For some reason, the full moon has gotten marked down as a family bonding night. Which is kinda ironic, considering the importance of the night is that I’m a weredeer who transforms at the full moon into a heroic alter ego. I don’t have a lot of friends in the villain community these days, so I guess it’s not so much attacking my friends. I think Max decided to spend some time at Isla Tropica after spending some time with his sibling in the South, so that’s not an issue. I don’t have many friends period, but I guess the people I spend the most time hanging out with for awhile are Marianne and Adrian, and they used to be superheroes.
I was a little on edge the whole day leading up to it, even though I’d been making peace with Reindeer on an intellectual level. I guess that’s a part of me. One day a month, that deep-seated desire to help people doesn’t come out all twisted. It was still unusual to be so tense.
Tonight’s agenda was to fly into a city along with an Exemplar shipment. The Exemplars were helping with the official vaccination efforts. They had the manpower; transport was getting to them. And I just happened to have built my own flying machine to help get around.
“Are you sure this thing’s safe?” asked Davilo, my brother. He was already transformed into a Justice Ranger. I guess he had something of a break right now. Leah, my former ward and apprentice, didn’t hesitate before running into the side door of the vessel. It was a more compact version of one of my Psycho Flyers, with some of the upgrades to speed and stability of the new ones, sadly offset by it being a little less rounded an aerodynamic from the materials I used. It’s stable; I wouldn’t fly around if it was going to fall apart on me. Instead of three jets, it had four oriented on the sides but at a lower angle that reduces its profile a bit. Along with concentrating some weapons at the front, I dub this… the Pegacorn. It’s like if a unicorn and a Pegasus were mashed together. Still has the same cloaking capability as the other Flyers.
We had some Exemplar help loading up. They had on white power armor, scuffed or dirty in places, but there were prominent red crosses on them. Medics, in other words. They didn’t carry weapons, though the armor that helped them carry such heavy loads also meant they’d be more than capable in hand to hand against most people. In between using my shop as a stop-off for villains needing a place to lay low or seek medical attention, I also let the Exemplars stop over. Somehow, I’ve become neutral ground.
We were all ready and in the air when my internal alarms went off. I left my body behind a curtain with Reindeer’s costume. The Iron Deer power armor came online with me at the helm wondering if I might change the name. It seemed ok at the time, but now we’re bordering on tying my identity too much to that Marvel comics guy. I went to fly the Pegacorn while pondering such ponderous thoughts.
Leah, Davilo, and the Exemplar guys crowded into the cockpit. “It sounds weird back there,” Davilo offered. “What do you think?”
“Metal Deer? It sounds so generic. Metalbeast is better, but isn’t properly descriptive. Might be fun to mess with the fans of that sci fi movie, though.”
“What are you talking about?” One of the Exemplar medics asked.
“Thinking up new names. Iron Deer was a bit hasty of a moniker to take up. Means I picked a name too fast. Too many associations with a comic book character for my taste.”
“Maybe we should call you Psychopomp Deer?” Leah teased. At least I think it was teasing. She seemed happy with herself at that suggestion.
“No offense, but I’d rather not drag my good name through the mud by associating it with heroism,” I told them all.
“You actually like your reputation?” asked a medic.
“A lot of people died to make that reputation. Doesn’t really fit to know I can kill anyone in between helping save kittens from trees,” I said.
At least my brother had some sense. He asked, “What is wrong with cats on this Earth?”
“It’s an expression,” Leah said.
“It’s a waste of a perfectly good feline,” I answered. “Climb up onto stuff, then refuse to get themselves down even though they could just survive the fall.”
One of the medics peeked back. “I don’t hear anymore bones snapping. It might be safe to go back.”
“Golden hind!” called Reindeer from the rear of the Pegacorn.
“…An ass?” asked Leah after a moment of silence.
“No, a creature from Greek myth that Heracles had to capture. A hind is an old term for a female deer. I get tired of the Greek stuff.”
The medics filtered back as Reindeer made her way up, costume on. “It’s that or try to build a new name. Like Bronze Hind or,” she tried to snap her fingers, failing just as much as I always do. “Platinum Hind. Titanium Hind.”
“Ununbium Hind?” I asked.
Leah cleared her throat. “Titanium Hind would look like Tit Hind if shortened, if that makes a difference.”
“Platinum Hind it is then,” I said.
Reindeer tapped me on the head. “It needs a ‘The’.”
“The Platinum Hind… I feel like I should be shinier,” I said, glancing down at the metal body of the power armor that could move on its own.
“If people think you’re platinum, it might mess with their expectations,” Davilo said.
Leah clapped. “I could shine you up!”
Davilo blushed. “That must mean something different here.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s suggestive on this Earth, too.”
Reindeer laughed as Leah went red-faced and shouted, “Just get us there already!” before stomping off toward the back.
Our destination was St. Paul. The Exemplars were running it 24/7 to catch people who needed it but couldn’t come in regular business hours. I’m 99% sure they’re vaccinating everyone possible in-between the “appropriate” vaccinations. We off-loaded everything and then, I guess, Reindeer’s plan was to help with the vaccination. So I guess we were helping vaccinate folks. Reindeer and I had enough medical knowledge to aid the medics with the technical stuff. Leah and Davilo stuck around with us, Davilo sticking beside me.
“You should stop by First Earth and do stuff like this,” he said at one point. “But I understand if you want to avoid it.”
I didn’t get a chance to answer when the action started. Because it’s always going to fucking happen. I swear, my power is attracting useless conflict. The clinic we were operating in started to shake. The ceiling split apart, but a portion of it fell in toward us. I pulled the patient in the room toward me and opened up, protecting the guy in the inner cavity built to hold Reindeer.
After a few seconds of debris falling on us, everything seemed to quiet down. “Davilo, you ok?”
“I’m alive, sis,” he answered. “Doc?”
There was a muffled sound for a moment, then the doctor turned on the speakers of his power armor. “I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I made it.”
“I’m going to push,” I said. I started standing up, creating enough room for Davilo to squirm around and get his feet underneath him. He helped me and the both of us got enough up for the Exemplar medic to untangle himself from around a chair.
The medic coughed, then asked, “Where’s the patient?”
“In here! I’m fine,” came the muffled reply from inside me.
“Good. Once we get you out of here, give the vaccine two weeks to reach full efficacy and you’ll be good to go.”
“Thanks!” he called out. “For all of this.”
We got out from under the debris. “I’m going to check on who did this, you want to dig people out, doc?”
The medic nodded. Davilo joined me as we jumped clear of the place. It was like the building had been pulled apart through the middle. Some parts of it were coming up at an angle, confused people wandering out or looking for each other. We happened to be in the large part of the middle that fell apart when it came down. My brother and I hopped clear to . I paused long enough to open back up and let the relieved patient run off.
“I knew it! Robots are trying to take control of us!” Davilo, the patient, and I all turned to see a man in a hoodie and cargo pants. Could have been anyone without some special costume. He didn’t even wear a mask. I got a great look at his face for later.
“Did you do this?” I called out.
“I don’t see a badge. Per the United States Naval Code, you have no right to detain me,” the man said, bowing up at me. I jumped over the building to land in front of him. Davilo made his own way involving kicking off the damaged building. Just before he landed, the man threw his hands up in front of me. I grabbed them and broke his thumbs.
“Agh! Fuck! You’re not allowed to do that!” He grabbed at his hands with, well, his hands.
“What about this?” I asked before kicking him in the crotch hard enough to lift him off the ground.
He landed and doubled over, sounding like he was trying to avoid a dry heave, “No! What kind of hero are you?”
I stepped behind him and grabbed him by the boxers, lifting him up in a wedgie. “The kind that doesn’t talk and let you do something. Now what’s your deal?”
He didn’t answer at first, the pain from the nutshot catching up to him. It wasn’t until I was spinning him around me by his boxers that he made some noises other than pain. “Stop! I’ll talk!” Meanwhile, my brother and the patient I’d saved were helping extricate others from the damaged building.
“Good,” I said, holding him up so I could look him eye to eye by the back of his pants. His boxers were a mess by this point. “What’s your deal?”
“I have to stop the global cabal of pedophile reptilians who operate out of a pizza place,” he said.
“What’s this have to do with vaccines?” I asked.
“They’re not vaccines, they’re microchips that keep track of you.”
“Are you aware you have your phone in your pocket and that its global positioning is activated?” I asked.
“That’s…different?” he asked. Then his head exploded and a dent appeared in my chestplate.
“Snipers!” Davilo called out. Suddenly, they went from getting people out of the building to trying to get people behind as stable of cover as possible. Dong! Another shot bounced off my head this time, but it gave me an idea what we were looking for. I pointed. “Thataway!” The sniper was in the back of a pickup truck down the road, more hoodie-dressed people back there. It was all a similar getup, but these were packing guns and had stayed less obvious. Some kind of fall guy bullshit, probably thought they were clever. The two guys in the truck still had their phones with them.
A silvery light shot into the sky. I stared as Reindeer floated into the air but not using the jets or the sonic equipment on her costume. They couldn’t have let her hover that way. They wouldn’t have lit up her eyes or antlers so they looked like they were filled with the light of the moon.
The sniper aimed at her. The others, realizing they’d been made, raised their rifles toward her. The truck’s engine roared to life, so the driver at least had enough sense to realize something was up. With a flash, twin silver beams of light shot from Reindeer’s antlers to knock them all back and scatter their weapons. The driver gunned it then, tires squealing as he tried to race out of there. I gave him a moment before I self-destructed his phone. He lost control then, probably concentrating on a pants pocket. The truck smashed into a postal box, then into a traffic light pole.
We had them all tied up by the time the cops finally rolled up. They rolled to a stop, rolling the window of their cruiser down to look agog at the weredeer and robotic deer sitting there with a truck that had a bunch of humans tied to the hood. “Sup,” Reindeer said with a nod.
“You got a hunting permit?” the cop behind the wheel asked as he stepped out.
“These fucks just attacked a bunch of people getting the vaccine. We better not hear any bullshit about letting them go because you think prosecutors won’t charge them,” Reindeer said.
That cop’s face got red at the implication he’d be biased.
I held up a hand. “Shove the indignation up your ass. You want to say there are good cops, prove it.”
“Yeah. Hunting season ain’t over yet,” Reindeer finished up for me.
Once the cops finally took those guys into custody and started taking witness statements, though, I pulled Reindeer aside. “What was that with the horns and the lightshow?”
Reindeer shook her head. “I don’t know. Something feels different. Maybe because it’s winter. Maybe I’m getting stronger the longer I stick around. You know you didn’t have to do all that to the first guy.”
I shrugged. “I know, but he annoyed me. I wanted to hurt him and somebody doesn’t like me casually murdering folks.”
“It’s not any better if you do it in a tuxedo, either,” Reindeer cut me off before I could joke about formally murdering people.
The night was ruined, but no one else died. And I found some evidence to suggest Reindeer is getting stronger. Found that out when I woke up around noon, wearing a towel in my bedroom with a note in hand that Reindeer had written explaining she’d woken up in Reindeer form the morning after the full moon.
I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m going a bit crazy and paranoid, but I’m fine.
There aren’t too many years quite like 2020. Good. After all we had to go through this year, this big asteroid showed up. Can’t say I was surprised that a shitload of heroes and villains got off their holiday-padded asses to fly up there and blow the shit out of it someway or another. They got a lot of power, just not much killer instinct unless you interrupt their holidays and celebrations over the year end. I don’t blame ’em one bit.
Lucky, too. I’m not saying I couldn’t blow up an asteroid if given a little time to prepare, but everything I have ready right now is more for dealing with fleshies. Asteroids don’t care about knockout gas, laughing gas, or ass gas. That last one’s an experiment in stink-based warfare, meant as an area denial weapon by smelling bad enough to force people to get out or start hacking. I could have managed a D-Bomb before it hit us, but I’m working with a lot less infrastructure nowadays. If I keep expanding my basement lair any further, I’ll owe the neighbors rent.
Anyway, the asteroid couldn’t handle the power of however many pissed-off superheroes were ready for a break. We were all hanging out in the living room, watching the wall monitor showing supers around the world handling debris from the asteroid. Some pieces were small enough not to worry about, but I guess there were a few that people thought could wreck orbital infrastructure.
“Wow,” Davilo said. “This world’s potential is astounding.”
“We’re not as far ahead technologically, but we’ve got some things going for us,” Leah said, smiling at Davilo, then turning to glance at me.
I noticed and figured I’d contribute to the conversation, “Just glad I never crossed the threshold that gets me splatted by the power of a thousand suns.” One sun would do it, though. Like that time a super whose powers would have let him consume the world couldn’t do much once I teleported him into the heart of our local star.
“Thank Medusa for that,” Leah said.
“That a deity over here?” Davilo asked.
I shook my head. “Lots of the supers like to use the names of mythological figures, but the original myth has her as an inhuman being who turned anyone who looked at her to stone. This one is one of the few who can keep up with me in a fight, and my ex.”
“I’m not gonna lie, that surprised the hell out of me,” Leah said. “But she was also your biggest cheerleader for so long. I don’t think she wants to give up on anyone, but there’s something special about you to her. Too bad it didn’t work out.”
“Yeah, well, there’s way more interesting stuff going on than my love life. Like asteroids,” I said, steering things back away form that conversation.
That only lasted a little while before my Reindeer alarm went off. I set an alarm in the house to keep me updated on how long to go before my monthly visitor arrived. Two hours at the time. I assured my guests it was nothing, then told some of my helper robots to check the Iron Deer while I pulled out Reindeer’s armor and went over it for a last check.
“That’s some new armor,” Leah said, eyeing it curiously.
“Ok, so you know how about a year ago a bunch of people were turned into animal-human hybrids, and then afterward a bunch of people became, like, lycanthropes and felinthropes and whatever other -thropes you want to call them?” Or in my case, a misanthrope.
“Oh my god, you’re a werewolf?!” Leah asked, excited.
Davilo turned to me finally to see what the commotion was about. “Werewolf?”
“Nowhere,” I answered. I held up the helmet and poked some fingers through the antler holes. “I’m a weredeer. A werereindeer. She’s called ‘Reindeer’ and she’s a hero, unlike me.”
“Aww, that’s so great,” Leah said. I fought off the urge to full-body shiver. She doesn’t have the same hang-ups and associations I do with heroes, despite her own history with one. Medusa got to her in time.
“Well, it’s complicated for me, knowing every month that I’m going to transform and potentially attack my own friends and other people I least wish harm upon. On the other hand, she’s smart, reasonable, and has the affection of the people.” And if she took over, everyone I know except maybe Mix N’Max would prefer her to me. Just letting y’all know, I’m insecure about that.
I finished getting them up to speed and made the final flight checks remotely. It wasn’t a full-sized flyer, but I was able to put together a smaller replacement using more car parts and some of the experience of converting Mrs. Johnson’s Impala into a flying sleigh.
Five minutes before moonrise, I went ahead and took my body downstairs for the big change. These kinds of transformations tend to be unpleasant to look at. I skipped over to the Iron Deer armor, turned its eyes temporarily, and waited until all the snapping and fleshy squishing sounds stopped.
“You done?” I asked, cutting my eyes back on.
Reindeer arose with a yawn. “Yeah, sure. Hey, do you have any normal clothes that would fit me?”
“You know you can’t really blend, right?” I wanted to get the question out of the way before this turned into some sort of comical misunderstanding. Reindeer can’t exactly do undercover work outside of a forest.
“I thought I’d take the night of superheroism. I don’t get a lot of time to hang out, and our brother’s in town. You haven’t been catching up with Leah, either,” she said.
If I had lungs, I’d have sighed. “I’ll see what I can find.”
I tromped upstairs in the mobile power armor and pointed back down with a thumb for the benefit of Davilo and Leah. “Looks like she just wants to hang tonight. I’m gonna grab some clothes.”
“You’re a robot now?” Leah asked.
“I transmit my brain signals to certain transceivers and control them like my own body. For some reason, it lets me stay conscious whenever the change happens,” I explained at increasing volume as I headed back deeper into the house. Qiang was in her room, listening to loud music and playing games with her friends. And I found out that I had a few outfits stretchy enough to fit Reindeer’s larger frame. At last, my love of faux-leather pants that show off the ass comes in handy.
“And we’ll see if this top fits,” I said, tossing one to Reindeer that I thought might handle her. That dream was dashed when she tore the top while pulling it on over her head.
“Good news,” I said, grabbing a pair of heavy duty scissors. “Looks like you’ll be wearing a crop top tonight.”
So they all went out. I let them drag me along, but did my best to just stay out of things. The locals and heroes all seem to love Reindeer, so I let them all enjoy their time. Then the bar went quiet and someone turned up the TV for breaking news. Police were doing a big manhunt for someone running around Milwaukee leaving big fleshy mounds of tentacles clinging to stuff. Some of the bar patrons left then to fly over to help or speed or whatever. This little super enclave, Radium, is way far out from everywhere, so the only way anyone was assisting the cops was if they could get there fast.
“I can teleport us if you want to go,” Davilo offered to Leah and Reindeer.
“That’d be awesome, bro,” Reindeer said.
“Four person super team for the evening? Sounds great,” Leah added, but without the sarcasm I’d have used.
“You want to come?” Reindeer asked.
I didn’t, but as both the only supervillain in the bunch and the only sober person, I figured someone had to be there that could help the person they’re looking for escape. Like a designated escape driver. I shrugged and followed them outside where Reindeer and Leah stood with their arms out on Davilo. “Come on, I’ll teleport you,” he insisted. So I reached out and put a metal hand on his head.
Justice Ranger teleportation reminds me a bit of cross-dimensional travel, but whatever thing we’re looking at isn’t alternate universes. In minutes, we flew from a pretty dim area to collection of many more lights of all different colors packed into a tighter space. We landed in the middle of the street, with a car coming right for Reindeer. I jumped for her, taking the hit and falling right back against her as it just barely got its hooves on the ground. The back of the armor opened up and ensconced Reindeer, who lifted up the front of the car enough to redirect its energy away from herself, then set it back down at a little different angle.
“You ok?” our companions asked.
“Didn’t even touch me,” Reindeer said.
“And Gecko?” Davilo followed-up.
With a background accompaniment of drums and guitar, I added some distortion to my voice as I declared, “I am Iron Deer,” before dropping toning it all down to answer, “And I’m fine. The damage was superficial.”
“So you’re like a suit of armor Reindeer can wear, with a voice that helps out,” Leah noted. “That’s cool.”
“Let’s split up though,” Reindeer said, hitting the release. “This isn’t a horror movie; more bodies means more chance of finding him.”
While she slid out of me, I did a quick search and found the area everyone was searching was to our east. “Thataway,” I said. “A man, Caucasian, in tan and brown clothing. Unarmed, but superpowered. Seen carrying a small bag, contents unknown. I’m going to jump in and say I don’t like helping the cops with their job, especially after this year.”
Reindeer set her hand on my shoulder. “All the more reason we should find the guy first instead of them. We can’t trust them to do right by this person, but we can trust ourselves.”
Davilo did his morphing sequence while I was looking at Reindeer trying to come up with a snarky and pessimistic reply. I turned to see a teal-colored Justice Ranger standing there with some new team symbol hanging diagonally over a breastplate with a pair of attached shoulder pads.
“I’m not dressed for superheroing as much. Can I go with Iron Deer?” Leah asked.
And that, finally, is what led to Reindeer, Iron Deer, and the Teal Justice Ranger jumping around the streets of Milwaukee looking for someone the cops were after. And I spent that time teasing Leah.
“After all that time having a crush on me, you finally got inside me,” I said.
“Oh god!” she laughed from inside. I was trying to check things out from atop a building while spying on police scanners. Some of them mentioned Davilo and me, but none spotted Reindeer yet. Damn, and her costume was still at home because we were out drinking.
“Keep an eye out for Reindeer, too.” I tried heading to the nearest mass of tentacles this super had spawned. The police had left up some tape to try and keep people out of its reach while they were busy dealing with all the others. There were a few gawkers at the mess. It was like someone stuck the bottom of an octopus to the side of a building, but gave it way more tentacles and none of those little suction cups on them. They were different sizes, too. When I got there, they were mostly slow and inactive, with only the biggest ones raising themselves toward the closest rubberneckers.
I skipped around toward the rear of it and headed toward it from the roof. The tentacles got nice and wild before I could get too close so I doubled back and broke into the building, a clothing store, to head for the wall that way. “Why are you so focused on these tentacles?” Leah asked.
“Trying to see if one of these that gets loose might try to crawl back to the person who made it,” I explained. “It happens sometimes.”
Well, one trashed side wall later, I pulled a squirming smaller tentacle into the store and tossed it back toward the front of the store before it could latch on. “Fly free, little tentacle! Or tendril! Or cephalopod, maybe? I need more words for these things.”
It didn’t fly free. Instead, it squirmed and writhed and pulled itself toward me. I ended up grabbing an incendiary device and activating it, letting it grab hold, then booting it out onto the street where it exploded into flames.
“That’s why we don’t play with creepy, slimy tentacles,” Leah said.
“Oh, is that why?”
Suddenly, I got an unknown number texting me. “It’s Reindeer. I found him. Home in on this number and find a way to distract the cops.”
“Will do!” I said. I at least took the time to leave the building before rocketing into the air with Leah’s fun screams reverberating through my metal body. I pinpointed the phone pretty quickly, just past the edge of the search cordon. Then I heard someone call in that they think they spotted him. I gave it a few seconds afterwards, then did my best with audio distortion to mimic the voice. “False alarm. Cancel that.”
“That’s all it takes to fool them?” Leah sounded like she could hardly believe it.
“I swear it’s getting easier to fool people.” As I approached, I saw a couple cars of cops with guns trained on a building. I loaded up some stink gas rounds into a grenade launcher. I popped one through the open door of one of the cars and the other onto the street near the cops. They looked up, then began to cover their noses, running to get clear. One of them tried for his car, the one with more stink gas. He abandoned it to catch up to the other ones running away, with me dropping more stink grenades to keep chasing them away.
I sealed up the helmet fully so my passenger wouldn’t get a noseful when I skipped to a landing and jogged into the building. Reindeer was kneeling in front of a man who had a few smaller, thicker tentacles piercing his jacket. Looked like the kind of thing they leave veterans with, especially those dog tags.
Reindeer held up her hand. “Wait there, Iron Deer. Just wait.” She turned to the guy. “That’s a friend. We’re all friends here. No one here is going to hurt you.” She turned back to me. “He’s having a PTSD episode. He was in the pharmacy trying to get medication when things went bad.”
I sat down then, well away. “Don’t worry. With me around, you’re as safe as can be.” Inside me, I heard Leah muttering to herself.
“Why?” croaked the man. “I’m a villain now, aren’t I?”
“You’re a victim,” Reindeer assured him. “And heroes save victims.”
“Davilo’s on the way,” Leah said. “We’ll get you out of here, someplace safe.”
“Where’s safe for someone like me?” the veteran asked.
Reindeer smiled. “Let me tell you about a unique little town called Radium.”
Just breaking in here to say that since this is the last update before New Years, I hope everyone’s 2021 is better. Well, everyone with a few particular exceptions.
Happy New Years, y’all.
I’ve had to be creative about my brother’s questions. It helps that I honestly don’t know some of the answers.
When he asked, “What’s your full name?” I don’t know. Same for age, though we’ve figured out I’m a few years older than him. I know Shona, the Red Leader of the bunch, was lurking around somewhere when we talked about this stuff. This time, she’d come in and started to make this drink she likes using a messy orange powder and water.
“Were you part of the Gecko Rebellion?” he asked.
Heh. Now there’s one I can certainly be honest about. “Yeah,” I told him. “I was a part of that. I was very angry and not in a good place mentally. I wanted revenge, and to just lash out at everything. I’m starting to move past it, and not living on this Earth helps.”
I could almost feel Shona staring. I pretended to brush some hair out of my face and found her in the kitchen area near us, sipping on some juice. My brother, though, pulled out that photo again. “What do you remember about our dad?”
I shook my head. “Not much. A few flashes, maybe, now that you’ve shown me that. The main thing I remember is when they came for us. Shot him, shot mom, pointed those guns right at me.” I raised my voice a bit for Shona’s sake. “Yeah, I was an experiment as a child. Might be a reason I’m averse to Justice Rangers, being kidnapped, and then being held in a cell while people run tests!”
I heard her set her cup down loudly. I didn’t turn to look, figuring she’d storm out. Instead, she walked up to me, so I readied myself for a fight.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re entitled to your anger at me and at the ones who wronged you. I’ve been a bitch to you.”
“Oh…” I said. “I didn’t expect you to actually apologize.”
“I lost loved ones in the Rebellion and I’ve held onto deep suspicions. I’m trying to be better, ever since I found out my mentor, Alyss, was one of you and took part in the Rebellion as well.”
“And you’ve got yourself a homo machina gator,” I commented.
My brother laughed. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t take part in the Rebellion. I kept my head down and attended university. They made a discovery that allowed them to create their own transformer, and the minions of Carriox attacked. I ended up bonded to it and started training as a Ranger.”
“Did you even know how to fight before becoming a Ranger?” I asked.
He shook his head. “They’re training me.”
I rolled my eyes. Shona looked at me. “I take it you know how?” I nodded, then got an odd question from her. “Have you been having any mental problems?”
After the laughter died down, I wiped the laugh tears away. Shona and my brother were sharing a look. Shona continued on, “What I mean is, have you noticed any memory loss? Every time I’m around you two, you never use his name. You call him ‘you’ or ‘my brother.’ Do you remember it?”
“Psh, yeah, of course I do. What kind of a person would I be to forget my own brother’s name after he told me while I was locked up,” I said. They kept staring at me, so I said, “Davilo.”
“See? No problem,” Davilo said.
I held up a finger. “But if I had noticed any memory issues, what would we be talking about.”
Shona sent a glance Davilo’s way. “Homo Machina are recent enough of a subspecies that we are just now finding out about some medical problems unique to your physiology and abilities. They’re still trying to learn more about it, but some Homo Machina who engage with the infonet and digital systems extensively see a loss of memory. The prevailing theory is that their brains can’t handle the workload and dump long-term memory storage to compensate, but they’re still working on it.”
Now there’s a big hot dump taken on my day. Just drop a steaming load of that for me to consider. Trained assassin or not, they could tell something was up with me.
Shona, for her part, tried to pat me on the shoulder and provide comfort. “I have been unlearning my own hate. The only reason I treated you as I did was because Carriox’s lieutenant, Mirator, can mimic the abilities of past enemies. That includes Psycho Gecko.”
That snapped me out of the funk, mostly by giving me something to concentrate other than the extremely bad news. Never underestimate a good distraction; it’s both an excellent way to kill people and great to avoid killing yourself.
“There’s a fake Psycho Gecko running around?” I asked.
I think they recognized I wanted a distraction. They pulled up the photos for me to see on a wall monitor. “You must have snuck through the portal awhile back not to know these guys,” Shona said.
Carriox was an interesting enough guy on his own. His armor looked like a mix of bronze and slick black feathers, with a pair of large vulture’s wings on his back. His helmet was a metallic vulture’s skull, with his face in the open mouth. It was impossible to make out his eyes behind a visor of teeth, but he had two pair of pointy fangs sticking out. In contrast, Mirator didn’t wear any armor. It was a jagged, assymetrical being of reflective glass. Where parts had been shattered or broken off, the next layer down was just as reflective. He had no eyes or nose, just a shiny set of mirrored chompers. They had a list of other forms he’d used and brought up the Psycho Gecko one.
They looked at me when I snorted. I mean, I could see where it was influenced by me and my armor, but the guy took some creative liberties. The “frown” of my visor was much more exaggerated. The shoulder guards were sharpened as if I was going to stab someone with them. I kinda liked the addition of the metallic skulls that covered the knuckles of the gloves. Probably fucks up range of motion, though. Still, Shona and Davilo were questioning my reaction with their looks. “Well, it’s like Gecko.”
“The Rangers know Psycho Gecko is on Earth Prime and has more advanced armor, but Carriox and Mirator don’t. It’s not an exact match, but he can still turn invisible and use the Psycho’s Assassin Punch.”
“I wonder if it’s the same method of invisibility,” I mused aloud.
“We haven’t been able to test,” Shona said. “Do you know anything useful?”
Once again, another alarm. Everything on the monitor was replaced by a disembodied head, until the person on the other end of the line moved back from their camera. “Rangers, Mirator is attacking the Prime Earth Embassy!”
“We’re on it,” Davilo said.
“Are you up for staying by this monitor if we need your help with Mirator?” Shona asked.
I shrugged, then nodded. They ran out of there. I gave them a minute to watch the flashes of light zip away that were the signature of their teleportation, and ran outside.
It was a world I’d left behind long ago, of huge skyscrapers, nights brighter than days, and deckers hiding in every crevice. It was also still pretty easy to find a map program that could direct me to the Embassy and someone’s car left sitting around carelessly.
The Rangers were already there by the time I arrived, fighting Lab Rats and a monster who began to fill the area with noxious smoke. The Rangers were affected regardless of their helmets and armor, but I kept an eye out for this Mirator guy. I found the Fake Me slinking off. I’d never slink like that. I have a very distinctive slink. Fake Gecko hid behind a bush, watching the events of the fight and holding what looked like a bazooka with a long rifle barrel attached to the front of it. The scope was nearly as large as Fake Me’s head. Maybe that’s why he didn’t see the car coming.
I dove out and rolled to a stop until I was laying on my side like one of those French girls, watching the car flip around and the Fake Me, rolling to a stop after getting clocked by the car. I hopped up to my feet and ignored one of the Rangers calling for me to stop. Fake Gecko was on one knee and caught a hard blow to the head that I think shattered some carpals. It may not be my armor, but it still hurts like armor.
Mirator, pretending to be Psycho Gecko, stood up with a laugh that didn’t sound anything like me and drove his knee into my gut. I doubled over and felt his glove on the back of my head, readying me for a knee to the face. I rolled forward and dropped onto my back. Fake Me was thrown off balance by missing so that when I wrapped my legs around his ankle, he was thrown forward onto the ground. I prepared to laser off one of his legs at the knee, the back of the legs being a weak point on my early armor. Just as I fired, Mirator reverted to his mirrored form. The only reason I didn’t shoot my own eyes out was because the angle of his leg was enough to reflect it up into the sky.
I quickly cut the lasers off and he went back to being Fake Me, turning and kicking me in the jaw. He rolled to his feet and turned to me, putting up his dukes. “Don’t you know who I am, little girl?”
“A pretender,” I said. “Because you’re no Gecko.”
“Do I look like him now?” asked Mirator, disappearing. I reached into my pocket with a smile and pulled out a handful of that orange powder Shona the Red Ranger liked to use for her drink. Messy, I said. It likes to stick to things, like flour. I blew it around and watched as it clung to a form walking toward me. Fake Me stopped to look at his own damn self and that’s when I booted him in the gut. He stumbled back a little and reappeared, looking like he’d taken a dive into a bag of Cheeto’s. He caught my next right punch, and my next left punch, leaving us deadlocked.
“You’re strong. Why are you fighting for them?” Mirator asked.
“I’m not. I’m fighting for me,” I answered, then opened my mouth wide. That newly-added prehensile tongue of mine shot out and wrapped around Fake Gecko’s throat. Then I ignited the laser claws in my hands, cutting into his fists. Say “Bye bye” to those knuckle skulls, cheap imposter.
“No, Master! Use the beam on me, your loyal and valuable Mirator!” he said, shifting back into his mirrored form. He tried shifting us around and using footwork to loosen my grip, but I moved with him, keeping on choking him out. He couldn’t just outright let go of my hands, either, because he was trapped within swiping distance of those claws. When we shifted around, I saw the gas monster was down and not moving, but that big red gigantification light from the sky wasn’t flashing. Instead, it captured Mirator. My tongue was feeling weird and he started to grow, so I pulled it back before it either got too big to hold in my mouth or I was attached tongue-first to a giant monster. I withdrew my claws and ran clear of it. I didn’t want to be within stomping distance.
Davilo, the Red Alligator Ranger, jumped over to check on me. “Are you alirght?”
“Better than he was doing. Go tear the fucker a new fuckhole!”
Davilo nodded and summoned his giant robot to join the rest of his team against the giant Mirator, who was sticking with his own appearance at first. I found a nearby First Aid station just outside the Embassy where I got some nanite gel to work on my broken hand while the Rangers faced off with Mirator. The giant mirror monster tried some entirely new mimickry as a giant monster; appearing as some past giant monsters and even a few giant robots. He gave them some trouble at first, but then they split their robot into two robots and the doubleteam put him down in a big shower of sparks that probably wrecked several city blocks.
But, hey, I was at the embassy. I figured I’d scrounge up something that’d let me walk through all the security back to Earth Prime and that’d be it. I didn’t count on my path being blocked by Leah. I didn’t know the former runaway-turned-my ward-turned-Master Academy student was here. I didn’t know she got hot. I didn’t know she was playing tongue twisters with my half brother either, when he came on down.
I don’t know if she realized it was me Davilo introduced as his sister Delilah, but… maybe I oughta keep an eye on this situation. And check into this memory loss thing. I have time.
I spent another day back in the hospital room while everything else got cleared up. I don’t know who the dead cape was, nor did I care enough to find out while trying not to die. Burns, bruises, and blood loss: a trifecta of bad but survivable medical news. And they probably didn’t want me involved in it anyway. Generally speaking, I’m more likely to cause any given funeral than attend it. And if I did go, I figure it’d be more respectful to go because I actually knew the person rather than going just because it’s the cool thing to do.
I did check on the condition of the dead strix, just in case she played dead or something. I just wouldn’t put it past her, under recent circumstances, to be playing dead. Then, at the last minute, she’d suddenly jump out at us for one last scare. I asked after her when someone dropped off my food, and that guy didn’t know. I didn’t find out until they cleared me to get up and about on Halloween, when Leah came to fetch me and revealed that Old Man Johnson’s wife was, in fact, dead. Something about a metal World War I-era helmet being knocked into her chest cavity by the force from a fall.
“But enough about that. It’s Halloween! Truce night. Want to hang out?” Leah asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “A teenage girl hanging out with me? People will talk. Is there even anything to do? This town’s pretty fucked up. Heeeeey, fuck yeah. I can fucking cuss, dammit.”
“Happy Halloween,” Leah said to explain that little thing.
Y’all don’t need all the details, though. I got to see Rocky Horror Picture Show and enjoy people talking during the movie. Stopped by a haunted house these people set up, that sort of thing. There were others with us, too. Chloe, Quincy, and Cam, aka Camera Guy. It was shorter, but then I figured there’d be no harm in asking. I stopped right in the middle of the haunted house to ask him that. With lightning effects going off all around me, I turned back to him. “Hey, what’s your name anyway? I don’t remember if I was told it.”
He looked up. “Me?” Then he jumped back as someone reached through the ceiling above me and stabbed in my direction with a knife, loud slashing sound effects playing in this hallway.
“Well I already know his name,” I said, pointing to the masked figure above us who stabbed away at me, desperate for a reaction. I looked up at him and waved. “Hey there Mike.”
The man stopped to just look at me. These guys don’t really like not getting a reaction. I mean, some of them make me smile, but usually the fun of these haunted houses is laughing at the people who jump because they aren’t paying attention.
I looked back down at Camera Guy and put my hand on his shoulder to hide the finger I raised toward someone peeking out of a curtain behind him and to his right. “Seriously, I didn’t catch your name. What do I call you?”
“Uh, my parents named me Cameron. People call me Cam sometimes. “
I nodded. “Good, glad we got that out of the way. Nice to meet you, Cam. I’m Puss, though sometimes people call me Adenoid when I need a civilian name.”
“What kind of a name is Adenoid?”he asked, puzzled.
I shrugged. “It’s as good a name as any. Better. I bet there are lots of Camerons out there, but how many Adenoids do you know?” I lowered the finger and gave a slight nod. I turned away to walk on past the Mike Myers impersonator, who gave a half-hearted stab at me that didn’t at all match the sound effects. I stopped and turned back to Cam, stopping him in his tracks just in time for the Leatherface impersonator to fling open the curtain. He revved a fake chainsaw and took a couple steps in Cam’s direction. The teen jumped and spun around. I had a nice laugh as he turned and ran by me, then followed.
I got nasty looks from the rest of the group as we walked out. “You didn’t have to start helping them, G- Puss,” said Leah.
The skinny, bespectacled Quincy responded, “Helping them? I thought you were going to get into a fight with that one.”
I rolled my eyes. “Some of them take it as a challenge when you aren’t scared is all. I mean, come on. Horror movies, podcasts, creepypasta, and so on. Video games, even. You guys just got done fighting vampires. These guys weren’t even allowed to hurt you. I’m not saying the houses are stupid. I like a good scare, but it takes a bit more to pull it off. Y’all were funny, though. I thought you were about to hit that guy.”
“I am the pinnacle of self control,” I responded. “I don’t know where someone might get the idea that I can’t control myself.”
Leah elbowed me. I winced. “Ow. Still tinder. I think I popped a thoracic coupling when I helped you out back at the manor.”
“That’s not a thing,” answered Chloe, her pigtails swinging as we walked. “Where are we going next? I’m hungry.”
Quincy seconded it.
“Didn’t we pass a pizza place with something Halloweeny going on?” he asked.
“I thought we’d go back and watch some scary movies,” Cam said.
“Could get some food and then go watch them,” I suggested. “Maybe one of the oldies with a horror host like Gore De Vol, Penny Dreadfull XIII, or Deadgar. I keep meaning to watch Deadgar. Met him once. Nice fellow. Had some great salsa. It was green, and citrus-y, and a little hot.”
“We have time for both,” said Leah.
Just because Halloween’s a time of truce between the crowd that goes around costumed on a normal day doesn’t mean everyone does. Businesses tend to work their legal brand of theft as well, like a store that set up on the sidewalk selling glowy headbands and hats and all that jazz.
“Go ahead and try on a jacket!” said a white guy with a top hat and skull facepaint on.
I checked over the jackets. Cheap black leather with some really minor Halloween references. One had the word “Monster” on the back in a way that resembled sharp teeth in a mouth. I wound up trying on one that simply had the word “Behemoth” on the back.
“You don’t look like a Behemoth guy.” Leah looked it over. “You going to get it?”
“It’s a private joke, kinda. And it goes well with my bell and ears.” I ran my hands over the ears on the headband that doubles as part of Master Academy’s tracking system on me, then added, “Nyaaan!”
The guy charged $50 for a $20 jacket, but I didn’t care. One of the guys back in the haunted house might care about the time he realizes his wallet is missing, but I didn’t.
The pizza place was lit up with blue, green, and orange lights. “Quick check,” I said, stopping in front of everyone before we went in. “I’m not glowing anywhere, am I?”
The group answered with a chorus of “No”s.
“Y’all sure? Because this is one of those times when I really need to know if there’s any bodily fluids showing up on me. By the way, Cam, nice mustache.”
He blinked. “I don’t have a mustache.” Everyone turned to look at him as he wiped at his mouth.
“He’s just kidding,” Leah said. She grabbed my arm and turned me back toward the entrance. Taking a cue, I led us in.
Loud music, colorful lights, TV screens with horror movies playing. I spotted Night of the Living Dead and House on Haunted Hill. A dummy of Count Orlock stood guard over arcade games. It was old-school, with everything from lightgun games to side scrolling fighters. Some of them sat there, sporadically unplugged. I didn’t recognize any of them.
“They still make places like this?” I asked.
Leah tugged me along by the arm. “You don’t like it?”
“It feels far too good for this sinful Earth is all.”
A hostess dressed as a robot showed us to a large booth. Only dressed as a giant robot. I checked, though I probably looked like I was interested in her organic parts. Not that I have anything against robots. There aren’t exactly a lot of them on this planet with the parts for it, but I’m not robophobic.
“You don’t look much like a cat person,” the hostess said as smalltalk after we all got seated, Chloe, Quincy, and Cam leaving a small gap for Leah and I to be somewhat separate. Wonderful. I’ve got shippers. I wonder what it’s like to be that young and stupid sometimes? I was too busy learning how to perform surgery with my bare hands and teeth at that age. The low survival rate was a feature of that training, not a bug, but I do know the proper method of rectal appendectomy.
“He dresses like that any day,” said Quincy. “Leah’s the cat person, eh?”
Chloe’s leg shifted and Quincy’s mouth shut, then bulged as if holding in a desire to make a noise. Leah shifted away from me slightly.
Not aware of the group dynamics, the hostess went on friendly. “Oh? Are you a super or something?”
I opened my mouth to answer, then thought about the question. Damn. I just kinda waved my hand, though the answer’s “No.” I just didn’t admit that I’m not superpowered anymore. It just reminded me even more that I need to get ahold of Moai, find some parts, and build a new set of armor. Under the table, Leah patted my arm.
Our hostess winked at me. “You know, we have a new VR game further in the arcade area you could pay while you wait for your food. Speaking of which, what can I get you to drink?”
She took drink orders, then we ordered an extra large supreme pizza. A few more items than I’d prefer, but I’ve survived worse. If you can survive a fast food chicken sandwich, you can handle any pizza outside Japan. Why squid ink? You might as well put bat guano or skunk spray on the damn thing. But enough giving Japanese people new recipe ideas. I figured I’d go try that game.
“I think I’ll go see that game now,” I told her.
She smiled. “I’ll show you to it.”
They didn’t keep it out in the main arcade section, but instead lead me into a darker alcove I didn’t even notice was there the first time around, due to a combination of darkness and paint. My spider sense tingled. Looking for further confirmation, I checked further. Surprisingly, the gaydar pinged Cam. Go figure. But it didn’t find any gay enemies waiting for me.
I just tried to stay on my guard, because this was starting to sound like a narrative like you’d find in an urban legend about a murderous arcade owner and a kid.
Except they really did have a fancy VR thing. The hostess moved back a curtain to reveal a large sphere, big enough for a person to stand up in. It was a marvel of video game technology, the likes of which I’d never seen available in arcades. Then again, I don’t do arcades that much. I don’t think anyone does these days. “By the power of Grey Skull. This baby doesn’t take mere quarters, does it?”
“It’s a special prototype built by the owner, meant for more customers with enough maturity not to break it,” the hostess said. She walked over to a break in the smooth outer shell of the machine. She pushed on the lower portion and it popped out, swinging back down to the floor with steps on the inside of the shell. The upper portion gave me enough headroom to get in.
“After you,” I said, waving her on. “Ladies first.” Hell, she had enough boob to survive a surprise knifing in the right spot.
She led the way in. I found the inside to be less well coordinated, color-wise. A grid ran along most of the inside of the shell except where the door opened, padded in blue plastic to protect while giving someone something to grip. One except was a shelf formed out of a depression in the grid. The hostess pulled out a headset, little bigger than goggles, that connected to the ceiling by a cable. She held it in one hand and tossed me a pair of white gloves from the depression with the other. “Here. These will work for your hands and eyes. The floor will track how you walk, like a mouse trackball, but only when the game is active.
Well, nothing tried to stab me yet, so I joined her. The gloves were no problem, but I had to maneuver a bit to get the goggles on and keep the ears there. I did not want to be stuck in a tiny metal box while that alarm went off, that’s for sure.
The hostess left me alone, closed the box, and the whole thing powered itself up with a deep thrum. Then everything flashed light.
When I next realized I could see something, I tried to hit anything around me. Problem was, I couldn’t feel my arms. I didn’t feel my legs either, nor any other bit. Trying the low light settings on my eyes did nothing. I tried punching far enough out to hit the safety grid and still felt nothing.
I tried my little implants that send out the signal across the universe divide, aka the reason y’all can read this. It apparently worked just fine. Everything on me worked like normal, I just didn’t seem to be in the normal world. Nothing but darkness covered the void.
Then came the words that appeared in the darkness, scrolling out sentence by sentence to hang in what I thought of as the air, or maybe my extreme left.
“In the year 200X, one corporation is poised to take over the world. With an army of gangs, barbarians, demons, and mutant freaks, they are prepared to cause enough devastation to destroy the world’s governments and perform a hostile corporate buyout of the planet. Earth needs a hero to fight back against the devastation… the decimation… the Annihilation Corporation.”
Then the words disappeared and the title “Annihilation Corporation™ ” slid across to hang in the air where the exposition had been before and I heard simplistic MIDI rock music start up.
And I was there all of a sudden. Well, kinda. I could look down and see that everything on my right side looked pixelated. Black jacket, black pants, boots. I tried to take off the black cat ears to check them, but pulling on the fur and ear hurt, even though they were the same cheap material and head band. Hitting them was as bad as hitting my own ears, which were still there but apparently had nothing to hear except for a weird noise when I hit myself like a punching sound effect from a movie.. My left side was transparent, which freaked me out a bit until I spun around while checking myself and that all swapped. When I faced the opposite direction, my sides swapped from pixelated to transparent and vice versa.
My subsequent string of curses caused a speech bubble full of stuff like “$#&*!” to appear in it and I stomped off to the side, rather pissed at having been taken in by some sort of trap or something. I noticed that my transparent arm and leg would suddenly become pixelated if they stretched out too far ahead or behind me, too. Bubbles of censored cuss words trailed me with every step until suddenly I found myself in a cityscape, facing the opposite direction from how I walked.
The street wasn’t flat, but ramped up diagonally toward my transparent side. Experimentally, I tried climbing it and found it took no effort. Gravity didn’t seem to work on it. I kept standing straight up and down no matter how far up or down I went.
Then I saw the punks. They looked the same was as me; half pixel, half transparent. They shook little old ladies, hit cars with bats, and and a big one even picked up a mailbox and threw it. Like, 80s punks. Spiky jackets, mohawks every color but natural, glasses that looked like visors, chains wrapped around fists. The big guy wore a sleeveless black leather jacket, a pair of football shoulder pads, and a gas mask.
Now, I’m not really a coward unless it’d save my life, but I also have to recognize when I’m in a world where physics just said, “Fuck it, I give up. Do whatever you like, you sons of camel-molesters,” so I took time to figure shit out. I hopped on a dumpster, grabbed a window, and crawled up to the top of a building.
All became clear when, in the course of surveying my new environment, I looked straight to my right, the direction where everything became pixelated and the direction at the bottom of the floor-ramp. I saw out what looked like a giant window to the front of the restaurant. Leah, Cam, Quincy, and Chloe all appeared running from different directions, Quincy on the phone with someone. They looked panicked. Before I could find something to throw at them, they ran out the door and split up into pairs that headed off in opposite directions.
The words “Annihilation Corporation™ ” appeared in the air between myself and the window. Underneath that, more words flashed off and on: “ 4 Coin = 1 Credit, Insert Coin To Play.”
A motherfucking arcade game. Someone stuck me in an arcade game.
I didn’t know whether to be pissed off or filled with glee. Pee? No, that portmanteu’s been done. Furee? How about anger and joy: Angjoy? Ok, last try… Rage and happy. Rapy. I felt very rapy toward whoever did this to me.
So far, I’ve been subsisting off giant turkey legs, pizzas, burgers, and sodas that drop off enemies and out of some of the trash cans in the demo screens. And I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here yet, but when I do, that hostess is going to receive a 1UP. 1 fist straight UP her ass.
Until then, I’m piggybacking a signal to bounce back to this dimension via yours alerting Master Academy what happened to me and where to find me. Much as I hate to say it, I think I need their help. Even if there’s some release in beating the game, it’s nothing but demo screens and title screens without a player. I shall conquer this world and unleash myself once more upon the real one! I just need rescue first before they move me to another castle. And while whoever comes for me might spend a lot on credits, I’ll show whoever did this to me no quarter.
“This is Spooky Skeleton. I have eyes on the fence perimeter,” said one of the Master Academy capes. I couldn’t fault them for having some fun with the callsigns.
Another, who sadly lacked a good enough laugh, joined in, “This is Cryptkeeper. The graveyard’s silent as- nevermind, didn’t think that one through. The graveyard’s quiet.”
“Think quicker than that, or tomorrow they’ll find you a grave man,” I said. “This is the Sausage Party-”
“Right, we’re sitting around wagon our wieners, and we’d gladly meat some birds, but the birds aren’t the word. Nowhere in sight. The skies are clear, Roger.”
“Roger. I didn’t expect we’d get this kind of clearance. What’s our vector in?” someone else took up the joke. Good to know they’re not all hopeless fuddy-duddies whose first action before putting on fresh panties isn’t twisting them in a big knot. Bit tip on that, other dudes who may be reading this: while a thong feels nice in your crack, they force you to play your cards real close to the chest. Your two pair will feel like a full house because of all the pressure on them. You wouldn’t expect it, but panties free you up to play the pocket rockets, maybe even poker. Just a little piece of advice to keep you from getting laughed at for Texas hold’em in public.
Maybe someday soon, I’ll do nothing but explain a plan using nothing but references to War and Peace so absolutely nobody will get what I’m saying. Actually, I’ll just wholesale steal that bit about tying a policeman to a bear and dropping them both in a river. I need more animals aside from penguins in on my capers.
“Quiet down. I have grim grinning ghosts on the prowl,” said Venus.
“Whose call sign is that?” I asked.
“Not a call sign. There are ghosts on the grounds, just as rumored.”
I turned to the rest of Meat Squad, who were all gathered with me. “Anyone remember anything actually useful against ghosts? I seem to remember something about a chicken. I’ll kill a chicken if it’ll help. I’ll do all kinds of things to a chicken. You don’t want to know. No, seriously, you don’t want to know, not if you ever want to eat one again. Two words: white gravy.”
Camera Guy kept on recording me, something which he’d taken to doing more and more after Psychsaur told him not to. I still hadn’t caught his name. Quincy was another one there. Excitable, skinny, and had a thing for glass. Not exactly controlling it and not exactly making it. More like he had to have enough of the raw materials around to form it into a useful shape. He mentioned around the strix bonfire that this might be his last and only hurrah before being turned into a super-optometrist.
He held up a bucket of sand stolen from the local elementary school playground. “I got nothing.”
I wobbled my head. “Eeeh… yes and no. If we had internet access, you might find something. Camera obscura techniques and stuff about trapping malevolent beings, maybe. That could have been that horror youtube series I watched, though. Still, I wouldn’t completely discount the idea that glass could be handy in this situation. It just requires knowledge to go with it. A little knowledge can go a long way and make seemingly-boring abilities incredibly useful.”
“Is that how supervillains act?” asked Chloe, the pig-tailed girl. She didn’t just look at me; she eyed me.
I shrugged. “Not that I am one, of course, but the good ones do. It’s easy to catch people nowadays. Cameras everywhere, cellphones with GPS, satellites, DNA tests, gunpowder residue, fingerprinting. It’s the law-abiding world against the criminals. Stupidity tends to get weeded out unless couple with lots of power or money, like a presidential election, in fact.”
The last member of our group, Leah, was practicing her camouflage techniques. She would settle into new positions, sitting or standing, then try to use her color-changing powers to blend in. Like a cuttlefish. It’s good to see that she did not forget our dear friends, the cuttlefish. Flippin’ glorious little sausages. “Like me,” she contributed, doing a very good impression of a tree. “I can change colors. It was my old mentor who made me really think about what that can be used for. Made me practice that, and learn to fight on my own.”
Chloe looked at her, then over at me. “Was that you?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m Puss in Boots. Her mentor was Psycho Gecko. Totally different person. Try to keep up. Geez. What kind of a person thinks a cat is a lizard?
“Gecko trained me some. He even taught me the most valuable tool of all: Google,” Leah’s barky exterior turned into the Google homepage. “He’s right, it’s a seriously underused tool.”
Quincy at her and nodded. “I bet there’s a lot of made-up stuff out there, but it can’t hurt to try some of it.”
“Smart,” I said. “Lots of junk hides useful information, and evaluating a source is an important skill as well. But the right specialists can be a big help. Microscopes, magnifying glasses… when we get back, I bet we can figure out how to make a lens that sticks on your glasses and can reflect the light in a way to burn stuff you look at. Some Greek guy supposedly built a big reflector like that to light enemy ships on fire. Same principle, better techniques, material, and a few thousand years more knowledge. We’ll give you one evil eye.”
“A good eye, you mean, Puss,” said Leah, trying and failing to perfectly maintain her disguise as she moved, no matter how much she slowed down.
“Contact!” someone shouted over the radio. “For the love of God, get me Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson!”
“Ramis is dead, you fool!” I called back.
“Dig his ass up!” the person shouted back, which drew a chuckle from me. I turned to the others. “The bad news is they told us not to get in on the action. The good news is I don’t care.”
Camera guy looked up, “They said someone had to stay with you at all times to keep you out of trouble.”
I cocked my head to the side, “And they picked y’all? Oh well, looks like you get an excuse to come with me. Let’s go bust some ghosts.”
We made our way through the woods to the western edge of Angerhorn Manor’s grounds, entrance to which involved me climbing up a tree to jump an overgrown hedge wall. In deference to that fact that I was working with the good guys, I landed in a three-point stance. It’s really hard on the knees and totally impractical.
Chloe blasted a hole in the hedges and led the others through.
“Where’s that music coming from?” asked Camera Guy.
I stood up and brushed my hand off. “Thunder Busters. A mash-up of Thunder Struck by AC/DC and the Ghostbusters song. I’m playing it.”
“How are you doing that, Puss in Boots?” asked Chloe.
I did the jazz hands. “Magic. No time for questions, let’s go.”
We ran for the main building, which appeared to have a side door in our direction. Unfortunately, most of the grounds on this side appeared to be a graveyard. A hand and forearm of bone thrust itself up out of the grave in front of us and tripped Chloe. She screemed, as did the young folks. I yanked the thing off, separating it from the rest of its arm. It balled up its hand to punch me ineffectually, but I just laughed as I looked at it. Even as more skeletons popped out of the dry earth surrounding us, I just had to grin.
“This is a problem,” Leah said. “How do you sneak past something without eyes?”
“Don’t worry about sneaking.” I held up the bone forearm. The rest of the skeleton arose right next to me, causing the rest of the group to back up a couple steps in an increasingly-small safe space. I smacked the skull of the skeleton with its own arm. “This person is demised. It’s not pining for the fjords, it’s passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its make. This is a late person. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It was pushing up the daisies. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-person!” I grabbed the skull and yanked that off at the neck with a snap, then kicked it between the legs hard enough to crack its pelvis. It collapsed. I wound up and threw the skull, knocking another skeleton’s head off as well.
With that adequately demonstrated I tore through them. I yanked the legs off one, kicked its head into a second, then burst the ribcage of another with the legs. I just cut loose and it felt great. It was when I looked up and found myself alone I realized the others had left me behind and run into the large Gothic manor house, with its big pointies and and windows you’d expect to see a dead person at.
As I followed them in, I found out that was the case. Drifting shades passed through the hall way, most paying me no mind. Chloe just blasted everything out of her way and rushed past, with the others following after.
The wing intersected with a great hall type of place, with a huge staircase leading to a second-story landing where a person in a cloak and a large strix held the high ground against the heroes. The person who built this was just asking for it to be haunted. They even had the American equivalent of suits of armor standing in this hall. Dusty glass cases held mannequins dressed in uniforms distinct to certain wars of the country’s past, weapons propped beside them. They had one with an M16 from Vietnam, another with a M-1 helmet and World War II khaki tropical uniform, a third with a helmet that could double as a bowl on an olive drab uniform, and the last a khaki uniform with blue pockets. So something after the Civil War, I’m guessing. Too bad I couldn’t use any bayonets they might have had in those cases.
We barely got there when the cloaked person held out a glove-clad hand holding a book. A grey book, but rather plain, immediately identified on my HUD as a magical anomaly. He started to open the pages toward the heroes.
“I think I love you!” I shouted. “So what am I so afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of.” I stopped there, not knowing the rest of the song. “Do not look at it if you are capable of reading!”
The Book, as I recall, was written in some ancient and unknown language, the reading of which could recall the monsters trapped within. I had to assume that a guy in a haunted mansion wearing a black cloak wouldn’t hold that out toward people unless he somehow made it more user-friendly.
Of course, the most I could do was give the warning, especially since they knew who I was. If I told them to look at the book, they might think I was trying to use reverse psychology. It helped that I was waving around a moving leg bone and blasting out an entirely different song from my body.
But, as someone once said, if you put a large switch in a cave and painted a sign that said, “End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH,’ the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry. One of the reasons I occasionally do what people ask me to do is so they don’t begin to assume I’ll take that kind of action every time. Someone took it now, and I didn’t get a good look at them. So hopefully just a red shirt. But a woman’s voice cried out, and not the strix above.
All of a sudden, something shot up into the air. A head floated. Like, the skin, veins, muscles, and bones were left behind, but it had a few organs attached. The throat still went down, it just left the lungs behind and brought the stomach and intestines with it. The intestines bunched up unusually, too, but this is in a situation with owl vampires and a flying head, so try to contain the sudden skepticism. I’d read about this thing, except only in the loose sense that I knew of their supposed existence. Scratch that, just existence. I just didn’t expect anyone could confuse that type of vampiric monster with the classical ones most people are used to.
Someone else cried out as the intestines hit them. Babies. You can’t make an omellet without touching a few intestines, as the saying goes. Or maybe that’s just me. But between me, my warning, and the newest competitor on Nickelodeon’s Guts competition show, people didn’t feel much like reading. I grabbed a nearby decrepit end table and tossed it up at book. The man pulled his hand back so that it missed the book and the termite-ridden wood fall apart as easily as if the spider webs were the only thing keeping it together. I think he shot me a look, but that’s when I noticed him standing there alone and a black-limbed woman landed on me.
She opened her mouth so far, I got a little bit of a boner. But just a little, because she had large yellowed fangs. She said something in a language I my translation program couldn’t figure out, nor did I care much when she decided to take a bite out of crime, starting with my neck.
“Ow, there are other places you can bite, you know!” I shouted as she dug in and suckled, which was not nearly as sensuous as the movies and books made it out to be. I tried to push her face away. She grabbed my hand and bit down on the underside of my wrist. “You know, that doesn’t help much after all!”
I clamped down on my neck with my hand, to keep my neck from bleeding out before the evil supernatural creature could drain it.
I glimpsed minotaur halfway up the stairs hurling candle sticks at the intestine vampire. The heroes had spread out. There was no cloaked person in sight.
“There!” pointed Camera Guy, looking up from the lense of his camera. “Distortion!”
The cloaked person reappeared in the midst of the glass cases. They broke apart and out stepped shadowy figures wearing the uniforms and now armed with those weapons, but I shivered and lost sight of it. The strix took a break to breathe, then flew back underneath the stairs like a doll being yanked. I think I heard gunshots over everything.
Psychsaur stepped toward me, staying low. “Still alive?”
“You’re not rid of me yet. Help me up.” I reached my hand up and she actually took it. I swear I felt her in my head more than ever, rifling around. “Yo, Solar Flare! I need a light.”
The super turned from lighting up the Vietnam soldier like a flamethrower. I held up my bitten wrist. He glimpsed back to make sure the shadow soldier was down, then jogged over. “This is gonna hurt,” he said.
“I’ll take pain over death,” I responded. He nodded and held his hands out.
So commenced a round of censored swearing so bad, you’d think I was on TV. And not the good kind of TV, with the tits and softcore porn, but it’s ok because it’s all based off a book written by a guy who looks like he’d write books about tits and porn. The bad kind, where somebody took a movie that’s 50% dirty and decided to show it on a channel that censors stuff because they’re a frelling moron. “Son of a Biz Markie snow globe, bend me over and shove a goat up my arch you hump-dumping, cow clucking father trucker! Suck an egg through a hose and shove it up your taco!”
Psychsaur almost said something, but she had to duck under the approach of the remaining strix, body glistened with sweat and murderous desire. That’s right, killing intent leaks right out the pores now. It’s kind of like wet human smell in that way. Some say it smells like Axe for Men.
My mind flashed back to that memory of how it was the wicked ones that came back as those things. But are they immortal, I wondered? If they were immortal, that’d be a pretty good deal. If anyone would come back as one, it’d be me.
As we ducked, a particular scream caught my ear. Leah had blended in against a wall, but now she had the stony arms of the cloaked person around her while everyone else fought soldiers and a couple of other remaining strixes.
A booming voice called out, “Anyone move and I-”
He shut up when my bootheels caught him in where I’d guessed his eyes were in a front dropkick that happened to land on either side of Leah’s head. I kicked off him as soon as I hit and flipped backwards. I landed on my knees, which wasn’t so bad in comparison to the heat of the sun applied to my wrist and neck.
Leah whirled and elbowed the figure that grabbed her in the throat area, then threw an open palm strike at its nose, the colors of the air and her hand shifting and making it hard to follow. Stone or not, it did enough to get her loose. A little bird told me something was flying to get her for that, or at least a shriek from a large female bird thing. Almost in sync, Leah dropped to one knee to punch the cloak person in the stones while I jumped up and threw my hand up, cuntpunching the sucky bitch who bit me earlier.
I dug my hand in and held on, then punched at her ass with the other hand. After a couple of hits, I straightened out my hand like a chop and thrust it right up there. I gave myself a high five, but you’ll forgive me if it wasn’t exactly skin to skin. Claws dug into my skin now, slicing into my scalp. She dragged me into the air above quite a shocked crowd who had manhandled the dark-cloaked figure onto the ground and were sitting on him.
I pulled my hand out of her bajingo and reached out to the people down there. “Improv comedy time. Somebody give me a noun, preferably in this room and small enough to throw to me!”
Somebody tossed the bowl-like World War I hat at me. Must be some Jay Garrick fans in the hizzy. I took a moment to switch hands and noticed the strix heading for a skylight that looked like it’d be painful to crash through. I shined that hat up real nice, turned it sideways, and the bowl went straight up her can the hard way. With a pained hoot, she shot up at the ceiling before we got to the skylight, knocked her head on it, and began plummeting.
I let go and tried to maneuver her under me, but her wings kept her from falling quite as fast as me somehow. “A little-” I started to say, but it wasn’t that far of a fall.
Large arms caught me. Looking up, I saw the guy I’d landed on was horny. Because he was Minotaur. “I won’t tell anyone you caught me if you won’t,” I said.
He snorted and dropped me on the hard wood floor.
I coughed a bit and decided to stay down. “I don’t suppose I could get something for my head. And blood. And neck. And wrist. A wet nap would also be appreciated. I can’t tell which of my hands went into a blood-diet digestive track and which shook her monthly visitor’s hand.”
“Hush,” Venus said, stepping past me. “It’s time to find out who’s the man under the hood. Spinetingler wouldn’t have gone down so easily.”
I laid my head back down on the floor. “Then why the fuck did you only attack like this?”
She ignored me and yanked back the hood. Shadows clung unnaturally to the person’s face until Solar Flare knelt and lit him up. It couldn’t have been pleasant being that close to the heat.
“Old Man Johnson!” I announced.
“That’s not my name, you furry dipshit,” the grumpy old man said. “Of all the no-account peckerwoods getting on my case, why did you bunch of baby asswipes follow me?”
“What were you doing on behalf of Spinetingler,” asked Venus, kneeling by him.
He glared at her, sunlight making its way in at the precise angle needed to glint off his bald head. “Not one jack squat, that’s what. I met the man, sure. Wanted to see if he’d keep my wife alive, which that pussy,” he nodded toward me, “just violated in every hole she’s good with. He showed me the book and gave me a gift. I just wanted a place to take care of her, but you had to interfere. I didn’t want to do what I did to this town, but you got too close. I just needed to stop all of you and get away to some peace and quiet where no one could hurt me and my Beth. I almost got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids,” he nodded toward Leah, Quincy, Chloe, and Camera Guy, “and their stupid cat, too.”
Psychsaur walked over to me while they talked and put her hand on my forehead. I felt her crawling around in my brain, redoing mental blocks I’d pushed past when Leah was threatened, and likely knowing full well what it took to push me past them.
The old man’s eyes locked on the downed strix female I’d had my way with as another of the capes stepped over and checked her neck and nose. The guy looked over to Venus. “She’s dead.”
As if that would have meant anything except for the fact that Old Man Johnson had a name to give that one. Speaking of which, the old bastage cried like a baby on hearing that.
“I’m sorry,” Venus said. The old man lunged upward, throwing off the person sitting on his back. The hood slid back over his face and the cloak flattened against the ground as if it had no body, just a shadow-covered head. The head descended and the wraith-like figure disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Why do I get the feeling someone’s going to later use the term ‘rue the day’ in regards to this incident?” I asked.
“Here’s how we got to this point,” the story started.
The heroes had arrived in town with every intention of passing through the outskirts, except the outskirts weren’t mapped on any of their GPS devices. That tidbit got a snort of what I assumed to be derision from locals over the fact that many of those roads were small country roads, some of which were still dirt. The type of road where, even if the GPS did send you down it, you would still likely get lost. I’ve been down a few of those myself, and the Master Academics didn’t trust their own senses. They had no locals, with most of the full-fledged heroes having come from the West Coast.
They arrived in the day, so they figured they’d just head through town and hope nobody spied on them. That plan stopped suddenly when someone rushed out onto the street suddenly. The driver got out to investigate, leaving behind her quad-barrel laser shotgun in her haste and worry. She rushed out to find a red-winged young girl, apparently a superhuman. As she checked the girl’s vitals,the girl said something. The driver bent her ear closer to hear what it was. The girl’s mouth opened wide and she sunk her fangs…
It was at that point in the telling when a nearby group of eavesdropping children said, “Oh no!”
Venus glanced over at them. “We don’t need to go more into that.”
I turned to look at the kids. “And then the hero went to live on a farm upstate, where she can run and play with lots of other heroes all day long.”
“What an ass,” someone else said, obviously still mistaking me for someone who owned a donkey.
“You think that’s bad, you should see the hole,” I said. Yeah, that’ll get ’em. That burn’s so bad, they’ll have to give up freebasing now.
That was the first ambush, which drew more and more of the locals and the strixes into the fighting as things went on. Some locals tried to flee. Others were killed on the spot. However, the vampires usually tried to incapacitate civilians and heroes, then carry them off, presumably back to Angerhorn Manor. A few of the heroes pulled their punches early on, before they knew what they were facing, and that didn’t do them any favors.
With communications still down, Master Academy had to regroup, try and protect everyone, and see what they could do to get a message out. Venus and another super had snuck out so he could make a run with a cell phone to call Mendor for more help. Maybe gather some old Shieldwall buddies, or some of the newly paroled former villains.
“It was the protecting everyone part where you screwed up. That and stopping after hitting someone. Honestly, what good comes from stopping at that point?” No one around seemed to share the sentiment. “Oh, like any of you would really want to stop and let yourself get arrested after a hit and run, right? Same way you walk right up to a cop and report every other time you break the law?”
Venus pushed her visor up to give me a look, so I added, in my corny do-gooder voice, “Let that be a lesson to all you children about following the law. Either it’s all important, and should all be respected, or you might as well drive around running people over and getting run over in turn.” I gave Venus a thumbs-up and winked at her. She facepalmed.
“I have a plan for the short term, and you gave me even better ideas,” Venus said.
Minotaur spoke up, “Who had the idea?”
“You did,” Venus said. “Wouldn’t want to deny credit when lives are at stake!”
“Hopefully a lot more at stake now, though these appear to be the type subject to,” I looked around at our audience before continuing, “getting sent to a farm upstate if hurt enough in the really important areas.”
“I have a very important job for your squad,” Venus said, looking over me as well as the nearby teens who’d accompanied me. It’s not running away if I have a chaperone or three. Leah even sat right next to me. “You are going to be the meat squad.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” I said.
“You don’t even know what meat squad does,” she said.
“If it’s called meat squad, it doesn’t matter what it does. I’m going to be great at it,” I responded.
And that’s how I got tasked with going around, gathering up more pork, and tossing it around town for any hungry strixes to eat while combat groups prepared and restocked in relative safety. We would also focus strix attention on the town itself while others took a shortcut through the woods to Angerhorn. It gave me time to wander, at least, though the voluntary nature of the assignment for any assistants meant Leah was my only company. At least that meant no one would mind if I deviated just slightly from the plan and went around to check on phone lines and towers.
“What are you looking for?” asked Leah. With a wave of her hand, she graffitied a wall next to us with “Psycho Gecko Was Here”.
“Something that might indicate we’re not dealing with Spinetingler’s ability to disable communications, which is a standard horror thing. Are you sure you guys tracked him here?”
She reached into the cart, grabbed a ham hock, and tossed it at the base of a wall upon which sat a pair of strixes that had been eyeing us. One of them dropped down. The other kept looking back and forth between us and the meat.
“He was a guy in a dark cloak who ran around turning people into monsters. We never got a good look at his face, but I hear he does that. You think it could be someone else?”
I scanned the wires. Nothing looked out of place and wrecked, especially nothing that’d suddenly mess with the whole town without being so obviously wrong that someone got out to fix it. Someone tried anyway. I found the bodies of a couple of wire guys hanging out the cab of their truck, torn apart from a hole where the head used to be. Leah found her lunch. I held her hair while she puked. “There there. That orange juice seems like a bad idea now, doesn’t it? You should try milk on a hot day with lots of physical activity. Could be a good surprise backup weapon if you have good timing.”
When she stopped her temporary bout of teenage anorexia, we stopped by an abandoned gas station to grab some water. The power was still on, but no one was home. She grabbed some water, I robbed the register, and then I slapped down a dollar for drink. “I owe you two quid!” I called back over the empty counter.
Leah looked at me a moment. “That’s a long way to go for a Shaun of the Dead joke.”
I pointed at her tight hero-grade top. “You’ve got orange on you.”
She couldn’t help but look for just a second, then stuck her tongue out at me.
I decided to pick up the conversation again. “Now that you’ve stopped purging, let’s binge on some knowledge. I have a suspicion that I got into my head, and maybe I’m wrong. I know, I know. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. You don’t have to say anything; you’re right, you don’t need to be bored with my talking about all the times I’ve been wrong. Or any of the times. Let’s just preserve the mystique.”
“Stay on target, gold leader! Lock s-foils into attack position,” responded Leah.
“Right. Wouldn’t want someone to come up my behind because I’m distracted. I just know of an object that possesses powers that could, in theory, have produced these same effects so far that I know about. I really just meant to find it all as an excuse to come with you, but it is sufficiently similar to be useful knowledge. So, this person making monsters, have you seen if they had a book around when they did stuff?” I looked at a downed electrical pole and had myself a little idea.
“Maybe one time, but that place was some private bookstore. You know, occult items. I don’t know for sure. Why are you grinning? Got a fun idea?” Leah stepped around in front of me. “Go on, spill.”
“Dear sweet little Leah, I think it’s time we had a barbecue for our fine, feathered friends, eh?”
Leah had to run it by Venus as her idea, both because she actually has some loyalty to them, and because I couldn’t figure out a way to pull it off myself. Consciously thinking of how to do so would defeat it, after all.
Didn’t stop me from helping to mix up a helpful cocktail while Leah, Venus, and the senior heroes talked it over. Pigtailed girl, the same one I’d accidentally gotten punched, stopped by, curious. “What’s all that for?”
“Oh, just cooking up some homemade napalm,” I answered, casually getting back to my mixing.
She squinted. “I don’t think you can really use orange juice for that. I heard a movie said you could do it with gas and orange juice, but that was so no one would get hurt.”
“Gasoline and orange juice?,” I turned to look at her and rolled my eyes. “Ridiculous. It’d never work. Now hand me those Lucky Charms over there. The hearts, stars, and mushrooms, clovers, and blue moons give it some good zing, but the real power comes from the pots of gold and rainbows, and especially the red balloons.”
Now, that’s not all the ingredients, but it occurred to me that Optimal Outer Control could get in trouble posting Psycho Gecko’s Lucky Napalm Recipe.
Instead, take a stick of butter, a cup and a half of heavy whipping cream, eight ounces of solid Parmesan cheese, and a pound of fettucini noodles. Forget that powdery Kraft stuff. Stick the butter and cream in a pot to melt and get all mixed together while you shred the cheese to make about two cups, if you don’t count the hard, tasteless rind it gets on the edge. Also, put on some water and get it boiling for those noodles, which you can then toss in to cook. You also might consider throwing in a little garlic salt or garlic powder with the noodle water for flavor, but that’s up to you. Once your butter and cream mixes together, toss the cheese in and mix it in real well so it gets all nice and melty, adding salt and pepper to taste. Once the cheese is more of a liquid and the noodles are done and strained, toss them both int he same pot, and enjoy.
Simple, safe, and the only harm that can come to you is an explosion of deliciousness. And, due to simplicity, it has room for all sorts of modifications.
“Dinner and dynamite’s done!” I called out, having cooked both the explosives and a huge batch of fetuccini alfredo at the same time.
We saved the meat for a nice big mile in the middle of town. Meat squad, all of us, had to unload all of it we could find from any of the remaining stores. Red-winged strixes blotted out the sun overhead as we did. I had to pull pigtails out of the way to avoid getting landed on by one of them. I’m hoping that was my own reaction.
Once we got this huge pile of dozes of strixes, Minotaur and a cape wearing safety goggles and a uniform with sun symbols on the chest, back, and shoulders pulled up in a firetruck. They had a couple of local firefighters with them, too.
Minotaur held the hose while the firefighters turned on the pressure so the new payload of their truck could get nice and ready. With a blast, pinkish-orangish liquid sprayed over the strix. But not for very much longer. Solar Flare stepped up toward the end of the hose and held his hands out. What looked like hot plasma arced out from his palms and intersected the spray, lighting it on fire. The fire truck now took its name literally as it ignited the bird-like vampires.
There was cheering at first, which died down as people saw what they’d actually planned and done. The things looked humanoid. For all I know, they were just as sentient as anyone else, but with a few murderous compulsions. I can relate the most to them. But I’m also, well, me. And the sound of nothing but crackling fire was broken by Venus asking, “Really?” as they caught me roasting a marshmallow on a stick.
“You think any of them was our people?” asked someone randomly to someone else. I don’t know, I just overheard it.
“Nah,” I shook my head as I stood up and brought out the graham crackers and peanut butter cups or my smore. “Pretty sure these are the ones that don’t turn people into them. I think they’re the types, like strigoi, where the only way a human can become one is if they were a really nasty, evil person in life. So they are punished, somehow, with being a bloodthirsty, flesh-hungry creature of the night. Anyone else want a smore? Or just a marshmallow?” So pretty much the only one around here likely to be made into one of those things is me. I held out out the bag and my stick in one hand while I enjoyed my smore, smiling. And trying to ignore Psychsaur’s probing presence in my head.
I grinned and thought to myself, focusing on a different British politician as I worked on getting her out of my head. For some reason, that made it funnier as I muttered, “Boris Johnson molesting a pig. Boris Johnson molesting a pig.”
Imagine, if you will, Dartmoor. Rural, woody New England. A little mountainous. It appeared to be an older town in my opinion, since it had kind of a town area you could walk in. Older spots are like that, designed to accommodate people who walked or maybe had horses, because people had to get places and didn’t know cars would happen. In areas where urbanity sprung up more after the advent of cars, everything’s more spread out, and doesn’t work as well for walkers.
An old-fashioned New England church, wood and stone, stood as the last holdout in the gloom of late afternoon. The sun hadn’t yet set, instead casting long shadows and coloring the scene orange as a winged, thirsty blood drinkers circled the church like vultures. With wings like birds a color red that almost blended into the sky, they looked for an opening, a weakpoint. Every once in awhile, groups of one or two would dive down and be repulsed with a burst of bullets, light, flame, electricity, frosty whorls in the air, or even a cry of “Open bar, suckers!” and a thrown Molotov cocktail.
A group of three ran for the church; a figure in pink and gold power armor carried a smaller form and pulled a slightly bigger one after. The shapes dived between them and the church.
Into this scene, we insert a car. A fifteen year-old mauve coupe with a blue passenger door came flying over a steep hill at the end of a cross street and skidded to a frantic stop in front of a crowd of winged, pale men and women standing in the street. The car’s speakers pumped loud music into the street. The singer announced, “I will give you my all, pretty baby. I come whenever you call for me, lady, yeah!” as I got out, wearing shades over my eyes, my hair back in as close to three braids with bells on the end as I could get them after all the surgery. I wore a black leather jacket and pants, with biker boots and a white tank top rounding out the ensemble.
I faced a mass of a dozen red-winged humanoids in tunics like this was the trippiest Legend of Zelda since that Ben guy drowned. Their arms and legs were black, like rot or frostbite.
“We are here, LaFayette!” I yelled, before reaching back into the car. I pulled out a pie I immediately tossed into the face of the nearest vamp where it did no actual harm. Kept her from seeing, and even made one of his fellows laugh at her, but no real physical violence. Just like there wasn’t anything so harmful in me pulling out a can of aerosol whipped cream in one hand and shotgun that fired a stream of harmless green smoke. To them specifically, I put on an exaggerated Austrian accent, “I have enough of cream for everyone to have a taste. I’m not just blowing smoke.”
While most of them were distracted by the ridiculous notion of enemy reinforcements arriving to spray cream all over them, some prepared to fight. Except, with all their attention on me, they neglected their flanks. Venus pushed through, knocking out one of them unfortunate enough to be in the way to get those kids to safety. She might have managed it without my help, but this time I was on the right side of that little equation about how many it would take to beat me.
Yes, even though I had a small horde all looking at me and my delicious neck, I was on the right side of theat. Because I saw the others flooding out of the church off to one side. As they attacked the gathered and feather-winged vampires, another group emerged from the opposite street that I came from in a hotwired pickup truck, making use of their own ranged abilities. The second group had the teens I rode with, who I convinced to pull off this ploy by implying I am Psycho Gecko. It didn’t help that one guy kept on pestering me about it, while the driver, a pigtailed girl, just seemed mad at me. Probably because I inadvertently got her punched by a minotaur.
With myself supposedly being the threatening supervillain himself, the eager, young, nubile, presumably-flexible trainee teenagers were more than happy to follow my plan. It’d be a unique opportunity to them, as Quincy said. Or a way to avoid being hurt further, as Chloe said. Leah didn’t confirm or deny anything, and this one other guy packed in with us went from setting up his camera, testing it, and then getting lots of footage of the trip with all the focus of a college student on illicit Ritalin.
The youngsters weren’t as effective, though. They didn’t have the aim or coordination, nor were they quite so lethal. Yeah, the Master Academy supers from the church were taking every opportunity to take out heads, bodies, hearts, anything potentially lethal to the undead that they could find. They were not playing around. It was so nice to see.
Except I had my own problems, like the whipped cream and smoke gun running out, and the angry, humiliated vamp covered with part of a pie determined to get back at me for a little humilitation. She flew at me, wings stretching behind her and flapping in a way that shouldn’t facilitate flight. I tossed the can and gun aside and reached to my belt. I drew my weapon of second choice… a large peacock feather. Listen, the kind of stores I frequent in my own time is my own business. Let’s just say some of them have loads of cream, pies, and giant feathers, and leave it at that.
Grinning, my body pumping with yummy adrenaline, I jumped back on the top of the car to avoid the charge of the vampire. Sadly, she did not hit it. She stopped and raked a claw right where my balls initially landed but, oh so luckily, were no longer at. I scooted them and my legs to the side, then under me. While the vamp tried to get her hand out of the car’s metal top, I brought the feather around and used it on her vulnerable neck, the very last place any vampire expects to be attacked.
Except I wasn’t attacking. I was tickling. I saw her fangs surprisingly clearly as she shook her head and lunged at me. Maybe it’s because she got up in my face with them. Indeed, I’d hardly managed to slide back at all before the beast’s preternatural speed allowed her to catch me and begin throttling me. Just a little throttling. She didn’t make me hit 100 MPH, but she certainly aimed to break the speed limit, and possibly my neck. She proceeded to wrench my neck to the side, pressing my head against one shoulder and fully exposing the side of my neck.
Armed as I was with merely a non-French tickler, I had to resort to a less overwhelming way of trying to delight a woman out of her mind. I felt her strength falter from laughter. I also got a bit of spittle flying on me. When I jerked my head up to not have my neck exposed like a nudist running a marathon, I even headbutted her. She returned the favor. Well, no need to bite me on the neck anymore when she could just hold a glass under my nose.
I stuck the feather into her mouth and grabbed her head to keep her from sinking her teeth into me. A gentle kick helped me gain some distance, though I felt absolutely pathetic in the process of pushing myself off her, especially when I slid off the other side of the car and landed hard on the street. I used the time to fumble through my pocket for some backup. I found a flask of orange juice and some mouth spray. Gotta keep that orange juice ready. You know never know when you’ll need a screwdriver, after all. Too bad I didn’t seem to have any vodka with me.
With a shriek, a certain admirer of mine pounced from above. I couldn’t help but notice her eyes. Yellow, with an incredibly small pupil. And she seriously needed to clip those toenails, because her hands weren’t the only claws around. She got a mouthful of extra strength minty mouth spray. I tried to imagine eating something gross while she hacked and coughed. Like seafood. Some wriggling mass of slimy, stinky, spiny something sliding down my throat. Like Frenching an ugly anglerfish, as opposed to the sexy ones that swim around, teasing you with their lights. As a result of this imagination, I spewed orange juice up into the open mouth of my aggressor. It wouldn’t have been pleasant even without the minty spray.
I laughed at her for a second, heedless of the pain caused by the acidic citrus vomit upon myself. She upchucked, or in this case downchucked, blood all over me. Tasted completely gross. Just all kinds of vomit coating me, including some of my own. I almost reciprocated, which would have just gotten us stuck into a loop until one of us got an empty stomach. Then she jerked on top of me in a way that usually involves more fun and different bodily functions. The sharpened piece of wood shoved through her chest with a chunk of heart on the end also didn’t match up with most times a lady’s been on top of me.
But then, who brings a lady to their bed when they can have a freak instead?
All posturing aside, a furry hand grabbed the pointy end of the stake and lifted my opponent off me. Minotaur held her up in the air where the stake tore her a little, then smashed her head against the ground. He tossed her aside and gave a snort. Didn’t even look at me or help me up.
I had to help my own darn self up. In the process, I did find my mini-bottle full of vodka to down. Good timing.
“Is Gecko still alive?” someone asked. I had to clear a bit of dripping puke blood out of my face to see that it was Venus, standing with half a vampire in each hand.
I waved to her. “Yep. Just doing my best impression of a used tampon over here.” I walked to her, only to catch a hard left that sent me to the ground, followed by a kick to my tailbone.
“You stupid, irresponsible, egotistical piece of… you brought my students. Kids! This is no place for kids!” I got the sense she didn’t agree with my actions. Call it intuition. And pain nerves. My glasses, having made a valiant effort so far, decided to opt out of the fight and dropped off my face. For the best, really. I don’t wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can keep track of the visions in my eyes. And I doubt Venus cared about switching a blade on me, shades on or no.
“We’re ok!” someone shouted.
Venus answered them with, “That doesn’t matter!”
I crawled forward to get some momentum before rising to my feet. “Make that a used tampon from a woman whose husband punches her in the ovaries. Is there running water still, or am I going to have to overcome the smell with copious amounts of liquor?”
A kneeling, balding man with a paunch and a ponytail said, “You might try Monroe’s over on Elm. There’s still some of it there. It’s not all good for lighting on fire. We still have water, though.”
Leah came running up toward me as if to check em over, but was stopped short by Venus and others of the more senior heroes who proceeded to check over the newcomers for injuries.
“You need to go as soon as it’s daylight,” said the minotaur to one of them. “Oh, I remember you.”
Psychsaur’s the one who finally gave me a checkout as I stood there, looking over the dead vampires in the setting sun. No, they didn’t turn to ash or anything like that. That helped, as it allowed me to examine them while Psychsaur probed my brain.
“You are that desperate. Oh my God,” she said.
“I take it things didn’t go as planned. Y’all arrived with pretty overwhelming force, but they got the better of you. I bet that wasn’t all of them, either. Pale, still. Probably due to the whole need for blood thing. Wings with feathers. I wonder if they transform into a type of bird, like strigoi and wolves. I think I remember some type doing that. Wings though. That’s kinda like the… let me think. Striges. Strix. Strixes? And the lilu, too. Have you noticed if they eat babies?” I reached down and into the body of the one Venus tore in half. I pulled out a heart. It didn’t beat in my hands still or anything like that.
“No, we didn’t see that. By the time we got here, most were dead. At least they don’t turn everyone bitten into more of them,” she said in my mind.
I shook the heart, then poked at it. “Still living enough in the sense that brain destruction or widespread bodily injury does the job. Taking out the heart probably helps, but the stake is unnecessary. I hope you have the ones I brought still. Even if you don’t get them in the first hit, it oughta mess them up.”
I looked up and thought back to why I referred to high stakes.
She blinked. “One of the vans blew up and stuck several of them nonlethally. We thought they weren’t attacking because they were weakened by it. You coated them with drugs? Where did you find that much?”
“Lots of students have stashes. Had stashes. For crimefighters, y’all are awfully bad at finding hidden drugs. LSD, ecstacy, mushrooms. I didn’t bother with the pot. Maybe if I need smokebombs another time.”
“I hate to be the one to save your life, but come on, get inside with the rest,” Psychsaur told me. I looked up and noticed the sun was going down and the flapping of wings began to distantly fill the air. “You’re right, we weren’t ready to kill things that look human.”
“If only you had someone here to do the killing for you,” I winked at her as I dropped the heart and followed her into the church. I stopped as a handy bit of trivia came up. “Hey, where’s the nearest grocery store?”
She pointed down the road to a small one. “You won’t have time. We need to get in stay on guard. Don’t expect to sleep a lot.”
I took off jogging toward the store. “I think we’ll sleep just fine.”
The only risk came in not making it to the meet section in time. But I did, and rounded up as much pork as possible. Pork chops, both center-cut boneless and bone-in, along with the super-cheap pork loin and Boston butt. I’ve always wondered if whoever named the Boston butt just had a negative view of Bostonion derrieres by comparing it to a hunk of pig meat.
There was one strix who landed right in front of the store as I exited. I threw five pounds of pork right into his open mouth without breaking stride with my shopping cart. I ran for the church then, building up sped and riding on the back. If a bloodsucker got in my way, he got porked. Seriously porked. And it worked. My porking them saved the day.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” asked one of the guards at the door, over-under shotgun in hand.
I rolled along, sausage links swinging from my hand. I swung them at one of the yellow-eyes who tried to accost me, right in her mouth. Some people just kiss people out of nowhere. Amateurs, I tell you! I can roll-by and stick my wiener in their mouths. A completely non-violent assault on their orifices, accompanied by the battlecry: “Pork you, mother trucker!”
I dropped plenty more in front of the church door before rolling right in on into the church. “Celebration! Cheese for everyone!” I announced.
“No, why are they just eating that stuff?” asked the guard, keeping it trained on them.
I stepped off and turned the cart to the side, noticing how absolutely packed that building was. It stank of human. Ew. I just remembered I’m human now. That stink is part of me. I have human smell. Even worse, when I get caught in the rain, I’ll have wet human smell. Ugh.
Psychsaur rushed to the door to look. Other capes joined her, but didn’t have her abilities to probe the minds of the vampires. “They’re obsessed with it,” she said.
“Quirk of the strix, which is what this appeared to be. Ancient Roman type of vampire, somewhat related to owls in the same way other types are to wolves, bats, or even rats. Can be warded off with pork and, supposedly, certain types of beans. Here, someone dump this on one, see if it works.” I tossed minotaur a can of pork and beans, one of the cheap ones. Maybe a bad example, depending on if they’re too cheap to include actual pork and/or bean, but I wanted to save the good ones for myself.
“Do you think that’ll stop them?” asked Venus, coming over to check the cart.
I shrugged. “We’ll find out, but I bet they’ll get stuffed.” I blew her a kiss. “Just think, all the ways you tried to neuter me, and here I am saving your… patooties. Frelling censorship block.” I walked toward some of the townies and took a bow, then pointed back to the cart. “If anyone needs dinner and can start a fire, I did the shopping.”
Venus pulled me aside, toward the restrooms near the front. “You aren’t supposed to be here, or even alive as far as anyone knows.”
“Y’all are terrible at secrets, by the way,” I said.
She ignored that and told me, “You need a codename.”
I looked down at myself, then took off the leather jacket and held it over my shoulder. I brushed off my cat ear headband and gave my bell a tinkle. From over in the other room, I heard Psychsaur yell, “Oh heck naw!”
“Oh Home-For-Infinite-Losers yes,” I said, looking into where Venus’s eyes would be under her visor. “You can call me Puss In Boots.” I pulled up my pantleg to show off the biker boots.
She snorted and held a hand up to her mouth to stifle laughter. She failed. Really, it’s like she barely tried to stop herself. After a minute, she fought back the laughter and regained her composure. “Alright, Puss. Since you’re here, you can help a little. But you and the others are the non-combat squad. You don’t fight again, you hear?”
“My ears certainly send signals to my brain about vibrations they pick up moving through air molecules, yes,” I said. Nothing said I couldn’t lie or obfuscate.
“He’s not planning on listening!” Psychsaur called from outside.
Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day! Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!
“Argh! Ew! No, no, no!” Psychsaur said from the other room, hopefully backing up off my case.
Venus looked back to the door, then to me. “Listen and listen good. I know Spinetingler fought you and you want revenge, but as far as I’m concerned, none of this is your business. You are a prisoner and a patient. You’ve been let out this far over good behavior. Do. Not. Push. It.”
I held my hands up defensively. “Listen, Venus, I want to help. It’ll be fun for me. Plus, I think there’s more to this situation that y’all don’t know. Couldn’t know, because you don’t have some of my insight, both as a villain and as me specifically. And there is another reason. Judging from the costumes I saw outside, you’re missing some people, right?”
Venus nodded. “Some of us hesitated at a bad time and they have the surveillance squad captured, we think. We haven’t been able to get close enough to Angerhorn Manor to find anyone.”
“Good. Well, not good, but I mean to say I have something I can do here. I can repay a little bit of that debt I unfortunately owe Master Academy. Or is it fortunately owe? I guess it depends. I mean, if I we count the whole fight, getting wounded, and so on, it was unfortunate I needed to be repaired. But if we count from the point when I was wounded, it’s fortunate. And that’s just from my perspective, and current and past perspectives…” I stepped past Venus, heading for the door. I opened it to find Psychsaur there, eyeing me through her mask.
“He’s telling the truth,” she told Venus over my shoulder. “He’s just embarrassed and trying to distract people from that.”
I pointed a finger in her face. “You know what makes a really distraction? Those things.” I shifted the finger over toward the front of the church. She looked and peered for a second. Not finding anything, she turned back to find me gone.
I was walking into the church, announcing to one and all, arms out wide. “And if you should like to know the name of your savior this evening, who almost died out there, by the way, then count yourselves lucky to be saved by the one, the only, Puss in Boots!”
“Where’s your donkey?” asked a little boy.
Minotaur walked up behind me and clapped me on the shoulder. “He doesn’t need one. He’s already a jackass.” He walked past with a metal trash can full of wood in one hand.
I pointed after him as he went. “Don’t listen to a thing he says. I swear, nothing but a load of bull.”
Believe it or not, Master Academy didn’t go off half-cocked. They went off fully-cocked, loading up a pair of vans. Disappointed me they didn’t have a jet hidden away somewhere, but that’s probably a good thing given the inevitable future conflicts I’ll get into with them. Besides, they made it pretty clear in all the talking back and forth that the place was only about four hours away.
This time, they took a lot more people, including Venus, Psychsaur, and the minotaur guy. They left Leah behind, though. Mainly, they sent along older, more experienced folks. I tried to climb into one already-crowded van with a bunch of them. Looked nice, though I knew it’d be tricky finding a comfy seat with all the stakes strapped to me in lieu of armor.
“Hi there, how ya doin’, make way,” I said, climbing in the door.
One of the ones in a custom costume nodded toward me. “Who are you supposed to be?”
I looked down at my costume, which literally was just the clothes they got me, wood stakes tied onto my chest, upper arms, thighs, and waist, then reached up and scratched my cat ears as if they were real. “Should be obvious, really. Pussy cat covered with pointy things… you can call me Vagina Dentata.”
The men in the van all cringed and brought their knees together while I fought an instinctive urge to do the same.
I went to go in further, but then I got pulled out and floated to the ground.
“Nope!” said someone behind me. I could guess who, but I turned around anyway to confirm that ol’ Boobzilla had spotted me. “You’re still not going.”
“But come ooooon! At the very least, I’d make a good decoy. Draw fire from the people who can fight, even if you don’t let me fight.”
She shook her head. “We don’t operate like that.”
Venus set down a bundle of stakes and walked over. “Thanks, we could use these.” She started to strip me of my own wooden weapons. Which is a lot less painful than it would have been if I sported a boner.
“You need me out there. Who else is going to miraculously save the day and defeat the forces of darkness when y’all fail?”
“Don’t you mean ‘if’ we fail?” called someone from back in the van.
I turned and yelled back, “I know what I said!” Then, back to Venus, “I can draw heat from the rest of y’all. I have a very puncheable face, an abrasive personality, and a funny name. With those qualifications, it’s either fight, or become a politician.”
Venus’s eyebrow rose. “Compared to some I’ve heard about lately, you wouldn’t be any less moral. It’s good that you’re enthusiastic about helping us, but this is a time when we don’t need help.”
“Maybe I do! I gotta kill something, or at least be involved in its killing. Do you know what I did earlier?” I talked right over her starting to shake her head. “I stalked a roach. I followed it through a couple of rooms, then into a wall. By the way, y’all have some secret passages built into the place. Anyway, I followed that roach back to a huge nest of roaches in the walls and… couldn’t even kill them. It literally made me angry with rage! If there’s anything I hate, it’s redundancy, you know. That’s why I like to remove a lung from people.”
“You’d make a good exterminator,” Venus responded.
“Leave off the ex, and just watch me go after Sarah Connor. Though I do hear you’ve got a vampire infestation on your hands somewhere…”
She shook her head. “No. We’ve got you where we want you right now. It’s too dangerous for everyone to have you on this, so you stay here.”
“Fine, accursed heroes, but you don’t know how high the stakes are… I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone!” I raised my fist to the sky and let out an evil laugh.
“That’s nice,” said Venus, patting me between the cat ears. Suddenly, I decided I didn’t actually owe her my life anymore, whenever I manage to get free of this place.
Trying to stow away didn’t work either. I just rolled off. Not much of a metaphor there. I tried to hide on top of a van and rolled off when I got to the gate. Even going after them on foot didn’t work. I just couldn’t. It may have counted as escaping… which I kinda sorta maybe thought it was an escape, but it also could have been something else they put in my head. In the end, it left me looking longingly as other people went off to have a dandy Halloween time while I sat around getting babysat. And not even the fun kind of babysitting, where a killer calls from inside the house.
But there were other things I could do that didn’t count as escaping. Like leaving and calling up an individual who would greatly prefer if I was dead. That’s not really a good way to describe someone these days, though. I mean I pretended to be some anonymous magical book dealer who heard Ethan Basford, of the famed Basford family, was still around.
Ethan and I became acquainted when I did some work for him and his twin brother in California. They’re part of a family tasked to bring about the apocalypse in order to gain tremendous magical power and live as rulers in that post-apocalyptic world. Thing is, since everyone in the family’s got that deal going on, they’re all trying to both end the world as we know it and end each other as they all know each other so they don’t have to share. I wound up offing Ethan’s twin brother.
It was bittersweet for Ethan, as he paid me back with a very small amount of magical truth potion that, predictably, worked against me. I held it against him, which is why he agreed to bring some magical reinforcements to Empyreal City during the whole alien fiasco. Vampires, actually. He had some magic box full of the things, and he used to like to hang out with them in Los Angeles. I was a bit surprised he decided to stay in Empyreal City, but at least the number I had for him was still good, as was the alias.
I found him sitting in a cafe, sipping some sort of pumpkin spice espresso. I expected him to have to fight down a spit take when he saw me, but apparently I’m still fairly unrecognizable. As if a little lipstick and makeup around the eyes mattered. And having more hair in a certain do, come to think of it. The explosion, and then subsequent surgery, took a little off the top. “Are you Mr. Alias?” asked the smiling, genteel older balding man with a strong, pointed nose. He stood and shook my hand, then gestured to a seat at his table.
“You could say Mr. Alias was something of an alias for me,” I said, settling into the chair. “And I’m not here about books, especially not some magical book that traps and releases monsters. Sorry, it was all a lie.”
Ethan’s smile faded. “Then what are you wasting my time for, you punk?”
I smiled.”A certain mutual friend of ours, someone who doesn’t like telling the truth and had to do so because of you, informed me as a matter of payment that you could answer some questions about vampires for me.”
Ethan stood up. “I don’t like where this is going and I don’t have to stay for it. Good day!”
I grabbed him by the arm. “I need to know why a bunch of them would take up with Spinetingler.”
He scoffed. “They wouldn’t. I know them better than just about any other human, and they hate that guy. All creatures of the night do.”
“Please, sit, tell me why. It could mean life and death for people I know. No need to rush off and not finish that pumpkin thing just yet, right?”
He looked at me, and I swear he drew a symbol on his coffee cup. “If you really got my number from who you said you did, you know there’s a superhuman underbelly to the world. It’s like this banana stand my family used to own. No matter how down on our luck we got, there was always money in the banana stand… because we hid several hundred thousand dollars in secret compartments inside it.You have your layer of the world, we have ours, and sometimes the two meet, but usually the supernatural and the superhuman like to stay separate.”
“Aww, the vamps don’t want to be famous supers? They’d really fit in as intimidating nighttime prowlers.”
Basford shook his head and reached into his coat. He pulled out a flask and began unscrewing the top. “Mages and monsters were ostracized for much of history. Mankind, jealous and afraid of mystical power, shunned or even executed people like me. The myths are full of superpowered heroes slaying monsters. Superheroes and villains want to be noticed, but we just want to be left alone.” He popped open the lid of his coffee to dump something alcoholic in, secured the flask, and had himself a nice sip before going on. “Spinetingler is the antithesis of the supernatural world. He can’t make true vampires, either, so the only ones he would have with him are very young and very stupid. And it would get out if too many were unaccounted for.”
“Huh… interesting. I’ve got reports of people tracking him that say he does have them.” I leaned back to ponder on this. “Is there any other way he’d have some flying humanoids with fangs and claws with him?”
Basford spread his hands. “How should I know? You’re the one who knows everything. I tell you what, if you really had that book you mentioned over the phone, that might do it.”
“Oh really?” I cocked my head to the side. “The unassuming book said to have trapped ancient monsters? You know, that does sound about right.”
“Don’t joke around with anybody else about that. That book is serious business.” He pointed at me to emphasize the last two words.
I raised an eyebrow. “Let’s just say, purely hypothetically, if that book had been seen in this city previously, before the past year or so’s widespread destruction, would it likely have any older vampires in it?”
Another sip of his adulterated espresso, or at least adult coffee, and Ethan graced me with an answer. “Lots of monsters have claws and fangs and can fly in history. Vampires come in a wide variety of forms, too. There are ancient vampire legends, but too many different types. Every culture has vampiric monsters in their history. Call my if you uncover any lil-la-ke, or lilu. The females are infertile. They eat babies, though.”
I lightly slapped the tabletop. “Sound like my kind of women. Listen, thanks. Sorry for getting you riled up for nothing, but I really need to go. Gotta make sure that book wasn’t uncovered, so I guess we’ll consider that my good deed of the day for you and yours. You just stay here and have fun exorcising your coffee of spirits, eh?” I shot him finger guns. He shot me one back while taking another sip. Good guy. Maybe I’ll consider our little issue square now, with the truth serum, even if he doesn’t know it.
He could be wrong, or lying, of course, but he had a good point. I’ve pointed it out before that supers are generally flamboyant. Whether we’re causing crime or stopping it, flying around with bright colors in the day or glaring down from a rooftop at night to intimidate people, we like being noticed. Spinetingler and his creations tend to follow that line a lot more. They want victims, so they want to draw them in, whereas Basford gave me the sense vampires just want to get by while unliving their unlives in a bit more privacy than all that. You know, like living off in the middle of the Romanian mountains and trying to kill any tourists dumb enough to hike the Romanian mountains.
Another good point came when I visited the old Double Cross Headquarters building, under which I had built a bunker. Below that, I’d buried that book that trapped monsters. It didn’t look particularly threatening, with a gray cover and leather cords binding it. Easier to hide than more exotic materials, like human leather or tendons. Even easier to hide if you stick it beneath a bunker under a skyscraper.
Except the building was gone. The bunker, too. Just a crater. I stood there, examining it, figuring up the distances by eyesight. I’d have gone down there to check, but didn’t see much point in scrabbling and slipping down broken concrete, rebar, lead, and drywall to try and fail to lift a section of floor that probably weighs more than your momma. Plus, my ride home had arrived in the form of a hovering power armor of the thick, rectangular variety. Very 1980s. I held my arms up to him. “Take me, you magnificent metal man!”
“Uh, I’m… I’m just here to bring you back to the house. Mr. Mender wants me to tell you to stop running off,” came a voice over speakers.
As soon as he set me down at the campus, I headed on up to see Mender. “They’re doomed! Doomed I say! The end is nigh!”
“The town is retaken,” he said. “Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but I will not need you for Spinetingler after all.”
I rolled my eyes. “You will. Those vamps are likely not the standard European type we’re used to. This isn’t Dracula versus Superman, with Frankenstein in Drac’s corner. There’s going to be freaky vamps. Detached upper bodies, or vampire bat skulls with intestine around them. Maybe floaters with backward feet, who knows? And on top of that, Spinetingler’s got very special book with him, a magical tome that can do some nasty stuff to people.”
I know, I know. I didn’t have proof of any of that. Didn’t need it, either. All I needed was a trip to have some horror fun. It’s a thriller! Thriller night. And I’m gonna punch a being with forty eyes right in the nuts, if there are any forty-eyed bloodsuckers with male genitalia.
“Nice try,” is all Mender said to me, before rolling out to attend his other duties.
So I had nothing to do but sit around researching old myths and occasionally trying to escape, which usually amounted to me running and stopping suddenly before going back to my preparations. Holy water, garlic, a flamethrower, and I found a workable sword in one of the weapon training areas off to the side of their gym. It slowed down work on my newest armor iteration, though I didn’t entirely mind that as I had almost nothing to work with to make the armor at this time.
Leah stopped by to see me in my isolated corner of the library, surrounded by my mess. She smiled, her hair forming a rainbow with red at the base. “Hey there.”
I winked at her. “Howdy, young’un. I’ve been expecting to see you around this place. And to have to explain the story so far to you.”
“I picked up on some of it.” She nodded. “You still found a way to leave.”
I shrugged. “Temporarily. Only to a short distance. I don’t consider a trip to go fight the vampires quite the same, I think because I might not come back. I’m a bit handicapable at the moment.”
“I might know a group of troublemakers who want to go watch what’s going on and jump in if needed. Maybe we can stick you in the trunk,” she said. She snickered.
I sat up. “That’s… actually, yeah, that should work. I mean, because then, I’d have to stay with y’all. No escaping… yes, my devious Leah is truly growing into a thinking villain…”
“I’m thinking of staying a hero,” she said.
“A delusional villain, but one readying to take down the heroes from the inside…”
“They’re my friends, Gecko.”
I grabbed the sword I’d found, a thin longsword. I didn’t put a lot of weight on it, but I did cut into the carpet helping myself up. “And boyfriends. Still with Derrick?”
She scrunched up her face in puzzlement and crossed her arms, as well as one foot in front of the other. “Have you been digging up gossip about me? I’m not with him anymore. He got weird. Or I guess he was weird the whole time, like he, like, didn’t seem to realize we were as close as we were. Then he got dismissed. Mr. Mender didn’t trust the nanites, so he gave everyone an ultimatum if they had used any or if someone they knew used any. I didn’t want to get purged either. I trusted you not to hurt me.”
I swung the sword forward, just missing her chin. “Right you were! But enough about love lives for now. After all, the car ride’s a few hours. Assemble the Gecko Cats!”
“Gecko cats?” she asked.
I swung the blade round a few more times, then pointed it straight into the air as I yelled, “Gecko! Gecko! Gecko! Gecko Cats, hooooooooooooo!”
The librarian’s “Shh!” cut me off before I could play “Thunderstruck” as a theme song.
Yes, like it or not, I have allied myself with Master Academy due to pragmatism and the sight of my impaled chest. Not that everyone’s heard. Most of them don’t even know who I am, after all.
I half expected more people to recognize me, but it makes some sense. I mostly ever appeared in public wearing my armor. When I didn’t, I tended to change my physical appearance all the time. Even my bra size a time or two. Even when I adopted the face I currently wear, I used makeup. Subtract the makeup, some hair, and a little meat on my bones, then add in a bit of head trauma for an equation that justifies when people appear to be 80085.
That’s a good thing at the moment. There’s nothing but scab between the outside world and my chest cavity in spots, and I’ve been left physically diminished in my recovery. Plus, that little calculation I like to rely on clearly shows me at a disadvantage. The one that goes, “I don’t know how many of them it was gonna take to whoop my rear (cursed cuss censorship!) but I knew how many they were gonna use.” In this case, about seven billion people. Adjusted for inflation, I might give Hitler a run for his money as the World’s Most Hated Person, all without deliberately targeting a single Jew. Ironically, that probably means the Nazis over at Stormfront think I was secretly a Jew.
I miss the internet. Nothing reinforces the reasonableness of exterminating humanity quite like the internet.
I missed having armor, too, so I’m doing something about it while learning something interesting about my thought processes. Yep, just another man to learn new things about himself in the big city. Because that’s where I went. Set foot off campus and took a bus into the city proper. The people at the bus stop didn’t even blink when someone wanted to get on with a bell and cat ears on his head, but it is right by Master Academy. I wasn’t sure if the rules they imposed on me would let me, but it turned out my suspicion that it was worth a try turned out to be true.
I walked right off Master Academy’s campus, though not through trickery or bribery or resistance to mental compulsion. I was able to leave because I had been compelled not to escape. I wasn’t escaping. I was heading out to buy a few things, then coming back. I’ve also been known to borrow something important, like a diamond or the bullets out of a sleeping target’s gun, but I don’t always give those back. People don’t always like when I give things like that back, more because of little factors like how hard I give them back, and where.
When the bus dropped me off in an area I knew, I set off. Utilizing my completely non-violent ability to rob people blind, and at least one blind person, I soon amassed enough money to afford a shopping spree at a hardware store and electronics store. Finding a junkyard was harder, and I had enough trouble remembering where I was going. I’m used to GPS.
If I needed any help getting back to Master Academy with my purchases, you wouldn’t know it. I walked along, thinking of the best place to acquire armor plating, when Master Academy heroes descended upon me like a Biblical plague of Egypt. The lesser known Fourth-And-A-Half Plague, the plague of cameltoes. The Bible missed that part because of all the tunics and loincloths they wore back then instead. I’d where a loincloth too, if it wasn’t so impractical.
I get in too many fights for that. At least if I were completely nude, the sight of my towering manhood could dissuade any limp-wristed attempts to punch me in the crotch. Cover it with a loincloth, and people are less fussy about it. The things you learn in Bangkok, eh? There’s a reason Murray Head’s song brings back memories of swordfighting with a secret order of nationalists who hate foreigners and paying foreign hitmen. They called themselves the Kokblockers.
Since I’m horrible at foreshadowing, they didn’t have anything to do with my trip. Instead, some guy stepped out of an alley and tried to stick a knife against my throat. I blocked it with a bag and stared him down, the two of us eyeing each other. Him, some random mugger; me, a mass murdering serial killer super villain hiding in plain sight with some mind wammy on me stopping me from hurting people. Clearly, there was only one course left to me.
“Gimme your money!” the guy said, edging around.
I dropped my bags and tore at my shirt, screaming while revealing my nasty-looking chest. Then I reached down and yanked my pants open, letting my Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoy the brisk Fall air, free as a bird now. I pushed them down and kicked them off, then waved them around over my head by the leg, yelling all the while. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabugoffaaaaaaaahhhhh!”
“Pluck this,” he said, and turned to run back down the alley.
I stopped to take a breath, shoved my pants into a bag next to some of my purchases, and gathered them up to go. I didn’t go far.
Quicker than you can say “Watch out, that Thai hooker’s actually a woman!” I found myself surrounded by Master Academy capes. They were more than happy to escort me back, though they kept distracting me from my work afterword by bringing in Psychsaur and some other telepaths to examine me. I tried to ignore them rooting around my brain, but it wasn’t easy. I mean, at least I’m used to hearing other voices in my head from time to time. The little room we were all in was crowded, and not the best spot to build stuff, but I had bought tools of my own and could work off the floor if need be.
“It must be the computer somehow,” one of them said.
Another suggested, “Maybe it wore off. Sometimes compulsions can do that.”
A third voice spoke, “Has he been under any unusual stress?”
“Don’t talk about wearing off, and it wouldn’t have been that. The computer shouldn’t mess with anything. And finally, don’t you know who that is? Stress, really?” Psychsaur fielded all the questions in one burst.
I just stripped a little wiring that I’d worked into a glove. “Hey!” I said in my mind. “Y’all are the psychics, shouldn’t you have it figured out by now?”
“Stop talking about us in there,” said one of them. “We don’t speak that language.”
“That explains a few things,” I said. “But I figured y’all would have Occam’s Razored your way to a solution by now.” I brought up the list in my HUD, in English, and concentrated on it.
1. Cause no physical violence
2. Make no attempt to escape or convince others to help me escape
3. No bleeping cussing
4. Do not use poison, allergies, or medication in an attempt to cause physical harm.
5. Never oppose an OCP officer
“Who’s the OCP officer?” someone asked. “Is someone on duty?”
I pointed in the direction of that voice, behind my back. “Your lack of appreciation for the finer arts disgusts me. That is one of the classics of cyborg cinema. How dare you denigrate my people, you fleshist.”
“It’s a pop culture thing,” said a guy with three eyes.
I pointed at him next, “Right you are, Tien. You’ve won a Zeni, as soon as I find a way to counterfeit them. But what I meant before is that I didn’t violate the rule about attempting to escape because I wasn’t attempting to escape. Turns out, there really is a difference between, say, stealing and borrowing.”
“There’s a loophole?” asked Psychsaur. “I guess your intentions matter.”
I started running wires up a sleeve. “You know, your completely separate observation matches up perfectly with my ideas about morality through some odd coincidence. Good response time, too. Was getting chilly out there.”
Triclops said, “No one wants you loose. We’re taking a lot of risks as-is. Mender and Venus must have been crazy to think we could keep you a secret to the rest of the school.”
That reminded me. “By the way, there was a student here who I think is on hero duty sometimes. I haven’t seen her around, but I know she was here at one point. She’s an old friend. In a good way, not in that way that made y’all look at each other.” Keep in mind, I didn’t look up when I said this, so they were shocked I noticed. They’d have been shocked I knew they were shocked, too. “I’ve been chalking it up to timing, but with almost everybody dropping in on me today, I have to wonder where my old trainee Leah has gotten to.”
“That’s not for us to say,” said the person staying behind me. “Stop doing whatever you’re doing. That’s a weapon.”
“A weapon? No, no… it’s just a glove designed to channel energy to the fists to be discharged in a physical blow. There are a ton of civilian uses for it, like smashing watermelons and breaking cinderblocks. Besides, I can’t use it as a weapon. And I might be inclined to check for more loopholes if nobody wants to tell me what happened to her. She looks like this.” I remembered back to Leah as I last saw her without her mask. A misfit teen, or at least a runaway who feared for her life after a hero wound up killing a villain in a fight. She accidentally used her powers in a crime and fled, not being sure about the reasonableness of the people on the lawful good side of the D&D table.
“I told you, we can’t say,” said the one behind me. In retaliation, I remembered that Shia Lebouf meme where the actor stands around shouting stuff like “Do it!” and “Just do it!” in between yelling at people to follow their dreams. My brief stint as Emperor of the World gave me some insight into that; the CIA was testing an experimental mind control device on him that had to be primed with a chemical in LSD. The mindchanger didn’t work, but the added chemical led to a lingering high.
The door to our little room opened and Mender rolled in. “Well?” he asked.
Psychsaur looked at him for a moment. Mender then rolled around to observe what I was making. “This is a form of your armor.”
“Yepperoony. Figured it’ll come in handy if the safety gloves are ever taken off me. Kinda wishing that was the case since they’re all being evasive.” I nodded to Psychsaur and Triclops, then back in the general direction of the other voice.
Mender said, “That is not your concern. You should get better.”
I tossed the glove carelessly behind me, where I heard it slap someone. “Didn’t know you were there,” I said in way of explanation, then addressed Mender. “If you want me to give a dam about you and your school, it’d be a good idea to start by telling me what’s up with the only friendly person around here. Did you do something to her because of me? Did someone else? I think I’d have seen her around by now unless you sent her to the West Coast, in which case you’d have just told me she’s over there. I will ride your ass on this if you don’t. Level with me here.”
If he was put off by my mention of a method for blocking water and a domesticated animal, he didn’t show it. He couldn’t show much with his face. “We are handling the situation.”
I’ll take “Phrases that never end well for $800, Alex!”
“Unless the situation is a kitten, I don’t know that that’s true.”
Pyschsaur grabbed her ear, and I wondered if she had a normal earlobe. She turned to Mender and whispered something in his ear.
“Aha!” I pointed at him. Then, whoever in the room was a telepath lifted me up and I found myself floating upside down, probably giving some of them a view of my barely-clothed rectum to varying degrees of their enjoyability. I crossed my arms over my chest as I floated around like that, slowly rotating. “You know I’m right. Something went wrong, and I bet the person I was conveniently talking about is now in trouble. Am I right? The Law of Narrative Causality is a fickle mistress.”
“Yes it is,” Mender said, “But not for the reason you think.”
The door burst open and a spandexed-up Master Academy hero started to run in, but stopped abruptly. I couldn’t quite placer until she spoke. “Uh, hello,” she said and began to circle around.
“Speak of the devil!” I said. I tried to keep her in sight as I spoke. “Or should I say the girl who once had me as a devil on her shoulder. Hey there, Leah.”
“Oh my god, Gecko?! Is that Gecko?”
I felt her hug onto me from behind, putting her face somewhere near my other pair of cheeks. All at once, everyone started coughing. Mender’s computer-generated voice even said, “Ahem. Ahem. Ahem. Cough cough.”
“Leah, I’m a little detained at the moment. Think you can get all your friends a lozenge? Also, stay away from my chest. It’s a little tender.”
“I thought you were dead!” She let go and I floated where I could see her again, smiling.
I couldn’t help but smile back. “As always, rumors of my death precede me to the grave. Apparently, Mender decided I was worth salvaging instead of letting me die. But I don’t think you came here for me. By the pricking of my thumbs, bad news this way comes.”
Her elation faded and she turned to Mender. “We have a problem.”
“There is its,” I said.
“That’s it, you shut up now,” said Psychsaur. She backed it up, too. Couldn’t say a thing after that, just keep rotating around in the air.
“Sir, we ran into problems. We were watching him like you said, and followed him to Vermont, to a town called Dartmoor. He holed up in Angerhorn Manor. It’s got a repuation for being haunted.”
“I received the updates. Please, what went wrong?” Mender asked.
Leah stopped and took a deep breath. “The observation team sent me out for groceries near dusk. By the time I got back, the hotel was overrun. They looked like vampires; pale with fangs and claws. They flew and had super strength. I watched for awhile and saw them carry the others off, then got back as soon as possible.”
“Why didn’t you call?” asked Triclops.
I raised a hand and waved it around.
“I left my phone in the room but it wouldn’t matter because the phones weren’t working anywhere I checked. It’s like the entire town was cut off,” she answered.
I pointed finger guns at her. She got it in one. Classic horror trope, phones not working, both because the vast majority of horror stories have taken place in pre-cell phone times, and because the ability to call for help with them renders it necessary for modern horror stories to find a way to screw up the phones.
“We will get them back. Thank you for letting us know. Go, write it up for everyone, then get some rest,” Mender said. Leah nodded and turned to wave at me before rushing out of the room. Mender looked to Psychsaur, “Let him down, and let him talk if he wants.”
Surprisingly, they didn’t just dump me on the ground. Probably because Psychsaur remembered that time she caught me and my chest popped open. I bet I’d smell good to vampires. And as I drifted gently to the floor, I finally got to say, “I’ll do it!”
“Do what?” asked Triclops.
“I’ll help! Spinetingler and vampires in rural New England, with a small town and a manor? Sounds like fun!”
Psychsaur had something to say about that. “This isn’t about your fun. These are our friends’ lives.”
I grabbed the glove I’d been working on. “Right, and I just so happen to owe people some lives here.”
“No way. You just want to kill and escape,” she argued.
Mender hadn’t spoken yet up to this point, so I ignored her and looked to him instead. “Come on, drop the idealism stuff. THIS is what you kept me around for.”
Mender just said, “Yes, it is, but you are not getting out yet. We have the resources to help ourselves. You have a glove and a hole in your chest. You stay here.”
With that, Mender and his retinue left me alone to work, though I did eventually find a decent spot in the library to keep at it while looking up that Dartmoor place.
Oh, I am going, no doubt about that. This has been too much of a disappointing October, and I deserve vampires! And a manor!
I don’t care what those heroes say, I’m going to save their lives whether they like it or not.
Wow, put that under “list of phrases I didn’t expect to say.”
This town really livened up. Empyreal City has seen its share of new arrivals since my group trickled in. Wildflower’s been somewhat resentful, since she’d been here fighting the good fight. A quick check ruled out the possibility of her being a double agent. She let me do it again, though she did ask me to refrain from snapping her neck this time around.
She gave Girl Robot some particularly hostile looks when the cyborg approached me and ran her hand over my shoulder. The whole jealousy thing would have been over in a hurry if I bothered to crack the armor. Sure, Wildflower and I got a nice shower in the hotel, but I had to spray down the interior to keep it tolerable. With the environmental seals, it’s not really a threat to my stealth, but it’s not very romantic either.
When Wildflower saw the way Girl Robot was touching on me, she asked, “Who’s that?”
Girl Robot narrowed her eyes and asked, “Who is that?”
“Wildflower, this is Girl Robot. She’s one of the Claw’s people. We met on the way up here, talked a bit about cybernetics.” Girl Robot looked at me, surprised by my answer. I then continued to her, “Girl Robot, this is Wildflower. She’s my girlfriend. Unfortunately, she was left behind. I’m glad to have her back, though.”
“You didn’t mention a girlfriend,” Girl Robot said before walking off quickly.
Wildflower looked at me. “Cybernetics?”
“I came back for you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” She walked off, too.
I’ll have to give that situation time to cool off, which may be difficult. There’s not a lot of room for it.
It was a spacious bunker, wide open, but it’d already been crammed full of Buzzkills before I brought in the Moonies, Satan’s Poolboys, the Claw’s people, the runaways, and so on. I’d gotten trickles, and little groups, but it sucked to not get more with me. I hoped for more. Like the Rejects, or more from the Master Academy. At the end of the day, people didn’t like me, didn’t trust me. Nope, so I get the dregs and crazies, maybe the odd villain who wanted to kick some ass. Well, and folks like the Claw’s group, who hoped to show up the United States government.
So it was very nice to hook up with the other group I had Forcelight call up. I expected them sooner. I thought we’d meet up outside Empyreal City. I didn’t panic when it didn’t happen. I figured that maybe I’d get someone there. Y’all know how the cavalry is. They show up at the last second to save the day. Might as well rely on them to do what they always do.
So with me getting villains and crazies, it didn’t entirely surprise me to have Beetrice report back on the approach of a group that included a man in a black leather costume and another who almost took a Buzzkill’s head off with a revolver before the man in black could stop the gunslinger.
I grabbed Moai, Max, and a semi-fresh fruit basket. Empyreal City doesn’t have a lot of space for agriculture, so the quality of fruit within it diminished rapidly when the aliens separated the entire place from the rest of the world. Still, everything in the basket remained technically edible, except for the grapes.
I heard footsteps approaching in the darkened hive tunnel and hefted the basket. A glow rounded a corner, which turned out to be Good Doctor’s helmet light. I held the basket out and said, “Heya Doc! Great to see you again!” just before his boot hit the room’s light. He twirled a scalpel in his fingers the way some men knuckle-shuffle a coin, then gripped it in his fist with the blade pointed to the side in time to punch me in the throat.
Bulletproof doesn’t mean padded, by the way. An area like the throat, you can’t exactly fit armor plating on it. And even though a nanomaterial capable of preventing penetration by ballistic projectiles will stop a fist, it doesn’t do jack frickin’ squat about how much kinetic energy transfers through. At least Doc didn’t try it with the blade of the scalpel. It might have hurt more, and his power is very good at finding weak spots to slip a knife.
He made sure I remembered that part while I tried to keep breathing with the help of my suit’s life support. He grabbed one of the jester horns molded onto my helmet and held it, then dragged the scalpel along my visor where I could clearly see it. He moved it down, under the lip of my helmet, making sure I knew that he knew how to unseal the thing and get at my vulnerable face.
Naturally, this didn’t diminish the tension in the room. Gunman had pulled a gun, and more powers lit up the tunnel behind him. The Buzzkills raised their stingers, someone broke a glass bottle, and Festus slipped his shoe off into his hands. Shit was about to go down, yo. I just leaned down, trying to recover through the coughing fit invoked by the blow to my throat.
When I quit coughing enough to speak, I asked, “What’s up, Doc?” After a beat, someone cracked up and a lot of that tension eased up. Gunman holstered his revolver and soon the only ones not relaxed were Doc and myself.
Doc just stared at me. “My daughter!”
“I want to kill him anyway, but this scumbag didn’t have anything to do with Forcelight,” Lone Gunman helpfully provided. “This isn’t the time for this.”
Good Doctor twitched his head to the side and almost turned to look at Gunman. He stopped himself, and returned his gaze fully to me. When he spoke this time, it was with a more wicked, deeper tone to his voice. “She told me what you did.”
When I didn’t say anything, Doc continued, “In a few minutes of freedom, when your thoughts no longer touched hers, she told me the truth. You put those things, those nanomachines, inside her. You trapped her in her own body. Moved her like a puppet. Made her do things, made her say things. Watched through her eyes. Felt with her hands. Lied with her mouth.”
Oh, really. Well, good thing he didn’t know everything I did with her hands.
Doc leaned down and spoke in something of a loud, harsh whisper that carried to those immediately surrounding us. “Do you deny this?”
So, it occured to me my old friend might have been a bit angry at me. It happens sometimes. Still, these setbacks in planning are the cracks through which inspiration shines. Which is probably a quote from somebody, hell if I know. I stood up, looked him right in the glowing visor of his mask, and said, “No. I did it. It was the only way to get even this many here.”
Doc’s hand jerked. It didn’t come all the way to me, but I saw it all the same. He had to restrain himself, and he must have known I saw.
“Surprised?” I went on. “You know me to be shameless, but also a coward. And yet, I’m the one who came to fight. I did that to your daughter, but the Fluidic aliens have done it to eight million other daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, yada yada, in this city alone. And in other cities around the country. Did you hear that the anti-ET rallies in Russia mysteriously dispersed all on their own? The Chinese publicly laud Beijing as a new model for efficiency, but they sent me a contract to fly over and consult with them. Everything your daughter experienced, every one of those people is going through. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the army to save them?” I held out my arms.
I then pointed to Wildflower, who had her claws ready in one hand and a grenade in the other as she contemplated the violence we were close to. “What about her friends?” I switched to Festus then, who stood frozen in mid-shoe replacement by my attention. “What about his family?”
I leaned in close to Doc. My whisper didn’t carry like his did. “You want to be a good man? Sometimes good people have to sacrifice. And sometimes, someone like me has to make people get up off their asses and go save the world.”
Hopefully not often. That’s all kind of wrong.
I noticed Doc’s hand squeeze on his scalpel at the word “sacrifice” and he didn’t let up until the end of my little statement. His gaze drifted down, then back up. “Speaking of sacrifice, Psycho Gecko, I’m curious how you escaped Empyreal City the first time around. You were here, weren’t you?”
I nodded, as did Beetrice and Festus.
“What did you sacrifice to get out?” Doc looked around. “What could you sacrifice? How did you get out on your own, and why did you leave everyone else behind, except your dutiful Moai. No offense meant, Moai.” Moai shrugged. “Or did you strike a deal? You were at their mercy, and it’s obvious you don’t like them. What did you give them?”
You know that feeling, where an entire room turns against you? Yeah, that happened. Like suddenly all the attention turns to you and you know it isn’t good. “That’s not what happened. Technolutionary tried to bargain. He has this weird fantasy about me and him. And I think the Fluidics still feared I had a trick up my sleeve. And I do. I have two of them.”
“Then they could have killed you, or capture you. Do to you what you did to my daughter, all for Technolutionary. They didn’t. They had millions of people. Ordinary people, but they didn’t have what you have here: resistance. Superhuman resistance.” Doc held out his hands.
“I thought of that, but I-” I was cut off.
“You led us into a trap!” Someone threw a tomato. I didn’t even know we had tomatoes. Why is there always someone with a tomato?
I raised my hands and the volume on my speakers. “I disarmed it! I can keep them from doing anything to you! Listen!”
Well, they didn’t listen. I had it all in hand. But, well, then came the tarring and feathering. Or the honeying and spray painting. Then they tossed me outside the bunker, right onto the street. And I had to let them, because their lives were still valuable. Standing up afterward, I shook my hand at the retreating crowd as they started to close up the hive trapdoor and shouted, “Yes, I brought you into a trap! I can deal with it! I’ll show you. I’ll show the entire world! You haven’t seen the last of Psycho Gecko!”
Which was true. One of the things caused by my public messages and the time it took to get here was a larger media presence from the outside, hopefully ones not taken over already. One such chopper even got good footage of me looking like the world’s worst dessert. I let it follow me, publicly broadcasting my whereabouts, as I made a few calls to get even more people in the air.
Of course, I couldn’t let myself be taken out publicly by whatever the aliens have done to take out entire buildings, so I had to stay mobile until I had too many things overhead. I had to improvise. I originally meant to goad them into a big battle, make sure they had to commit a large crowd, show that resistance was futile, all that mess. I wanted as many of them out and about as possible.
I didn’t get that. Instead, I jumped around and ran along the sides of buildings before jumping off again, making my way around the city. Because this isn’t just about whether I look right or wrong. It’s about if the extraterrestrials want to demonstrate the complete failure of resistance by simply wiping me off the map. I figured, hey, maybe getting some cover overhead would work. Like in Central Park. I’ve done so many things there before, too. Killed some campers, stole some penguins. It’s got range.
And I always wanted to stop by and see Thoth. He’s this performer and super, possibly magical. Has a thing about prayer and worship in these musical street performances. Always wanted to see him after he got laughed off some show full of people who dismissed him because he looked unusual and spoke a language he himself invented. But he wasn’t there.
It wasn’t a complete waste. All things considered, the Bethesda Terrace Arcade, where he used to perform, is pretty nice. The camera angles from the news folks allowed me to keep an eye on things, even as I paced around under this terrace. That’s how I saw when they arrived. Venus and several more of the tights brigade who I assumed were known as heroes. I didn’t recognize any particular villains, and I doubt Technolutionary would avoid me.
They brought enough to form a wide perimeter, something I saw well enough myself out in the fountain courtyard. And I heard when Venus descended the steps behind me in her power armor, a hum accompanying each step and sway. It looked less blocky than last time, but like fitted armor plates. Like you could remove one and put another molded piece in its spot. It bulked up around her lower legs and forearms. The legs were wider at the bottom, providing more stability. The forearms built into bigger fists with a surprise or two likely built in. Her helmet didn’t show anything, but I noticed the gold visor formed a rough heart shape.
It always comes back to Venus, doesn’t it?
“It’s time you did the right thing, Gecko,” said whoever controlled her.
I looked out at the fountain of the angel blessing the waters of Bethesda, trusting my heads-up display to keep her in sight. “Facing the music? Facing my fate? Let everyone throw me to the wolves because I’m a bad person. Ah, hell, I’m sure Venus would know I deserve it.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”
I shrugged. “Venus isn’t here. Just you. You’re a puppet, sent to kill me. Venus wouldn’t.”
“I’m not here to kill you, just to stop you. They want to make this place better. I know you hate humanity. We’re flawed. We’re so flawed. But they can change that. They can make us of one mind, wipe away all our petty bickering.”
I supposed so, but then, look what they’d use them for? I leaned against one of the pillars of the arcade while Venus approached. “Yeah, as mindless and uniform as a gun. You’ll just be a weapon, Venus. Nothing more. So are you? Especially now, knowing they can’t swoop in and convert me and all the rest?” I turned toward her and held my hands out, wrists turned upward. “It’d be easy. I’m Psychopomp Gecko. It tends to end in death when I’m around. Your masters will get what they want. You know nobody else will mind, since that’s why I’m here alone. Unless you are Venus.”
She screamed, which I could probably depict here as “Raaaagh!” or something like that, but it’d take away from the drama. Then again, so did this. Whoops. Either way, she screamed, then punched me. I flew back, my flight path altered with a bounce off the column nearby and landed on the edge of the fountain where I rolled into it.
I stood up, slowly. Not for drama’s sake. It really hurt. “Venus…you leave me so wet sometimes.” And disoriented. That armor got quite a bit stronger than I remember. I needed to fight this one as the physical inferior, looked like.
“If you want to do the right thing for once, close your eyes. I’ll make it quick,” Venus called out, walking into the courtyard.
“Quick? You want to make me dead, but I’m not going to just lie back and think of England.” I responded, then charged.
She broke out into a run as well. Just before we reached each other, two things happened. I dived into a roll so I could kick up. She jumped into the air, a metal spike punching out from her armor’s right gauntlet. In the resulting clash, she didn’t get any on me, but I didn’t get as much of a good kick under her ribs as I meant to. It stopped her, left her dazed, but it also left me on the ground.
By the time I stood up again, we were back on equal footing. Cue the simultaneous appearance of the health bars and appearance of dramatic music, ala Metal Gear Solid IV. I laughed as we squared off. “Memes, Snake! Doge and trollface! Plank me, baby, plank me hard.”
Venus threw her spiked right again, but dodged back, shifted my weight, and rolled to the side. The enhanced pseudomuscles of my armor lifted me into the air to land on short wall nearby.
“You got into a fight just to run again?” Venus asked. “You’re good at stalling, dodging around it all. Why don’t you ever fight? Stop boring people.”
Under my helmet, I grinned. “Well, no one had to die today, dear. But, if you insist…” I knew the Fluidics were playing me. I knew it meant I still had the upper hand. Including the ability to hide my hand perfectly. Sure, all the gunk on my armor disabled the systems that allowed me to project complete holograms or hide myself, but even a partial disappearance, such as my left arm and right leg, helped.
I jumped. She caught my waist, where my invisible leg used hers as a nice step for leverage while I rained fists down on her helmet. She tried to let go and drive that spike into my belly, but I grabbed her wrist with my left to keep it from digging in and gave her a hard haymaker that stumbled her and dropped me to the ground.
“Where the head goes, the body must follow,” I commented, then dropkicked her. It didn’t send her flying, but it knocked her on her ass, and I bounced back up a lot quicker than her. I knelt by her and went for her helmet, scrabbling for an opening or seal, punching it to try and loosen it.
Venus grabbed me by the neck and threw me over her. She maintained her grip as she rolled over to straddle my chest and keep me pinned. Her punch, spike and all, barely missed its mark. And by barely, I mean it put a gash in my cheek. It’s not because of anything fancy, like Venus pulling her punch. I had cocked my head to the side. A couple inches over, and that’s all she wrote.
Her next attempt would have been on the mark until I caught it in my hand, losing my left palm to divert it. My other hand gripped her throat. Having a good grip with both hands, I at least managed to get her off me. I swear, so hard to keep the ladies off me lately.
I charged up the energy sheath in my right fist, ignoring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or at least Venus’s headbutts and other punches. My fist drove her head back against the courtyard and cracked her helmet. “One to one,” I taunted, chuckling. Then she stuck my side with a spike. Not the one in my hand, either.
“Laugh too much and you’ll split your sides,” she replied.
“Nice one,” I told her, and dug my glove into the crack of her helmet. She loosened her other hand from my other hand even as I did so, sliding the metal spike between a pair of my ribs. This gave me the opportunity to bring my other hand to bear and finally pull it off, exposing Venus’s face, surprisingly bloody. Then I noticed the way the neck of her armor merged right into her skin. “You’ve been upgraded, haven’t you? You’re like me now?”
I couldn’t take advantage of the exposure because she drove the sides of those spikes against my armpits and threw me off. My newly-ventilated body didn’t feel like standing up as quick as I meant it to, and the addition of Venus’s boot on my chest didn’t help matters. “You’ve lost. You just don’t know it yet.” The thing controlling her made her smirk down at me.
“I got that helmet off, didn’t I?”
“Look around. Punch my face in and you still would’ve faced the others united in our cause.” She didn’t bother to look up. “Just look.”
I did. There weren’t just a few heroes there anymore. Heroes, villains, civilians. Obviously, the entire city couldn’t have been there with me, but a hell of a lot showed up just to really grind in the futility of what I did. I picked Carl out of the crowd, looking down at me. Leah, who I’d briefly mentored, also appeared there, ready to be thrown against me in a wave of human fodder. And above them, various flying supers, news helicopters, and small planes saw it all. Heh, chemtrails over Empyreal City. None of the aliens had stopped by, though, nor Technolutionary. Ah well.
And then the riot broke out. Buzzkills flitted in. Moai stormed through a crowd. I even saw Ethan Basford carried by a glowing red lattice of magical energy that flipped bodies away. One of the converted began to crackle with electricity stopped dead when a scalpel appeared in her throat. The Good Doctor pulled it out before she could fall and looked down on the fountain courtyard as the sky darkened. A haze in the air blocked direct sunlight.
The bater had become the bate. Which could have described my sex change too, but that ship already sailed awhile back and took my penis along with it.
“This is your plan?” Venus asked, “You still don’t have enough to win.”
I laughed, spitting up a bit of blood in the process. “Nah, can’t say it is. But funny thing is, soon you won’t have enough either.”
She cut off my laughter by stomping on my chest, then plunging her spike through my throat. Then a green, tailed, barely clothed mess of a woman landed on her and got tossed against the angel on top of Bethesda fountain. Venus glared down at me with contempt, but at least I knew it wasn’t all hers. “You finally die, and there’s no deus ex machina to save you. No nanites for me to heal you with.” She knelt on my body, giving me a feel for more of that lovely weight before withdrawing her right-hand spike with a “shunk!” sound and reached into my chest wound. I felt her fingers wiggle around in my lung and then tear something off.
Ow. Lungs. I need those. I’d have told her, but she was doing things with one of my lungs. I looked into her triumphant eyes and coughed. She joined in as a mist drifted down from the air. I managed to smile through the coughing and tried my best to breathe deep. Just a few calls is all it took. Just a few messages back and forth. Long Life Corporation’s nanite reserves. Cropdusters. A few calls I had to make because my plan to goad them into one big battle didn’t work out. It wouldn’t be as effective this way, but it’d still do most of the work for us. Now I’ll get to see just how much those Fluidic aliens will piss their pants at someone combining my nanites with their rain idea.
Venus tried to cover her mouth. “What’s going on? What did you do?”
The fights around us ended with almost everyone coughing, even the lightning lady with the scalpel hole in her throat. The converted certainly lost their urge to fight, that’s for sure. For Venus, whose helmet I only needed to remove, I decided to clear something up. “Tends to…end in…death,” I repeated. “Except today. Everybody lives…Venus. Just…this once…everybody lives!”
Still not a hero, by the way. And if y’all tell anyone I did something good, I swear I’ll cut ya.
And that’d be a shame, because we aren’t nearly finished yet.