We set up base back at my shop in Radium. If Medusa and Lulios got out, I doubt they’re working with the rangers. It’d be rough on them even if they escaped. The call was coming from this side of the portal, but it’s way up there in year-round pointy nipple territory. The frozen north. Nunuvat. Google Earth doesn’t have any photos of that particular spot on the mountain, but some borrowed satellites show a military base there with huge hangers where they’re housing something big. Knowing the Rangers, it’s a giant robot. There are so many giant robots with those guys. I don’t even know what they do with the ones they stop using. I thought back to the uniforms of the Blue and Yellow I’d seen so far. There’s always a theme, but the main thing that stands out to me is all the circles on Blue’s uniform. Yellow had some distinctive marks on their outfit, but it was more like greater than or less than signs. I hope the theme isn’t math.
I’m avoiding my house so far in case they go on the offensive. Max thought some time away from Vegas would do him some good, too. Give him a chance to regroup. Sam and Holly were happy not to be cooped up anymore.
“Who needs killing this time?” Max asked me while I wiped down the interior of my armor. He was grabbing some of the merchandise off the shelf to supplement the lab equipment he had with him.
“General Lulios, as always,” I said.
“Not forgiving him, then?” Max asked. I felt less humor in the question.
“Some things can’t be forgiven, and that goes for me, too. What he did to me and what I did in turn, none of that just washes away. The dead deserve better.” I finished with the armor and let it hang up to dry. Then, I decided to check out the bombmaker’s bin over in the corner. You know, for budding interior decorators.
Max patted me on the shoulder as he passed by, uncharacteristic even for him. “You could have changed it, that time you and the Mobian were in your past. There’s still something valuable about this life.”
I stopped rifling around for timers and tried to think how best to word a response. I was not happy at him bringing this up. “I was a coward and the best thing for everyone would have been for me to stop it right then. I won’t chicken out of justice again.”
“Are you going to kill yourself?” he asked bluntly.
“No,” I said.
“Then this is about revenge, not justice,” he said. “You can recognize there’s value in your life. He hurt you and wronged you. I’m not saying it’s wrong to pursue revenge against him. It’s just… well, killing is always more fun if you don’t consider the ethical quandaries.”
“Ha! Yeah. Besides, if he was as sorry as he claimed to be, he’d have fessed up on the other Earth,” I added. “Now can we stop talking about all this? You’re reminding me of Medusa. And no, I’m not forgiving her either.”
It was his turn to laugh. “I won’t comment then.”
Without any more to go on than the coordinates of the base the Rangers were at, I figured that would be a good place to hit. Clear that annoying third party out of the way and allow Lulios and I to settle things mano a womano. At least Lulios seems to recognize the need for us to finish things between us, even if he knows the general details of how that story goes.
That’s why I built such a lovely bomb. It could level a small building, so it might come in handy against some of the base’s defenses. The bio-force grid the Rangers use tends to bleed off excess energy too efficiently to hope this would disable the robot they’ve got there, but I feel like I can take it in my armor. I really have grown a lot since I came to this other Earth.
Speaking of growing things, Firecat doesn’t seem to have any health issues whatsoever. Neither does the basement body. I need a name for that one. I can’t call it the Ultimate Form just yet, but it’s a step in the right direction. I practiced using it while I was here. Speeding along, exoskeleton protecting all my sensitive bits. Yeah, I made the thing fully functional. Slightly more than fully functional, one might say. What’s the whole point of being able to exceed the limits of the human form if a woman can’t have a couple of girldicks ribbed for a partner’s pleasure?
Throw in some kidneys so efficient I’ll never get hungover, perfect 360 degree vision, and all the space I saved on intestines, and we’re looking at a pretty awesome body. That just happens to look like an H.R. Giger painting. Oooh! I’ll call it Li after one of those. There was a Li II, and that can be what the perfected version is.
Li was fun to take on a run. Faster, stronger, with muscles that don’t tire and nostrils that make sure I’m never gasping for air. Max even liked it! He just put it in polite terms to hide his enthusiasm. Things like “Not have any visible eyes is freaky-looking.”
I, in Li, shrugged. “I was going to bring back the human nictitating membrane, but then I figured I should make the eyes even more secure. So now I have ten, all with amazing vision, all hidden and protected.”
Max cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. “Do you have a way to expel fluids?”
“Oh boy, do I!” I said, standing up and sliding the armored crotch plate down. Behind me, Holly and Sam walked in and stopped.
Holly cocked her head to the side. “What am I looking at here?”
“A dream I’ve had before,” Sam said.
“Nonetheless, I meant something different,” Max went on. “For chemical weapons. Perhaps we should focus on the task at hand.”
Sigh. “Fine, fine,” I shifted the plate back into place.
The raid began at dawn. Not that dawn, fuck you, that was too soon. The next one, though, I bounded across the snow up the mountain. The Li form didn’t mind the cold and interior insulation protected the nanites flowing through its veins from being negatively affected. From my veins. This is my body, and my skin flowed with the terrain, mimicking the snow. I stopped at the edge of the rise to reassess the situation. I was going to come in from the north. Max, Sam, and Holly were in the Psycho Flyer to the east of the base, with Holly flying and Sam smoking something Max made her to keep herself steady while flying. I shifted the pouch on me and the EMP spikes, because I didn’t build that into this body. I’ll need a way to protect my perfect from that weakness in the future. Maybe I should just implant my brain?
Questions for later. I put on some mood music, a band called Brighter Than A Thousand Suns covering the song Monster. I raced out onto the relatively flat, open area on the top of the mountain, trying to see just how far I could go. Blew my normal body away even though it was enhanced. I might count as having low level superspeed like this. Something noticed me, though. I saw the towers rise from the corners of the wall before I heard the alarm. The square tops opened up to reveal cannons that fired plasma at me. One missed, throwing up steam as it melted the snow.
The other winged me, giving me a chance to see how this body held up to the shot. The insulation protected my organs. I felt the heat, but not the pain you’d normally get. Nerves patterned after my armor’s energy sheathes redirected much of the energy to an internal battery made possible by improving on the design of the intestine. I flipped my tail up to aim at the turret. The tail opened with a three-way split and a crimson laser shot out. The beam cut into the protective shield on the left side of the turret barrel, but lasted long enough for me to sweep it over and get a little lick on the weapon itself.
Note to self: Li II needs built-in aim assist on the tail. Just a little dot, telling me where the tail is aiming when I ready the laser.
The whole thing was a success in resilience and firepower. Now I just had survive the barrage of deadly superheated plasma that, thankfully, got less and less accurate the closer I got to the wall where they couldn’t aim so easily. And that took hardly any time at all. One second, the cannon that tagged me lost track of me against the base of the wall. The next, I was up there, clawing its barrel off and leaping to the other tower to toss in the bomb I’d built. It was a star patterned fortress, with a turret at each angle. It took a minute to work my way through those turrets, but I didn’t have to get as many when Holly came in with the Flyer and blasted the eastern and southern ones to smithereens.
The Flyer laid down some more cover for me. Max dropped some fog from the back that engulfed the area inside the base’s walls. He’d immunized me to it so I, unlike everyone else, wouldn’t get disoriented and lose track of which direction I’m going. I saw more of those black-clad guards with their pseudo-Ranger armor, the ones I’d taken to thinking of as the Blackguard, stumble their way around. It was too easy. After sending the first few flying, it didn’t even seem like a challenge. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but these guys might as well have been rent-a-cops with nothing more than a heavy flashlight to defend themselves. Their rifles, more plasma-based weaponry, were nothing next to the light, healed burns of the turrets.
All at once, the fog was pulled in one direction. I turned toward it and saw the field clear up and four Justice Rangers walking out of a building marked “Command”. The mist disappeared into a funnel-barreled gun held by a white-clad ranger whose armor had a cloud pattern. He posed as he finished. “You’re through, monster!”
“Did Psycho Gecko send you?” called the Blue Ranger.
I laughed. “I am that merry traveler of the night.”
“You are creeping me out,” Yellow said.
The last of the four was in a shiny silver outfit that was blinding in even the dying light. That one, whose costume had a skirt, chipped in with, “Hope you don’t mind a cold reception!” She held a gun that looked like the White Ranger’s, but she used it to fire cold wind and small spears of ice at me. I knocked aside some, but rushed forward regardless of the ones that hit me. They weren’t stronger than the turrets.
I was among them in no time, concentrating on the Silver Ranger. A swipe drew sparks from her costume as it sent her flying. Behind me, Yellow pulled a wand or pinwheel or something. It had a handle and a guard, but there were a lot of metal sunflowers placed along a backing that came up from the handle. When they started to rotate, it looked more like a chainsaw sword. When I turned to her, that’s when the Blue Ranger circled around behind me. White Ranger checked on Silver.
Yellow swung at me. I tried to grab the sword, but instead she raked it over my chest, the exoskeleton protecting me from the pain of a boob punch. I whipped my tongue out, the prehensile muscle wrapping around where the top sunflower connected to the back and pulling it out of her hand. Blue charged from behind and my tail wrapped around his neck. I gave it a little squeeze, as a treat, before slamming him over my head onto Yellow.
“I’ve got to use it!” I heard Silver Ranger declare. She was running for the hangar building my Flyer was shooting up.
“It’s not ready!” White Ranger called after her.
I heard Sam laughing over the radio as she called “Yeah, get some!” in time to the bursts of fire from the Flyer’s guns.
Suddenly, a whole lot more Flyers materialized in the air surrounding the base. Sam’s fire petered out as she noticed them, too. “Uh, should we engage?” asked Holly
“This is the Exemplars! Everyone, stand down. There’s no more need for violence!” Medusa’s voice boomed out of the Exemplar’s Flyers.
Privately, I got a text message. “Is that u?” It was Medusa.
I waved up at them the same time I texted back. “Yep.”
“Gecko,” Medusa announced out loud. “I can honestly say that’s an amazing thing you’ve done. But you can stop now. You don’t have to be the monster they’re convinced you are. You’re better than that. You’re better than them.”
“You’re a freak and now you look it,” the Blue Ranger said. I still had my tail around his neck, so I picked him up and pulled him closer.
“Plz, ther’s nuthin left 2 prove,” Medusa texted. It would be so much more dramatic if she spelled everything out.
I grinned. It must have scared Blue to see me happy. He started grabbing at the tail more, trying to slip out. I pulled an EMP spike out of pouch I strapped on and gave him a stab, but just in the boot. It probably didn’t even touch skin, but his armor jolted and disappeared, leaving a frightened young man in my grasp. I dropped him.
Then the hangar exploded. The robot within looked like a robot version of a yeti. It pounded its own chest as if it needed any more announcement of its presence, then fired a much larger version of Silver’s ice blast at my Flyer. I heard the crew in there scream as Holly took it hard to the side then fought for control.
That left me and the robot. “Hey, Max, you think you can dump my armor out for me?”
“I’ve been thinking,” he answered. “Did you include a hole for your tail?”
“Looks like I’m doing this the hard way,” I told him and started loping for the Yeti Bot on all fours.
“Stand down, stand down!” Medusa tried to call. Neither myself nor the Silver Ranger listened. Instead, the Yeti jumped and landed in front of me, shaking the ground and causing me to stumble slightly. With me slowed down, it tried to stomp me. I was quicker and jumped onto the side of its leg, claws and tail giving me the purchase necessary to start shoving EMP spikes into weakpoints, like the joints. The Yeti swiped and missed, knocking frost and icicles off. Soon, it couldn’t walk, or twist its hips. A couple spikes to the armpits and it couldn’t even swing its arms. Finally, I mounted the head and drove two final spikes into the crown of the giant robot, freezing it in place.
“Lay down your arms!” ordered Medusa. “You are all under arrest.”
“You and what army?!” called Blue Ranger.
Right on time, transport choppers flew in. Men on horseback jumped their mounts out and deployed giant parachutes of the Canadian flag, submachine guns trained on any of the Rangers and Blackguard who moved. The mounties were here. I blended in and helped my Flyer to do the same, bringing it in low enough for me to jump right into it and start easing us out of there in the confusion.
“Do you think this will stop them?” Max asked.
“Nah,” I answered. “They’ll be out on some sort of immunity, but it means this base and that robot aren’t a problem. No matter where Lulios is, we don’t have to worry about those Rangers interfering with my revenge.”
A text came in from Medusa. “U got away. So did Lulios. Sent him home thru portal.”
Fuck me. With two dicks.
Qiang’s fine. I look after her as Firecat. Still haven’t gotten the hang of cooking scrambled eggs by hand. Power control issues. But the most important thing of keeping her there is that Qiang’s looked after. She gets that I’m doing it through Firecat, accepting that body as just another one belonging to her mother. It helps that if she gets startled and pulls a knife on me, I can still disarm her pretty easily. I’ve taught her a lot, but I haven’t held back just to keep winning. Some counters are just too advanced or require more strength from her.
Firecat’s not just there to look pretty and keep house. I’m closely monitoring the grown body for signs of problems. I don’t know what kind of issues occur when you mash too many people’s DNA together in one body and hope it all takes. I doubt I got all the issues worked out on this already. It’s the same reason I didn’t shove all the powers into my real, main body. Just my luck I’d do that and somehow melt into a pile of goo.
I have other experiments going as well. Seeing how far I can push biology in anticipation of doing likewise with technology. The one in the basement is one of my experiments in extreme biology. Black exoskeleton, hidden nostrils with filters, amphibious lungs capable of breathing air and water, a prehensile tail and tongue. A black, shiny, hard mess without any apparent eyes to even look into. If I can handle it and it holds up, the next step is to marrying it to technology. Like, nanites in it systems that can help aid in the digestive process and can replicate if I chomp on the right stuff. Instead of just having a freaky body, the body could have the same ability to shift armor plates around, add new limbs, fly. Or even growing flesh in battle. Wings. Then think if I can add powers to it. Super speed, super strength
One of many lovely distractions from the greater crisis. Ha! And my personal crisis is a distraction from all the other crises going on. A mess wrapped in a disaster wrapped in a flaming dumpster. Take all that and stick it inside a paper bag full of shit, set that on fire, and you might approach whatever the fuck’s going on with the year 2020.
But, hey, my daughter’s fed and looked after. So am I. I just had to put on a skimpy dress and pretend to be another woman working for Max. It’s a tiny bit of cover, the best I can do to keep my identity secret again, for now. Besides, Psycho Gecko wears armor, after all. The face underneath changes. Only the armor remains, protecting me from the outside world. Aggressively protecting.
That doesn’t mean I hated the nice Italian dinner at the casino. It was genuinely nice to catch up with Max and learn the story of his recent power play. “They stacked the deck against me because the knew I was a threat,” he said.
“What did you have to do?” I asked.
“They wanted me to create water from the desert,” Max said. “I was close.” He nodded.
“Water’s a bring problem here. Sometimes they go on water robberies,” Holly volunteered.
I raised an eyebrow. Sam patted me on the shoulder and told me, “Holly flirts information out of some of the low levels.”
“So they steal water, and they wanted y’all to somehow create water out of the desert?” I asked.
“The person who could do that has the right to own Vegas,” Max said. “It’s a good thing they didn’t know who you were when you challenged for us.”
“Well, hopefully what comes up won’t require turning a desert into a sea… whatever it is,” I said. “Whatever nasty tricks you have up your sleeve, you can whip them up a lot faster than what I’m trying to pull.”
“You’re on the defensive, reacting,” Max said. He shrugged. “Why haven’t you hunted them down yet?”
I shook my head. “All this shook me. It was a pretty big betrayal, against competent enemies who know how to hurt me.” I could try to justify it with other things, like these guys being good at digital security or having Venus and the Justice Rangers on their side. Wasn’t even thinking that. I needed to escape, I needed a friend, and I need to figure out how to handle a very raw situation.
I hit the alcohol a little hard, but I was so full of noodle and sauce that I handled myself well. I was able to crawl back into my armor. Max insisted Vegas honored the results of games and challenges. I wanted my armor. That way, it wouldn’t get all over the room or bed if I pissed myself.
Woke up in the wrong body. All the more confusing, it was the one in the basement. I had to process a tail and very weird visuals. The unique eye situation required a moment to get used to before I zipped over to Firecat instead. I didn’t mean to jump into either of these bodies. Then I got the buzz of a text message, but that was back in my main body. I jumped back there and had to deal with both a text communication and my own full bladder. And since the text was from Medusa, my bladder was least full of shit. Plus, shit goes through the intestines. But does Gecko ever get credit for free anatomy lessons? No! I just get molested by my girlfriend while I’m trying to murder people and I don’t think I slept off that alcohol that much.
Unlike the usual messages from Medusa, this one was as grammatically correct as a time could be and the phrase “Watch The News.” A little before noon. That gave me a little time to be hungover first before going serious. At least I couldn’t get any more miserable. And I didn’t when the time came around. Instead, all the news channels and Fox ran a brief announcement about the diplomat from another Earth, that fuckface, holding a press junket of sorts at a Toronto hotel. He wanted to allow reporters to have time to ask all of their questions after he made his announcement earlier that day.
An announcement of an announcement. Looks like I know when and where they want to meet me. The junket format is a decent way to get me one on one without risking me killing a whole crowd while going after Lulios. He could truthfully claim it has to do with security concerns. I groggily went and found someone to wake up in Max’s bunch and found Holly having a bowl of cereal. “We need to get to Toronto and pretend to be the press for a junket. If Max wants less bloodshed, he can come up with something to knock folks out. Otherwise, we need to get a move on. I got transport for us already.”
Between all of this, it hardly feels like I have a body. Once we had everything loaded up, I set the Psycho Flyer to autopilot to get us to Toronto pronto. I was fine, so I left my body in the armor and jumped over to Firecat to see to Qiang. We had some time to watch a movie together and for me to just be with her. Can’t fault her for wanting to go hang out with friends. I should get her a new knife.
Up in Toronto, we found the place easily enough. All the major news networks of the Americas were there, as well as the pretenders. We had stowed the Psycho Flyer and rented a van for this, with Max and the girls lying in wait. My armor flickered into invisibility and the deception of a normal woman when I stepped out toward one group of the pretenders with OANN marked on their stuff.
“Hi, oh my god, you’re One America News Network!” I said as if I knew them.
They nodded politely, except for the reporter who was having his makeup done. I leaned in close and whispered, “Hey, y’all wanna hear how the Jews are behind this whole thing?”
Well, that set the reporter’s undies on fire. That’s a metaphor, means he got moving. He led the whole crew over to the open rear doors of my van. As soon as they got over to it, Max sprayed them with puffs of red smoke that caused them all to start coughing, then followed it up with another watergun that sprayed a white smoke at them. They collapsed, and I made sure to grab the cameraman’s camera before it hit the ground. When we all left the van minutes later, the four of us blended in.
“Conspiracy theorists,” Sam said, shaking her head.
“How’d you know they’d fall for that?” asked Holly
I laughed. “Some people are so brainwashed by the people running things that if you tell them Jewish folks are to blame, they’ll believe anything you tell them. They’re so scrambled, they can’t see who’s really pulling the strings.”
“Who?” Holly asked
Sam, real quick, let out an “Oh god,” hearing her question.
“Assholes,” I said. “We’re surrounded by ’em.”
“Perhaps they’ll be more appreciative after their nap,” Max said.
“In that sleep of Max, what dreams may come when they haven’t yet shuffled off that mortal coil?” I asked Max in a roundabout butchering of Shakespeare.
“Near Death Experiences often feature visions as a a traumatized and anesthetized brain tries to cope with the chemicals running through its body. I found a way to tap into that and tweak it in a negative direction.”
“Dude!” Sam said, “You gave them a Near Death Experience of Hell?”
“Only while they’re asleep,” Max said. “If they were awake, it would be a vivid hallucination. I’m eager to see people react to that part.”
We were pretty low on the pecking order when they let us through with our press credentials. They immediately brought us to a room with Lulios sitting in a comfy padded chair with refreshment nearby. My own chair had a folder on the table in front of it. “Hello. You are?”
“One American News,” I informed him.
General Lulios nodded. “If you’ll have a seat, the folder in front of you has details about an initiative whereby my government offers support to your world in this trying time.”
I picked it up and glanced at it. Just a system to provide enough nanites to function as a stopgap measure until a vaccine for the virus is produced. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Lulios said, “That’s my folder from earlier. Please set it aside and check the next primer beneath it.”
I did so and found a file with the same information, but in English. As opposed to the language from my world that the other one had been in and I’d been caught reading.
Lulios shifted in his chair. “I wanted to give your people a chance to ask questions, because this is a matter of importance and you have been terrorized by someone using these medical nanomachines before. I hold some guilt for that. For many years, I held onto a hate that did nothing for me but give me someone to treat as less than human. It’s freeing, in a way. It freed the worst aspects of myself. I didn’t have to apologize for my temper or restrain negative thoughts. So long as I targeted the homo machina, I could indulge myself without feeling bad. They weren’t human, after all.” He almost looked happy at that. Despite that, he didn’t feel right. Maybe it was all the time spent as a kid being terrorized by this guy, but he didn’t have the same presence.
He went on. “I was wrong, and it took the enormity of my mistake to make me see it. To see that by treating these people as if they were monsters and a threat to everything, I made a monster. I tortured a poor soul until it became the monster I thought it always had been. I realized after he almost destroyed the world that his people weren’t monsters. Where we demonized them, they defended each other selflessly. Where I taught someone how to destroy a world, they stopped him. They stopped someone who learned hatred and terror from me. I can’t absolve myself of that. But I wanted to meet with you and tell you that I was wrong to do what I did.”
Y’all might think I was boiling with anger, but this was one of those times where I felt like ice. I was beyond simple anger. One coiling mass of nanites formed a tendril with a spike on the end and plunged through Lulios’s chest. It went right through as if punching a hole in air, but it obstructed the image of Lulios seated in his chair. The hologram appeared to be coming from below.
“I’m sorry for the deception as well, but I thought you would kill me before I could ever speak to you, and I needed to talk to you. For your sake and mine,” the illusion of Lulios went on. “I hope you can find a way to let go of the hate toward humanity and the world. I don’t expect you to let go of it toward me.”
I dropped my own hologram and swept the floor. There was no chair in the room over there, just a pentagonal box. I shifted the tendril and stuck the spike into it, piercing the casing. Cables flowed out of the tendril now, carried by questing nanites looking to fuse them into the wiring of the device. It was a way to recreate my natural homo machina abilities while staying armored.
“Gecko…” Max warned. There were noises outside. “I have to step out for a moment.” He took the camera and the squirt gun full of his Hell hallucinogen with him out the door. Meanwhile, I traced back the signal coming from the device.
Above it, Lulios looked on, sizing me up. “I twisted you into this. It must feel like a knife to the gut to find out I’m still alive. Those on my staff who know the truth wanted desperately to keep you from finding out I’m alive, but I knew it was impossible. You were always going to find me. Please be merciful if you can find it in you to be. They are clouded by hate and throwing themselves into a duty to protect me.”
“I’m tired of your perfidious charcuterie, old man,” I growled.
He was shut up by a blast from an energy weapon that soared over his head. “Shut up, for your own good.” The Blue Justice Ranger walked over and held Lulios at gunpoint. He turned toward me. “No one is being released. You are the key to ending this threat-” The Justice Ranger gasped suddenly as arms wrapped around his neck from behind. The hands hit the external release on his helmet and pulled it off, but kept up the pressure on his throat. He turned his gun toward his attacker, but a familiar leg wrapped around it and squeezed, keeping it aimed away.
I’d gotten the trace done by now, but I kept watching as the Blue Ranger fell back and Medusa stepped into frame, in costume but not in armor. She helped up Lulios and turned to me. “They’re going to use him as bait now they know you will come for him no matter what. I did wrong by you, but listen to me now and stay away.” Then, turning to Lulios, she said, “Come on, let’s go.”
It occurred to me once they were done that I had heard a little bit of the sounds of struggle from outside. Holly and Sam must have gone out to help Max at some point. I followed after, finding Canadian police, Mounties, and Lulios’s Blackguard. They hadn’t been knocked out first like the others. The red gas that still lingered in the air had them scratching at walls and the floor, crying, even fighting each other. I liked it. It felt fitting with the mood I was in.
I caught up to Max, Sam, and Holly in the lobby. There were a pair of police helicopters out there, snipers keeping my friends at bay with shots that tore head-sized chunks of the flooring out. “Not enough range on your squirt guns?” I asked Max.
Max gave me a friendly middle finger, then called out, “They’re loaded up for shooting through armor!”
I gave him a thumbs up, then turned and ran for the lobby doors. A nanite and armor tendril tore the front of the lobby open, the nanomachines taking some of the metal to digest and replicate. The one metal tendril split into two tentacles that pushed me off the ground, then became a single limb with a pair of jet engines inside. The engines pulled me through the air toward the first helicopter and wrapped around the landing struts. It grew shorter as I grew another arm that formed a blade to cur through the base of rotor. The rotor went up for a moment as the chopper’s body fell. I threw that off and launched myself toward the other helicopter that was maneuvering for distance. The nanites encased me, reinforcing armor plates moving over my body to form a wedge while two short arms with jet engines threw me through the cockpit and into the hold with the sniper. He tried to smack me with the butt of the gun but the nanomachines caught it and ate the gun. The man dove for it. I let him and decided to escape the falling copter too.
Seeing police vans around, I threw that wreck of a chopper at them with nanite tentacles. Gunfire rang out, and proved to be useless. The cops saw what I’d done so far and wisely ran for it, driving toward escape. The rest of my group walked out behind me, Sam whistling. Holly walked right up to me and asked, “Why did you need us again?”
“I needed my friends,” I said.
Max gave me a hug before Sam elbowed him. “Excuse me, battleground full of dead bodies and terrified people. Can we hug later?”
It’s been some time since I was in a big casino. Some of the nicer underground gambling spots approach the look and feel of a smaller casino, but a big, proper one has a certain life all its own. They cultivate an atmosphere of excitement, a tension that you could be on the edge of a big win. It’s a lie, of course. For every lucky $300 or $5000 win, the casino made more than that off other people. That’s nothing new, of course, but it explains why they really don’t like it when someone wins almost every single time. Like, if someone can neurologically sync up with nearby computer-run slot machines or digital blackjack. Someone with part of their brain replaced by a computer and prosthetic eyes with a HUD that can count and track cards. I’m not very good at poker, but I’m also not welcome in Vegas.
Well, Psycho Gecko isn’t welcome in Vegas, but Gecko is officially dead. So, from my base in a lovely suite, I had free rein to search the town for my friend, Mix N’Max. Last I’d heard, he’d taken a liking to Vegas and did well here with his improbable concoctions. He was a purveyor of pharmaceutical enjoyment and could craft a custom brew to better one’s abilities. Giving people luck potions and super speed pills put him at odds with the local casinos, but also built him enough money and influence to maintain some peace. Except people haven’t been hearing much from Max lately, nor from his assistants Holly and Sam.
Now, the dirty open secret of Vegas, and the whole of the world, is that having enough money means you’re exempt from laws and can do anything you want. Spending a night dropping thousands of dollars at High Roller slots showed I had that money. A friendly concierge stopped by to let me know every so often that if I needed anything at all, just to let them know. Sadly, one thing they couldn’t get me was one of Max’s unique creations, so after awhile I could try a different casino and repeat.
On the fourth iteration of this cycle, I was stopped shortly after entering the Olympus Casino by a concierge wearing a laurel on his head. It was his nod to the Greco-Roman theme of the place, with white imitation marble support columns, rubber plants, and classical statues. Nearby, a lightning bolt lit up over a slot machine to indicate someone hit a jackpot. A sign nearby pointed the way to nearby bathrooms and the Elysium Eatery. With lighter colors and strategic lighting, the place had a thin illusion of being bright and well-lit to it. Just not so bright and well-lit that they couldn’t hide cigarette smoke stains or annoy drunk, high, hungover, and exhausted customers.
Sadly, this concierge blocked my view of a lovely waitress walking around in a skimpy version of a toga and sandals while he was at it. He followed my gaze briefly and laughed. “If it’s the companionship of a beautiful woman you’re looking for, we would be happy to assist. Even her, if you’d like. Hello, I’m Richard Mendelson, concierge here at the Olympus. As I understand and hear, you’re looking for a specific fun. Have I heard right?”
I smiled at him. “You have indeed, Mr. Mendelson.”
“Madame, if you please, I would show you to the Underworld.” He led me to a pair of locked doors off to the side that had their own couple of open guards. I suspected some of the folks in the area were secret guards as well, but at least he didn’t bring any security just to escort me. That would have been a sign of distrust, maybe even hostility.
We took a short elevator ride down to a lower level and stepped out into an area with a different aesthetic. Whereas the upper floor pretended at being bright, this bottom area worked hard at being darker. The walls were a dark brown or red color with the occasional fake torch hung on them looked like it flickered, but the light itself never wavered. A trio of beautiful young with with identical hair, makeup, and black togas stood behind another fake Greek column that served as a podium. Arching over the whole entrance was a large wrought iron gate with some Latin lettering up at the top that read, “Welcome to the Underworld, all ye who enter here.”
Look at that. Took no time at all for a Psychopomp to end up in the Underworld. The concierge next to me held his arm out, welcoming me to go first. I nodded at him and stepped out toward the three smiling faces greeting me at the gates of the Underworld.
I smiled and crossed my arms over my chest. “I hope this isn’t going to be too repetitive of an introduction.”
“Not at all,” One of them said.
“Do you have any cash you want us to deposit for you? A line of credit?” asked the Second.
The Third nodded toward my concierge. “I would be happy to be your guide and show you what we can provide.”
I handed Second a couple hundred thousand dollars in cash and let myself be shown around by the Third, who linked her arm with mine and left the concierge behind. “I’ve been told you are looking for something to enhance your mood and state of mind.”
“Yes, drugs,” I told her.
She giggled like it was the funniest joke in the world. “Not just any drug.”
“Hedonism Squared,” I said. It was something Max has been doing for years. It’s a drug that pretty much erases or reverses all pain. Messes with receives in your brain so they interpret all signals of pain, distress, or discomfort as intense pleasure. Someone could cum from cutting a hand off, which has the potential for danger. The military even tried to buy a bunch, until they ran into the part that makes it so lucrative for Max. See, supposedly there are some really expensive chemicals involved in the process of making it. Selling it wasn’t the moneymaker. Unless a person keeps taking it, they’ll come down to find that everything, every single sensation from before, now registers as pain. It might not be much, but imagine if the wind felt like it was burning you. If laying sick on a bed brought no relief because the sheets felt like a knife’s edge on your skin. So they either keep buying more, or they pay a huge amount for a purgative that stops the whole cycle then and there.
An elegant extortion racket for the wealthy, celebrities, and professional athletes. And not just to use against them. Some of those posh old money families would buy some to keep affluenza-prone kids in line. “Do as I say and you won’t get your next fix. Marry who I tell you or you won’t get the purgative.”
They showed me through a much more sparse casino area. Most of the machines and tables looked the same as upstairs, but with higher stakes. Some few isolated cases didn’t seem to use money as stakes, and I even passed by a couple of old guys glancing between their cards and each other while the dealer sharpened a cleaver. I checked the sign and cooed to my guide, “I’ve always wanted to try chop poker.”
“Every grudge can be settle with a game here. Are you any good at Seven Card Stud?” she asked.
“I’m afraid not,” I answered.
She laughed. “Unless you can grow back body parts, I would advise you to stay away, ma’am.” There came a scream and a thud of metal on fabric behind us.
Second or Two or whatever led me to a more private, smaller alcove with a padded couch and a table. “Please wait here.”
She barely finished speaking when a young woman stopped by in one of the same skimpy togas. “May I get you any refreshment while you wait?”
“It will only be a few minutes,” Second told me. And that’s all it was, just a few minutes before she brought me back a small, clear glass bottle with a dropper top that came down into a clear liquid. I took it in hand and held it up to the light.
“Does it satisfy?” Second asked.
“Hmm…” I pretended to regard it. “It looks milky. Have you diluted it?”
“I assure you…” she trailed off when she saw me unscrew the top. I stayed away from it a bit, sniffing. “Ma’am, you shouldn’t!” she rushed forward. I moved it away from her, but kept track of it.
“H-Squared requires enough of it to form at least a droplet to have an effect on the human body,” I said. “Smelling it is harmless and can help tell if it has been tampered with. Your reaction doesn’t satisfy me. Bring me something fresh.” I closed up the bottle and held it out for her. When she hesitated, I pulled out another stack of cash. “I want to go with you, to ensure quality.”
“I can’t…” she started to say. She shut up once I pulled out another bundle of cash. “I guess I can.” That bundle disappeared into her cleavage. She led me into an area that wasn’t for guests. The walls were painted, unappealing cinderblock. She led me down corridors until we reached a larger room, an underground arena with three tiers. Stairs sloped down to the bottom floor with a large, electrified cage in the middle. The slope had seats, though most of them were empty. There was the floor we were on, and then a balcony floor overlooking everything from its ring. My hostess led me along our floor around to a concession stand of sorts, only they had it separated by a thick window. She pressed an intercom to speak to the inhabitant. “Wake up. We need something fresh.”
The lights inside brightened slowly, revealing Max, with a black eye and a nasty gash on my friend’s pale head. He heaved himself up with a grunt, looking over at us with resentment. It’s rare I’ve ever seen him without his Cheshire grin, but I also didn’t expect to see him in this state. “He’s your prisoner?” I asked. “You trust him to cook for you despite that?”
“He challenged the ruler of Olympus and he lost. We hold leverage over him to ensure he doesn’t try anything,” she said. I could hear the smugness. They must have Sam and Holly somewhere, as hostages.
“You weren’t kidding about solving anything with a game,” I said.
Second reached for the intercom. I laid my hand on hers to stop her. “What’s the game to win him?”
“Excuse me?” she asked. She took her hand away and backed off. “You don’t want to do that.”
“I do,” I said. “So, what’s it going to be? Care for a game of chop poker?” I turned toward what crowd there was, as well as the man and gorilla facing off in the middle of the cage. “We are at an impasse! They have a lucrative asset I want! I challenge for Mix N’Max!”
A loud blare cut off all other sounds. Above everything, a walkway extended out over the arena. A man walked out, turned into shadow by lights backing him. He turned sharply to look at me. Or away from me, but I’m guessing toward. When he spoke, the acoustics let me hear it easily. “You challenge me within my own casino? You are an audacious one. What is your name?”
“I’ve been called Trouble,” I called out to him. “But my name is unimportant. More important is if you shy away from a challenge… surely, I don’t scare you, do I? I want Max and the two companions you use for leverage.”
I heard a few in the crowd “Oooh”ing.
“Tell you what,” he said. “You’re asking for three. I’ll make this easy on you. We were just about to have a match. I would ask you to participate.” He motioned toward me. Second took hold of my arm from behind and began to lead me down the stairs. “Come on. There’s a good lass.”
I didn’t want to seem too eager, helped by my own disappointment. The thrill-seeking part of me hoped for a game of chance or something different than a mere fight. I can cage fight a gorilla in my sleep. Really, the secret to most mammals is to go for the groin. Well, we got on down to the stage level, but I didn’t see an opening to the cage. I looked up at the mysterious shadow owner who said, “Last chance to back out.”
“Last chance to grow a pair!”
The floor fell away underneath me. It was fun, actually. There was a slide that just kept going. How big was this fucking place? An image appeared overhead, a shadowed head with a tophat backed by bright lights. “Round one, for Samantha Hain, you face my deadly giant Brown Recluse… sorry, I’m being told he’s lost weight and prefers the term ‘Persian hermit.’ But tonight, he is the deadliest of your enemies in the slide race.” I got used to the lights, or maybe the lighting improved. Either way I saw another slide zip on overhead and come up beside mine. In the other lane was a skinny young guy in a t-shirt. He waved at me happily.
I stopped paying attention to him when something smacked me in the face. I grabbed at a small squirt gun, full of water.
“Your goal, to reach the exit which will close after the first person passes through, trapping the other in a bottomless pit. Yes, bottomless. Don’t think about it or you’ll lose. You’ve each been provided with a squirt gun full of lubricant to help speed you on your way. Good luck!” The floating image disappeared.
Ah, so not water. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as the Persian Hermit sped up, yelling “To infinity and beyond!” He had a huge soaker, dwarfing the tiny pistol I’d been given. Oh, right, that’s why I should have preferred a cagefight. I gave my gun a squirt at the slide ahead of me so I went over it. I sped up shortly after hitting the patch of lube, but a sudden turn almost threw me over the edge. I found I’d caught up to the Hermit, who had slowed down in anticipation. So I had an idea how to win. I tried to keep up with him without running out of that KY goodness. He managed to pull ahead by the time we reached another curve. I had to aim carefully to deal with the drop of liquid. And I knew, I only had a dozen shots at this. Squirt!
Like Icarus, the Hermit flew too close to the sun. It happened when the extra lubricant helped him maintain too much speed and he flew over the curve and down into the darkness below. After that, the ride got kinda boring until the slide dropped me into a ballpit in a small room. I crawled forward to escape the net enclosure of the pit and felt something below. I pulled it up to find a bloody femur.
The image of the shadowman appeared on the wall next to me. “Congratulations, you won the race. Fuck you. Anyway, your next challenge will be against an even deadlier opponent. An evil clown known only as… Giggles.”
“Is this a race or tug of war or what?” I asked. The wall slid open in front of me and an overweight clown walked in, his face an intense stare right into the very depths of where my soul would be if I had one.
“This is Russian Roulette! One of you lives. The other takes a bullet to the brain,” the shadowman said, laughing. The laughter cut off when the video did.
The clown pulled a revolver out of his pants and loaded a single bullet into the cylinder. He spun it, then raised the barrel to his temple. Click! Nothing happened. He tossed the gun to the floor in front of the ballpit. I pulled myself out of the ballpit and bent down to take the gun, then looked around. Huh, no guards. I cocked the hammer back part of the way so I could freely spin the cylinder so the round would be next in the chamber. I finished cocking it, rotating that round into place, and pointed it at the clown’s head. His eyes widened a little too late I splattered his brains against the wall.
The shadowman appeared on the wall. “That… was not how that was supposed to go.”
“One of us is dead and the other’s alive. What are you going to do, have him move on to the next challenge?” I asked, kicking the oversized shoes of the dead man on the floor in front of me.
“…moving on then. Please make your way through the door and leave the gun!”
I shrugged and dropped it before heading out the door, stepping out… into the cage? See, I was beginning to think this place made no sense before, and this just confirmed it. I turned back the way I came and saw the room I was in had disappeared. Even the door frame around me seemed to just be an empty frame, with no way to stand up.
Across from me in the cage stood Second or Two. I never bothered figuring out her name. Shadowman’s voice boomed out over the arena. “You keep killing everyone you compete against, so I’m not going to feel sorry for you this time. Bitch against bitch, you versus one of my Cerberus girls. Go at it until one of you can’t stand up anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Second said.
“Um, why? You’re going to die,” I said.
Second balled up her fists and concentrated, then her skin seemed to split and stretch, closing back up over a growing form that spouted fur from it. She looked like a nine-foot tall pit bull. It was kinda cute, actually, especially with the large boobs. Sexy, even. They were just really nice boobs. And the abs on her. Tits that big with a cut belly like that? Oooh, and those thighs.
I twirled my fingers through my hair. “So… hiya.”
“What are you doing?” asked shadowman.
I stepped forward, running fingers through my own hair to straighten it out and tried giving a flirty twirl through my hair at the end. “So… I can’t help but notice you’re naked now. It would be a shame to waste all this lubricant from the slide.”
Second cocked her head to the side in confusion as I pressed up against her and ran a finger over her rock hard abs. Then I reached up and put my hand around her head, guiding her fanged, drooling mouth down to mine.
An hour later, I kicked the side of the fence down. Behind me lay Second, weak-kneed, and unable to stand, slipping in… juices. Long story short, she was a little too weak to stand. Secret to beating pretty much any mammal: go for the groin.
I ignored the now-packed arena and called up to the balcony level. “You done up there? Give me Max!”
Shadowman cleared his throat and spoke between pants. “Yeah, I’m finished. Oh my god. Give her Max and the girls. Can you come back and do a show for us sometime?”
I ignored his questions as I walked up the steps. Behind me, I heard the mutated voice of Second call out, “My number is-!” but the applause stopped me hearing the rest.
At the top waited Max, Sam, and Holly, all hugging. They turned to me, curious, but then Max hugged me as well. “Gecko! It’s been awhile.”
“Hey Max. Looks like we both got in some trouble,” I said.
“How did you know that was Gecko?” asked Holly. She had gone back to brown hair with blonde highlights, setting her apart from Sam, who looked a lot different without all the makeup to compliment hair that was dyed silver.
“I’d know that foot thing anywhere,” Max said, sly grin returned to his face.
“Come on, I’m starving,” Sam said, grabbing Holly and pulling us toward the exit.
I shrugged. “Sounds good, but you know I’ve already eaten.”
They all groaned.
“Gecko, let me in!” Medusa said, banging away at my door. I’d locked myself in my study, hanging upside down while my consciousness raced through computer systems to collaborte with my science guys and steal info from around the world. The Fluidics hadn’t done anything yet. Yet.
Normally, the solution I’d resort to is a D-Bomb. Oops, looks like there’s no guarantees that’ll keep working, and what the brainiacs said makes me think I should ease off on those. Considering we’ve got a couple of permanent holes to other dimensions around this world, they seem to have a point. That’s really going to fuck up that contract I had to drill Uranus while providing things like food and consumer products. That’s a miner concern at the moment.
I was trying to ignore Medusa while I dealt with bigger, deadlier concerns, including the aftermath of the Telechamber explosion. She didn’t want to let a sturdy door get in her way, though. I heard it rattle from an impact, then dear Medusa’s voice a she yelled “Fuck that hurt!” I should have installed a window with the words “In Case Of Emergency, Break Glass” on it.
“There’s a door knob!” I called to her, unlocking it remotely with an audible click. I nearly locked it back just before she could open it.
“You are really worried about this,” Medusa said as she opened the door. I couldn’t really see her as I’d put a blindfold over my head to help me concentrate
“I’m surprised you aren’t,” I answered.
“There are a lot of heroes who will help fight the big stuff,” she said. “I have to trust in them if I’m going to do what I do now. You should trust that you have people who will fight for you if they come for revenge.”
That caused me to pause for a moment. “Well, normally people don’t. They’re more than happy to see me die. That’s one of the downsides of my Machiavellian, fear-based respect. And on top of that, if they come for me, I need to make sure a lot of other people don’t get caught in the crossfire. The Fluidics won’t care who they have to go through. I got some ideas for things to do, but this kind of shit is always a gamble. There’s always a chance they’ll move faster, or have some advantage I can’t overcome, or that they’ll simply know stuff I can’t know.”
“I get that you’re used to that, but you’re not alone. What can we do to help?” Medusa asked.
“Yeah, you got friends in low places,” I heard Max say from further, probably around the door.
“Not like you can do much about the remains of an alien fleet lowering themselves slowly into the atmosphere,” I responded, watching that happen over various feeds.
Sam spoke up, “They may not want to kill you. You should be open to the possibility of giving people a second chance.”
“Yeah, that’s why you have a girlfriend,” Holly added.
“True, I gave her a second chance after all the times she tried to thwart my plans, but I don’t think we can risk that kind of trust for murderous aliens who want to take over the world. Or at least, I can’t as an Empress,” I said, which attracted snorts for some reason.
After a second that I was using to check data on the island’s forcefield, Max decided to expand on this whole thing, “You are a murderer from another universe who once took over the world. You even killed The Good Doctor, who was our friend.”
“That’s not the same,” I said.
“I remember when you made stupid jokes about assuming gender even though you and Max’s sister are, ya know…” Sam said.
“Remember when you jumped up and tanked a rocket for a little girl you took in as your daughter?” said Holly.
I didn’t quite know what to say, so I tried to keep looking things over. I had ideas about the island’s shield, but it’d be dangerous to pull off with people around and it wouldn’t really come up unless the aliens came at me with their ships. I figured I could repurpose the nanomachines in the waters to handle a ground invasion, though.
A caress of my cheek drew me back out of those thoughts, and Medusa told me, “If nobody trusted you, you wouldn’t be here to argue about protecting people you feel responsible toward, or smuggling people out of concentration camps to safety. Does that sound like someone who deserves to die?”
“That’s not the whole story and you know it,” I said.
“Yeah, but what you think is justice is sometimes revenge and paranoia. The Academy and too many heroes get confused about that, and I’m tired of seeing that. If you want to be no better than the heroes, though…” Damn, this is what I get for dating someone with a sense of morality.
“I’m still going to plan on how best to kill them,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t,” Sam said. “Also, can you put on some clothes.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who barged into my private study. Besides, it’s not anything you haven’t already seen.”
“We need to talk about all the public nudity, while you’re at it,” Medusa said. “It’s making everyone uncomfortable that you don’t wear a hair net when you cook.”
You miss one Brazilian…
Just because my family doesn’t want me committing preemptive strikes or walking around with no panties on taco night doesn’t mean I stopped thinking of how to take the Fluidics out the second they step out of line. It didn’t hurt they only had a handful of ships, and those didn’t look good. Pieces were missing or blackened with burns. I could take them, it’s just a matter of how many casualties they cause before I send them on to another great beyond.
They didn’t take long to make an announcement, breaking through on every TV and radio channel out there, even the smutty ones. I was watching a guy in handcuffs say, “Punish me, daddy,” to someone wearing all black, when suddenly my attempt to learn how that murder trial turned out was interrupted by TV snow. It began to shift as a digitally simulated voice began to speak. “You call us the Fluidics. We came to conquer. You banished us to another dimension.”
I knew where this was going, or so I thought.
“In the space between universes, there is a greater threat. It called itself the end. Extinction. It did not kill us slowly. An anomaly allowed it to escape to the universe it had drawn closer to. We found ourselves here, again. That is why-”
That feed cut off. I immediately cut back to my bootleg view of their ships from all the angles. Every country on Earth’s got eyes on these guys, and I’m tapped into as many independent sources as I can. Cameras on the ground, satellites, drones; everything.
The sky split the fuck open. I can’t express what the fuck that looks like, but I’ll try. Imagine the sky, and then it’s pushed apart like it was wallpaper. Instead of seeing anything on the other side, even a black void, you just see a red hand and wrist hanging in the air. Its fingers were curled around the Fluidic ships. It squeezed, then pulled back into the sky, leaving little scraps of metal to fall to the ground while it and the ships disappeared.
That wasn’t the end of my unpleasant interruptions, though. Once again, my view of things was hijacked. It was just a face, as generic and hairless as human faces come, and not even in color. “Hello again, Psychopomp Gecko.”
“Is this going out for everyone?” I asked, wondering if this thing would answer.
“No, this is between the two of us. Do you recall who I am?” it asked.
I thought it over, glad for my facial recognition software. “Mr. Omega. You wouldn’t happen to be the guy those Fluidics were talking about, are you?”
The face grinned. “I promise, I come in peace. I defeated the Fluidics for you, did I not?”
“You scared the shit out of a lot of people while you did that, and I still know so little about you.”
“I have offered to help you once, and defeated your enemies for you another time. I am a powerful and grateful friend.”
“What about that Dusk Club you claim to be part of? I thought you were already defending the Earth?”
“I was banished from the universe long ago for the crime of having ambition. I didn’t want to stay in my place, so I was banished by those jealous of the power I tapped into. So great was their jealousy, they forced even my closest allies to forget me. I nearly went mad alone in the aether, but I found the power to watch and, eventually, the power to make myself heard. I owe you a debt of gratitude for weakening the veil between worlds. Continue to do so, and you will have a place of honor and protection.”
I know this pitch. This is not a good pitch. He’s basically asking me to betray the world, much like the invaders from Uranus did, in exchange for being one of the slightly higher-placed servants. Everything that’s come through might have even been his doing, which explain why so many of them were threats to me. Normally, I’m disinclined to accept anything like this, but I also just saw a giant hand rend the universe to grab a fleet of spaceships and pull them out of our universe. This is a heck of a power imbalance I’m on the wrong side of. So that left me with an important question.
“And if I don’t, you’ll reach that big red hand right up my ass and pull my spinal column into the universe divide, right?”
“Do not be so crude. There are so many ways I could punish my enemies, or our enemies. Nobody needs to know it was you, Psychopomp. Not your loved ones, not your rivals. Wouldn’t you like to have a god on your side? A true one, not the petty pretenders.”
“In some ways, it feels like I already have one. I think I need to speak with my people about our deal with the Uranuses in that other dimension. I have people over there and important resources to trade with them. Luckily, the power cores weren’t breached.”
“Hmm,” is all Mr. Omega said, a toothless smile stretching his face.
I don’t know how I’m going to pull this one off, but it looks like I get to try and betray an extradimensional being that can literally squash me like a bug. Ah, how I long for the days when I kicked Cthulhu’s ass off my island.
Oh, and for added bonus, I have to do all this without tipping off the entity watching me. Kinda wish I was telepathic, now.
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.”