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.