Qiang threw things at me. That hurt more than my nose. And I think I deserve it. I guess I didn’t really have to go running off. My contributions were minimal. I helped get some information out, and I was kidnapped by the supervillain.
I was the damn damsel. I’ve been captured before, but was I really all that necessary? If I’d stayed, would it have changed anything? My kid wouldn’t hate me. So.. yeah. Qiang’s not happy and locked herself in her room. I finally got to see the house through the eyes of my little puppet. A bit of a step down from having the world handed to her in a palace, with friends and family and an adoring populace.
I’m gonna have to talk to her about that. And so many other things. The birds and the bees, and how to kill them. Body parts and how to use them. And… what? I don’t get into any adventures that take me away too long? I’m not fond of the idea of settling down into some nothing job. The Exemplars appear to have their business well enough in hand.
I headed down the hallway in my own body, feeling my way along. There weren’t any pictures on the wall. I’d left her in an empty house. Shelter.
I sat down next to her door, wondering why the hell I thought I could take care of her. “Honey… I messed up.” I didn’t know if it’d matter to say sorry. I just got back from space and being possessed by Mr. Omega, and immediately run off. There’s some shit going on in that young mind that I don’t know how to fix. “I love you, but adults have problems. I have a lot of problems. That’s not your fault and it’s my job to be here for you anyway. I failed. I didn’t want to be left out. It was selfish. I’ve been failing a lot lately.”
She didn’t respond, but I heard her moving around in there. I realized, I haven’t even seen her room. Part of that’s because I have eyes, but my abilities don’t make that much of an excuse. Besides, I’ve got an extra pair now. One good thing about about having the second body to pilot around: I went shopping with that one while I stayed next to Qiang’s door, waiting. I eventually coaxed her out with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that she ate without talking to me.
I didn’t end up seeing Medusa again until the day after I got back, while Qiang was away at school. I was disturbed by a ringing sound that made me think my ears had malfunctioned. It turns out we had a landline in the house. A landline, of all things. I picked it up and answered, “County morgue.”
“Psycho Gecko?” Medusa asked.
“She’s here alright. Victim of a broken heart.” If I could have sent an image of puppydog eyes, I would have.
“Alright, it’s time for us to talk for real. Meet me at the super school’s gym, with just your real body.”
I took a breathe, gauging her tone. “Sounds like I’m not going to be too happy about this.”
She sighed. “We need to talk. I have your costume, too.”
I knew this was going to suck, but she did have my armor. Away I went out bundled up against the cold and went to school. Could have gotten a camera, but I don’t have money. Just a little damn house, that I’m stuck in because she’s paying to take care of my kid. I go on some sort of rampage, that could end. Or I just couldn’t live with my daughter. Yeah, I began to get a bit pissed off. Some of it, I knew, was me stoking the anger to deal with what was coming. It also occurred to me that I might be on to something. She stayed after finding out I loved her. No, maybe she already knew. I began to wonder just how much of this was her using me. She even used my armor as leverage to get me to this little talk.
A part of me I was surprised to hear chimed in to point out she has a lot of good reasons not to trust me. And that the trust we would need to survive as a couple can’t come from ignoring problems and hiding them away. We need a good, long talk, maybe even a chance to punch each other in the face again. Damn, I think odd things without my medication. I need to get a hold of Max soon, see about him sending me even more.
I figured I’d be going in blind at the gym, but detected one of those little body cam things people like to wear on their heads, laying on a table by the door. I connected to it and saw a little note had been left in front of it. “For Gecko,” it read. I went ahead and put it on, then went inside.
It was a heck of a gym. They built it so the walls could open, probably for changing the circumstances. When I got there, it was empty of students or anybody else. Toasty, too. I shed layers to reveal some workout clothes underneath. Easy clothing to move in.
Now, there weren’t any students, but there was a sparing mat in the middle of the floor. I recognized the pile on it as my armor. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d say this smelled like a trap. I discovered upon walking closer to the armor that it also smelled a like cinnamon. I heard her swing down from the rafters upon me picking it up, dressed in some workout shorts and a top. No costume or power armor for her.
“You and me on a mat for fighting. Why do I get the feeling this talk involves some cathartic punching?” I asked.
“Because I’d like to, but that’s up to you,” Medusa answered. “You trusted this wasn’t a trap, right?”
I nodded, so she continued. “And if we fight, you trust me not to kill or seriously wound you?”
I nodded again. She ran at me and went for a flying kick. I ducked and tossed me armor into the air, where it smacked into her face. She tried to get her feet down in time, but she misjudged it without her sight and skidded on her ass. She laughed as she rose and I wrapped my arms around her waist. I picked her up and slammed her on the ground, which stopped the laughing, but she caught me with an elbow to the empty socket and nose. She wiggled around and got my neck in a hold, locking her feet around my waist. I stood back up, fingers digging into her shirt to keep her in place, then belly flopped on top of her. She loosened her grip, but it smacked my head against the mat, too. I twisted around to break out of the neck hold, which worked, but she adjusted and grabbed my arm for an armbar. I started to stand, but she kicked me in the face, hard. So I tickled her feet. She growled, probably to keep from laughing.
I stood up again to slam her again. She dropped out of the armbar and landed on her feet, still holding my arm. She pushed her hips into mine and threw me over her. I rolled and came up with both forearms ready to block her kick to my face. Turns out, she kicked from the other direction, with the other leg. The momentum left her open when I grabbed her other foot and yanked it out from under her, sending her to the mat with an undignified “Oomph!”
“Is this who we are? Opponents?” I asked, taking a moment to catch my breath. “Always fighting?”
Sensing this wasn’t just a trick, Medusa pushed up more slowly. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t part of the appeal.”
I stopped, tapping the air with one finger while I followed the negatives in that sentence to make sure of what she was saying. I settled back down onto my butt. “So there is some appeal?”
“Yeah,” she said, scooting around to sit beside me. “I know you think I’m a goody two-shoes. You think I’d sleep with you if I didn’t care about you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just… I have trust issues. One girlfriend turned on me and tried to kill me for good reason. You’ve got every reason to hate me. You cost me my throne, and it feels like you’re using Qiang to keep me in line.”
She put an arm around me. “I should have talked more with you about letting the Riccans have their country back. I love you and see you have your heart in the right place, but I think you’re still so independent. So if you’re in charge, you’re a dictator who runs off and has adventures while other people clean up messes for you. You don’t know what’s best for you.”
“I’m getting a little bit of a Dom/Sub vibe from all this,” I mentioned.
Medusa threw back her head and laughed. When she settled down, she looked at me. “Maybe some of that is in there. There’s something about fighting you, hating you, giving in to you. I just got my independence, it feels like. I’m finally breaking away from a strict, ordered life I didn’t have much say in. You know what that’s like. Maybe this is some kind of late-blooming rebelliousness, and every daddy hates you. And, god, I can fight you. You’re clever and a match for me. But then you talked about kids with me. I love Qiang, but you and I feel very new and experimental. We’re both still finding out who we are and what kind of future we want, right?”
I nodded along. “Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I should take it a little slower with you. Get to know you better.”
“You should get to know you better,” she insisted. “Don’t be an Empress because you feel you have to be. Why did you decide to become Qiang’s parent?” she asked.
“I saw a lot of myself in that kid, and I wanted better for her, and began to care for her,” I said.
She nodded along, hair bouncing. “I see that in her too. And you. We’re broken toys, looking for a new purpose. You want to give her the chance to be who she wants to be. You should do the same for yourself, as much as you can. You know you still have obligations to that girl.” She raised a finger toward me.
I kissed the tip of it. She booped me on the nose and smiled. I was smiling too, turns out. Don’t know how she turned me around after that mood I was in. “Hey, want to come over and have dinner tonight?”
“You’re not going to dress up your sex doll in a maid outfit, are you?” she asked.
I stuck my tongue out at her, then said, “She’s not a sex doll. She’s a one-up.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you have a dominant streak too,” she winked at me.
“I thought we didn’t know each other too well,” I responded.
She pulled me against her. “I know you have some issues with yourself, and that you make yourself look unnaturally beautiful when possible. You try to look like other people and take over their bodies.” She ran her fingers through my hair, a copy of Dame’s. “I want to see the real you some day, when you’re comfortable showing the world.”
I’ll show her. I’ll show them all the power of Psycho Gecko, supervillain single mother!
“Who are you?” Technolutionary asked, stepping around me. I heard him moving, even if I couldn’t see him. Just circling around me
Things were hazy. My head didn’t feel right. These drugs they were giving me were utter shit. If they had any of the good stuff, they could get all the high without as many of the bad effects. It made it harder to concentrate on what I needed to be doing. I’d warned Medusa, I knew that. Thanks to the haze I was in, I kept repeating that part over and over again, trying to motivate myself to do something useful. It was like I was caught in a loop.
I finally broke out of it enough to reach out. I knew there had to be some kind of machinery around me, but I guess they didn’t use much bluetooth here, so I was just as blind about that. Either the whole facility was as good at locking down vulnerable devices, or they’d shielded the room I was in. I leaned toward the first because I had sent a text. There’s ways to do it, of course. Doesn’t even always involve lead. Fuck, Superman would be screwed if he went to Flint, Michigan. Perfect arena for Aquaman to take him down.
Someone was tapping me on the forehead. “Huh?”
“Who. Are. You?” I heard this guy ask. Technolutionary. I first ran into this guy on this seasteading settlement these guys were failing at. Technolutionary was taking advantage of the total lack of laws to kidnap people, remove their brains, and replace them with computers that could control their bodies in rudimentary ways. Shuffling, grabbing, biting. More than I could do then.
Anyway, this guy has a creepy crush on me because he sees me as a higher form of being and wanted to turn people into homo machina like me. Damn, I make stupid decisions. No wonder the only people who date me are messed up or of inferior intelligence, like Medusa. Stupid hero, with her stupid integrity and ethics and never giving up on me and her cute butt.
I tried to stick a hand up and point at the sky, but I was still stripped down. “I am the Great and Devious Empress Psychopomp Gecko! Wait, why did I not want to say that?”
“Gecko? Really. What are the odds?” I heard Technolutionary move closer. Mostly I smelled him though.
“Stop eating fish,” I told him. “It’s nasty and they’re lying to you.”
“Interesting. We don’t usually observe the effects of the anesthesia on a conscious subject. Interesting. They scanned you to find out how difficult it would be to replace your eyes and made a note of a number of unusual objects in you.”
“Was one of them a pencil in my wrist?” I said with a laugh.
“I can scarcely believe one of my creations caught you, but they said you lacked your armor. Still you survived the fight. I must pull rank and have you to myself,” he said.
“You don’t wanna do that. I’m a real bitch,” I said, then laughed.
He chuckled as well. “Not when I’m done with you. Let’s put you back to sleep though…”
“I better not wake up with you inside mmmmph,” is all I got out before a mask slipped over my mouth and I was out.
I’m really not sure I trust anesthesia from a bunch of people who don’t care if their patient survives. When I awoke this time, I was sure they hit me with some really good shit, because I could see. I shot up off of a cot I was on and found I looked really different, too. The loop started up again, thinking how weird that was. It was a nicer room than I expected, too. There was a bed nearby, with Dame on it.
Oh wait… that was me. I can tell, because she didn’t have eyes. Which meant I wasn’t me now. I briefly wondered if they scooped my whole damn brain out, but I had a bunch of red hair falling in front of my face. And my body still had my hair. Generally, they’d take that stuff off when removing a brain. Don’t ask how I know.
As I was shaking the hair out of my face, I noticed a mirror on the wall as well. I stepped over to it. My HUD tried to come up with a match on the face that looked back at me, pale but not as freckled as I expected. Weird, I even had heterochromia. One eye was blue and the other was so brown it nearly blended in with the black part you see through in the middle. I had no clue who this person was, though. I couldn’t even try to get an update on my files because I was completely blocked off… except for some weird connection that had automatically been made. I turned and checked my body to see an earpiece attached to the far side of my head.
Cool. I wonder if that means I can be more of these things. I looked down and felt my new self up, then I had a thought and checked this body’s pulse. Good, not groping a corpse. The thought of having a sexy body that’s, like, undead with a bunch of unnecessary guts torn out and stuff just seems creepy AF. Totally cuts down on the sexiness factor.
“I wonder what this was about?” I wondered. I said it a few more times because, again, loop. If I had to put a really accurate transcript of my thoughts at the time, this would be ten times longer and make a quarter as much sense as it does now. I don’t even want to go over how long I spent hopping up and down to look at this woman’s boobs. A little smaller than I preferred, but nice. Kinda weird to think of myself as sexy, too.
Finally, I heard a voice come through an intercom. “How are you adjusting to the extra body, Gecko?”
It was Technolutionary, pissing me right the fuck off. And that’s when my hands lit on fire. I looked down at them, wondering why they’d really be big enough buffoons to stick me in a body with superpowers, but then everything went black. Again. At least this time, I was still conscious, just blind again. Then I heard a hissing noise and went back to unconsciousness, telling myself I’m never sleeping again.
I awoke spitting up some stomach acid and being held upright with my arms tied over my head. I heard alarms off in the distance. Woowee, woowee, woowee, woowee. I started to turn the volume on my ears down, but then I heard a voice. “Let her go, Technolutionary!”
“Medusa?” I asked, trying to turn my head in the direction the voice was from. Hey, it’s that sexy lady who makes me feel hope. Wow, she sent me a LOT of text messages.
“It’s me! Did he hurt you?”
“Uh, he tried to beat me up with a super speeder and keeps giving me drugs. It’s terrible. They’re really cheap drugs.”
I heard a scoff nearby. “This President relied on my work, and still he cut corners. You were to be kept sedated until I trained you nice and properly not to try and kill me in any body I stuck you in.”
“That was a hot redhead,” I said.
I heard the crash of something metal hitting flesh. A gun went off, but didn’t hit me. Oh yeah, I can do that thing where I look through people’s cell phones. Before I could, the bond holding my left hand released. I reached over to the other one to tear and pull until it came loose, too. Bleh. First they give me crappy drugs, then they give me crappy copper? What happened to pride on one’s work?
I slapped myself before I could get stuck in a loop again and realized I had that thing on my ear still. Interesting. Bending over is when I realized that when I was put on display, I had also been dressed in a skimpy dress. While I did that, I tried to see how I could get that thing functional. What I found is it was dead. No battery, or power source of any sort. Instead, it had a wireless energy system.
Well, I can beat that. After all, I’m a power source. When it turned on, I found myself looking through a pair of eyes that were watching as I pummeled Core. I stopped. “Sorry about that. Don’t worry, change in ownership.” I hopped off him. He jumped up and tried to punch me a few times, but I backed off and deflected the blows. Then I reached up and removed that Freedom Legion helmet. I don’t think it was made to be unlocked from the inside, but I did so and turned to try and find me.
I was in a large hangar of some sort, with a control room overlooking it. There I was, up in the control room. Medusa was between me and Technolutionary, who had on purple and red power armor under his lab coat. He floated in the air on jets of flame from his calves and underneath the rear of his coat, outside the window while an armored Medusa looked between him and a guy in a shirt and tie who held a knife to my throat.
I hoped this puppet body resisted heat as well as she generated it. Even without knowing all the intricacies of her powers, seeing Technolutionary again helped me ignite that spark of anger the sedatives threatened to smother. I jumped her up into the air, shooting twin blazing jets of flame behind me from my hands, then tossing a couple handfuls of fire at Technolutionary and at the guy with the knife.
Inside the control room, the guy with the knife pushed me toward the fireball and tried to get out of the way. I dropped, caught his legs between mine, and tripped him. I had his knife away from him in a moment and, after some experimenting, found a place to put it in his chest I was satisfied with.
Through the other body’s eyes, I could see Technolutionary had dodged the fireball and moved closer to Medusa, who grabbed his leg. I jumper my firestarter again, aiming for the window, and landed inside just after Medusa finished smacking him around into stuff. He sprayed her with something that coated her in ice, then pulled free. Turning to reassess the situation, he saw me on one side of him in the skimpy red dress he’d stuck me in, and me on the other side of him in the Freedom Legion jumpsuit he’d stuck that other body in.
“Now, wait a second,” he said, turning to look at my original body. He turned toward the other and caught a fireball to the helmet. He flew up then, launching a rocket to blast a hole in the roof. He almost missed it, too, having damaged one of his calf rockets at some point. Guess that’ll teach him to use me as a damsel in distress, dammit.
That left me and Medusa, who was looking between me. Both of me ran over to her and hugged her. “Who are you?” she asked the Legion puppet.
“It’s me. I think Technolutionary wanted to do some freaky twin thing where he somehow connected me to just the one body,” I said with both voices.
“That is all kinds of creepy,” she responded.
“Can I keep her?” I asked, hugging my other self. I mean, they already took out her brain. Might as well…
“That’s also creepy,” Medusa said. I slumped with body bodies, but then Medusa started chatting into a radio. “Good, disable it Core. All of them.” She looked to the redhead, who didn’t fall over or anything, then stepped over to the broken window. I followed, unsteady between days of confinement and loads of drugs, until I helped myself out with my second body. Through her eyes, I saw a bunch of Freedom Legionnaires fall over. Just not mine.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Medusa was looking down at the skimpy outfit I was in. “Were you already in that when he caught you, or did he actually dress you for when he tied you up to distract me?”
“That was him, but it’s nice, right?” I asked, the redhead running her hand down my body.
I didn’t need eyes to tell that she was blushing under her visor.
As nice as things went, they couldn’t last. After the events of that big reunion, I ended up sleeping 14 hours straight in a little house Medusa had rented for us. She’d gotten it for my eventual return, and Qiang had been living here on her own without me. Seemed a bit irresponsible, but she assured me this street was full of friendly families who kept an eye on her.
I woke to find Medusa telling Qiang to let me know there was an emergency and she had to go.
“What happened?” I asked, sitting up.
“Someone’s attacking the base. I need to get back,” she said.
“Ok, let’s go,” I said, rising up from the couch. I felt a little weak, as happens when you sleep that long, but at least my stomach wasn’t growling just yet.
“This is my group, and you’re not involved,” she said. I felt her hand against my chest, and then her lips against my cheek.
“I mean, my armor is back there. And you’re important to me,” I said.
“I’ll do what I can for your armor, but the Exemplars are my group. You don’t have to help with hero business because we’re a couple. You have a daughter to worry about, and a chance for peace. We just got you back. I think we’re tired of you running into danger.”
“Yeah!” Qiang added.
I didn’t really know what to say to that because they had somewhat of a point. I think the fact that I passed out for 14 hours speaks to a certain degree of tiredness, but she was more right about that separation between our agendas. And it can’t be good for my kid to constantly worry about me that way. And the worry I’m feeling is the same damn thing they tend to end up feeling when I decide it’s time to run off and punch a god in the nuts or something.
So I let her go. Besides, it gave me time to stop by an electronics store and start working on a couple of eyes. There are still traffic cameras and cell phones in this little town, enough that I managed to find my way there and back. It felt a little bit like an old school survival horror game, the ones with fixed camera angles for each new room or section. Unfortunately, we aren’t in Colorado, where I can use a little green herb to take care of any pain from wounds I suffer fighting the undead. Which explains a lot about how hard it was to aim in those games, or how you couldn’t climb over a picket fence to escape a monster.
I also grabbed some candy. It’s a risky move when I can’t see what I’m eating, but I’ve yet to meet the candy that can kill me. I wasn’t even thinking about paying, but Medusa snuck some cash into my pockets at some point. Darn reverse pick-pocketing.
Qiang wasn’t back from school when my attempts to build an eyeball from scratch were interrupted by a ringing doorbell. I got up from the table where I had some cheap burner phones set up to help me see and trundled over to the door. I opened it and heard a guy ask, “Oh. I’m sorry to interrupt you, ma’am. Are you the only one home?”
The person sounded a bit stiff. One phone camera gave me enough of a view to see it was a pair of suits at the door. I played dumb. “Yes. Who are you and what is this regarding?”
“Ma’am, we’re from the government and we have reason to believe a fugitive was in the area recently. If you don’t mind, we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“I’m sorry, who are you with specifically?” I asked. I stepped out onto the front porch and pulled the door closed behind me so they wouldn’t see I was building something.
“We’re with the FBI,” said the other of the two guys. “I’ve got my ID in my wallet, but it’s not in braille.”
“Oh. And what’s this all about? What fugitive?” I asked.
The first one spoke again. “Do you know of the supevillain Medusa?” he asked. Ah yes, the woman so evil, she snuck money into my clothes so I wouldn’t steal candy from a baby.
“I think I’ve heard the name before,” I said. “She was around here? I didn’t hear about any big fights or anything.” And I’m pretty sure people whose kids are at the school she’s funding make up a huge part of this little town now. I’m not going to pretend assholes don’t exist, but it seems weird for them to call up the Feds over this. I mentally reminded myself not to underestimate human stupidity. The United States in particular, as a country that’s had an anti-vaccine movement longer than it had access to vaccines.
“We received an anonymous tip that she was in the area,” the first guy said.
The second guy scoffed. “We know she was in your house. We have questions we want you to answer.”
Now it was my time to scoff. “You should ask them of whatever meth head you say saw her in my house.”
“You don’t understand, ma’am,” the first one said. “We know she was here.”
Someone else came walking up. “The house is clear. No other heat signatures.”
“You need probable cause to look in there!” I shouted at the newcomer. I’ve been in enough legal trouble to learn a thing or two, though I’m not clear on the legal status of using thermal goggles to search a house. I’d say some bureaucrat would require a good reason to justify breaking them out, but I also know a lot of law enforcement is happy to use any excuse they can get to use their fancy toys.
I decided to spy through any nearby cameras, half expecting to see a whole armed task force surrounding the area. Instead, it was just these three guys and their SUV parallel parked on the street in front of this house. I pushed past the two suits on the porch, stepped over these weird decorative grasses that bordered the sidewalk to the fence and street, and gave the man with the thermal goggles a good, stiff poke in the chest. “Get out of here.”
I heard a sound like a metal snap being undone behind me. A security camera nearby showed one of the suits back there putting his hand on the arm of his comrade and shaking his head in the negative. When the one who unsnapped his gun holster spoke, I recognized it as the less tactful second voice that I’d been hearing in all this. “Ma’am, where’s your walking stick?”
The other guy back there, First Voice, started to say, “We’re friends, we promise. We’re not here to-” but then the guy in front of me pulled his handgun on me. I grabbed his arm and threw him over me, taking the gun off him before releasing him to crash into the guy who’d undone his holster. The other one had his hands up, though, so I hesitated. Maybe Medusa’s rubbing off on me.
“Who are you? What are you here for?” I asked.
First Voice was calm. “We really are with the FBI. I’m Richard Daniels. We’re suspicious of the Freedom Legion task force that is hunting Medusa and her Exemplars. One of her Exemplars broke into a secure facility and found something. Now, she’s the Legion’s Enemy Number One. I’ve worked with her before and I trust her. Mazur and Ohanian here believe the Legion are rotten. We found out they traced her GPS, then found out it led here, and came to warn her and find out what she’d found before they could get to her first.”
“Is that true, Mazur?” I asked, wondering if both of the other two would speak up to try and fit the cover story.
Second Voice grunted as he stood up and brushed himself off. “Something is off about those Legion freaks. I know CIA spooks with more of a paper trail.”
The third guy also stood up. “I’m Ohanian. Mazur’s my partner. I lost an informant to a Freedom Legion op and they stonewalled when I looked into the casualties or even why they bothered blowing up an apartment building. We’re not all dirty. Look, can we talk out of the open?”
I decided to keep Ohanian’s gun with me as we got into their SUV, but I sat in the front seat. Not the driver’s seat, as I doubted they’d put any more trust into my braille method of driving than Medusa did. They began to bombard me with their doubts. No one saw the Legion without their heads covered. Nobody knows if they’re supers or if they’re being made. Nobody knows where they get their tips, or what evidence they use to justify raids.
“Slow down, you’re talking over each other,” I said, waving my hands around.
“Oh shit, get out!” Daniels shouted suddenly. I heard the doors open and and tried to get mine open, but I needed a moment to hunt down the handle. I started to get out and-
It took me a moment to get my bearings. I’d been thrown a bit. And was on fire. A lot of parts on me hurt, and my ears were coming back online. I heard shouting and gunfire, along with some whooshing and buzzing sounds. It took me a moment to get back to the camera view of the area, where I saw a tall, thick-bodied Freedom Legionnaire tossing around the trio of supposed FBI agents. He had Ohanian by the neck. Mazur approached, shooting at the Legionnaire’s arm. The bullets penetrated, but the masked super didn’t react except to swipe at Mazur with his other arm. Mazur fell onto the chain link fence in front of my house, leaving blood, fabric, and some flesh behind on the twines at the top. Daniels stumbled over to him, not walking right, and tried to check on him.
Well, I tried to stay out of this fight, but it’s literally right here at my home. The place my daughter lives. Physically, I hurt like hell. I blew my nose to spray out some of the blood filling my nose, and just kinda ignored my clothes burning. From the camera view, it’s not like it was burning me up. But the thought of that thing being here when my daughter got back?
“If I had my way,” I heard in my head as I pulled myself up, but that was the music player responding to me seeing a cone of flame burst from the big guy’s hand to catch Daniels, who proceeded to stop, drop, and roll. Shirley Manson, Bear McCreary, “Samson and Delilah.”
I stood up, slowly, feeling body parts complain. Had to jam my arm back into place. I began to walk toward the Legionnaire who just blew me up, the clothes burning off me. I could even see the smile grow on my face.
The Legionnaire spotted me and dropped Ohanian, who I guess was still alive. The big guy raised his hands. He went for the flamethrower again, but I ran through it, right at him. He took a stance and swung when I got in range. I ducked under it and did a rolling punch that caught him right in the cock and balls. Didn’t seem to do much to him. He grabbed me by my hair with one hand and punched me in my bloody nose with the other. I punched through that stupid, faceless helmet of his and scrabbled around for an orifice. I found the mouth and reached in with the other hand.
“Rargh!” I growl-yelled as I tore the upper half of the big guy’s head off. He dropped me to the ground and fell himself, the body twitching at the sudden loss of a brain signal.
“Jesus,” Ohanian said.
“Not quite,” I said, smiling down at him. Not exactly a reassuring sight, what with blood soaking my lips and running over my teeth from the nose. “You can call me Delilah if you want. Or if you need a codename, Blind Bombshell will do.”
While one of the first instincts I had with finding Medusa again was to toss her in bed and not stand up again until my legs needed to be popped back into my hips. Medusa insisted we not do that in the middle of everyone, or even back at the base. Or after the first shower. And I was opposed to putting on that suit with it all stinky, so I had it washed and hanging up to dry. She was taking so long to find me some clothes that I just started wandering around the base without them. The GPS put me… underneath a lot of lead. Wow. That can’t be healthy. Smart, though, as long as they don’t try to eat it.
So I set out. Opened the door, turned left, and bonked my head on the door frame because it turned out I didn’t make it all the way out of the door before turning. Still missing my eyes. I tried walking around with my hand on the wall, but I didn’t seem to find anything as near as I can tell. Blind people are a lot better at this than I am. I mean, I’m blind now, without my eyes. I don’t have lots of experience being blind. I don’t even have a stick to smack people with for being sightseeing smartasses.
Eventually, I stopped and threw my hands up. “Is this place fucking empty or what?!”
Someone nearby spoke up, “Everyone’s shocked to see a naked blind woman walking around.”
I pointed in the direction I heard them from. “Aha! Hiding, are you? Quick, somebody give me one of those sticks for blind people so I can get smackin’.”
“I’ve got this,” I heard Medusa say. Soon, I felt her arm around my shoulder, directing me back the way I came. “Come on, let’s get you back to the room.”
“You were lying about getting me clothes,” I said. It was a bit of an immediate buzzkill to the happy reunion, and a reminder of the bad times that led to me getting into a situation where I allowed Omega to possess me.
“I-” she started, then stopped talking while we walked. “I don’t think you should be inserting yourself into Exemplar until we’ve talked. We need to talk after everything that happened. I thought I lost you.”
“Psh, tossing me into another dimension? Come on, babe, minor inconvenience for me at this point,” I said.
“They forced Omega into its own pocket dimension. You could have been stuck there. That’s not the only way I lost you,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Hey, before we have this big talk and maybe end up saying things we shouldn’t say to each other, maybe I should get a chance to see my daughter. I have an idea where she might be, but I get the feeling I’m not going to like it.” As she led me through a doorway, I remarked that, “Is naked Psycho Gecko going to cause you some troubles already?”
She brushed my hair away to kiss me on the cheek. “No, but everyone will think you’re Dame right now. You look exactly like her,” she said. “I’m going to bring you clothes, I promise, but you need to stay in here, alright?”
“Fine, fine,” I said, checking around for something to sit on. I thought I found a stool, but I’m pretty sure it was some sort of round nightstand.
Despite the fact that I guess we might break up, Medusa was honest this time and brought back something for me to wear. I reciprocated by not wandering around and messing up whatever she’s doing and wherever she’s doing it at.
I also cooperated when I was led, shoeless and blind, to wherever they launch the Psycho Flyer from. My darn aircraft, quite possibly some of my soldiers, working for her instead of me. Or maybe she just stole or bought a bunch of it. I can imagine the new regime over there not locking things down as quickly as necessary. “Was that one of my bases?” I asked.
She sat next to me. “No. It belonged to a cult I stopped. We have so much ammo and explosives now.”
“But you did steal some of my power armor and at least one of my Psycho Flyers, like what we’re traveling in,” I said.
“Oh, sorry, let me get that door for you. No, we’re going in a car this time.” She said that about the time I came to a hunk of metal that did not, in fact, appear to be a state of the art VTOL. If I had to guess from how the exterior felt, I’d say it wasn’t even state of the art in the 80s. Ok, so I got it wrong about where we were and what we were traveling in. But I could still open a door, sit down, and buckle in all by myself, and I did so.
It was a long trip, and for obvious reasons Medusa did all the driving. I offered to take over, but she didn’t believe that I could stick a hand out and tell when a car was coming my way through braille. I freely admit it only works the first time.
Instead of addressing the awkward stuff, Medusa and I talked about a different elephant in the room. “Where did you go?”
“Space,” I said. “The final frontier. I thought you’d have Sam cluing you in still. She reads me.”
“Holly, Sam, and Max didn’t stick with us once we made sure Qiang would be safe. They’re your friends, not mine.”
Nice to know she didn’t end up stealing everything. Don’t have to answer any questions about that alien planting a kiss on me. At least, I hope it was a kiss. I don’t want to vomit out a bunch of alien babies in a few weeks. “Anyway, I appeared in space. Hitchhiked with some aliens for a bit. Got probed a few times. Then, I briefly got into publishing and attended an opera before they froze me, flew to Earth, stole some cows, and dumped me out in the field.”
After a few minutes of silence, she responded with, “I can’t tell if you’re joking. Hey, what happened to your eyes?”
“I got shot in one of them by an alien. I didn’t have a helmet or anything.”
“And the other?”
“I threw it into his mouth to choke him. The aliens didn’t bother giving me any replacements even though I saved them. Instead, I was too dangerous to be left roaming around.” I pantomimed throwing my hands up in alarm.
Medusa snorted. “Now it makes more sense. You didn’t start a war with an alien empire, did you?”
I shook my head, but didn’t say anything. After a couple of minutes of me not responding, I felt Medusa patting my shoulder. “You ok?”
“Just thinking,” I said, turning and faking a smile in what I thought was far enough for her.
“About what?” she asked. Damn, she asked. Now I have to lie.
I think I’m broke. I have no resources, no place to lay low, no way to repair my armor, no way to build more armors. No matter how nice this reunion is, I’ll still have to throw on the armor when I get back and start smashing things open until I have the money to pay for Qiang’s care. And even if things turn out cool between Medusa and I, she’s not fond of my robbing places. Then comes the inevitable choice between the two of them, the bitter break-up with Medusa, and making sure I don’t live a life of lingering resentment at my daughter for costing me the chance to be with Medusa. “Nothing.”
“How long have you been back?” she asked.
I answered, “About a week. Got back, tried to figure out what was going on around here, looked for Qiang and you, and went to go fetch that Core guy to find you.”
After that, she wanted to hear more, and I told her most of the story. Again, not the alien smooch. From there, we started rocking along to the radio, with her shushing me after I made the mistake of starting to sing. “Babe, no, I’m driving,” she said. I resorted to air guitar and drumming on the dash.
Then she stopped. “Get in the backseat.”
“Ooh, somebody got worked up,” I said, crawling back there and onto a bunch of clothes she had piled up. “Wow, your car is a mess.”
“There’s a heavy coat and boots in there. It’s October. It’s cold out there. Hey, hand me that coat under your left hand.”
Cold fucking shower, that’s what I got. But then, when I got outside the car, she stuck a phone in my hand and said, “Take a look around.”
I bonded to it pretty quickly and was disappointed in the lack of nudes. Which is a good thing, dammit. Sure, I don’t get them, but it means she’s not sending nudes to someone else. But I’d really like to see her naked. She gets to see me, but I can’t go the other way. And she’s really fun to look at nude, meaning both when I’m nude and when she’s nude. Really, extra nudity makes most situations more enjoyable. Ever watch cops go through canine training without the big puffy protective suit on, or any clothes at all?
Through the lens of Medusa’s phone, I saw a little town, with a little school and a little post office and a little set of fast food places, and a Super Wal-Mart, and a little school. Huh. I went back. One’s a combined elementary, middle, and high school. The other had newer signs announcing it as a private school for the gifted.
“Ok, what am I looking at?” I asked.
“Welcome to Radium, Minnesota, home of the Cupertino School of the Gifted. It’s named after St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was gifted with flight.”
“Allegedly,” I said.
“Really?” she asked. “You just got done fighting space Nazis.”
“I never said they were space Nazis. I don’t have any evidence that they believe in the tenets of National Socialism. They could just be space fascists,” I pointed out. While I quibbled with that, I saw the schools let out. A bunch of kids left both schools, some of them waving to each other or going to meet up at the fast food restaurants. One of them just took off and flew, right there in public. “Wow.. not keeping your super school a secret?”
“This is the middle of nowhere, and they’re getting along well. And I think we have pretty good protection,” she said. I zoomed in as some older kids came out, including ones with leather jackets and lots of piercings. There was even one lady that looked a lot like Spinetingler’s daughter.
“What the fuck?” I asked. “She’s a bit old for school.”
“I made sure to hire good psychiatrists and I reached out to Spinetingler after her daughter appeared this one time and tried to take over- you know what, it’s a long story. We’re taking down some filthy rich people and we have so much money. We have some villains’ children attending, and some people from poor families that would be likely to turn to crime. This is going to be a school for everyone. Neutral ground. That includes…” she turned to the school. We waited a half minute, then Qiang walked out.
I gave Medusa a slow cap. But while she laughed, I ran down the street, dodged a car, and across the next street toward Qiang. By then, she was already walking down the road away from the other school, so I had to raise the phone again, get a lead on her, and start running some more. I grabbed her in a hug, at which point she started screaming and elbowing me.
“It’s me! It’s mommy!” I dropped her. She turned and threw a punch. I dodged. She punched again, which I caught. She tried to stomp on my foot, but I raised my foot and caught it under her knee. She spun around and aimed the other foot for my face. I dropped her completely and let her fall. She stood up, pouting and crying. Then she hugged me.
“I missed you so much, baby,” I said, hugging her back tightly. Then Medusa joined us.
And even if that basic hero bitch breaks up with me, all is right with the world.
“So, how do you contact Medusa?” I asked for probably the fifth time since rescuing Core. We spent a little bit of time laying low in a places nobody would dare enter: Ruby Tuesdays, a Taco Bell bathroom, and even this one Gamestop. I’m pretty sure the Gamestop people knew Core was a fugitive from justice, but they were just happy to have someone in there. It got a little annoying, but they were more than happy to keep Core company while I found him some clothes. An assistant manager looked twitchy, but I bought his silence with a pre-order that I canceled as soon as we set foot outside the store.
He wasn’t ready to let me call up Medusa just yet, which is why I asked him maybe the fifth time since we left. “Come on, I need to get in touch with her,” I pressed.
He whirled on me, blue shirt hiding the blue glow beneath. “Call her yourself!” He turned and started walking over toward the nearby Wal-Mart where we hoped to pick up fresh transportation.
“I can’t,” I admitted, following after. “I had to get rid of a lot of stuff so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.” Isn’t it odd that I can say that with a straight face now? Omega wasn’t smart enough to figure out what I got rid of when I did it, but I knew enough to narrow some of the information down. I know I had Medusa’s number. I know I don’t anymore. That’s not the only piece of information that eludes me. Omega might have realized some of the potential of the Dimensional Bomb.
I lost my mind before, involuntarily. Giving it up of my own free will to save the ones I love? A fucking bargain.
Core passed up a perfectly inconspicuous SUV for a Dodge Charger. “I’ll make you a deal. Help me retrieve something I stashed in the swamp, and I’ll give you a chance to talk to her.”
He didn’t believe me. “Fine. First bit of help, we stand out a hell of a lot more in this thing than we do in something like that.” I pointed back to the SUV.
He turned and pointed to the backseat. There was a carseat. “A family probably needs that. We’re going in this.”
I shrugged. “Fine. Dork.” Worse, he took the driver’s side.
I didn’t realize how far Shreveport was from Bayou Blanc. That’s the difference between highways and the smaller backroads. We passed farmland and woods, then turned down roads of smaller and smaller roads. We were on a red clay road when we turned off even that to down a grass path shaded by uncut branches hanging overhead.
“So,” I asked. “You think it’ll be dangerous?”
“Maybe. When I was out here before, Freedom Legion got me. They’re probably out here looking, or they found it and left a surprise for me.” He looked around as we both stepped out of the car. “Besides, this place freaks me out.”
He took the trip a bit worse than me. He used tree roots and raised land in the swamp to try and avoid the water. I just slogged through it with my environmentally sealed suit. Once, when there was no way forward but through deep, murky water, I picked him up and carried him over my shoulder. “How do you know where we’re going, anyway?” I asked.
“A pattern of radiation I left. It’s harmless to the environment and hard to distinguish from the natural background radiation on the Earth, but most background radiation doesn’t spell out English words when looked at through the right instruments.” He started when he saw a log floating nearby, but he peered more closely at it and then relaxed when it didn’t move. I set him down when we got to a muddy section above most of the water, glad I couldn’t feel either the humidity or the muck. Core himself sighed in disgust at the squelching noise that came from setting his feet down on high ground.
“Which direction now?” I asked.
“Over here,” he said, pointing. He had a pretty good path that way.
We followed it another fifteen minutes before he ducked behind a tree. I caught a glimpse of a boat and faded into the environment with a camo pattern that shifted into a view of the environment behind me. People were talking up ahead, loudly. I moved up next to Core that way. “Nobody can see me at the moment,” I said quietly.
“Looks like bags of pot in the boat,” he said. “I didn’t realize I stashed the files so close to a drug operation.” There were a couple of men in the boat dressed for a hunting trip, though what they’d bagged was a lot more valuable. They were arguing, both occasionally gesticulating at the boat motor that was off for some reason.
“Oh yeah. No GPS or cell signals. Few pesky bystanders to stumble on it. Hard to find your way back if you get away…” I drifted into silence because something had startled the pair of drug runners in the boat. They stood up, one pulling out an AR of some sort while the other had a plain black revolver. They weren’t looking our way. In fact, they had their backs to us. The one with the rifle laughed and aimed it at something in the water.
Before he could shoot, a large man with a beard splashed up out of the water and tackled him off. I didn’t see it until he was on this side of the boat, but he wore a dead alligator on his back. The drug grower’s friend shot at the water where the gator man was busy drowning the other man, missing half his shots. The ones that hit didn’t do anything, and he even tried to shoot his empties a couple times before realizing it. Then man tossed the revolver down then and ran for the boat’s motor. He tried and failed to crank it, then kicked it, then pulled out a paddle. That’s when Gator Man pulled him over the side by his leg. He screamed, then gurgled, then he quieted down.
Gator Man crawled into the boat then, with the paddle in hand, and began whistling a tune to himself as he paddled the boat away. Core and I waited until he was out of earshot, Core looking around for me, until I figured the other super was far enough away. I dropped my camo and said,”…and whoever that was.”
“Is he gone?” asked Core.
Core stood back up then, stretched his legs, then led us away on a path that would have absolutely been visible to any of the three from that last encounter. We finally came to a gnarly old tree that had seen better days. Core rolled up his sleeve, took a deep breath, and dug his hand down into the water by the roots.
I thought I heard something. “Hurry up. Something’s on its way.”
Core squeezed his eyes closed. “I’m trying. Yuck.”
I was invisible when a trio of Freedom Legionnaires flew into view above us in their identical uniforms and faceless helmets. They stood in a bubble that stopped above the tree. The bubble disappeared and two of them dropped through the branches to land by Core. The other one caught himself in another bubble Only one more than we had looked like pretty good odds to me since they didn’t see me there, but then I noticed a large gator lazing in the water nearby. Or maybe Gator Man?
One of the Legionaries raised his hands and shot white beams that began to encase Core in ice. The other one held its arms in a peculiar way but didn’t seem to be using any powers.
“H-h-h-help!” Core chattered out.
And just like that, the ice guy’s head turned itself 360 degrees. The other guy’s body burst into flames. I felt the heat through my gloves as I pushed him into the water near the gator. It turned and splashed away. “Aww,” I said, disappointed. Fire guy chucked a fireball at where I pushed him from, but I flipped overhead, landing in the water near the escaping gator. The Legionnaire noticed the splash for sure. He turned toward me and got a faceful of gator as I smacked him with the beast I held by the tail.
He grabbed the gator and fried the squirming reptile until it stopped moving while I sank beneath the water. I almost missed him, but then I saw the mud kick up where he walked out of the water onto higher land. I grabbed his foot and pulled him back into the water, doing a barrel roll. Or, as the gators call it, a death roll.
His flames didn’t work so well in the water. My Nasty Surprise mini-chainsaw worked just fine, carving into his gut and up through his chest and neck. I left him behind as fish food as I rose dripping from the muck.
The last of the trio was in front of me, in a bubble again. He snapped his fingers and I was in the bubble instead, being lifted off the ground and into the air while he landed in the mud. Then a burst of intense blue radiation washed over him and left him twitching. The bubble disappeared and I fell back into the water. I came up to see Core was rolling down the sleeve of the remains of his shirt that had been burned through from the center of his chest.
“Good timing,” I told him. The Nasty Surprise slid right back up into its hidden compartment under my forearm. “You ok?”
He nodded. “I warm up quick.” He held up a thermos and unscrewed the top. He looked inside, nodded, then screwed the top back on. “I got what we came for. We better get out of here soon. There will be reinforcements on the way.”
“This’ll be fun,” I said, not entirely sarcastic. Chased through swamps by an army of faceless superpowered goons, never knowing if I’m going to stumble across gun-toting criminal operations or a killer Gator Man?
Core looked to the sky himself. “Come on, where are they?”
“You want them to see you?” I asked.
Core shook his head. “I emitted a low-level burst of radiation when we made it to the clearing that was the extraction signal if anyone had their equipment set to read it. Someone should be rushing to pick us up, but we have to stay here.”
“That could be a problem,” I said as a Legionnaire overflew us. It didn’t stop, but I think it saw us.
Then a missile flew out of nowhere and exploded him. I followed back its flight path and saw a Psycho Flyer materialize. I couldn’t feel its systems at all, probably by simple expedient of them being careful enough.
A rope dropped from the trapdoor on the bottom. Core stuffed the thermos into his pants, but directed me, “Go up first.”
I hopped up, landing near the rope.
“Good day, we both-” I heard Medusa saw as she approached. I stood up, pulling my mask down but otherwise letting her get a good look at my armor and face. And then remembering I look like Dame at the moment. “Gecko?”
I smiled, blinking, before squeezing my eyelids shut so she didn’t have to see in those empty holes, and rushed over to hug her to me. “Put a baby in me!”
We kissed, but she stopped long enough to giggle. “You’re back! You stink. You look like Dame.” Then, as if realizing what I said, she added, “You’re so weird. I love you.”
A few things changed since I’ve been gone. I half expected to come back and see another crisis going on that needs me to fix it. It’s October. A zombie uprising wouldn’t be out of place, especially with the High Technolutionary working with the U.S. Government. Or maybe evil clowns. Those are slightly less used, and I probably wouldn’t get some obscure Romanian or Sumerian version that barely resembles the fun ones.
Heck, even when I save a bunch of aliens, the only reward I get is being dropped on a cow patty with a new mask for my suit and a long-ass hike back to almost-civilization. But the air smells right. The animals sound familiar. And the food is made of less crap. Ah, I’m hardly back and I’m already complaining. I don’t know if that means I’m glad to be back, or I’m just an asshole. A bit of column A and a bit of column B. If the only thing people at that diner have to worry about is me being a grouch after so long without my meds or knowing anything about my family.
I think she’s doing ok. There’s stuff about me being deposed, me gaining godlike powers, and me invading my own country that was trying to establish a Constitutional Monarchy. It’s foreign affairs, so most of the world’s coverage was sketchy, but at least the BBC had some articles and video on the big fight and the effects show of Omega being banished. I got to watch as I got tossed through the same hole in reality. Captain Lightning tried to fetch me before it could happen, but it was closing while I went through. At least it’s clear I’m in the correct universe.
Afterwards, it went pretty smoothly. No talk about my heir, though. Ricca decided it’s going to drop the monarchy part and trust in democracy. Bold choice after the past few years. Queen Beetrice of North Korea formally separated from Ricca and relations with South Korea are friendlier than ever. Most of the colonies on Mu are friendly, but a community of supers and aliens has sprung up calling itself Godland. That’d be the Three Hares colony. The Bronze City recalled its soldiers peacefully and has also separated while they explore options related to more distant relatives of the king I replaced. All of it handled relatively peacefully.
It’s hardly a utopia. There’s lots of rebuilding to be done, and that portal that sucked Omega and me up was followed intermittently by smaller portals all over the world that dropped off junk and creatures that had been lost between universes. Nothing too disruptive, it seems. Nothing like the White House coming back.
In fact, the government under their current asshole is throwing together some Department of ExtraNormal Affairs to handle any of that transdimensional detritus and special superhuman threats to “the country”. I’ll guarantee that last part’s going to be abused. This is the guy who assembled his own gang of faceless superhero bodyguards, then ignored California. Which is in all kinds of interesting legal shape after that mess.
With an ok burger and fries down the gullet, I sat back and let it digest while I looked into Medusa specifically. She seemed like the most obvious one to look for. A quick search later and I found I was right. She’s been busy. She pulled a jailbreak in Hong Kong, stole a bunch of oil from a pipeline in Canada, and destroying a bunch of land-clearing equipment in Brazil. She didn’t do it alone. Some of the soldiers were in repainted Riccan power armor, or costumes. She’s got herself a team.
The latest thing they pulled was wrecking a bank IT center, with some stories saying she stole from it and others claiming she just data. And after that, she left a message that was quickly taken down off Youtube, but not before various news agencies reported on it.
“My name is Medusa. I was a hero. I still am,” it started with her wearing her mask but not her armor. She made eye contact with the camera, which is something her armor’s visor prevented. “I realized the world needs saving in a way most superheroes can’t. You can’t punch climate change. Dirty cops protect each other and put heroes in jail. The rich and powerful take what they want, and sometimes the criminal organization is our government. I thought I did more good as an exemplar for the world to come around to. I was trained to be that model hero, but I can’t do it anymore. I have to save the world. Sometimes, I have to save it from itself. I’m still a hero, but now, I am Medusa. Some call me a terrorist. Now, we are Exemplar.”
Eh, not the name I’d have gone with. I would have picked something like Nox or Dusk, personally. It was a solid piece of monologuing, though. And the name did lead to a handy bit of wordplay when she was referred to as an ex-hero turned exemplar. It gave me a name to search for, too.
On VillaiNet, I was glad to see my old access still worked. I was old news by now. That happens in such a fast-paced news cycle, though there was something of a betting pool on wondering when I’d return. Their logic was sound. I’ve either faked my own death or nearly died enough times before that it’s not confirmed until the body is seen publicly. Others thing it’s a waste of time because I might change my appearance completely and hide as someone else.
Medusa’s not on there. Mix N’Max has an account, but it says he hasn’t logged in for a couple months. But a little look-see revealed that some villains claim to be working for Exemplar. My lead came from one named Core who supposedly got arrested.
Core got nabbed in Louisiana. Some town called Belle Blanc. The Freedom Legion had been there, and he’s currently being held in some specialized super jail in Shreveport. I ordered some applie pie to go as I made up my mind to help him with bail. I didn’t know if his talk of working with Medusa was just boasting, but I’d figure it out a lot more quickly after I got him out. He was a lead, one I knew how to find.
I walked out, across the street to a two-story motel, and looked at my options. On the one hand, there was a trio of motorcycles crowding a parking space. Tempting. Another had an autumn red Plymouth fury in it. I’m kinda sick of that color at the moment. The only other occupied space held an RV. That really narrowed my options down.
I made great time, like many people do when traveling through the early hours of the night and ignore all those pesky signs about speed limits. That meant the guards at the William J. Lepetomane Correctional Facility For The Differently Criminal got one hell of a surprise when, a little after noon, an “Aoooga!” horn heralded the RV crashing through the fence and then wall of the facility.
At first, I thought I landed in some forsaken and forgotten series of back rooms they use for the hidden torture, but the supply closet and printing room clued me in to having crashed the Administrative section. It wasn’t a full-blown prison, and it was shockingly cozy. Everything was some shade of sickly yellow or shit brown. But not the kind of rich brown you think could grow a mighty oak from it. The kind of pale brown where you wonder if you’re getting sick. Listen, I normally keep a weapon handy in the bathroom. Of course I’m going to check to make sure nobody’s trying to assassinate me up the shit shute.
Speaking of shit shutes, the people who responded did not look like they’d seen their best days. The first one bounced off of me, made easier by me being invisible. The one after him skidded to a stop to help their comrade up. They left themselves wide open and their shirt untucked. I’ve heard the sounds of the dead on the battlefield and the rattle of murder victims in damp alleyways. The ripping noise of grabbing somebody’s underwear and tugging it up onto his head is one of my favorites. Throwing him onto his back and hearing his head bounce off the linoleum is a bit of a letdown by comparison.
I tried to have fun with it. I mean, if I can’t, it’d make this miserable work. Medusa has to like beating people up, too, otherwise it’d be really miserable for her and any other heroes pretending to be villains. Like, take this one woman who rounded the corner and smacked into me. She didn’t go down like the other guy, but did bounce back slightly. I grabbed her chest and the bra underneath her shirt and undershirt. Setting a boot on her belly, I kicked her, knocking her into another couple of guards and bowling them over even as I removed her bra right through her tops.
Nah, guards and the desk workers were easy. I made it into the holding area before too long, and the doors seemed to be built to mundane security specifications. The reason why became apparent when I got into the main holding area and found the rooms there where people were stacked four deep. Each one had a power dampening collar on. I became visible again, looking like an indistinct figure in a black robe and hood that completely hid my face. I tore began tearing open doors, asking, “Anybody seen Core around here?”
The first bunch stayed where they were. The second group scurried out without bothering to answer, but this guy with a teardrop tattoo under his eye nodded his head toward a second-story room across the cell block. “He’s in A27.”
I flourished a bow. “Thank you, my good dude.”
I still tore open a few more doors on my way over there. Not all of them would try to escape. Most had to realize they couldn’t get too far with their powers turned off. Maybe some weren’t thinking, or some had plans in case something like this happened. But enough of them began running for it that I thought made for useful chaos.
I tore open the door indicated by teardrop tattoo. “Hey, y’all? Is this 2B or not 2B?”
“This is A27,” said a guy in a radiation suit. Couldn’t get a look at his face through the blue glow from inside.
“I’m looking for Core,” I said.
Behind him, the other three inmates silently pointed at the guy in the radiation suit, who raised his hand and pointed at himself with a thumb. “That’s me. Did Medusa send you?”
“Not exactly, but I’m a friend,” I said. “Do you need that suit? I didn’t have a plan for that much conspicuousness.”
“I can’t control the nuclear core without my powers. I have to have it with the collar on.” He pointed at his neck. I felt around through that section of the suit and found a bulge. I got both hands on it. “I’m going to need you to tone down the glowing and irradiating as soon as I tear this off. You ready for this?”
Core nodded. The other three inmates behind him shook their heads in rapid disagreement. I tore the collar apart, tearing Core’s suit open in the process. The blue light quickly faded and he pulled off the suit to reveal a man in pale, sickly brown poo-colored pants and a chest with shifting metal armor plates built into it that closed over a core.
I stepped back so he could follow me out, catching the sounds of fighting and the crackle of electrical discharge. Core followed me out. “Do you have a way to get us out?”
Behind me, somebody who had gotten their collar off let out a trumpet as he transformed into a bipedal elephant man and jumped through what had been a reinforced window just prior to his impact with it.
“Depends,” I responded. “You need to recover anything they took from you?” When he shook his head, I pointed up to the hole. “Then that’s how we’re getting out.”
He actually paused to raise his face to the sky and smell the air. The guy got caught like a week ago. I had to grab him and drag him along with me. “Escape now, sniff later.”
In the paraphrased words of deceased cyborg president Richard Nixon: “Gecko’s back!”
With a cry of Machine Man’s machine voice, Mr. Omega appeared. He floated in all his glory, but in my body and my armor. He looked over the sight before him: one Medusa bound and gagged on her knees, another standing free behind her in a street packed with cars, the odd planted tree, and even a person watching from behind a stoop with their dog on a leash next to them. Oh, and a hog-tied Qiang laying next to the bound Medusa.
“Behold,” said the free Medusa, who was clearly Machine Man and nobody else. “I have succeeded.”
“Where are the others?” Omega asked.
“They went their own way,” Machine Man responded.
Mr. Omega stared at Medusa, Medusa, and Qiang. He raised a hand that exerted a cone of red light, because red is really this guy’s jam. The Medusa that had presumably been Machine Man, surprise surprise, was shown to be standing in the same place as an invisible Dudebot. Who could have predicted this turn of events?
Omega frowned and squeezed his fist. The Dudebot crushed in on itself. “A childish gambit,” Omega said. “Did you think you could fool me?”
My voice echoed out of somewhere. “What, you’ve never played a game of Three Card Monte?”
“Three…” Mr. Omega muttered. He gestured toward the Medusa tied up on the ground. Another scan revealed another Dudebot that was quickly blown to smithereens. “You, then?” He turned toward the Qiang. She began to cry and squirm, which stopped around the time she was also exposed as a hologram covering up a Dudebot.
“What is this, Gecko?” Omega asked of me. “How can you do this?”
“You talked about me not being able to use your powers as well as you. Turns out, you can’t use mine as well as I can, either.” The Qiang Dudebot stood up. As she did, a car disappeared and a Dudebot appeared in its place. The tree in the planter did likewise. More Dudebots revealed themselves, including the huddled onlooker and his dog.
I felt Mr. Omega’s anger as he zapped robotic doppelganger after robotic doppelganger, causing a shitload of damage to a neighborhood the Reds had cleared out for me ahead of time.
“Where is Machine Man?” Omega asked.
The Dudebot that had pretended to be Qiang pulled out the head of Machine Man out from behind it, dropped it on the ground, and crushed it. Omega didn’t seem angry about that. He didn’t seem much phased at all. Then he tried to blow up that one and missed, and that got him mad. He began to fire furiously at the multitude of Dudebots that appeared all over the place. When one bonked him on the face, his fury came from the fact that he’d been so overwhelmed. It sure didn’t hurt him.
While he did all that, a Dudebot in Ricca kept close eye on the group who infiltrated the island. They’d arrived via the Cape Diem relief camp. Mix N’Max had tossed several canisters of a smoke that was making the patrols they came across fall asleep. Medusa led the group, having assured me when we last spoke that she hid my daughter somewhere safe. With her was both of the Captain Lightnings and the bravest few of the Extradimensional Studies team.
They had ideas, you see. They figured, with me having joined forces with Omega, it was only a matter of time before the Telechamber got built, so they figured out a plan that used it. I’ve been assured it’s much better than the one I came up with using it, which is the reason I didn’t stop the Telechamber from being built. Yep, the nanites kept working and it’s ready. Mr. Omega just didn’t realize it because he’s tech-illiterate.
The heroes, and Mix N’Max, had the scientists they snuck out of the country work on a device to help them out. They didn’t tell me what it does, but they believe it’ll work so long as Omega doesn’t show up and blow up.
I was more than happy to distract him. I’m great at it! Besides, nobody else needs to take the risk. I’m stuck with this guy. And I should probably be more sympathetic to him. He reminds me way too much of myself a few years back. And maybe this didn’t have to go this way, if I’d been better. Nothing doing now, though, than to stick a dumpster on his head.
Indeed, that’s what I had a Dudebot do, which made it even harder for him to keep up with what was happening. He tossed it off and let out a blast that spread out in a circle tossing cars, melting the road, and trashing the four Dudebots actually around. That a bunch of others seemed to be around and unscathed alerted Mr. Omega to the con. He closed his eyes and did something with a gesture of his fingers, then opened them. “These are illusions, created by your mechanical eyes.”
The flashing 12:00 in our shared view adjusted to read “Fuck You” o’clock as the fake Dudebots disappeared.
Back in Ricca, Shockley came by to visit the Telechamber site. The old Dusk Priest-turned young Dusk Priest had picked out some new robes to match his new loyalties. With the city now under Omega’s martial law, few were inclined to outwardly oppose him. He used that to have himself a fun little holiday, so long as he didn’t think about any extras added to his food or drink too hard, but I guess he felt a big enough twinge of duty to show up and check on the Telechamber.
I had Dudebots on automated patrols, too, but I only spotted him once he sent up a magic flare. The Dudebot landed just in front of him. His fingers flew as he did whatever things he does with them to make the magic happen. The Dudebot punched, knocking the breath, and back, out of him just as his reverberating voice called out “Omega!”
I heard it in stereo. All the way over in Empyreal City, it jumped out at Omega. Suddenly, we were there, in the air over Ricca. Omega traced the flare down to the dying Dusk Priest. He crashed to the ground, smashing my robot double under my own boots. He pulled the arm free of Shockley’s body and pressed a hand there to close the wound.
When Shockley could speak again, the Dusk Priest told him, “Something is wrong. They are at the chamber.”
I could feel the anger bubbling up in him from the back of the mind where I’d been exiled. Despite that, Omega didn’t tear the place apart indiscriminately. At least, the roof he tore off was meant to be retractable for larger portals. I don’t know if he knew that.
The assembled heroes and scientists gaped up at him, everything seeming really quiet. Then he tossed down the Dudebot’s gauntlet. “The fool has failed. Know that your plan will fail. I will- agh!”
Mr. Omega clutched at his eyes. That did nothing to clear the image of the goatse.
“Go, go, go!” I heard Medusa call as she realized they had an opening. “Chu, where are we?”
“Buh, I don’t know! I needed five minutes to test!” the scientist called.
The older Captain Lightning spoke up. “Test time is over. Put your pencil down and do it for real.” Wow, he’s really getting into his role as a teacher.
I didn’t know how much time I could give them, but I knew I could try. Omega used his magic to clear away the goatse, only to find a bigger ass there waiting. Rick Astley began dancing, singing about his desire to never give Mr. Omega up, to never let him down, to never run around and desert him.”What trickery is this?!” Mr. Omega cried out.
I heard sounds from around, like the thunder of lightning and the whoosh of fireballs, but they didn’t seem to be aimed at Omega. Instead, Mr. Omega was concentrating on getting rid of Rick Astley, then a looping video of three guys in a car listening to “What Is Love?” What that disappeared, he got to see Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger clasping hands set to Guile’s Theme from the Street Fighter series. Next was a stripper named Ricardo Milos, but he eventually figured out how to turn off my wifi connection.
I had to resort to the music player, which didn’t do anything to obstruct his view beyond a brief notice that we were listening to the song “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway & Black Caviar.
“I got you now,” Mr. Omega said, aiming for Medusa, who rested against a piece of wall she’d dragged between Shockley and the scientists modifying the Telechamber.
“No,” I thought coldly, swinging that arm up into the air. He yanked it down, I pulled it up. Not her.
“She betrayed you,” he said.
“I love her,” I responded.
He growled as he spoke aloud, “You side with those who betrayed you to fight someone just like you!”
“I said I loved her. I didn’t say it made sense. And you’re not hurting my family ever again.”
He tried the other arms. Somehow, I managed to force them to aim away.
“Hey Gecko, catch!” called a voice. Omega and I both looked down to see where Max had hurled a closed beaker with a handle at me. I caught it. Omega crushed it.
“Did I just ruin your plot?” Omega asked, ignoring the sizzling from the substance dripping out of my fist. It spread over us, catching purple flame. Then came the screaming.
Forget popping out Medusa’s baby. It felt like I was squeezing an entire person out of every pore of my body. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, my armor showed what looked like me splitting in two, except the second half of this mitosis was a humanoid flame with eyes of brilliant white, and I was myself in my red Omega armor.
As soon as we separated, I fell to the ground. Everything Omega had deferred in my body hit me at once. A week of hunger, a week without sleep, even a week without shitting. That last part got… messy. I didn’t want to get up. I only hoped he felt as bad.
Mr. Omega howled. “Shockley, the device!”
Shockley was pinned against the wall by the younger Captain Lightning II. Still, the Dusk Priest managed to a telekinetic flip of the switch on the main control board. The lights dimmed as it drew enough from the power core to create the first portals, tapping directly into the energy reserves of stars. Lighting II zapped Shockley and left him a convulsing mess against the wall. He rushed to try and cut Omega off as the entity rushed to guard the controls personally, some of the fire burning off and leaving him just a tiny bit smaller.
Medusa rushed over to check on me, though, so that was nice. “Gecko, are you alright?”
“It only hurts from the hair down,” I reassured her. Max joined us, as did Chu and the other scientists.
“It’s done,” Chu said.
“Ow,” I commented.
“Good,” Medusa said. She looked to Max and smiled. “It worked. She’s back.”
“I didn’t know those muscles could hurt,” I added, about my kegels. I don’t think I want to know what all Omega was up to while I was remote controlling robots.
Max reached over and patted my arm. “It’s good to have you back.”
Overhead, the sky turned red, except for the growing portal that opened up and showed the same burning red fire that made up Omega’s corporeal form. The flames reached the edge of the portal and formed into fingers that held it open as Mr. Omega’s smaller form regained the size it lost after separating from me. “It is too late for all of you now,” he said, stepping closer to this group. He spared a glance to the Captains Lightning who were instead forming a magic barrier around the device Chu had connected to the Telechamber.
Omega stepped close to us and knocked one of our brainiacs out of the way who stood up to confront him. He ignored all of them and looked at my helmet, trying to lock eyes with me. Max held up a syringe gun but was thrown against a wall and held there by a red band of energy. Medusa tried to stand, but sank into the floor up to her waist as it transformed into quick sand. The rest of the eggheads scampered off to avoid being killed. “A deal is a deal.” Mr. Omega addressed me, “For your role, you will be rewarded with life eternal. For turning on me, you will spend immortality watching everyone you love die.”
He held one arm out toward Medusa. I got there in time enough to grab his arm with my lower left and divert the blast to miss her, though it did turn a fleeing scientist into pink mist. Mr. Omega grabbed that lower arm and ripped it off. Armor, flesh, bone, all of it. My legs wobbled, and I was distinctly aware of both the immense pain and my suit having to compensate to keep me from hearing my scream. Omega slapped me lightly and I tumbled to the ground. Then he aimed for Medusa again.
I jumped up and blocked his view, trying to embed my lower right fist in his junk. He still fired a magical bolt at Medusa, but she had managed to duck down enough that it missed her head and fried another scientist. And I lost another arm. So that was wonderful. Instead of falling immediately like I wanted to, Omega grabbed me by the helmet. When my lungs reminded me I needed oxygen to scream so much, he told me, “I think I won’t let you live.”
He tore my helmet off. I dropped the pair of fangs I keep hidden in my mouth and tried to bite his flaming hand. He pulled the hand back, holding my fangs, and let me drop, bleeding from the mouth. I stopped at my knee, crying and spitting up blood, and forced myself back to my feet.
“Why keep at this when you can find only failure?” he asked.
I pulled myself together long enough to laugh at him and answered, “Sisyphus smiles.”
Omega frowned, and raised his hand to my head. I grabbed his arm and tried to push that arm upward. This time, he concentrated and stopped me. And then, I was flying through the air as that form was yanked up into the sky. I let go and dropped as that part of his form turned and tried to fight the pull of whatever was going on.
The portal in the sky revealed not just the crimson Omega and the absolute void of nothingness between universes. It also showed something strange. Like a glowing planetoid, floating orange and blue in the perpetual darkness of that void. And Omega was being drawn into it. The hands gripping the portal to hold it open now tried to hold themselves onto it. They got a burst of strength as the smaller Omega disintegrated and joined the rest of it. That’s about when I passed out from blood loss.
I awoke with a jump and banged my face on a clear tube I was in. I didn’t feel it, or any pain. I couldn’t feel the arms I had, or the holes where I used to have arms down below that. I couldn’t even feel my face, in part because it was really cramped in that tube. I didn’t even know what the hell they’d stuffed in my mouth, as I couldn’t feel much of that either. Fuck, dentists could learn a thing or two from this shit.
Whatever device the tube was a part of was seemed to be padded where I couldn’t connect to anything. Or my nerves were so numbed by the solution I floated in that I didn’t realize it. I tried my wireless connection before remembering Mr. Omega had turned it off, and that gave me some hint as to my predicament. I couldn’t find myself on GPS, because I was apparently not the G. The only thing around me were vastly different networks, some of which were the wreckage of Fluidic ships whose logs showed they were the ones to try invading Earth when I tossed them out of my universe.
This was not something I enjoyed learning until I managed to download a scan of the area based on some barely-functional sensors on the nearby wreckage. Based on the position of the stars, I was nowhere near Earth. Based on the nearby ship and smaller drones it was using to carve off pieces of the Fluidic fleet and bring it back, I appear to have been rescued by scavengers.
And based on the thing who walked in to stand outside my tube wearing a mask that looks like a fly’s compound eyes, with a tool in hand that has a lot of sharp points, I may be in line for a probin’.
Out of the frying pan, one into the stink.
Shit’s gone slightly apocalyptic. But just slightly. The heart of the whole thing is Empyreal City, of course.
People are getting sick all over that place. The boils and vomiting is cruel, but Epidemic’s just being mean with the anal leakage. I suppose I might find it funny if I was behind it, but they think my kid’s there. As far as he’s concerned, he’s inflicting that shit on my family.
While he’s doing that, animals all over the fucking continent are freaking the fuck out. They’re all acting more aggressive, even the prey. Herbivorous or not, most people don’t do well going head to head with a mad bull. Sheep and goats are devouring the crap out of stuff, too, feeding themselves to bursting in places.
Next to all that, Machine Man’s little army of followers is almost quaint. I guess Venus still has plenty of cred worth trading in on. The robot disguised as her has gathered her own gang, even including some supers. They don’t have the Master Academy supers, though. That place is sealed up tight, with heroes heading in and out with some sort of secret entrance.
A lot of other heroes are staying away, or trying to face threats around the country, like the animals gone wild. Or the plague. Or the roaming groups of people with guns. From what I understand, the government’s Freedom Legion doesn’t have as much manpower as it used to, what with Omega and I killing a bunch of them.
You know, with a better idea of the bigger picture, I can understand why Captain Lightning decided not to continue the fight against me. He and his apprentice have their hands full enough without dying.
Thing was, they could tear Empyreal City apart and they weren’t going to find my people. I don’t know if I gave myself some sort of subconscious programming or if Omega’s ignorance of technology was really that big a hindrance while we were mentally merged. Either way, when I was working with him, I didn’t think to hunt down any concentrations of my nanites outside of Ricca. There’s Belgium, North Korea, and some Cape Diem bases. And then there was a small concentration in Las Vegas.
Vegas doesn’t like me, but it seems to like Mix N’Max well enough. He spent a lot of time there. I think he invited all of them there.
It’s a smart idea. Las Vegas has its own protectors, who don’t like me. I’m pretty sure they don’t like any cyborgs hanging around there without getting into all the trouble I cause. And I haven’t had much reason to go to Vegas. I can eat buffets anywhere. Or I could. I can’t even pick my own nose at the moment, let alone my friends’ noses.
As felt appropriate for a city that far west, the Dudebot I sent to Vegas rode in on an automaton horse. It’s like a real horse, but it can run indefinitely, doesn’t need to eat or shit, and is less of an asshole. I stopped short of the sign welcoming visitors to Las Vegas and waited. This is not the time for me to be stepping on these folks’ toes. It also gave me more time to get things in position in Empyreal City.
I had a few Dudebots in that area already. Knowing they were heading there, I set some to make their way. That gives me some backups, or a chance to double team one of these Omega Minions. I’m tracking them, too. Epidemic and Stampede still have to sleep sometime. It’s easier to track with Stampede, because animals calm down whenever she’s out. Best of all, none of the three are working together. I don’t have to beat three supers remotely. I just have to beat one three times over.
The Dudebots are heavier than me, not so good at being stealthy. They were based on a bulkier design of my armor that emphasized durability over stealth. I managed to keep up with her, staying at a distance and maintaining invisibility. She liked to run with the animals. In the city, that mostly meant rats, raccoons, and pigeons. She’d taken up a grudge against the Greens, circling their territory, nibbling away at it with pests.
Whatever the Greens are on that’s giving some of them animal features and powers, it hasn’t made them susceptible to Stampede’s power. Which is a weird one. Animal control should work on humans, too, but it doesn’t. I’m interested to see how much it works on other primates, or other intelligent animals like dolphins and octopi. Could be she’d get pissed when trying to boss around an octopus and the cephalopod does nothing but gives her the tentacle. For that matter, raccoons are pretty smart, too.
After a night of pestering the Greens, Stampede and her flock of furry and feathered friends flooded into an old apartment building. A lot of people came screaming out, some with rats biting at them to encourage their flight. After a half hour, when she didn’t come back out, I headed in after Stampede.
Critters were everywhere. Roaches and raccoons and rats, oh my! If any of the people who lived there saw it like that, they probably wouldn’t want to move back in. Without the ability to levitate, making it through there without some crunching sounds was impossible. There were plenty of heat signatures all over the place, but the source big enough to be her was just a couple floors up. I could jump to the landing, minimizing the amount of bones and exoskeletons I broke.
I detached a power collar from the Dudebot’s belt and readied it. I was sure she’d already come down with that little illness being here. Then I proceeded into the one-bedroom apartment.
I crunched up to the bed as quietly as I could. With an elephant’s trumpet, Stampede opened her eyes, shot to a sitting position, and punched me through the wall and living room/kitchen. All these little pests swarmed the Dudebot, crawling all over it, trying to bite.
Stampede walked over, beating at her chest, her body bulging with muscles. “You smell wrong.”
I generated the sound of a raspberry through the Dudebot’s speakers. Outside, a second Dudebot got into position, invisible as well, and jumped. It crashed through the bedroom window, jumped through the hole in the wall, and snapped the collar around Stampede’s neck.
Snapping her neck would have been easier, but she’s a kid.
Immediately, the noise level increased as animals went nuts and tried to flee or eat the roaches. The two Dudebots stood up, secured a deflated little Stampede, and tossed her over one’s shoulder to secure elsewhere.
Epidemic, meanwhile, had been targeted by the Reds and was retaliating in turn. The Reds are trying to fight disease with fire and gas masks, to mixed results. They’re also using the situation to distribute medicine and supplies, making themselves look better.
Epidemic preferred to keep to the shadows, even the sewers at times. The guy still came up to eat, and people still called him into the cops. He offered to spare people who made him a good meal, so he didn’t keep it that secret he was behind all the outbreaks.
I showed up while he was eating at a barbecue joint. This being Empyreal City, it looked like they only got as far as some sort of light sampler, but that could just be the entree around here.
The Dudebot was invisible again, but he called out to me as soon as I entered. “This is a private function!” When I kept approaching, he turned, didn’t see anyone, then snapped his fingers. “Another boring super cop.”
He frowned then, and snapped his fingers again. I lifted him up out of his chair, turning visible, and snapped a power collar around his neck. “You’re not even human, are you?” he asked.
“More than I thought. Less than you’d think,” I said to be all cryptic.
Behind me, the waitress came back into the room, then ducked down. Epidemic snapped his fingers again and her body jerked. She began to scream. “Let me go, or I kill her,” he said.
“I don’t care about that,” I said. I checked over the collar. All functional. “You can’t convince me to leave you alone, and you can’t infect me.”
He laughed. “I am the Master of Disease. The Emperor of Illness. The Lord of Fungus. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
Ah, right. He probably stopped his own self from becoming infected by the same disease that allows the power collars to work. Behind me, the waitress stood back up, her head swollen with something green and black. Her eyes looked weird, glass and black-veined, as she walked toward me. Some sort of zombie plague, then.
I casually grabbed Epidemic’s chair. Still holding him up, I smashed the crap out of the waitress, beating her head in. Black ichor dripped out as a toadstool poked out. I stomped it and ground it out. Then I slammed Epidemic on the table, took a broken piece of wood, and slowly pushed it through his chest. Guy looked like a vampire, so I figured I’d stake his ass.
He screamed and cursed as I forced the chunk of wood into his chest. He kept at it briefly because I didn’t get the heart, though it quickly turned to squeaking. I grabbed another chair, broke off the leg, and used that one to pin his head to the table, right through his brain. I pulled off the power collar and gave him an answer as I walked away. “I am death, and hell to pay.”
Compared to them, it wasn’t nearly so difficult to find Machine Man, and I was confident such an outdated piece of machinery would be easy pickings.
But, finally, a delegation from Las Vegas came out to meet me. They pulled up in humvees and technicals, with a wide variety of firearms and energy weapons aimed at me.
“I come in peace!” the Vegas Dudebot said, raising its arms in a gesture of surrender.
“You mean you come in piece,” Medusa said, hopping out of the back of a humvee. “That’s a robot double. Why shouldn’t we destroy it now?”
“Because Omega and I aren’t really working together anymore. Listen, I got upset and I made a mistake. A big one. I’m trying to make it better, but he decided to lock me away. As far as Omega knows, I can only watch. It’s… not fun. Seriously.”
Back in Ricca, Omega laughed as he binge watched Friends as a way to become acclimated to this new world.
“In fact, it’s downright torturous,” I told Medusa. “But I’m serious. The people he sent after you in Empyreal City? They’re being handled. All I have left is the one pretending to be you.” The Dudebot projected clips of my confrontations with Stampede and Epidemic.
“Face-stealing son of a…” she drifted off. She pulled out her phone and started checking in on things, texting some friends, trying to get the low down. I didn’t spy this time. I let her do it. The fact that animals were calming down and staying that way were easy to come across, but we ended up waiting several minutes while she got outside confirmation. “Where’s the kid?”
“Locked up somewhere she can’t hurt anyone or herself. I didn’t want to kill a kid. Tried to give Epidemic a chance, but turns out he kept that thing from infecting him.”
Medusa nodded to me. “Let’s say we trust you to help again… what’s your plan?”
In Empyreal City, a crowd of Machine Man’s gang, hunting down some of the Q group, came across one of my Dudebots standing there. It raised its hands as well. “I come in peace! Take me to your leader.”
It didn’t take long before the False Medusa stepped up, her movements more smooth now, but almost seductive. Still nothing like how Medusa herself walks. “Who are you and what do you want?” she asked.
“Let’s just say I plan to give Omega what he’s asked for,” I told both of them at once. “But I can’t do it alone.”
“We already have our own plan,” Medusa told me.
Machine Man cocked its head to the side. “That is an unusual way to phrase it. What is your plan?”
The Dudebot reawakened. I looked around to find out where they’d stored the thing. Looks like they packed a lot of my stuff together, but I didn’t recognize the room offhand. My things weren’t dumped haphazardly, though they could have treated my fucking dresses better. I lifted up one that they’d set on my armor chamber and ran unfeeling robotic hands over the badly-wrinkled fabric. I tossed it back down and crawled over the whole mess to make it to the door on the other side.
They had locked it. I kicked it. When it didn’t open, I kicked it again. I charged the gauntlets and slammed them into it, knocking the door open. It swung to the side, one tough fucking door, and I stepped out to discover my things had been vaulted. It was a short corridor of vaults that. Had to break my way out of a door at the end and climbed up some stairs to find out I was in a bank. Huh. And here I thought they’d stick my crap in a storage closet somewhere. I guess they didn’t want anyone playing with my toys.
It looked like one of the nicer banks, which gave me an idea what part of town we were in. The ones in the residential section were a little less plush. I think a bank tried to set up shop in the recreational part of town, but drunk supervillains didn’t bother to make any deposits before they withdrew. That put me in the same area the bigger banks set up. Corporations love to have an office in countries that don’t extradite.
I’ll give them credit, I had to bitchslap the doors open, too. They made the whole building tough. I walked out to find a crowd of Buzzkills and Island Security. The Sec guys looked disheveled. They were half out of uniform from what I could see of them above the cars they arrived in or the barricades they unloaded. The Buzzkills lowered their Stingers, but most of the Sec guys kept theirs up.
I stopped, arms akimbo. “Bow.”
The Buzzkills did, save for a couple. They looked at each other, then one started rushing around, trying to pick up Buzzkills. The other approached me, motioning for the Security guys to lower their weapons. “I must apologize, Imperial Mother, but you are not Empress anymore.”
“As your Empress, I say otherwise. Now, bow,” I ordered.
“We don’t need or want you!” A Security officer yelled at me.
The one next to him slapped him upside the head, but added her own two cents. “By order of Empress Qiang and her Regent, Queen Beetrice, you are sentenced to exile until we’ve established a stable and secure government for us, for the people.”
“This sounds more like something you were told to say, not some spontaneous will of the people. I did so much for you. I made the island safe in a time of chaos. Restored order. Corrupt politicians? Out of a job or dead. We even have a whole new island. And not a peep from y’all. No protests or signs or letters.”
“You, uh, tended to kill people who caused you trouble,” said the second Sec officer.
“Doesn’t mean I’d have killed you,” I answered.
The Buzzkill spokeswoman decided to rejoin the conversation. “Imperial Mother… all the attacks and villainy.”
I looked back over their faces, trying to read them. The Buzzkills were… sad, maybe? But the humans were scared or angry. This next part wasn’t going to help that. I activated the eye laser on the Dudebot. I sheared a barricade in half and took a Security officer’s arm with it. He fell, screaming. Before I could move onto the next target, a large stinger lodged knocked the Dudebot’s head back. Laser shot into the sky and the energy barrier over the island. It didn’t go through, of course.
The Buzzkills and Security officers unloaded on the Dudebot. They didn’t have enough firepower to puncture the armor on this model. I lowered my head slowly, cutting the laser. I wanted them to watch as everything they tried did nothing. A few of them made for their cars and came up with grenades. The Buzzkills tried to stop them, but nonviolently.
I shrugged and jumped the Dudebot out of there, bounding from rooftop to rooftop toward the palace. Alarms spread throughout the city I’d come to think of as my own. It seemed weird to think they were signaling that I was a danger to them, but it was true enough a few years back.
I skidded to a stop in front of the palace, where there were guards, Buzzkills, and some regular citizens who decided to pelt me with produce. Mangoes were mangled hitting me. Squashes squished. They didn’t yell at me before this little coup, but they yelled plenty now. The words they said were a hell of a lot freakier. “You won’t hurt her!”
I thought that would give me pause, but I kept walking. The Nasty Surprise popped out, a threat. The Buzzkills fired stingers at me and formed a human wall with the Sec officers and civilians present. Human/Buzzkill wall, I guess.
I was going to kill all of them. I knew it. Forget maiming like back at the bank. More than anything, I wanted to make those clueless peasants in front of me feel pain. I wanted to just let my anger loose. Destroy and kill, again and again after all these wastes of people did to me. I didn’t realize how much of a state I was in until I heard my daughter’s voice cry out.
Qiang wiggled through the human wall and ran toward me. I retracted the Nasty Surprise and bent down, holding my arms wide. I missed her, even for that short amount of time. It was the uncertainty over seeing her again and not knowing if she was a pawn in some scheme. But she was there now, in my arms, hugging me. I wish I could have felt it.
“I’m sorry I left. I didn’t know they’d do this,” I told her.
“I’m sorry too, mommy. I don’t want to be Empress now. They said if I did, you’d be safe. I want you to be safe.”
We just hugged. The crowd had the decency to shut up, but then another moodkiller arrived in her own power armor.
Medusa, Venus, whatever she wanted to call herself; the fucker who had a hand in all this. Giving people ideas about self-determination and stirring up trouble. Having the shield put up and cutting me off from using my portaholes. She bent down and tried to join our hug.
I stood up, pushing her away. “How fucking dare you?”
She held her hands up. “I’m sorry. This wasn’t how I wanted this to happen.”
I glared at her as best I could while remotely controlling a robot with three fake eyes. Luckily, my nemesis has a good imagination and knows me well enough to understand what I was trying to do. I could tell from her lip. It was an apologetic lip. “So nice to know the woman I love has it in her to stab me in the back and exile me far from everything I care about except Mix N’Max. Do you know why they call it heartbreak?”
She nodded. “I do. But I want to know how you are able to get through right now.” Yep, quick enough on the uptake that she asked a really important question. The second most important question out of those asked that day, in fact.
The Dudebot lit up red and began to warp. Medusa called into a radio to, “Maximum strength on the shield!”
It distracted her long enough for me to get her with a cheap shot to her firm abs. She caught the next one and kicked the Bot’s knee hard enough to topple it, throwing off a follow-up. Before I could try the laser, the connection ended.
I came back to myself, over in California. California, California, not California, Pennsylvania. I was in some house the Dusk Priest, Shockley, found for us to stay in. I opened my eyes and let myself float to the ground. I’d been sitting in midair, cross-legged like I was meditating.
“Your new method of spying failed?” asked the old man. He had put on a dress shirt, pants, and a tie after leaving his Snuggie behind. He kept an athame clipped to his belt next to a pouch of sand in case he needed to do anymore weird magic stuff or blind somebody for a minute.
“Even with my new power, they have a way to fend me off. Temporarily, at least,” I said, smiling. “Originality doesn’t matter that much. Everything fundamentally comes down to the same old principles and stories, and I know some guaranteed ways to do what needs to be done.”
“Don’t you know enough to build it here? Or there?” he pointed in a random direction. “Or anywhere?”
“This is the price she asked for, Priest,” I chided the man. “Wait for me here and don’t fret; soon, we will be on our way to pay in accordance with our deal.”
He didn’t seem happy, but I don’t get his complaint. He got to hang out in a mansion.
Meanwhile, I flew, armor left behind with the weight of mortality. I shot up through the ceiling, envisioning a barrier of my own that punched a hole for me to avoid getting any splinters in my long, crimson hair. I smiled as I hit zoomed into the night sky, the crescent moon illuminating my scarlet skin. It wouldn’t have been so easy to make out the black, long-sleeved dress, or the harlequin green and Mardi Gras purple of the legging stripes that lead into a pair of black booties. The white glow of my eyes and the Omega symbol on my chest were much easier to make out.
My joy of flying was bolstered by the experience at it I felt in the back of my mind. That kept me from getting too distracted on my way to the Master Academy. In a part of the country with such high land prices and a lot of homeless people looking for somewhere to camp, the Academy and its walls stood out.
I waved a hand in the air and left behind a red trail. The walls cracked in half at their middle and tumbled. Then I held up a single finger, and not my preferred one when dealing with heroes. With a little thought and giggling, I put the other three arms behind my back. A tiny beam of light shot out from my fingertip and down, burning through the roof of the main building. I dragged it one way, then the other, cutting it into halves as well. Then I brought it closer to me, taking out a statue in the middle of the grounds and spinning. I’m pretty sure I got some other buildings nearby, but most of them weren’t subject to what I was planning.
There were more alarms, but these had all the right in the world to be worried. I put that hand behind my back and brought out another one with its own pointer finger of doom, cutting a perpendicular line through the first so as to divide the main building into fourths. Below me, I saw people rushing out and about, some with flight and others with superspeed. I swapped out the other two hands who went diagonal, with the students and staff below more concerned with getting everyone to safety and dealing with whatever incidental casualties I was causing. It being a school, some of them were smart enough to realize I was following a pattern that could be avoided.
A few began to fly my way, scattering to present a more disparate field of targets. Oh look, the mortals think they can fight back. It probably seemed more manageable until I pointed all four index fingers down and split another eight beams off from each one.
Some of the heroes and trainees managed to get away. The really lucky ones did so intact. And one bold son of a gun flew up at me, sparks flying off his body before he tried to barrel into me. He let out an “Oof!” as he bounced off me.
I sped faster than a speeding bullet, and far too quick for him to have recovered before I landed a series of very light slaps to his face. Lovetaps, really. I stopped in front of him to grin afterward. Defiant little guy tried to zap me with an electrical bolt. I grabbed it out of the air and tossed it aside like a paperball.
“What the everloving fuck are you?” he asked.
“I’m Omega. And if you call me your goddess real nicely, I may spare you.”
I raised a fist, taking my time. He shrunk back. “Please don’t hurt me!”
I paused. “You know what to say.”
He closed his eyes and turned his head down. “Goddess.”
I brought my hand forward and patted him gently on the head. “Good. Now, your goddess has a little task for you. Just a trifle, really. When she asks, and she will, I want you to let the person formerly known as Venus know it was me who did this. And tell her I’ll see her soon.”
He nodded his head, so I used my new powers to force him to the ground. It was as simple as encasing him in a bubble of the energy that flowed through me and dragging it down to the grieving and the wounded.
I’m sure she knew before I returned to my priest, who grumbled about not knowing why we were taking our time. The resentful little toad was jealous, of course. He also had nothing to go back to and nowhere to run, not even to the nothing between somethings where the rest of me waits.
But while I’m here, I’m going to enjoy myself.
Shit, meet fan.
I blame myself, and lots of other people, but mostly the other people. It’s a burden of being better than everyone else that I have to take the blame for their failings. Forgive them, me, they know not what they do.
Some of the problem was that Medusa wanted me to work on making the government more democratic again. And it wasn’t just her idea. She’d been getting to know Riccans, and the people who had been cowed into taking me as their Empress in the past had begun to get ideas about organizing for themselves again. I’d agreed that we could see about transferring several of my closest top guys to a more traditional cabinet position and open the Directory back up to being a legislative body that shares power with me.
It wasn’t going to take too long. I could make the change in a snap, but I wanted to let any furor, and there was some, die down a bit. Let people get the excitement out of their system. When their enthusiasm has dampened a bit and they have time to think things over, they probably won’t be manipulated as easily by the sorts of people who argued over street names last time.
Eh, I’m probably wrong. I’m really just winging this.
It’s part of Medusa’s pretty good idea to give them more of a say instead of being so much of an asshole, leading to stuff like establishing a ministry to handle the day to day running of the country. That way, I have time to do all the fun stuff I like. And Medusa gets to make me less of a dictator. She didn’t say as much, but I think I worry a lot of people being in charge of so many people’s lives.
But that’s just housekeeping.
That group of Japanese superheroes I still hadn’t personally encountered came forward about their experiments about the recent dimensional shenanigans. They’d lost their lab, but they had backups of their data.The guy running the United States thinks you can nuke hurricanes to make them go away, but a lot of the rest of the world is paying attention. I could have covered for it. You pay the right people and you can have an enormous network of Right-wing misinformation mercenaries saying anything you want. I’d hardly be the first dictator they cozied up to.
A spokesman from the Institute of Science initially denied the allegations with some technobabble. The public doesn’t really know what these things are and how they work. All you have to do is put the lie out there and they’ll believe it, no matter how many doctors point out vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s one of the things I hate about people until it becomes convenient for me. We pinned all of this on resurgent Japanese imperialism in the Pacific power vacuum.
That got China on our side, and they were more than happy to release documents about Japan’s greed. Before too long, we had the Mao apologists talking about how Japan was trying to steal land away from the natives of Mu, who were being protected and watched over by my Ricca.
They still figured that Mr. Omega smashing spaceships with his hands was the same person as me flying around, blowing shit up until the footage was released from the end of the fight. When Omega abandoned me suddenly, there was a split second when my armor was visible. It was red with an Omega symbol. Even then, the design was fairly new. Maybe it was an impostor, right? Not so much when plenty of video and photos get out showing me around here in the same armor.
I knew when Medusa found out because she called me up and we had a screaming match briefly. She heard about those attacks by Omega’s avatar, and I hadn’t told her it was me. She disagreed with me killing for him. But I think she mostly disliked that I didn’t tell her about it.
We would hang up on each other, then on of us would call the other back. It got ugly, but not as bad as us physically attacking each other. She was off talking with some regular people, offering them a chance to have their opinions heard by the Imperial Consort, so I bet lots of those folks heard some of that dirty laundry. Besides, my kicking in my sleep is no big deal compared to her drooling. They probably heard all about that, and in the aftermath, I heard we finally located someone of interest.
One of my people in Intelligence got back to us with some information gained from an informant who decided to look into the government’s deal with Hephaestus. He was actually a Treasure agent, and he found out the guy was being hidden by the Secret Service. First guess, I’d have thought he was hiding himself, but the Secret Service is especially weird. That’s more the job of the federal marshals, and he has to know I can handle the Secret Service. I just assassinated a President, after all. So, they seem to think they’ve got an ace up their sleeves, and it’s hidden in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Ugh, nature. I mean, I have no problem with it if it stays away, but I don’t care for it in general. Too much sunlight, too little air conditioning, and everything’s part of that raw food movement. Us sapient apes were not meant to exist without refrigerators and internet porn.
Speaking of internet, it really is tough staying connected to the world out there. Too many mountains and not enough cell towers. Satellite coverage can be spotty. That probably explains why the guy hid out there from me.
Rather than forget about how I can just waltz through portals like in Tokyo, I remembered this time. Yay, me. I finished fixing a nice dinner for Qiang for when she gets done playing with her friends, slid into my armor, and created a portable hole to the mean lakes of Montana. I appeared in the air above the shallows of Lake McDonald and splashed down near the shore. I don’t entirely know what happens if I were to appear partially inside a tree, but that’s a question I hope to let someone else test first.
Two things stood out to me immediately. First, the view off in the distance looked a lot like a work of art. Second, something had taken a truly massive shit on the shore nearby. I was glad for my air filtration system.
GPS put me less than a mile away. I finished tromping out of the water and faded into holographic invisibility. I stopped walking so heavily before too long. The forest is absolutely full of things that make noise on trees you pass by and things you step on. There are plenty in the canopies, too. Birds are an indicator, one I doubted the Hephaestus guy would know. But maybe those guarding him know better. I took it nice and slow on my approach.
He turned out to be hiding in a cabin. Weird. I thought a guy with his money would spring for a whole big house. Not sure how much they let people do that on Federal land, but he has money. If you have the money, laws and prices are both negotiable.
Coverage was absolutely shitty here. I couldn’t get a good look via satellite because of all the trees in the way. No cell service, no internet. I stopped to check it out with my eyes instead. Let’s see… a trio of ATVs, a pair of jeeps, and a pair of men in suits walking around in suits. That seemed incredibly impractical. And either these guys really look this generic, or they were twins.
I was going to wait until one got close, but instead I opened a hole right underneath one of them that dumped him into Antarctic. For the other one, I reached a hand through another hole that let me grab a tree branch high over his head. I snapped it and pulled my hand back, then thrust it through again this time to crush his throat. I pulled him through the hole, leaving him behind in the bushes as I stepped out where he had been.
It seemed all clear from there on out. Just a little cabin in a little clearing. I headed up to the cabin, apparently avoiding any creaking boards on the steps or deck. That’s one way that wood is a handy flooring for security purposes. The door was locked, which was simple enough to carve through with a laser, and in I went.
My target was walking in from a hallway, wet and dressed only in a towel, a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “Oh shit,” he said, having evidently seen the door open and close of its own accord. “I guess it’s today, huh?”
I became visible. “Yeah, your time’s up.”
He raised the bottle and took a sip, then sat down on a metal bar stool next to a small island at the point where the living room became a kitchen. “My time’s been up since the Feds caught me.” He looked at me, then laughed, shaking his head as he enjoyed a private joke.
“They’re not exactly giving you their best protection,” I said, stepping closer.
“Yeah, but they know how full of yourself you are,” he said.
My paranoia sense tingled. I turned back to the door and pulled it open to reveal a thick metal door. A hole appeared in it as big as my fist, punching me in the stomach. I stumbled. I heard gunshots as more of the walls disappeared. My HUD warned me of damage as the shots that it broke bones and burst organs behind the armor it pounded and weakened. Both myself and my target dropped, me to take cover and him because most of his chest was missing. I set the nanites in my armor to myself and the armor, then opened a hole and came out next to where I thought I stashed a dead body in the bushes.
The cabin was ringed with more of these expressionless men, many in camo or gillie suits, but a few in suits. I saw the one I thought I killed, somehow still standing and firing his handgun despite his throat being punched in. It was odd. They were all firing from the hip, no matter the guns they used, all emotionless and stiff. When they finished a few minutes later, one of them held up a remote and pushed a button. The cabin exploded. The shooters didn’t respond, even when I saw on take a chunk of wood through the thigh.
A sudden power failure caused the portaholes to go out. Damn, right when I want to kill a shitload of people. As awesome as these things are, their reliability is a pretty damn big issue. I didn’t have time to worry about it, though, as I had a crowd of thirty or so of these weird, robot-seeming men to kill.
Still invisible, I came up behind one and yanked his head off. The body fell. The rest of this bunch turned toward me, but I was already jumping, landing with my feet on the head and chest of another guy. When we came down to the ground, his head went sploosh. My Surprise whips shot out as I ran forward to dodge the tracking of these things. I wrapped one around the neck of a guy, squeezing it off as I used him to change my velocity. Another took a whip to the head, revealing metal under the skin.
More fell to a laser to the face, and I picked up a nearby sentry to club one of his friends to mush with. The secret was to stay moving as those with ammo used it up and those without tried to reload quickly. There was one gaggle of them that got fresh magazines in when a headless rubber chicken wandered over to them and exploded. I grabbed a second of the guys and spun like a whirlwind, sending guys flying.
It got a bit messy, but a few more rubber chicken grenades left me the only one standing. Any other that tried were easy enough to stomp back down. The last one, stopped while he was on one knee and tried to use the portaholes. I was going to pull his skull out and use it to beat his body with, but then I remembered it wasn’t working. I settled for squeezing his head with my hands until it exploded in a gooey mess of blood, scalp, metal, and circuit boards.
I jumped to the conclusion that my old enemy the Technolutionary might be working with the Secret Service. He’d been obsessed with me in a creepy way, feeling that I was humanity’s future and that he should be able to make humans like me. We did manage that process, but he got away. Before I met him, his favorite pastime seemed to be replacing people’s brains with computers that made them is servants. These looked like more sophisticated versions, with way better weaponry than he’d had. A lot of my older armors wouldn’t have stood up to being shot like this, and I’d have been in little shape to fight without armor being able to release regenerative nanites out in the field.
So, this whole thing had been a trap. Lovely. That still left me in the middle of nowhere without a ride, my personal conveyance not working, and unable to call in for help. That might have been part of the trap as well, and a part I wouldn’t have thought about given the location.
I didn’t take a hike so much as take long leaps through the forest until I could get enough of a signal to call back to Chu, the head of my portahole project. He picked up on the first ring. “Chu, buddy, what’s wrong with these things? I need a way back, ya know.”
“Chu is otherwise detained,” Medusa said. My paranoia sense didn’t like that.
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“It wasn’t me, or just me,” she said. “I know you’re going to be pissed, but let me explain.”
“How about you explain it to me in person?” I asked, wanting to beat her to death with her own foot.
“I can’t do that. We received a message while you were gone. A lot of people want war with you, and your own people want to disavow your actions. The ultimatum is that you leave power,” she explained.
“We have the shield and all. We can hold out,” I said.
“That wasn’t just the ultimatum the UN gave us. A lot of people seem to agree with them, and I didn’t want to cause a riot.”
“They never would have tried this if I was there, but how’d they know I was gone?” I asked.
“Your government isn’t as private as you’d think. That’s partially my doing,” she said. I could feel the tension in her words.
“Have you been a spy this whole time?” I asked, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.
“No. I love you, I really love you. I wanted to help free you and reform things, so I tried to keep things transparent with some leaks. They told me and others you were gone. Then the UN contacted us.”
“Where’s my daughter? What have y’all done with her?!” I felt the rage course through me, hurting my jaw as hard as it clenched.
“She’s fine. The people who flooded the Directory forced them to vote your abdication and her ascendancy to the throne. We’re pretty sure the UN isn’t going to declare war on a little girl,” she tried to reassure me.
“Little girls are the only group the UN will go after because they’re too scared of dictators!” I yelled. I tried getting through to Shield Command. Nothing. My command codes were no good anymore. Same for the base, or even Intel. They all ghosted me when I called, too.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll take care of Qiang. She’ll be fine. If there’s a silver lining, Mr. Omega will give up on you soon, right? It’s no fault of your own. Well, I mean, that’s not really true, but it’s not like you knew this would happen.”
I hung up on her and punched a tree. It fell in the woods. I stood there, not making any sound for awhile. Then a message got through on what I recognized as Intel Chief Pagan’s accounts. “Empress, I remain ever loyal. I will act to protect your daughter from your enemies and do what I can to aid your return. Attached is a dump of useful information we compiled on the incident as it happened, as well as other information you have requested. We found an outpost of the Dusk Club if you feel you are in a mood for violence and would like to channel it to your ends. Yours forever, Pagan.”
Another voice broke in, courtesy of the icon of a white face on my HUD of Mr. Omega. “Such ungrateful people.”
“Damn straight,” I said.
“We will take your island back for you,” he said.
“You’d help me with that?” I asked.
“I prefer you to your daughter. I would think you would, too,” he said.
He didn’t need to. He had the power I need right now. Might as well get rid of that Dusk Club first before I go back and prove why I’m the one who deserves to rule.