my family all mingling. It was almost normal. It felt weird, like I should pick a fight just to have something to do. Fucking ball just wouldn’t hit the target and dunk the clown. I swear, that big-shoed bastard did something to the balls. While missing yet again, and ducking a cream pie thrown in retaliation, I noticed Venus.
It struck me as odd that we’d avoided each other so far. Unless she was avoiding me, which is a crazy thing to think. No, unless she was PLOTTING against me. That’s a sane thing to think. So I went over to where she was looking after some of the kids. “So, what horrifying thing are you going to do now in the name of being a good person?” I asked.
“Watching kids play on a happy day. How are you planning to be an asshole and justify it because other people in the world do bad things?” she asked right back, giving me a forced, closed smile.
“I dunno, figured I’d send missionaries to teach starving kids in Africa the joys of cannibalism.” My smile was more genuine, as was my amusement.
Venus wasn’t so amused. Doesn’t mean she was offended, she just didn’t like me. She turned her head suddenly, checking on a kid that had fallen. One of the Master Academy kids she brought all the way here to my daughter’s party even though she hates me. I looked at her and held a hand out. “I should be a better host. Thanks for bringing everyone. This means a lot to her.”
She shook my hand, and this time the little smile tugging at her lips also tightened up her eyes. “You’re welcome. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s worked magic on you.” After letting go of my hand, she turned to keep an eye on everything, smiling at everyone just walking around, having fun and playing games.
I shrugged. “She’s not so different from me. Orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, and trained to be more object than person. But she’s mine.” I saw a Buzzkill giving piggyback rides to refugee children. “That’s a screwed-up life she doesn’t deserve. No one does. It corrupts you, makes you want to cling to it. Makes you af- it feels more secure that way. Because once you know that’s your life, there isn’t anything that can scare you. I can do that for her, and I can destroy anyone who would hurt her.”
I turned to look at her then. Nothing like a good threat to round it out. Instead, she smiled at me. “That’s very heroic of you.”
I flinched. Couldn’t help it. “And here I thought we were playing nice.”
“You’ve become a better person,” she said. “You jumped in front of that rocket. See, I think staying with us helped you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh yeah, y’all putting in a telepathic block to stop me from swearing or killing, that’s what I really needed in my life. Y’all didn’t help that much. Well, aside from saving my life. And… ya know, it’s been awhile since I got the shakes from not killin’ someone.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
She held up her hands. “We thought it would help your recovery. We weren’t going to leave you in the middle of psychological withdrawals while we kept you from murdering anyone.”
I held up a finger in front of her face. “There anything else y’all did to my brain I don’t know about? Any more secret brainwashing to make be ‘better’?”
“No, I swear.” She’d tensed up, her eyes darting past me. Well, if we were drawing attention from her friends, they’d just get to violate Cape Diem’s neutrality and the sovereignty of my nation first.
I folded my arms in front of me.”I get so many mixed messages from you, Boopsie.” Then I just left her there. I wanted to hurt her or at least yell at her. But, and this is an important thing to remember in this instance, this was about my daughter. Besides, an Empress doesn’t get mad. She gets cake. I just have to hope any feelings for her weren’t somehow the result of telepathic manipulation.
And speaking of good feelings, there were Rhonda and Leland, the parents of my daughter’s best friend from Master Academy, just waiting for me to come say hello again and remind them about that threesome they had with a murderous serial killer and Empress.
Qiang could barely able to stay awake long enough to see guests departing by the end of the party. We didn’t have too many who weren’t already here decide to stay the night. Kayla and her parents for sure, but it’s not like all those kidnapped princesses, including all the Marias and Maries from Belgium, wanted to stick around. Even Venus had decided she’d head back instead of take me up on my offer to stay and ease her tired muscles with a refreshing dip in my jacuzzi.
Once almost everyone had departed, though, I heard a shout. I looked to Citra, carrying my exhausted five year old in her arms. Seeing them clearly both ok, I shot the similarly-burdened parents of her best friend a wink and headed off in the direction of whatever commotion we had going on. I found a pair of Security officers holding up one of their own between them. “Something up, guys?” I asked.
The one on the man’s left shook his head. “Apologies for not bowing, Empress.”
I waved off his concerns, “Bow later, talk now.”
“Very well. He got disoriented and collapsed.” I looked him over. Sweaty, even in the lighter gear he had on, but he had a half-full canteen bottle on his belt.
“Get him to our medical tent outside the fence and tell them to contact Dr. Creeper,” I said quietly. Louder, to a nearby family carrying a kid with a balloon tied around his wrist, I said, “Just a bit of dehydration. Make sure to keep drinking water, folks.”
It was when Creeper got there, along with some of the more medically-minded staff of the Institute, that I briefed him with a simple. “We have a problem.”
The man was still disoriented, still out of it. Babbling and feverish. I continued explaining in case nobody got it, “This isn’t heat stroke. We don’t know what it is. Worse, whatever’s going on isn’t being stopped by the nanites in the water or in the dermal patches they’ve applied. We need to find out what this is.”
“We need a quarantine, especially on outsiders,” Creeper said.
Fuck. “That’s not doable. Most of the ones who were here aren’t anymore.” And the ones who are here, like a little superpowered girl and her parents, won’t look so good. “Well, let’s get to it. The sooner we figure out what’s going on, the sooner we fix it.”
I knew arriving back at the palace that this whole situation would take tact. And probably sex. Just make it seem like Rhonda and Leland are having a nice vacation here while their daughter plays with mine. That’s what I was ready for when I opened the door to the palace residence and entered, only to have to hold back a lot of cuss words.
Psychsaur, scaled and feathered psychic hero of Master Academy (and Venus’s girlfriend), was seated at the bar in the kitchen, swaying, talking with Sam and Holly. She smiled a loose, too-friendly smile and her wave to me almost dropped her from the stool. Plus, I could smell the alcohol from where I stood when she opened her mouth to say “Hey Gecko! I’m not driving home tonight, so can I sleep here?”
The big day draws near. Now that I have fewer people to kidnap, I’ve had time to deal with catering, including getting a big-ass cake done. The design almost gave me diabetes just looking at it, but it had to be huge. We’ve got a lot of guests, and I’ve done some rough calculations on the additional cake necessary to offset the hard feelings from the kidnapping.
It’s one of those areas of science from my more advanced home dimension. Whereas the power armor and nanotech are the results of the hard sciences, my world also advanced in the social sciences and humanities. For instance, we discovered that there is a ratio of discomfort to cake that allows someone to completely offset all dislike from a situation with application of the proper amount of cake. I had to leave out various factors, though. Dairy tolerance, differences between frostings, the ice cream and milk modifiers.
But enough about confectioneries. I also handled the balloons and the shopping. Well, I’m not sure shopping is an accurate name with all that theft. But I didn’t want to just get Qiang the normal toys. She’ll have pretty much one of everything anybody else could possibly have. Then I realized she needed one of things people couldn’t have.
I didn’t need a toy store, or a toy factory. I’ve wrecked China enough for all that. I need… The Toybox.
“The Toybox is a legend,” said Max.
“What’s the Toybox?” asked Sam, his assistant with the more goth or perhaps punk look. There’s a certain point where I can’t tell them apart. But I suppose she’s grown some. She shaved her hair down except for a green poof at the front, so she’s got that going for her. She sat with us at the bar for our mid-afternoon drink. There’s breakfast, like screwdrivers, followed by mimosas or champagne at lunch, something with a bit more zip at eleven or so, then lunch, then the mid-afternoon drink around 3 o’clock, with more drinks at dinner and later at supper. Of course, we don’t always make all the appointments, so there’s the option to put them all together throughout the night.
“Ooh, I know!” That was Holly, the cheerier and generally preppier of the two. She’d been to Sea-Offee. A Riccan entrepreneur partnered up with Deep One suppliers who had cultivated some beans that sunk in airtight storage before the beans themselves went extinct. There’s also a gimmick about iceberg iced coffees, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a common lie.
Holly set her coffees down before answering, “So like so many supervillains went around stealing prototype toys and special toys for gimmicks and stuff or to sell to people. The toy companies got together and used their money to build a secret vault where they can lock them up safely. So the legend goes.”
“But why?” asked Sam. “Why not destroy them or sell them themselves? They aren’t useful anymore, are they?”
Max and I looked at each other before focusing on her.
“You never know when you’ll need a prototype. You can make an inferior version to sell to everyone else,” he said.
“They often have features later editions don’t and provide a practical model for implementing them,” I added. “Those can come in handy later on.”
“It can be even more valuable if the product’s good,” Max said.
I nodded my head toward him, “The artistic value, too.”
“Yeah, they make good trophies,” Max said.
“Some of them are toys they never put into production,” I came back with.
“It all sounds like stupid bullshit to me. I bet they wanted to make a vault to feel special,” Sam said.
Max and I both nodded. “That’s also likely, yeah,” I told her. It really is. Makes me wish I had a giant vault full of traps and valuables just thinking about it.
“You’re going to break into a vault that may not exist to steal toys that don’t work right when you already have everything you already need.” Sam was trying to be the voice of reason, which made it easy to ignore her.
I turned to Max, but he cocked his head to the size and said, “She has a point.”
“It’s a natural way to get Venus’s attention so I can get her here,” I argued.
“I don’t want to tell you your business,” he started, “But I will anyway. Does she bring little kids along when she goes to fight you?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t you want Qiang’s friends to come here?” he asked.
I raised a hand parallel to the floor and shook it back and forth a bit. “For her, sure.”
He adjusted on his stool and was about to talk, but Holly spoke up, “You didn’t go around kidnapping a bunch of princesses for their company, did you?”
“There was one who was actually real pleasant to talk to, but that was mostly about Qiang’s birthday.”
It was Sam’s turn now. “Hey man, if you do stupid shit, you might ruin her birthday. I remember one of my birthday parties, my mom and pop got into an argument over the cake. They both bought me one just like I wanted, but they each got mad at the other for trying to show the other person up by going behind the other’s back. Mom threw his in the trash, he threw hers out the window. I didn’t get any cake.”
I shook my head. “Destruction of cake. Those monsters. Somebody get me the Directors, we need a new law.” I started to stand up and see to that when Sam reached out and put a hand on my lower right forearm. I looked down at it then at her with a raised eyebrow.
“This is her day. Don’t fuck it up for her,” she told me.
Max clapped a hand on my shoulder, subtly moving sliding Sam’s limb away from me. “Think about it this way: now you know what to steal for her next year.”
I pondered it for a moment before heading off into an office area where I’d hung the communication screen. This is one of the newer models using Riccan paperthin display tech, so it just looked like a painting and wasn’t too out of place with other pieces of art around here. I don’t know who hung this one painting in here, but it was nothing like the rest of their aesthetic. Some old-timey looking thing with a woman playing the piano, a guy with his back to the viewer strumming a guitar, and another woman just standing there, all on a black and white floor that looks sorta like a chessboard.
When I was nice and ready, I put out a call and, after a second, Venus’s helmeted face looked down at me. “Who is this?”
I sat there in my pretty red and gold dress, face powdered and made up, my hair running through another golden headdress. I only raised my top pair of arms as the lower pair were hidden inside the dress. “It’s your absolute favorite supervillain in the whole wide world. Did I catch you at a bad time, Boopsie?”
She stared. “Gecko?”
“Empress Gecko,” I answered. “Well, Emperor’s fine, but they insist on calling me Empress right now. I swear, you tuck your nuts between your legs then shove them up inside a pussy and everyone loses their fucking minds.”
“You sound like Gecko. Pretty hologram. What do you want?”
“Hologram? Hey, can’t a guy just put on a dress, do up his hair, grow boobs, and wear makeup and a vagina just because he feels like it? You’re getting awfully judgmental for a Catholic bisexual, you know.”
She reached up, fingers hitting the visor over where it covered her nose before she lowered that hand out of view. “What do you want?”
I straightened myself up. “I’m throwing Qiang a birthday party and she has requested her friends attend. That includes you for some reason, but also that girl she used to hang out with over there, and the others from that school.” I took a moment to consult my memory. “Kayla, that was the name of her friend. She can even bring her parents, if she’d like.”
She looked down at me, thinking. “Is this a plot?”
I gently shook my head, not wanting to fuck up my bitchin’ hairdo. “There are plots involved in it, but this is not a plot. This is my daughter’s birthday and she wants her friends there. Unfortunately, that means… you.” I rolled my eyes. “Good news is, I can provide lots of cover for you-”
“-excuse me?” I asked. I didn’t expect her to just agree to come here like that without some sort of incentive. Over to the side, Citra stood with a photo of one of Belgium Marias with today’s newspaper. She looked at me curiously and started toward the screen’s view, but I raised a hand to wave her off surreptitiously.
“Qiang is a good girl and we enjoyed having her. I think we can make arrangements with Cape Diem to come to the party. When is it?”
“Wow, ok, this actually moves up the timeline a bit. I was planning to rob a place or threaten to in order to get your attention. Dammit, you’ve foiled me again,” I said that last sentence playfully. “A week oughta do it. Should be enough time to wrap up any sudden problems that’ll show up. And if anyone gives you any trouble over coming to see me, you can always give them some spin about it being a rescue operation to get back all those kidnapped princesses.”
“You have them, don’t you?” she asked.
I waved it off, trying to say, “No, no, of course not…”
But that’s when Citra stepped into view, smiling wide while holding a picture of a pissed-off Belgian woman with a newspaper in one hand and giving the V-sign with the other. “Hello,” Citra said, way more happily than I expected. She waved at Venus.
Venus gave her a small wave. “Hi. Who are you?”
“I am Citra, Empress Gecko’s wife.” She linked her arm with mine.
“That is so sweet. Smile, I’m taking a screenshot,” Venus said.
Gonna kill her. Gonna kill her so hard. Gonna kill her and paradox the shit out of Future Venus because she won’t live long enough for me to kill her in the future when she time travels to the past. I swear, she’s trying to bait me just as I’ve often tried to bait her.
I put a hand over Citra’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. She intertwined her fingers with mine and leaned against me. I took a breath and carried on. “Anyway, now that the pussy’s out of the sack, you can bring the whole school over, no shenanigans, and you get to walk away with the princesses that we officially do not have here. And, more importantly, I will have less time to draw out party preparations and decide to rob places for more and more extravagant gifts. We’ll have entertainment, too. There’ll be music and games. Clowns and a dunking booth, even.”
Venus grimaced. “Some people don’t like clowns.”
I waved that off with my free hand. “The clowns will be in the dunking booth. It’ll probably be therapeutic. And don’t worry about the clowns either. They’ll float. They all float.”
That got a shiver from Venus at least. “Let’s work it out with Cape Diem and I’ll see you next week, alright?”
“Fine by me, Venus. Oh, and just so you know, the theme is Princesses. Do dress accordingly,” I said, feeling my grin take on predatory menace. I’ll get a picture of her dressed ridiculously even if I have to roofie her and take all her clothes off myself! And I guess I can put more clothes on her at some point, too.
The island of Ricca welcomed all kinds of new guests here, and I think it’s time to get this musical rolling. For once, there actually will be a meeting of a bunch of evil people to plot against the world. The best part is, all the conspiracy theorists will say it’s fake news as soon as we all inevitably leak it.
I remember when I heard Ouroboros was on approach in a jet. Sam, she of little hair, saw me throw on my formal armor coat and said, “You sure he doesn’t expect a red carpet? He’s probably got a jet with its own grill.”
I adjusted the tasteful giant red and gold coat with peacock feathers sticking out of the rear collar and put my helmet on. “Psh. Some of us have both dignity and exquisite taste.”
It turned out to be a regular jet with some boring company name on it. A fake company. Easy enough to make: take a noun or a verb and add Solutions, Management, or Global to the end. Throw them all together and you get Global Management Solutions, as generic and fake a name as they come. I’m not even going to check, but that’s still probably a real company.
I was going to make fun of it probably selling mercenaries to third world dictators, but I’m now a third world dictator and the mercenaries I’d been using up and left the island. Apparently they throw a tantrum and leave whenever they suffer lots of casualties for little pay. Bunch of spoiled brats with rifles if you ask me. At least there’s plenty of resale value on their guns. And on their organs, actually.
In fact, and this is brilliant, I’m sending an email right this minute to the hospital to start cloning valuable human organs using nanites and whatever spare meat they can get. Ooh, and maybe we can sneak in tracking devices. Or some sort of robots that separate after implantation and attach to the optic nerves and ears in order to let us spy. Perhaps some sort of nanite killswitch…
I couldn’t stand around thinking all day though. I had to get out there and meet this guy. Plus, that’s kinda what we sell prosthetic organs for anyway. We could always capture the market that doesn’t want prosthetic, though…
The airport had been plenty busy with people coming and going. We had some air traffic coming in through South Korea, Japan, China, and Australia. Russia threatened to send me a plane full of Polonium right to my front door once. I politely informed them that they don’t want to mess with me, because I know where their bodies will be buried. The radiation detectors didn’t find anything unusual in a scan of Ouroboros’s jet.
I stepped out there with Mix N’Max standing a ways behind me, and Sam and Holly behind him. At the last minute before the door opened, I turned and motioned Sam over. “I need a hand with something real quick.” She looked to Max, puzzled, but stepped over. I slid the heavy jacket off and tossed it into her arms. She almost dropped it. “Here, hold that for me.”
“Motherfucker!” she started, then walked back to behind Max, who smiled at her. He leaned in to whisper something and Sam went to find a place to dump it out of view of any important people. Yeah, I did it just to fuck with her. That was my plan the whole time, or at least I expected someone would say something I felt deserved it.
Soon after she walked off to see to my coat check, Ouroboros graced us with his presence. The man himself left the jet in a suit with a version of his mask on to protect his identity. He brought with him a few aides, including an older, wide, and thick fellow with white hair. I held my hands apart, all four. “Welcome to the island of Ricca, home of the Empire Ricca, and its lovely capital.”
“The city of Ricca?” he asked, a slight smile coming to his face. He setepped down the stairs and walked over to me for the official handshake that would have been photo-op worthy if we weren’t both wanted people.
I called up the latest Director Speaker guy to confirm. “Yes, the city of Ricca. As you can probably tell, the last administration lacked creativity. That’s why it took me to gather up a bunch of us for this meeting. We’ve had an increased trickle at the end here, but I think we’re about ready to start.”
He nodded. “I saw you had a problem with the navy.” He leaned in. “You did all of it, didn’t you?”
“I would have to be some kind of evil mastermind to pull that off. Thank you for the compliment.”
He smirked. “You impressed a lot of people on the fence about this meeting by stopping that nuclear bomb and protecting everyone else. My people thought it was surprising and devious. I felt it was serious. You’ve seen my city and I would love to see yours after my people have had time to bring my things to where I’m staying.”
Sounds like he wanted to make sure he had a nice place that wasn’t going to blow up. I don’t blame him. It also gave me time to pick a tour guide from the Directors. I’m too important as the leader of an entire nation to go around showing some glorified criminal mayor around. Notice I didn’t even give him a lei or throw him a luau. Leave that for greeters or the assistant to the greeters or the intern to the assistant to the greeters. I assume there’s protocol in place for all the little people. I wouldn’t know. I first showed up in Ricca as a hired consultant to build weapons of mass destruction.
As a person with plenty of lackeys, little things like saying “Hello” or showing supervillains to an Ikea mansion are beneath me. If I want, I could hire someone just to wipe my ass. I could pay them nothing but I wouldn’t. Because I’m classy and because you don’t want to screw over someone whose job is putting their fist near your pucker.
There was one last major attendee to grab. I gathered some of those lackeys of mine in a clearing on the edge of the city. Amid chanting, we started a massive bonfire. I had a table brought out, as well as a large pig. I hefted the pig onto the table and reached over to one of my black-robed lackeys. He held out a knife.
Suddenly the chanting grew quieter. I looked over to see Holly standing by a wireless speaker, her finger just leaving the volume down button. “Is this really necessary to get this guy here?” said Holly. She, Sam, and Max were all waiting at the edge of the clearing, along with Silver Shark, Citra, and Qiang.
I pulled my hood back. “No, that part’s easy. We have a mirror for that.” I pointed to where a few of the lackeys were standing up a mirror next to a cooler full of beer. “But I figured it might be rude to summon him here without something to eat. So then I got to thinking about it and figured I’d bring us all out here for a barbecue.” I turned back to the pig and stabbed the knife down. One spurt of blood later, the oinking stopped.
“You know how to do that thing where you cut it into pieces to cook it?” Sam asked while I set to work. Qiang rushed over to watch me.
“Butcher,” Silver Shark said.
“Thank you,” Sam said.
“It wasn’t a correction,” Shark responded. Still sore I cheated on her back when I was handling her meat, I see.
A couple of lackeys finished driving supports into the ground on either side of the bonfire. Then they hefted a grill into place. “Bring me the sacred herbs! And spices.” Another robed lackey stepped over with a bowl full of seasonings for me to toss on the meat.
Max clapped for me. “Excellent job. Was that a new record?”
“I know I was watching it, but how did you clean and butcher it so fast?” asked Silver Shark.
“I have a lot of experience cutting animals apart,” I said and tossed some loin and chops onto the grill. I headed back to work on more cutting.
Sam walked over, “Do they all come apart the same way?”
I shrugged and saw how Qiang was watching me cut. I handed her the knife and let her give it a try. “Generally less, though there are some specifics that depend on who you’re butchering.”
“Who?” Sam asked.
“Who who?” I asked back.
Holly pointed at me. “You said ‘who’ you’re butchering?’”
I pointed at myself too. “I did?” I looked to Max, who nodded.
“Don’t you consider humans animals?” asked Holly.
I looked down to see Qiang’s rough hackjob on some of the meat. Eh, there are always some spare pieces to throw away. I glared back at Holly and mouthed a silent, “Yes.” Ok, so I love the girl. I might even have feelings for some of these damn, dirty apes all over this planet due to a form of Stockholm Syndrome I haven’t had formally diagnosed.
Regardless, I should cut back on some of the outright, if deserved, bigotry against homo sapiens. She’s still half human, and that kind of thing could send a pretty fucked up message if she ever starts to think about it. No heir of mine is going to go through life a brainless bimbo. Plus, she’ll probably have to marry one of these backward chimps they call people in this universe. None of them are good enough for her anyway, which is yet another knock against this sad excuse for a species. I want her to be happy though. Coincidentally, I’ve already put out feelers online for used shotguns, the dirtier the better. I have to have that thing ready to clean the night she first starts dating.
“Can I change the music?” asked Citra.
I nodded. “Fine.” I can’t expect everyone to enjoy Sunn O))) or even to pronounce it correctly. It’s the parentheses. Very difficult for human tongues. She grabbed the mp3 player I’d used because I wasn’t about to let people hook a speaker up to my brain. That way lies madness and comments they don’t need to hear about themselves. The next song was less droning, but still quite My Imperial Majesty’s jam.
Holly leaned over. “Is this song seriously called ‘Rock N Roll Nig-‘.”
I cut her off, “Hush, we’re getting to the good part.”
After a few seconds of the song continuing on as normal, she asked, “I don’t hear anything special.”
“The whole song’s the good part,” I said. I tossed some ribs on the barbecue. “I think we’re doing well enough to bring them over.” I turned to the mirror and, with no ceremony whatsoever, said, “Spinetingler, Spinetingler, Spinetingler.”
The flickering flames of the bonfire disappeared from the mirror. The reflective surface went entirely black. Some of the blackness moved and grew out, a nub of darkness. Some of it then fell to the grass as strands of hair hanging down from a head. An arm poked out of the mirror as well. A woman crawled out in a white dress. She crawled over to me, then pulled herself up on my robe.
It was Spinetingler’s daughter. I don’t recall if I ever learned her name, but I do remember her face. Big nose and big brown eyes. Or they were before turning all icey white. Her hair used to be blonde too, but there’s not a lot of good horror from being stalked by a blonde. “Hey, you’re looking better. You eating better?”
She stared at my face for a long few seconds. “I heard you were a man.”
“I often am. Where’s your dad?” I looked past her to the mirror. I heard cawing, then a swarm of some sort of black bird flew out of the mirror and moved as one gigantic flock until they dove at the ground near the bonfire.
The birds disappeared into a dark puff of feathers that resolved into a black-clad figure with red trim. Black boots, black gloves, all looking like leather. I couldn’t pin down the pants and shirt, but it had kind of a leather creak going on. His face was hidden under a black hood of his own with red eyes glowing from within. He leaned over the grill. “Smells good. Do you have any beverages for myself and my daughter?”
“Lackeys, beer the man!” I called to some of the minions, a few of which were here from scenic Missouri. “Feel free to take the robes off if you don’t mind getting smoke and all in your clothes. I, however, will stay dressed in the formal evil barbecue robes as mine are light and airy, and I’m not wearing anything under them. Come on, folks, let’s get this party started!”
I know what everyone’s wondering. I know it because I keep getting asked over and over again. I’ve been asked it by Sam. “Can’t you just make your own nuke?” And by Holly, “Don’t you have any nukes around here?” Even Silver Shark weighed in, “Aren’t you smart enough to build your own?”
I am indeed capable of throwing one together. There are probably plenty of villains on this island who can help with that. My answer was simple. “It’s not about making a nuke. It’s about taking one.”
The crowd of people who have all taken to camping in my palace didn’t find that satisfactory. “I bet Maxxy could even build you a nuke!” Sam said, gesturing toward Max.
I looked over to Max, who stood in my kitchen, pouring cereal into a pint of yogurt before taking a spoon to it. “Gecko knows what she’s doing. Leave me out of this,” he said, chomping on fruit loops and congealed dairy.
“Thank you, Max, you are a scholar and a gentleman.” I nodded toward him and crossed all my arms. I looked down to see Qiang mimicking my pose and reached down to hold her against me with my two lefties. “As I was saying, I am easily capable of making a nuclear weapon. I’ll even teach my little psycho bunny here if she wants to learn when she’s older.” I turned and kissed the top of Qiang’s head, then pretended to bite her hair. She giggled at that and hugged onto me.
I will, but only when she’s old enough to handle nuclear weapons, so at least fifteen or sixteen. I don’t want to pressure her into it, though. After all, she might prefer for her first WMD to be a chemical or even biological weapon. I can help with the chemical part, but I’ll have to impart on her that a biological weapon is a huge responsibility. I don’t want to help her build one of those for her to just forget about it and leave me to take it out and clean up after it.
“Making a nuclear bomb also does some weird stuff as far as international treaties. Now, even though people don’t invade countries who develop the bomb precisely because they now have that bomb to use against invading countries, it still creates some international tensions. More importantly, I don’t want to make one because it’s more important for it to be stolen. I have a lot of old files stored away, hogging valuable gigabytes I could use for more important stuff, like porn. Some of those files include the location of places where a certain large nation of imperialist pigs.”
Holly held up her hand. “Question! Do you have to call us pigs like that?”
“Yes,” I answered bluntly. Then I held up a booklet. “It says so in the manual.” I handed it over to her. The cover featured a row of grinning prisoners standing in front of a happy firing squad. “So You’ve Become A Dictator,” read the title above it. She took it and started reading through as I continued.
“There’s a group of these guys around, they’re spying on Ricca, and some of them have almost certainly come ashore without us detecting them. In retaliation, I’m going to steal one of their bombs. Just a bit of harmless tit for tat.” I pulled out another booklet and threw it at Sam just before she started to stifle a laugh at the thought of anything tit-related with me now. She caught some more of my educational reading, “The Dictator’s Guide To Preemptive Strikes”.
“Now, this next part will require all of you to practice the important skill of shutting the fuck up… but I’ll leak that we have it in some hidden site and wait for whoever they’ve got on the island to make a move for it. Then I snap the trap before Admiral Akbar can so much as perform vocal warm-up exercises.”
The joke landed a bit flat, in part because Max was busy with his cereal and Holly had become engrossed in the dictator manual. And that was the only reason nobody liked such an obviously phenomenal reference. “Wow, this is really mysoginist,” Holly said, never taking her eyes off the booklet.
I shrugged. “High turnover from purges, civil war, and regular war. They pretty much all turn women into baby factories.”
“Even the women dictators?” she asked.
“Check out the roster on Page 78,” I said.
She flipped to it. “Wow, that’s a lot of guys.”
“That’s why they’re not called vagtators,” I said. “So, we have any questions about the plan?”
I got a rousing chorus of mildly disinterested “No”s and one question from Qiang on if I was going to fix hamburgers. I told her yes and set her down, then realized she was wearing the same dress as me. “Who got you this? You’re almost as pretty in that dress as your dad.”
“I didn’t used to hear these kinds of sentences until I met you people,” said Silver Shark, shaking her mechanically augmented head from where it sat on a neck that could adjust to let her shift it to face directly up when in the water.
“Miss Shark got me this!” Qiang answered, pointing at Silver.
“Aww, did you tell her thank you?”
Silver Shark spoke up. “I told her about Valentine’s and helped her get a dress in case she got a Valentine of her own.”
“Huh,” I said, thinking about it. “That’s right, Valentine’s. Completely slipped my mind. I didn’t even notice if they celebrate it here.”
“They celebrate it,” Max spoke up. “The women give chocolates to men in this part of the world.” He looked at me, then down at his pint of yogurt and began to sidle off to the side.
“That’s remarkably astute. What an amazing thing for you to know, Max. Mind if I ask how you know this and, come to think of it, why my wife didn’t get me anything? Where is she, anyway?”
Sam crossed her arms. “She’s probably sleeping off the sedative Max gave her after she caught him eating all the chocolate you were supposed to get.” She stuck her tongue out at Max. “Happy VD, Maxxy.”
I turned to find a Max-shaped hole in the wall. That would be this one chemical that weakens most forms of wood only in spots with pressure put on it. Useful for making personalized doorways, but not so much preventing someone from following. Still, I was more concerned about checking on Citra. She was indeed still asleep and loopy. I figured I better get her something to make up for missing Valentine’s. With the aid of Qiang, I worked on a pink, heart-shaped cake.
“Oh god, the attention to detail. That’s so gross,” said Sam as she watched me finishing the icing.
“Don’t look so grossed out,” I told her. Qiang passed me a more red shade of icing that we’d whipped up. “Everyone has them.”
“I can’t believe you think that’s a romantic gift,” she countered.
I rolled my eyes. “You’d whine the same way if I pulled out my actual heart and gave it to her. Some people just aren’t happy, and you’re one of them.” I stuck out my tongue at her, then returned to careful decoration of the large muscular blood pump, all while thinking about stage two of the nuclear plan. A gal’s gotta have secrets, even when she’s a dude. Especially when she’s a dude, some might argue.
I had plenty of time to finish before it was time to send Hexadecibel on his way. We had to wait for an appropriate time due to time zones, but I soon strapped on my armor and gave him a set of Riccan augmented reality glasses to wear. We launched from the villain village. One moment he was there, muttering incantations in a circle, the next he was gone and in a bunker somewhere. I lost him there for a few seconds until a smaller portal opened in the circle that let the signal through.
“I got shunted, man. I’m nearby the room.” he said as soon as I could see and hear the situation. Teleporting in like that set off alarms. The glasses overlaid a path for Hexadecibel to follow to the storage area. I saw through his eyes as a squad of guards tried to accost him. Arms grew out of the concrete around them and pulled them against it. He stopped to rifle through one of their pockets before I urged him to forget about mugging them and get the big stuff. It took a bit of maneuvering until he found himself coming out into a two-story room. The floor gently sloped up in a ramp to a door on the second story. Underneath it was the opening of a bunker. “Back!” I yelled just as the opened fire. Good reflexes on those soldiers.
Hexadecibel didn’t go back. He magicked up a concrete wall. A big, beautiful wall, the best wall, nobody builds better walls than Ricca. “Shit,” he said.
“You got this?” I asked.
The view moved from side to side. “I don’t know. Maybe I can. Let me try something.” He jumped up and threw a fireball at them. The rate of fire sounded like it picked up dramatically as he landed, but so did the screaming. After a couple of seconds, the shooting stopped while the screaming continued. Hex dropped the wall cautiously, but no fire picked up. He headed up the ramp and stopped in front of the door’s keypad. “Do you know the code?”
“Give me something big enough to bring my hand through,” I told him.
He put his hands together, made a few hand gestures that created glowing runes in the air, then pulled them apart. A small portal opened, about as big around as a softball. I pulled my gauntlet off and pushed an arm through the portal and against the pad. Soon, my body connected with the wiring and allowed me to interface with it. I had it open for him, then pulled myself free and back to my own location as soon as I could. “You’re good to go.”
When he opened the door, it led to row after row, rack after rack of warheads. He stood there for a moment. When it looked like he wasn’t moving, I ahemed and said, “Hey, there may be soldiers coming up behind you. Get in and shut that door.”
He hurried in. “Sorry, I think I peed a little. There are so many.”
“The country’s had the ability to annihilate all life on Earth for more than half a century. That’s a lot of spares left laying around.”
“I guess I didn’t think about how many that means. How many do you need?”
“I said just one and I meant it. Preferably one of these near the door. They’ll be a bit more fresh.”
“Ok, you should back up.”
I moved further away from his little circle. Meanwhile, the connection showed him pulling out some mixture of a powdery substance and spreading it in a circle around one of the racks that only had a single warhead. There was some chanting, some more runes, even a bit of a red glow then… pop! The air made a little popping noise as Hexadecibel and the nuclear warhead just appeared in his little circle on this side.
“Whew!” he shouted and clapped his hands. “That was intense, man. Hey, I still hear the alarm though.”
I heard it too, then I realized. “That’s not so much an alarm as it is a loud squee.” Too late, I looked up to find myself tackled by an enthusiastic giant bee woman. Queen Beetrice, ruler of the insectoid-humanoid Buzzkills and the nation of North Korea as part of the Riccan Empire.
“I thought you were watching the Olympics,” I told her.
She just hugged me tight. “I heard you were getting me a nuclear bomb!” she said, attempting to squeeze me out of my armor like Popeye opening a can of spinach.
“Let’s talk this over elsewhere,” I said to her. I had to give the military guys the orders on where to hide our bit of ill-gotten goods. They’ll see to it.
I, on the other hand, had to go make another cake, and bees have really weird-looking hearts compared to humans. Meanwhile, at the rocket plant, custom orders began to trickle in every few hours, spread across different shifts, meant to match different sorts of rockets than the we use on Ricca. With the nuke secured, I was ready to prepare stage two.