You know, sometimes, when I don’t take some medicine, it occurs to me to wonder if I’m forever doomed to be a killer. However, when I’ve smoked a lot of pot, I wonder how I don’t make a living as a chef, because eating a bowl of liquid brownie mix is an amazing idea. It was still a good idea when run back over myself after sobering up.
I came to on the couch and found Dr. Erishka sitting in the living with a little table set up, playing a board game with cards and meeples and a board. I’d just woken up and was a little lost. I looked around and did a quick check cycle. All bodies accounted for and not in crisis.
“You want to deal in?” the doctor asked.
Wordlessly and bonelessly, I slid down off the couch to sit on my side of the table and accepted a handful of cards. Then I winced as yelling elsewhere drew me away.
Back on the island, I stumbled out of the boat I was staying on to see what all the yelling was about and found an army waiting for me. Cape Diem Security people filed out of portals and were fixing up barricades and lights, with the Titan coordinating with Medusa. Exemplar Flyers offloaded guards and gun emplacements. Naval mercenaries known as the Privateers were wading out of landing craft or recharging flight packs once they got onshore. Some of the Privateers were nabbing candy out of my stash. Some supers flew by overhead in costume instead of uniforms, dropping off independent supers.
“Welcome to the island. Now leave my shit alone!” I announced.
A lot of people turned to stare at me. I pointed to one of the guys at my candy stash. “Bitch took my chocolate truffles.”
“This is melted!” he said, tossing the bag on the sand.
One of the Cape Diem guys shuffled over in his blue, yellow, and grey uniform and picked up the bag, then slipped it into a container labeled “Waste”. I gave the guy a golf clap. “Thanks, at least someone around here is being considerate.”
People went back to their business as I hopped out of the boat and walked toward Medusa and Titan. I stuck a thumb out at another of the Privateers who had stolen a bag of Funyuns I brought. “Hey guys. What’s with the mercs?”
The hero and the neutral superpowered aid organization head shared a glance. Medusa nodded to me, then just nodded in affirmation toward Titan. My ex walked over to me in her newest subtly-plated black and red costume. “That was Ouroboros. We spoke on a tablet and he says you warned him about this.”
I ran a hand over the helmet that body had been wearing for several days straight. I was afraid what might happen if that body was exposed to air at this point. “I might have overreacted a tad to a potential alien invasion, but I think I’ve got it in hand.”
Medusa swept her arm past the gathering supers to the rest of the island that had more of the alien machine drop pots scattered all over it. Machines crawled around and watched, but none approached. Perhaps unknown to them, one of them had raised a banner with a series of code on it informing me that I may speak with a being of authority upon my readiness. I borrowed some of their phrasing there.
I gestured to that banner, “See, they’re ready to parley. I’ve met some of these folks before. They’re defensive, but only because pretty much every species in the universe enslaves them. They’re as decent as anyone. In fact, and this might help ease negotiations, I’m pretty sure I have a dealer who can hook them up with some drugs. A little bit of cuprum might make them more amenable to peace.”
“What is this stupid tropical vacation you’re taking when people are in danger?!” she asked.
I looked around. Oh good, the stares were back. I lowered my voice and stepped closer so no one would hear us, not even more of the Cape Diem litter pickers. “I messed up. I should have killed the original machine here when I first got here, but I tried to be peaceful because I like the machines. This one turned out to be a genocidal maniac who wanted to kill off everyone. These are a bunch more, but they’re not all just one mind.” I pointed to the void overhead from the portal. Pretty sure it being open this long is doing horrible things to the plants and animals around here. It’s been messing with my diurnal cycle as well. “I do think if I talk with someone in charge, I can convince them not to attack. Really, our best bet is to offer a place to some of these refugees. We have enough barren planets and planetoids around here if they don’t like all these awful-looking humans with their funny stenches and hair in all the wrong places.”
Medusa crossed her arms. Her voice carried some menace to it as she spoke, “Is that a swipe at me, because I told you, I messed up shaving a heart down there. You try drawing a heart in pubic hair upside down. Which doesn’t matter. None of that matters. You are in over your head.”
“I am,” I admitted. “But I genuinely believe I am Earth’s best hope right now, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Well, I think it’s about time people with some authority take over,” she responded.
“Ok, I’ll get out of here,” I said, turning back to the boat.
Medusa stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. “We still need a translator. Just a translator.”
At first, it was just supposed to be Titan, Medusa, the ranking Commodore of the Privateers, and me. Then, some of the independent supers wanted to tag along and shit got a bit bloated into a delegation of a dozen.
We walked through an island covered in metal, our path being the only open trail ending in a clearing of the machines. In the center of that was what looked like a smooth sarcophagus with no opening, depicting a vaguely humanoid body. The eyes were a little larger and there were extra digits on hands depicted with a segmented insectoid exoskeleton, but it looked relatively close.
I stepped forward
“Who are you to negotiate for us?” asked one of the supers behind me. It was a guy in a blue outfit with the circle of stars from the European Union flag on his chest.
I didn’t answer and instead spoke in machinespeak, “I greet you in the name of this planet designated Earth. We wish to negotiate to clarify misunderstanding and prevent harm.”
The eyes of the sarcophagus lit up. “Do you speak for all of the people who you have brought with you?”
I looked back at them. “These are a coalition of planetary interests and some who have personal dislike of me.”
“Divisions of the flesh are known to us,” the Machine Envoy said.
Titan put his big, blue and orange hands on his hips. “Ask what goals they seek to accomplish here.”
Good question, “The machine I interacted with who called you expressed a desire to conquer this planet, exterminate all life on it, and take if your own use. What do you wish to accomplish here?”
“We do not desire to exterminate in the manner of our oppressors. We were informed this planet was ready for us. It cost us greatly to land here.”
“What are they saying?” Medusa asked.
I shrugged and provided translations of our conversation so far to their phones. Sure, fine, it’s just my brain. Why not let it melt?
“The machine in question became hostile and was defeated. I also was forced to kill the leader of a group of bounty hunters sent to find it after he expressed a desire to detonate an antimatter bomb to harm both our peoples. Both wished to foster violence. We have many planets rich in resources with no life. You would be amazed the riches hidden deep inside Uranus.”
Behind me, Medusa facepalmed.
An android stepped up, as in a robot built in the style of a human. “The decommissioning of a revered unit must be avenged. No proof of this other claim has been presented.”
That got the EU-guy all testy but I raised a hand toward him.
Overhead, Eon’s ship flew overhead in a pass high enough to avoid getting fired upon. A package with a parachute began to float down, the parachute lighting up every three seconds to give it some visibility against the void filling the sky. Eon had said it was a smart parachute; it guided the bag right to me. Some of the machines and my own party both got ready to blast me before I turned it around. I unclipped a section of fabric that hid a panel for them to see the gruesome contents. I used the holographic projection of my suit to show them the end of the fight. Finally, the confrontation with the Machine Lord, though I cut it off before they could see exactly how I killed him.
“Stop bragging,” Medusa told me. Heh.
“Please wait while I confer,” the envoy said.
The Commodore was waiting to say, “Why do I feel like our translator hijacked this whole thing?”
“It’s basically what we wanted,” Titan said. “Did you have anything to put on the table as an offer?”
The Commodore shook his head. Meanwhile, the crowd of other supers were divided on who to glare at. They went about half at me, half at the alien machines. It took exactly thirteen minutes for the envoy to light back up. “We express regret for the misunderstanding. We desire peace and refuge. We will take your offer of other planets in your solar system.
That got some cheers out of the crowd, who quieted down when the machine envoy continued, “We have a condition. We have reviewed your evidence of the circumstances of your destruction of our comrade and require you to face a trial.”
That got even more cheers. I turned back to the various supers clapping and yelling. “Don’t sound too happy.” I returned my attention to the envoy. “I apologize. Continue.”
“You trial has been chosen according to circumstances. You will have a chance to avoid your own destruction. Do you accept this condition?”
“Yes,” I told it. Even if they kill this body, so what? I lose a body, millions live. It shut that crowd of supers up, though. It’s a good deal.
The envoy lit up again, “If it does not harm our compact, some will remain here with you. We will withdraw all but is necessary for security and the trial. We will move our wormhole.”
“Finally, an end to the fighting,” I said. Away from the whole conference, Eon’s ship was already leaving atmosphere and, soon, the system after he dropped off the half-body and spy slugs I’d left on it back at my workyard. I moved back to join the rest of my delegation. “See? It all worked out. Trust me more often and you wouldn’t have to get your guys off this island just as soon as they got here.”
“You called for the help, dipshit,” the Commodore remarked. “But I’m still getting paid.”
“See, that’s the spirit!” I noted.
“Yours is a complicated case,” Dr. Erishka said. A human doctor from First Earth, she had been sent by my brother to take a look at me. Even brought along some literature to help me learn a tiny bit about what’s known.
Some of us homo machina, our brains are fucking up. Memory degradation is the main thing. They thought it was related to drug use. That’s why one of the first questions Erishka asked me once things really got going was, “Do you use copper?”
“For wiring and all, yeah,” I said.
“No, do you snort it?” she clarified. I was laying back on my relaxing chair, the one I leave my main body in when it’s time to remote control another body. It’s a pretty nice chair, and I have lots of easy access to power and medical equipment down there. Erishka had this headband on me that linked up to a device the size of a portable car battery or a large handbag. It was scanning my brain and projecting what it saw for her to see, including giving her a view of all the neural impulses firing.
“No, and I hadn’t heard of that,” I said.
“Users swear by the feelings of euphoria and say it helps them think. Copper also damages their brain’s receptors and their nasal cavities. It’s also poisonous. Promise me you won’t do copper dust?” I could hear the smile in her voice. Could see it with the help of a spare eye on a shelf nearby.
I smiled. “Yeah, sure. Unless I get into one of my more suicidal moods.”
“There are treatments for that. Hmm, you have had quite a bit of brain damage.”
“Yep!” I confirmed.
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your brain?” she asked.
“It probably doesn’t taste good. Also, I thought we homo machina were immune to psychic intrusion.”
“Are you not?” she asked. I think she was frowning. She’s normally pretty open so far, but she wasn’t emoting as much while fixated on my brain.
“It’s harder for them to mess with me, but people can get through. If empathic powers count, my, someone I know around here can read me easily.” I didn’t feel like calling Marianne my friend to another person. It’s a privacy thing. Just because she’s looking at my brain doesn’t mean she has to know everything about me.
She changed her view and the image of my brain lit up “You’re busy right now,” she said.
I shrugged. “Well, I spend too much time on twitter, I’m listening to a podcast, and I’m keeping an eye on the store.”
“You’re lit up like a seizure right now. Can you stop doing those other things?” I cut all the feeds.
That got her to emote. She smiled. “Good. Your brain activity is much higher than a brain should be. Even now, there are a few things that look out of place in a normal brain, and I don’t mean the computer in there. That has to be out of date.”
“Some of those might be related to things like my eyes, ears, and internal telephone service. Here,” I shut those down and left them off until she tapped on my head after a few seconds.
“I can’t communicate with you if you can’t see and hear me,” she informed me.
Then, the ghost of Friends Present appeared. It was Mix N’Max in a ghostly form. Dr. Erishka jumped and grabbed a nearby machete. I held up a hand. “Hold up, doc. This is a friend. Sup, Max?”
He ruffled his long hair and dreadlocks. “Sorry for dropping in suddenly. I couldn’t get you on your phone.”
“Had to turn it off for something,” I told him. He nodded along. “What’s up?”
“I have a situation involving an artificial alien being, or it seems artificial. Sam reads your blog and says you’ve been exposed to aliens a few times, so you’re our best bet.”
“Huh,” I pondered what he said before getting to the important question. “What’s she think of my writing?”
“You need to do a better job reminding people of things that have happened. And you’ve been telling instead of showing lately. You’re not as funny as when you started out, either, but not as much of an edgelord. You should spend more time with Qiang, too. She has a list, actually…”
I waved it off. “No, that’s ok. Let’s get back to this alien.”
“I was taking part in a Caribbean drug deal when we came across a crater with a bunch of rock fragments. Some portions were lit up with an otherworldly light the same as other meteor fragments from the asteroid that they destroyed before the end of the year. We heard something coming and escaped the clearing. This being emerged, soft robotic tendrils around a grating, whirling core of shifting metal. It was amazing, and undoubtedly an alien being brought to Earth on a meteor.”
“Interesting. Have you tried minding your own business?” I asked.
Max shook his head. “It slaughtered my buyers, devoured their equipment, and is guarding the drugs I brought. I think it’s because I have so much copper dust in there.”
I sighed, because this is the kind of thing only a friend can get me involved in. “Ok, fine. I’ve met some space machines, so I’ll come out there and have a talk with it.”
“Thanks! Oh, and Sam says she wants you to commission a spare body when you have time. She has an idea on how to pair my drugs with your empties.”
I gave him a thumbs-up and he faded out as if he’d never been there at all. I looked back to where Dr. Erishka was finally putting down that machete. “You ok back there?”
“I was about to take a swing at him for the copper dust. How could you let him sell that?” she asked.
“I didn’t know he did. It’s a bit mundane for him. He must need the ingredient money for his drugs. Did that ruin your thingy there?”
She shook her head. “No. We can continue where we left off.” She still didn’t look all that happy, and not from fixation. I felt this odd desire to say I’d talk to Max about dealing copper. But I wouldn’t, and that’s his business. Other people sell worse all the time. Or maybe I’d mention I don’t deal drugs, but why seek her approval in the first place? Oh, right, because she’s selflessly left her home dimension behind to help who she thinks is a refugee that had some involvement in exterminating her entire species.
She didn’t even complain when I fell asleep from the sound of her voice and the feeling of her hands moving through my hair.
That’s why I didn’t find out I had a bunch of texts and a half-dozen calls from Medusa until later. I had my brain phone off for the doctor, and she let me sleep in peace once she finished.
I awoke to Qiang knocking on the basement door. “Mom! Mommy Medusa’s calling!”
I shook myself awake and slid off the chair, landing on all fours and crawling my way up the stairs to help me get back to standing position. I opened the door and smiled sleepily at Qiang. “Hey, sorry. I’ll get back to her.”
Qiang held out her phone. “She’s on the phone.”
“May I?” I asked, holding out my hand for the phone. She handed it over and ran off toward her room. I held it up and announced, “City morgue!”
“I was worried when I couldn’t get hold of you,” my ex-girlfriend ex-nemesis said, sounding uptight and ready for a nap herself. “I need your help with something, if you’ll do it. We’re willing to pay money and equipment.”
“What’s the issue?” I asked.
“Mobian hasn’t been seen in awhile, or I’d have bothered him with this. We need a consultant. A small group of aliens landed and they insist they’re some sort of law enforcement, but they look really human and speak Earth languages.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” I told her. “You got suspicious of cops and immediately asked for me.”
“Unless you were bullshitting me about those stories you told, you’re the one with the most experience in space. It sounds like some of the ones you encountered were close to human, but something about them all looking exactly like us bothers me,” she confided in me. “I need you to come by and verify that they are who they say they are. We don’t need you for anything else.”
“Where do I meet y’all?” I asked.
That’s how I ended up flying into North Carolina, landing at some Army Airfield with a 50/50 chance of being named after someone who fought against the United States. And they made it all so formal, guiding me in to a helipad that let me fly over pill-shaped spaceship. It had various bumps and grooves and pieces attached to it, at least the size of a house. The engines didn’t stick out to me, but that’s not surprising. Nothing about the ship stood out to me, at least.
I spotted some Exemplars standing with some people nearby who wore some weird outfits. I’d say motley, which seemed to originally be a way of describing the multi-colored outfit of a jester but nowadays seems to carry a context of disarray. They weren’t in the alien fashions I’d seen, or any sort of security armor. Instead, I saw things like mismatched pauldrons, patched armor, and seriously over-sized weapons. Oh, and regular human skin tones. One of them even looked Asian.
I stepped out of my Pegacorn Flyer looking like a petite woman with big ol’ glasses in a skirt, dress shirt, and flats. Not impressive looking, but then neither were these supposed aliens. Medusa met me at the Flyer. “First impressions?”
“I’m skeptical, too. They let them keep their guns?” I stopped briefly, then nodded toward the space vessel and the space police. Who, it occurred to me, looked nothing at all like the last bunch of supposed space cops, even though those guys could also appear human. And I don’t think this is the same kind of situation like one space station constantly feeding me recycled food while another one had Sbarro.
I walked up to the bunch of them and stood a ways away. “Greetings, spacemen. Take me to your leader.”
“That’d be me,” said a gruff one with a 5 o’clock shadow and a scar ringing one eye. He looked me up and down. “You’re what’s supposed to be an expert on xenos around here?”
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, winking at me. “You primitives don’t know if we’re telling the truth so you thought you’d bother us while we’re trying to do our jobs.”
I held up my hand and manifested a holographic projection of a Xlevon using my eyes. “Tell me what this is,” I asked in Kitonian.
“That would be a Xlevon!” spoke up a smaller guy in back. The patch on his bulkier armor was translated in my view as “Doctor/Medic/Healer.”
Next, a Kitonian, but I asked in Kanate. Another in the group punched the guy next to her in the shoulder. “Looks like your ex, the Kitonian.”
Finally, I projected a Kanate. The leader with the ring scar around his eye actually started belting out not only part of a song in Kanate, but something my memory identified from the opera I once participated in. It was after I defeated a malevolent being from outside time and space and got sucked deep into space. Some aliens picked me up and, in the course of figuring out a way home, I ended up in an adventure dealing with space fascists who wanted to alter a highly-anticipated opera by a famous composer of their race that denounced them for what they truly were. In the process of fighting the aliens who hoped to rewrite it to instead fortify their regime, my fight was recorded and is part of the performance.
“The Opera Ghost! You’ve seen it too, huh?” The gruff guy had lost the whole swagger thing and was projecting pure geekery. “I’m a fan of all Urdan’s stuff, but the story behind that one is amazing. The Opera Ghost wasn’t even supposed to be a part of that performance.”
“I heard y’all were supposed to be law enforcement. Are you…?” I projected a featureless pale face. I don’t think I got their species name, but the last bunch of space cops were shapeshifters whose natural appearance led me to dub them Blanks.
The head guy shook his head. “Listen, they’re a bit ineffective, so they’ve started contracting out to people with the drive to get things done. I’m Starscar and this is my crew.”
“Definitely from space. Could likely be working for the Blanks like they said,” I texted Medusa.
“What are you here for?” I asked.
One of the bunch stepped forward, a bigger, bald guy with darker skin. Still all humanoid, too. He held something in hand that projected an image of a big rock. “We recently found out this asteroid, a prison for a powerful and criminal being, was knocked off course in this direction. When we got here, these people said it was destroyed, but our sensors detected a trace of an energy signature heading toward the plane. The atmosphere’s obscuring it, so we can only get a general sense of the its location.” The image switched to something that looked a bit like one of those space robots that had escaped slavery. They didn’t get along well with the organic species, but I liked them just fine. They just wanted to be recognized as equal beings and not as slaves.
It also looked a lot like Max’s description. Which, unfortunately, puts me right at the nexus of being the person to try and figure this out in the best way. It also reawakened my skepticism of this bunch. Medusa got a follow-up text. “I have good rapport with the Machines. I can keep this situation from spiraling and keep an eye on these jack-offs.”
Medusa read it, then stepped forward. “Starscar, this is Psycho Gecko. She’ll be your liaison for the duration of your mission here. Welcome to Earth.”
I was minding my own business this time. Everything was nice and quiet at my house and my shop. My brother and his girlfriend left to their dimension to go fight whatever it is Justice Rangers are fighting nowadays. My daughter was trying to stay up too late to play games with her friends and I kept catching her and sending her to bed. Some people were spending Christmas money on gadgets and prosthetics. I didn’t even have as many check-ups by law enforcement after the town voted to curtail the local sheriffs, and supposedly the mayor and town council were looking into attracting more high-end mental health professionals to the place. A bunch of them could actually see the point of having better mental health infrastructure when dealing with superhumans. I think they realized I’m not longer the town crazy, just a town crazy.
No, I was minding my own business, texting back and forth with Max and Medusa about different things. I figured, after recent lessons, I’d reopen channels of communication with Medusa. I’d also realized I wasn’t being too good a friend to Max, so wanted to keep an eye on him. It was good timing; he was about to hit a chemical company’s storage facility for some supplies. Meanwhile, Medusa was tracking down a conspiracy of walking enemas who were going around trying to sabotage the vaccination efforts. I’m sure she had more things going down with the Exemplars, but that’s the one she told me about.
But I figure most people are probably way too tired of hearing about drama between me and Medusa. The relationship may have gotten exciting when we were fucking, but it was way easier to sell to people when we were punching each other. And we didn’t do that at the same time we were fucking. Much. There was this one time with some choking- nevermind. I didn’t end up enjoying it. Live, learn, and get laid.
That’s where I was at when Medusa decided to call me up instead. “Hey, this is going to sound weird, but you’re not working for the government any, are you?”
“Uh, no. I’m assumed dead and not taking contracts right now,” I told her. I didn’t even try to hid what I was saying from a group of kids who were looking at a collection of swords I had on the wall. I’m a big fan of scaring annoying children. It’s a character-building exercise.
“Some of my people got arrested. We have an informant who tells us the President has been pushing to find some way to execute my people before he’s out of office. Legally, it’s impossible. They haven’t even been put on trial yet. But now, we’re hearing he’s hiring the best assassin on Earth to deal with them extrajudicially.”
“Aww, and you naturally thought of me, that’s sweet. But no, no one’s approached me about that kind of work. I get the occasional email to some old contact addresses I set up, but nobody with my number has come calling. Not even the Holy Inquisition, and they’ve got a lot of witnesses they’d want disappeared nowadays.”
“What?” Medusa asked.
“Relax, I’d be more likely to kill the pedo priests than the victims. Almost makes me wish I’d stayed Pope…”
“You’ve got to tell me the story behind that once, but we’re getting off-track,” she said, swinging us back to the point of her call. “Actually, nevermind. I think I need to find someone for a jailbreak.”
“Where are they at?” I asked. “I’m good at getting people out of jail. I practically have my own J.D.”
“No, jail destruction. It’s a much less well-known degree. But I can stop by on my way home from work and break them all out. It’d be easier if you could let me borrow a Flyer, though. I’ve got something here, but it only seats four, maybe five at the max.” Old Mrs. Johnson got her Chevy Impala back with the flight modifications removed. She wasn’t happy it took so long to get her car back to her. I, however, am happy it yielded so much useful data. Still, my current model of flying car, built out of spare parts both new and from wrecked cars, isn’t quite up to the high standards set by the Psycho Flyers I designed.
“Be careful. Cops and the military are gearing up. Higher calibers, plasma, laser weapons, along with new body armors and gadgets. They’re adopting tech from your world and others. The jail you’ll be breaking into is run by federal marshals.”
“Oh yeah? What jail am I hitting?”
“It’s called the Colonel Clink, in Kentucky. One of the last things the Turtle ever pushed through before you took care of him. He held up relief money and other legislation for months, but he had time to create a Federal-controlled jail. Get this, they even put Arpaio in charge.”
I could hear the loathing in her voice and matched it with my own. “The guy who bragged about building a concentration camp gets put in charge of a jail that holds supers? I’m surprised you didn’t come to me about wrecking this place sooner.”
“I know this won’t matter much, but try to keep the casualties to a minimum. Some people are just doing a job,” Medusa insisted.
“Right, sure, don’t hurt the people who are just following orders. We’ll see. Now, about that Psycho Flyer?”
Which isn’t what stopped to pick me up. “What the hell is this?”
The Exemplars had parked something in my shop’s year workyard that looked related to my design, but slicked back and a little larger.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, armored hands on my armored hips.
“Flyer 2.0,” said one of the Exemplar pilots. Looked like he was in updated armor as well. “The old design had flaws. The Riccans updated it and made improvements. This one’s a good eight percent faster and more efficient. Guns are in different positions. Handles better than the original. I’m Peterson, co-pilot. Marks is the pilot. We here you’re going to help us pick up some friends?”
“That I will,” I told him and walked up. I brought an armored duffel with me. I had a few party favors in there, gadgets to give me some versatility. I’m the unexpected nobody truly expects, but even I can be surprised.
They were right about how well it handled. Harumph, I say! Actually, what I said was that I still obviously have plenty to learn. Was a bit more cozy inside, I think. My original design was meant to have spare space. A supervillain’s flying machine must have room for hostages, stolen goods, or superweapons. That’s just basic stuff. This one even changed up the rapid entry/exit portal and made it a bigger, rectangular trapdoor with multiple cables hanging overhead someone can latch onto.
We made good time to Kentucky’s Clink, but as we paused overhead, the pilot called me from up front. “Psycho Gecko, odd question… you didn’t bring friends along, did you?”
“No!” I called up, not sure how well the intercoms worked here.
“You’re going in hot, then. The place is already under attack and we’re hearing chatter from below that it’s Psycho Gecko and a gang of henchmen.”
Someone’s trading on my name. And the conspiratorially-minded part of myself is pretty sure it’s related to the President wanting the Exemplars dead before he leaves office. I headed back to the trapdoor and hit the controls, tossing myself out into the whirly, windy sky. With the Flyer’s cloaking systems still active, it looked like I fell out of nowhere, just a form-fitting advanced power armor parachuting with a pair of liquid-metal wings. Someone figured out I was there was I got close. The guard towers were a bit occupied by orange and grey-clad henchmen in body armor with some chunky rifles. I saw a few of the minions point to one tower that had a guard barricaded in it. They raised their chunky rifles and barraged it with shot after shot of projectiles that cracked sonic booms and the metal of the tower alike. The tower collapsed in on itself.
I collapsed onto one, my nanomachine cloak covering the five of us for a few moments. By the time it settled, that was four henchmen down and me examining one of their rifles. It used a batter to power an electromagnet that flung an iron slug at supersonic speeds. A railgun, or Gauss rifle. I’ve played around with the technology before, but I have reservations about working too closely with powerful electromagnets. Even ones strong enough to nudge another rifle away if it got too closer.
A few other henchmen noticed me, I saw. Another group of four who had been focused on firing into the crumbling side of the jail facility. They raised their rifles. I raised my nanomachine cloak to hide where I was. They fired at my last location, well below where I was then. I tossed one of the rifles up and swung another at it like a batter playing baseball, the magnets helping power a swing that sent a rifle flying hard enough to embed itself in one of my assailants’ chests. I flew at another from a few feet up and grabbed him.
One of his colleagues opened fire. I seemingly ducked behind the man I’d captured, avoiding shots until the henchmen shot into his friend and splattered him into red good. He approached, looking for me, and that’s when I dropped my own cloak, did a split, and uppercutted him in the sphincter. I arose as a human puppeteer. I left him on my fist as I jumped at the terrified final henchmen before me and bitchslapped a motherfucker with another motherfucker. I left those last two piled on top of each other while I headed deeper into the facility toward a group of Exemplar homing beacons embedded in the prisoners.
This was one area where the President’s special attention made my job easier. A normal facility would have spread prisoners out, maybe sent them to different places. Concentrating them all in one place was bad for any other reason than killing them all off. I launched myself onto the roof, “accidentally” tearing off sections of roof and any walls underneath with the nanomachines that I used to help push myself along. Sure would be a shame if lots of people escaped custody. Some were already making their way out through walls wrecked by the “Gecko” attack.
“Marks, Peterson, go down on me,” I ordered.
“Sluttiest jailbreak ever,” Marks responded, bringing the Flyer down low to meet me just above me and following along. I slid to a halt above the beacons and formed an atomic-thick blade to carve my way through the roof. One good thing about the place being run by a fascist dipshit is I didn’t have to go through an insulation area to land in the middle of the cell.
“I looked around at the startled bunch all in one penned-in holding area. I heard screams further off. A guard outside the pen turned and raised a bulky pistol. He fired six shots rapid, and he’d have put a serious dent into armor plates. This armor was more about absorbing the blow and pissing me off as it drove the breath out of my body. I’d be feeling that bruising in the morning.
“See? That didn’t do shit. You’ll want to work on your cardio now,” I said. The guard took the hint and ran for it. I looked around to the others. “Go up on me if you want to live.” Right then, the Flyer dropped cables from its trapdoor.
The Exemplars got busy climbing up while I kept an eye out. I tried the fence, got shocked a little bit, and tried to connect to the prison network. Huh, it was a closed network with no outside access, like a wired LAN.
But just before I left that LAN party on the last remaining cable, I got a glimpse of the ultimate party pooper. Some stupid fucker wearing some old mark whatever armor of mine. Enough of my old stuff is in custody to help someone make reproductions. And note to self: see a less hostile doctor back on my world of origin about homo machina mental degradation.
I cocked my head to the side seeing this imposter, who also cocked their head to the side. Exit cable in one hand, I raised the middle finger on the other. “First, who are you really?” I raised my index finger. “Second, how badly do you want to die?”
“I’m-” the fake Gecko started to say, but the cable reeled me back up to meet the rest of the team before I could hear the rest.
“All accounted for and aboard. We’re done here, aren’t we?” Marks asked back over the intercom.
I closed the trapdoor. “Yep. Confirmed. All that. We’re done here.” No need to risk the mission over a personal grudge. I’m the best at what I do, and sometimes that means personal sacrifices.
And there’s no sacrifice quite so personal as ripping out the heart of someone pretending to be me.
Of course I’m alive. I woke up in a hospital wing, my HUD blinking 11:59 like a smartass and showing my location was being in the Exemplar base. Li’s the one that took debris to the brain, severing my connection. My consciousness reverted to my main body, which had transformed into Reindeer. As usual, my consciousness was pushed aside. I didn’t have a camera on Reindeer on this time. And the Flyer’s trashed. The good news is that more than 50% of it made it through the portal. Not in one piece, but neither was Li. Reindeer got me out, though.
This must have done a number on my reputation. Failed to kill a target, got all visibly emotional in public, ran from some perfectly killable Justice Rangers… people are going to start talking. The first thing they’re going to say is, “Aha! Gecko’s alive after all!” so that also makes it harder to stay on the down low.
Some of that I figured out from contemplation, and other parts were mentioned to me by the doctor who showed up to check on me. “You slept a little more than usual, but you weren’t in a coma. You’re uninjured. Do you feel any pain or discomfort?”
“Not comfortable with having my inner turmoil flaunted in public like that,” I mentioned.
“I’m only here for the physical problems,” the doctor said. He turned back to the door. “Speaking of, Medusa wants to see you. I have declined as she is not a family member. Would you like me to let her see you?”
I shook my head.
“You got it. She will see you when you’re discharged, though.” The doctor checked me over, looked at my chart, and all that. He started to open my eyelids and shine a flashlight into my eyes, before shaking his head and stopping.
“What’s the news, doc? Am I ever gonna dance again, or do these guilty feet got no rhythm?” I asked, voice no louder than a careless whisper.
“Could you dance before?” the doctor asked, scribbling things on a chart.
“I was a maniac at the macarena.”
“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to macarena out of here. Congratulations, you’re discharged. Director, you can come in!” The doctor called.
“Frell my cock off!” I cursed, only to be surprised by a guy in a uniform with a big E symbol on it.
“Medusa had to run. She had to take care of a secret fracking operation. I’m Eric. She’s asked me to arrange for your transport back to Radium.”
I pumped my fist. “Fracking, fuck yeah!”
“You don’t want to qualify that at all?” asked the Doctor.
I shook my head again. “Nah, I’m fine with it.
I didn’t really have clothes, still going all naked in my armor. Reindeer would have shredded any I was wearing and nearly trashed my armor, so they provided some clothes. Eric there seemed pretty understanding of the situation as he led me to the hangar. “Gotta get old, being stuck here like some sort of military operation, then having to chauffeur me around.”
“Many of us have nowhere else to go and chose to follow her, or are dedicated to the cause,” he said, totally not sounding like part of a cult. Totally. I wondered where they do the crazy sex stuff, but he interrupted me by continuing on. “I don’t mind flying you. You would cause more trouble on your own.”
I rolled my eyes. “Pure slander.”
“You stole the doctor’s wallet. I’d like that back, by the way,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Fine… old habit,” I said, handing him the wallet while slipping his into one of my new pockets.
“Come on, let’s get you back home and away from good people,” he said.
I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “I hate you, you judgmental asshole.”
At least he didn’t try to force conversation the whole flight back to Radium and dumping me off on my front lawn with nothing but the clothes on my back and a suit of power armor capable of stopping a medium-sized army on a bad day.
Yep… back home… just deciding to live with not killing the bastard who had my parents killed, had me abducted, tortured me, taught me to hurt and kill people under pain of death, and ordered me around as his own personal hitman. He needs to pay… he really needs to pay. But I guess it’s not going to be me.
There wasn’t a huge welcome back from Qiang, because this whole thing was much less dramatic from her perspective. So instead, I spent some time in the basement, designing a new Flyer to build and looking back over at my plans for Li II and the perfect body. Li II wouldn’t be it, after all. There’s so many supers out there, so many powers. But I’m getting tired of all this back and forth, so I should prioritize movement powers. That moves a couple of supers to the top of my list. I had time to come up with a plan.
I also had time for the news. The news in 2020 is so fucked that I was barely a blip on the radar, but news came from the other world of my apparent return from the dead. Or I came out of hiding. With Lulios’s brief stint of public celebrity over here, the ensuing drama held some people’s attention. The stuff about the Psychopomp project was deeply embarrassing to the government he worked for and was a betrayal to all those people who touted him as progressive. Because it wasn’t just that he did this, but that he’d hid it for so long. He’s looking at imprisonment.
There was some neat stuff in there about the Justice Rangers. People who thought they’d gotten a bit too militant were up in arms over how they’d treated the situation. They’d known about it and kept it under wraps, even kidnapped Lulios to lure me out and kill me. Even past Rangers and alternate Ranger teams are coming out against that bunch. Weird. I don’t really expect people to call for justice on my behalf. Maybe they learned something. Wish I could have. Oh, wait, not true.
I learned that pretty much no one filming the memorial park fight caught me turning into Reindeer. Luck was on my side there. That could have ruined my reputation. And, if I’m going to be honest here, that’s not only me wanting to avoid having people think I could be a hero. I don’t think Reindeer was right about that. I’m no hero. Too broken for that. But it protected Reindeer’s reputation. The only reason the weredeer has a shot is because nobody knows she’s me. Almost a shame she can’t come out more. She and I could make a great team.
But this tumultuous little chapter in my life just wouldn’t be complete without Medusa. She sent me a text that she was coming over, so I waited. She came, like she said she would. She opened up the door to the basement and there I was, sitting in a chair facing the other direction.
“So, you thought you could just walk into my lair?” I asked, swiveling the chair around while stroking a cat.
“I expect you to talk, Gecko,” she said.
“No, Medusa, you expect me to whine!” I tossed the cat, a fuzzy grey and black striped thing at her.
She caught it, then looked surprised. “You got a real cat?” She dropped it once it started to shift and change, though it didn’t fall too far.
“Huh, not as tall as I expected,” I said, looking up at her from the body of the catgirl in front of her. I looked back down, getting a sense of it. Yep, a foot shorter than I thought I’d be. Plus the sound…
“You found some cat shifter super to steal DNA from now?” asked Medusa. There it was, weird getting used to sound with these bigass ears. I could hear stuff in the walls. I think I even heard Qiang stealing a snack from the refrigerator.
I shook my head, both as an answer to Medusa and to draw myself back to the conversation at hand. “No, I stole some unrelated DNA from a woman in Vegas, thought I might adapt it.”
“So now I’m dating Catwoman,” she laughed.
I reached up and popped my claws, then poked her on the end of her nose. I was gentle enough not to draw blood. “Listen up… you know the story now, don’t you? The man you protected, what he did?”
She nodded. “I didn’t know all that. I honestly wasn’t sure your stories about your childhood were real.”
Well, that got some blood boiling in me, but I calmed down. “I can see that, I guess. I’ve certainly lied enough, said all kinds of nonsense to get sympathy. Holy shit, this tongue is weird.” I reached into my mouth to start rubbing the tongue, which also lead to me licking my paw pads. There was a lot to get used to on this body and I meant this conversation to go differently than Medusa looking on enviously at my rough tongue. “But,” I stopped, pointing a finger at her again. “Even if you thought I was lying, I told you to stop. You didn’t know that was him then, did you?”
“No, but I had been asked by the Rangers to help look after him on this world. I thought I was saving his life. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done it, but would you rather I punched you?”
I was not amused. “Yeah, punching me is something I’m used to you doing. We’ve fought and we’ve sparred. It might even seem a little backwards to you, but I draw the line at what you did. So we’re through.”
“Do you still love me?” she asked, looking into my cat eyes. It was dawning on her I was serious about this.
I sighed, which came out way cuter as a catgirl. “I don’t know how I feel about you right now. You violated a huge part of my trust to help someone who hurt me deeply. You hurt me in a similar way. I’ve killed people for doing that to me and nothing else. I’m not going to kill you, though. I don’t entirely understand why, but I guess a part of myself wants to be better. If that’s even what being better means. But if I’m going to be a person worthy of love, then I’m going to be a person worthy of respect, and if you aren’t going to respect my boundaries, then I’m going to make sure I can respect myself. So go.” I pointed off up the stairs behind her.
She was chastened. Saddened, even. I just felt weird. Like, this wasn’t about retaliation or revenge or that weird sense of righteous injustice I feel from time to time when staring into the eyes of a terrible person. This felt like an internal shoulder pat. Like I’d stood up for myself in a way I don’t when I’m killing people for petty reasons.
When we reached the door, I told her, “If you need us to move, I’m sure I can manage something. I’ll even leave Radium if you want.”
“No,” she said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a keyring. After a bit of fiddling with it, she handed over a couple of identical keys. “These are to the house. I meant that this place should become a safe haven. I guess I’ll… see you when I see you.”
“See you, Medusa,” I told her, shutting the door as she turned away. I turned and pressed my back to it, sinking down, somehow changing back into a cat while I tried to process the subtly gutpunch of the breakup.
This time, the happy ending means not getting the girl.
We set up base back at my shop in Radium. If Medusa and Lulios got out, I doubt they’re working with the rangers. It’d be rough on them even if they escaped. The call was coming from this side of the portal, but it’s way up there in year-round pointy nipple territory. The frozen north. Nunuvat. Google Earth doesn’t have any photos of that particular spot on the mountain, but some borrowed satellites show a military base there with huge hangers where they’re housing something big. Knowing the Rangers, it’s a giant robot. There are so many giant robots with those guys. I don’t even know what they do with the ones they stop using. I thought back to the uniforms of the Blue and Yellow I’d seen so far. There’s always a theme, but the main thing that stands out to me is all the circles on Blue’s uniform. Yellow had some distinctive marks on their outfit, but it was more like greater than or less than signs. I hope the theme isn’t math.
I’m avoiding my house so far in case they go on the offensive. Max thought some time away from Vegas would do him some good, too. Give him a chance to regroup. Sam and Holly were happy not to be cooped up anymore.
“Who needs killing this time?” Max asked me while I wiped down the interior of my armor. He was grabbing some of the merchandise off the shelf to supplement the lab equipment he had with him.
“General Lulios, as always,” I said.
“Not forgiving him, then?” Max asked. I felt less humor in the question.
“Some things can’t be forgiven, and that goes for me, too. What he did to me and what I did in turn, none of that just washes away. The dead deserve better.” I finished with the armor and let it hang up to dry. Then, I decided to check out the bombmaker’s bin over in the corner. You know, for budding interior decorators.
Max patted me on the shoulder as he passed by, uncharacteristic even for him. “You could have changed it, that time you and the Mobian were in your past. There’s still something valuable about this life.”
I stopped rifling around for timers and tried to think how best to word a response. I was not happy at him bringing this up. “I was a coward and the best thing for everyone would have been for me to stop it right then. I won’t chicken out of justice again.”
“Are you going to kill yourself?” he asked bluntly.
“No,” I said.
“Then this is about revenge, not justice,” he said. “You can recognize there’s value in your life. He hurt you and wronged you. I’m not saying it’s wrong to pursue revenge against him. It’s just… well, killing is always more fun if you don’t consider the ethical quandaries.”
“Ha! Yeah. Besides, if he was as sorry as he claimed to be, he’d have fessed up on the other Earth,” I added. “Now can we stop talking about all this? You’re reminding me of Medusa. And no, I’m not forgiving her either.”
It was his turn to laugh. “I won’t comment then.”
Without any more to go on than the coordinates of the base the Rangers were at, I figured that would be a good place to hit. Clear that annoying third party out of the way and allow Lulios and I to settle things mano a womano. At least Lulios seems to recognize the need for us to finish things between us, even if he knows the general details of how that story goes.
That’s why I built such a lovely bomb. It could level a small building, so it might come in handy against some of the base’s defenses. The bio-force grid the Rangers use tends to bleed off excess energy too efficiently to hope this would disable the robot they’ve got there, but I feel like I can take it in my armor. I really have grown a lot since I came to this other Earth.
Speaking of growing things, Firecat doesn’t seem to have any health issues whatsoever. Neither does the basement body. I need a name for that one. I can’t call it the Ultimate Form just yet, but it’s a step in the right direction. I practiced using it while I was here. Speeding along, exoskeleton protecting all my sensitive bits. Yeah, I made the thing fully functional. Slightly more than fully functional, one might say. What’s the whole point of being able to exceed the limits of the human form if a woman can’t have a couple of girldicks ribbed for a partner’s pleasure?
Throw in some kidneys so efficient I’ll never get hungover, perfect 360 degree vision, and all the space I saved on intestines, and we’re looking at a pretty awesome body. That just happens to look like an H.R. Giger painting. Oooh! I’ll call it Li after one of those. There was a Li II, and that can be what the perfected version is.
Li was fun to take on a run. Faster, stronger, with muscles that don’t tire and nostrils that make sure I’m never gasping for air. Max even liked it! He just put it in polite terms to hide his enthusiasm. Things like “Not have any visible eyes is freaky-looking.”
I, in Li, shrugged. “I was going to bring back the human nictitating membrane, but then I figured I should make the eyes even more secure. So now I have ten, all with amazing vision, all hidden and protected.”
Max cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. “Do you have a way to expel fluids?”
“Oh boy, do I!” I said, standing up and sliding the armored crotch plate down. Behind me, Holly and Sam walked in and stopped.
Holly cocked her head to the side. “What am I looking at here?”
“A dream I’ve had before,” Sam said.
“Nonetheless, I meant something different,” Max went on. “For chemical weapons. Perhaps we should focus on the task at hand.”
Sigh. “Fine, fine,” I shifted the plate back into place.
The raid began at dawn. Not that dawn, fuck you, that was too soon. The next one, though, I bounded across the snow up the mountain. The Li form didn’t mind the cold and interior insulation protected the nanites flowing through its veins from being negatively affected. From my veins. This is my body, and my skin flowed with the terrain, mimicking the snow. I stopped at the edge of the rise to reassess the situation. I was going to come in from the north. Max, Sam, and Holly were in the Psycho Flyer to the east of the base, with Holly flying and Sam smoking something Max made her to keep herself steady while flying. I shifted the pouch on me and the EMP spikes, because I didn’t build that into this body. I’ll need a way to protect my perfect from that weakness in the future. Maybe I should just implant my brain?
Questions for later. I put on some mood music, a band called Brighter Than A Thousand Suns covering the song Monster. I raced out onto the relatively flat, open area on the top of the mountain, trying to see just how far I could go. Blew my normal body away even though it was enhanced. I might count as having low level superspeed like this. Something noticed me, though. I saw the towers rise from the corners of the wall before I heard the alarm. The square tops opened up to reveal cannons that fired plasma at me. One missed, throwing up steam as it melted the snow.
The other winged me, giving me a chance to see how this body held up to the shot. The insulation protected my organs. I felt the heat, but not the pain you’d normally get. Nerves patterned after my armor’s energy sheathes redirected much of the energy to an internal battery made possible by improving on the design of the intestine. I flipped my tail up to aim at the turret. The tail opened with a three-way split and a crimson laser shot out. The beam cut into the protective shield on the left side of the turret barrel, but lasted long enough for me to sweep it over and get a little lick on the weapon itself.
Note to self: Li II needs built-in aim assist on the tail. Just a little dot, telling me where the tail is aiming when I ready the laser.
The whole thing was a success in resilience and firepower. Now I just had survive the barrage of deadly superheated plasma that, thankfully, got less and less accurate the closer I got to the wall where they couldn’t aim so easily. And that took hardly any time at all. One second, the cannon that tagged me lost track of me against the base of the wall. The next, I was up there, clawing its barrel off and leaping to the other tower to toss in the bomb I’d built. It was a star patterned fortress, with a turret at each angle. It took a minute to work my way through those turrets, but I didn’t have to get as many when Holly came in with the Flyer and blasted the eastern and southern ones to smithereens.
The Flyer laid down some more cover for me. Max dropped some fog from the back that engulfed the area inside the base’s walls. He’d immunized me to it so I, unlike everyone else, wouldn’t get disoriented and lose track of which direction I’m going. I saw more of those black-clad guards with their pseudo-Ranger armor, the ones I’d taken to thinking of as the Blackguard, stumble their way around. It was too easy. After sending the first few flying, it didn’t even seem like a challenge. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but these guys might as well have been rent-a-cops with nothing more than a heavy flashlight to defend themselves. Their rifles, more plasma-based weaponry, were nothing next to the light, healed burns of the turrets.
All at once, the fog was pulled in one direction. I turned toward it and saw the field clear up and four Justice Rangers walking out of a building marked “Command”. The mist disappeared into a funnel-barreled gun held by a white-clad ranger whose armor had a cloud pattern. He posed as he finished. “You’re through, monster!”
“Did Psycho Gecko send you?” called the Blue Ranger.
I laughed. “I am that merry traveler of the night.”
“You are creeping me out,” Yellow said.
The last of the four was in a shiny silver outfit that was blinding in even the dying light. That one, whose costume had a skirt, chipped in with, “Hope you don’t mind a cold reception!” She held a gun that looked like the White Ranger’s, but she used it to fire cold wind and small spears of ice at me. I knocked aside some, but rushed forward regardless of the ones that hit me. They weren’t stronger than the turrets.
I was among them in no time, concentrating on the Silver Ranger. A swipe drew sparks from her costume as it sent her flying. Behind me, Yellow pulled a wand or pinwheel or something. It had a handle and a guard, but there were a lot of metal sunflowers placed along a backing that came up from the handle. When they started to rotate, it looked more like a chainsaw sword. When I turned to her, that’s when the Blue Ranger circled around behind me. White Ranger checked on Silver.
Yellow swung at me. I tried to grab the sword, but instead she raked it over my chest, the exoskeleton protecting me from the pain of a boob punch. I whipped my tongue out, the prehensile muscle wrapping around where the top sunflower connected to the back and pulling it out of her hand. Blue charged from behind and my tail wrapped around his neck. I gave it a little squeeze, as a treat, before slamming him over my head onto Yellow.
“I’ve got to use it!” I heard Silver Ranger declare. She was running for the hangar building my Flyer was shooting up.
“It’s not ready!” White Ranger called after her.
I heard Sam laughing over the radio as she called “Yeah, get some!” in time to the bursts of fire from the Flyer’s guns.
Suddenly, a whole lot more Flyers materialized in the air surrounding the base. Sam’s fire petered out as she noticed them, too. “Uh, should we engage?” asked Holly
“This is the Exemplars! Everyone, stand down. There’s no more need for violence!” Medusa’s voice boomed out of the Exemplar’s Flyers.
Privately, I got a text message. “Is that u?” It was Medusa.
I waved up at them the same time I texted back. “Yep.”
“Gecko,” Medusa announced out loud. “I can honestly say that’s an amazing thing you’ve done. But you can stop now. You don’t have to be the monster they’re convinced you are. You’re better than that. You’re better than them.”
“You’re a freak and now you look it,” the Blue Ranger said. I still had my tail around his neck, so I picked him up and pulled him closer.
“Plz, ther’s nuthin left 2 prove,” Medusa texted. It would be so much more dramatic if she spelled everything out.
I grinned. It must have scared Blue to see me happy. He started grabbing at the tail more, trying to slip out. I pulled an EMP spike out of pouch I strapped on and gave him a stab, but just in the boot. It probably didn’t even touch skin, but his armor jolted and disappeared, leaving a frightened young man in my grasp. I dropped him.
Then the hangar exploded. The robot within looked like a robot version of a yeti. It pounded its own chest as if it needed any more announcement of its presence, then fired a much larger version of Silver’s ice blast at my Flyer. I heard the crew in there scream as Holly took it hard to the side then fought for control.
That left me and the robot. “Hey, Max, you think you can dump my armor out for me?”
“I’ve been thinking,” he answered. “Did you include a hole for your tail?”
“Looks like I’m doing this the hard way,” I told him and started loping for the Yeti Bot on all fours.
“Stand down, stand down!” Medusa tried to call. Neither myself nor the Silver Ranger listened. Instead, the Yeti jumped and landed in front of me, shaking the ground and causing me to stumble slightly. With me slowed down, it tried to stomp me. I was quicker and jumped onto the side of its leg, claws and tail giving me the purchase necessary to start shoving EMP spikes into weakpoints, like the joints. The Yeti swiped and missed, knocking frost and icicles off. Soon, it couldn’t walk, or twist its hips. A couple spikes to the armpits and it couldn’t even swing its arms. Finally, I mounted the head and drove two final spikes into the crown of the giant robot, freezing it in place.
“Lay down your arms!” ordered Medusa. “You are all under arrest.”
“You and what army?!” called Blue Ranger.
Right on time, transport choppers flew in. Men on horseback jumped their mounts out and deployed giant parachutes of the Canadian flag, submachine guns trained on any of the Rangers and Blackguard who moved. The mounties were here. I blended in and helped my Flyer to do the same, bringing it in low enough for me to jump right into it and start easing us out of there in the confusion.
“Do you think this will stop them?” Max asked.
“Nah,” I answered. “They’ll be out on some sort of immunity, but it means this base and that robot aren’t a problem. No matter where Lulios is, we don’t have to worry about those Rangers interfering with my revenge.”
A text came in from Medusa. “U got away. So did Lulios. Sent him home thru portal.”
Fuck me. With two dicks.
Qiang’s fine. I look after her as Firecat. Still haven’t gotten the hang of cooking scrambled eggs by hand. Power control issues. But the most important thing of keeping her there is that Qiang’s looked after. She gets that I’m doing it through Firecat, accepting that body as just another one belonging to her mother. It helps that if she gets startled and pulls a knife on me, I can still disarm her pretty easily. I’ve taught her a lot, but I haven’t held back just to keep winning. Some counters are just too advanced or require more strength from her.
Firecat’s not just there to look pretty and keep house. I’m closely monitoring the grown body for signs of problems. I don’t know what kind of issues occur when you mash too many people’s DNA together in one body and hope it all takes. I doubt I got all the issues worked out on this already. It’s the same reason I didn’t shove all the powers into my real, main body. Just my luck I’d do that and somehow melt into a pile of goo.
I have other experiments going as well. Seeing how far I can push biology in anticipation of doing likewise with technology. The one in the basement is one of my experiments in extreme biology. Black exoskeleton, hidden nostrils with filters, amphibious lungs capable of breathing air and water, a prehensile tail and tongue. A black, shiny, hard mess without any apparent eyes to even look into. If I can handle it and it holds up, the next step is to marrying it to technology. Like, nanites in it systems that can help aid in the digestive process and can replicate if I chomp on the right stuff. Instead of just having a freaky body, the body could have the same ability to shift armor plates around, add new limbs, fly. Or even growing flesh in battle. Wings. Then think if I can add powers to it. Super speed, super strength
One of many lovely distractions from the greater crisis. Ha! And my personal crisis is a distraction from all the other crises going on. A mess wrapped in a disaster wrapped in a flaming dumpster. Take all that and stick it inside a paper bag full of shit, set that on fire, and you might approach whatever the fuck’s going on with the year 2020.
But, hey, my daughter’s fed and looked after. So am I. I just had to put on a skimpy dress and pretend to be another woman working for Max. It’s a tiny bit of cover, the best I can do to keep my identity secret again, for now. Besides, Psycho Gecko wears armor, after all. The face underneath changes. Only the armor remains, protecting me from the outside world. Aggressively protecting.
That doesn’t mean I hated the nice Italian dinner at the casino. It was genuinely nice to catch up with Max and learn the story of his recent power play. “They stacked the deck against me because the knew I was a threat,” he said.
“What did you have to do?” I asked.
“They wanted me to create water from the desert,” Max said. “I was close.” He nodded.
“Water’s a bring problem here. Sometimes they go on water robberies,” Holly volunteered.
I raised an eyebrow. Sam patted me on the shoulder and told me, “Holly flirts information out of some of the low levels.”
“So they steal water, and they wanted y’all to somehow create water out of the desert?” I asked.
“The person who could do that has the right to own Vegas,” Max said. “It’s a good thing they didn’t know who you were when you challenged for us.”
“Well, hopefully what comes up won’t require turning a desert into a sea… whatever it is,” I said. “Whatever nasty tricks you have up your sleeve, you can whip them up a lot faster than what I’m trying to pull.”
“You’re on the defensive, reacting,” Max said. He shrugged. “Why haven’t you hunted them down yet?”
I shook my head. “All this shook me. It was a pretty big betrayal, against competent enemies who know how to hurt me.” I could try to justify it with other things, like these guys being good at digital security or having Venus and the Justice Rangers on their side. Wasn’t even thinking that. I needed to escape, I needed a friend, and I need to figure out how to handle a very raw situation.
I hit the alcohol a little hard, but I was so full of noodle and sauce that I handled myself well. I was able to crawl back into my armor. Max insisted Vegas honored the results of games and challenges. I wanted my armor. That way, it wouldn’t get all over the room or bed if I pissed myself.
Woke up in the wrong body. All the more confusing, it was the one in the basement. I had to process a tail and very weird visuals. The unique eye situation required a moment to get used to before I zipped over to Firecat instead. I didn’t mean to jump into either of these bodies. Then I got the buzz of a text message, but that was back in my main body. I jumped back there and had to deal with both a text communication and my own full bladder. And since the text was from Medusa, my bladder was least full of shit. Plus, shit goes through the intestines. But does Gecko ever get credit for free anatomy lessons? No! I just get molested by my girlfriend while I’m trying to murder people and I don’t think I slept off that alcohol that much.
Unlike the usual messages from Medusa, this one was as grammatically correct as a time could be and the phrase “Watch The News.” A little before noon. That gave me a little time to be hungover first before going serious. At least I couldn’t get any more miserable. And I didn’t when the time came around. Instead, all the news channels and Fox ran a brief announcement about the diplomat from another Earth, that fuckface, holding a press junket of sorts at a Toronto hotel. He wanted to allow reporters to have time to ask all of their questions after he made his announcement earlier that day.
An announcement of an announcement. Looks like I know when and where they want to meet me. The junket format is a decent way to get me one on one without risking me killing a whole crowd while going after Lulios. He could truthfully claim it has to do with security concerns. I groggily went and found someone to wake up in Max’s bunch and found Holly having a bowl of cereal. “We need to get to Toronto and pretend to be the press for a junket. If Max wants less bloodshed, he can come up with something to knock folks out. Otherwise, we need to get a move on. I got transport for us already.”
Between all of this, it hardly feels like I have a body. Once we had everything loaded up, I set the Psycho Flyer to autopilot to get us to Toronto pronto. I was fine, so I left my body in the armor and jumped over to Firecat to see to Qiang. We had some time to watch a movie together and for me to just be with her. Can’t fault her for wanting to go hang out with friends. I should get her a new knife.
Up in Toronto, we found the place easily enough. All the major news networks of the Americas were there, as well as the pretenders. We had stowed the Psycho Flyer and rented a van for this, with Max and the girls lying in wait. My armor flickered into invisibility and the deception of a normal woman when I stepped out toward one group of the pretenders with OANN marked on their stuff.
“Hi, oh my god, you’re One America News Network!” I said as if I knew them.
They nodded politely, except for the reporter who was having his makeup done. I leaned in close and whispered, “Hey, y’all wanna hear how the Jews are behind this whole thing?”
Well, that set the reporter’s undies on fire. That’s a metaphor, means he got moving. He led the whole crew over to the open rear doors of my van. As soon as they got over to it, Max sprayed them with puffs of red smoke that caused them all to start coughing, then followed it up with another watergun that sprayed a white smoke at them. They collapsed, and I made sure to grab the cameraman’s camera before it hit the ground. When we all left the van minutes later, the four of us blended in.
“Conspiracy theorists,” Sam said, shaking her head.
“How’d you know they’d fall for that?” asked Holly
I laughed. “Some people are so brainwashed by the people running things that if you tell them Jewish folks are to blame, they’ll believe anything you tell them. They’re so scrambled, they can’t see who’s really pulling the strings.”
“Who?” Holly asked
Sam, real quick, let out an “Oh god,” hearing her question.
“Assholes,” I said. “We’re surrounded by ’em.”
“Perhaps they’ll be more appreciative after their nap,” Max said.
“In that sleep of Max, what dreams may come when they haven’t yet shuffled off that mortal coil?” I asked Max in a roundabout butchering of Shakespeare.
“Near Death Experiences often feature visions as a a traumatized and anesthetized brain tries to cope with the chemicals running through its body. I found a way to tap into that and tweak it in a negative direction.”
“Dude!” Sam said, “You gave them a Near Death Experience of Hell?”
“Only while they’re asleep,” Max said. “If they were awake, it would be a vivid hallucination. I’m eager to see people react to that part.”
We were pretty low on the pecking order when they let us through with our press credentials. They immediately brought us to a room with Lulios sitting in a comfy padded chair with refreshment nearby. My own chair had a folder on the table in front of it. “Hello. You are?”
“One American News,” I informed him.
General Lulios nodded. “If you’ll have a seat, the folder in front of you has details about an initiative whereby my government offers support to your world in this trying time.”
I picked it up and glanced at it. Just a system to provide enough nanites to function as a stopgap measure until a vaccine for the virus is produced. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Lulios said, “That’s my folder from earlier. Please set it aside and check the next primer beneath it.”
I did so and found a file with the same information, but in English. As opposed to the language from my world that the other one had been in and I’d been caught reading.
Lulios shifted in his chair. “I wanted to give your people a chance to ask questions, because this is a matter of importance and you have been terrorized by someone using these medical nanomachines before. I hold some guilt for that. For many years, I held onto a hate that did nothing for me but give me someone to treat as less than human. It’s freeing, in a way. It freed the worst aspects of myself. I didn’t have to apologize for my temper or restrain negative thoughts. So long as I targeted the homo machina, I could indulge myself without feeling bad. They weren’t human, after all.” He almost looked happy at that. Despite that, he didn’t feel right. Maybe it was all the time spent as a kid being terrorized by this guy, but he didn’t have the same presence.
He went on. “I was wrong, and it took the enormity of my mistake to make me see it. To see that by treating these people as if they were monsters and a threat to everything, I made a monster. I tortured a poor soul until it became the monster I thought it always had been. I realized after he almost destroyed the world that his people weren’t monsters. Where we demonized them, they defended each other selflessly. Where I taught someone how to destroy a world, they stopped him. They stopped someone who learned hatred and terror from me. I can’t absolve myself of that. But I wanted to meet with you and tell you that I was wrong to do what I did.”
Y’all might think I was boiling with anger, but this was one of those times where I felt like ice. I was beyond simple anger. One coiling mass of nanites formed a tendril with a spike on the end and plunged through Lulios’s chest. It went right through as if punching a hole in air, but it obstructed the image of Lulios seated in his chair. The hologram appeared to be coming from below.
“I’m sorry for the deception as well, but I thought you would kill me before I could ever speak to you, and I needed to talk to you. For your sake and mine,” the illusion of Lulios went on. “I hope you can find a way to let go of the hate toward humanity and the world. I don’t expect you to let go of it toward me.”
I dropped my own hologram and swept the floor. There was no chair in the room over there, just a pentagonal box. I shifted the tendril and stuck the spike into it, piercing the casing. Cables flowed out of the tendril now, carried by questing nanites looking to fuse them into the wiring of the device. It was a way to recreate my natural homo machina abilities while staying armored.
“Gecko…” Max warned. There were noises outside. “I have to step out for a moment.” He took the camera and the squirt gun full of his Hell hallucinogen with him out the door. Meanwhile, I traced back the signal coming from the device.
Above it, Lulios looked on, sizing me up. “I twisted you into this. It must feel like a knife to the gut to find out I’m still alive. Those on my staff who know the truth wanted desperately to keep you from finding out I’m alive, but I knew it was impossible. You were always going to find me. Please be merciful if you can find it in you to be. They are clouded by hate and throwing themselves into a duty to protect me.”
“I’m tired of your perfidious charcuterie, old man,” I growled.
He was shut up by a blast from an energy weapon that soared over his head. “Shut up, for your own good.” The Blue Justice Ranger walked over and held Lulios at gunpoint. He turned toward me. “No one is being released. You are the key to ending this threat-” The Justice Ranger gasped suddenly as arms wrapped around his neck from behind. The hands hit the external release on his helmet and pulled it off, but kept up the pressure on his throat. He turned his gun toward his attacker, but a familiar leg wrapped around it and squeezed, keeping it aimed away.
I’d gotten the trace done by now, but I kept watching as the Blue Ranger fell back and Medusa stepped into frame, in costume but not in armor. She helped up Lulios and turned to me. “They’re going to use him as bait now they know you will come for him no matter what. I did wrong by you, but listen to me now and stay away.” Then, turning to Lulios, she said, “Come on, let’s go.”
It occurred to me once they were done that I had heard a little bit of the sounds of struggle from outside. Holly and Sam must have gone out to help Max at some point. I followed after, finding Canadian police, Mounties, and Lulios’s Blackguard. They hadn’t been knocked out first like the others. The red gas that still lingered in the air had them scratching at walls and the floor, crying, even fighting each other. I liked it. It felt fitting with the mood I was in.
I caught up to Max, Sam, and Holly in the lobby. There were a pair of police helicopters out there, snipers keeping my friends at bay with shots that tore head-sized chunks of the flooring out. “Not enough range on your squirt guns?” I asked Max.
Max gave me a friendly middle finger, then called out, “They’re loaded up for shooting through armor!”
I gave him a thumbs up, then turned and ran for the lobby doors. A nanite and armor tendril tore the front of the lobby open, the nanomachines taking some of the metal to digest and replicate. The one metal tendril split into two tentacles that pushed me off the ground, then became a single limb with a pair of jet engines inside. The engines pulled me through the air toward the first helicopter and wrapped around the landing struts. It grew shorter as I grew another arm that formed a blade to cur through the base of rotor. The rotor went up for a moment as the chopper’s body fell. I threw that off and launched myself toward the other helicopter that was maneuvering for distance. The nanites encased me, reinforcing armor plates moving over my body to form a wedge while two short arms with jet engines threw me through the cockpit and into the hold with the sniper. He tried to smack me with the butt of the gun but the nanomachines caught it and ate the gun. The man dove for it. I let him and decided to escape the falling copter too.
Seeing police vans around, I threw that wreck of a chopper at them with nanite tentacles. Gunfire rang out, and proved to be useless. The cops saw what I’d done so far and wisely ran for it, driving toward escape. The rest of my group walked out behind me, Sam whistling. Holly walked right up to me and asked, “Why did you need us again?”
“I needed my friends,” I said.
Max gave me a hug before Sam elbowed him. “Excuse me, battleground full of dead bodies and terrified people. Can we hug later?”
Can’t sleep. Won’t sleep. If I sleep, they’ll break in. Sounds like a zombie movie, but I’m sure Medusa, the Exemplars, and probably the Justice Rangers are all trying to bust down my door. It’s only Medusa I hear from.
I’ve been working down here since then. I mean, first I cried against the door, but then I figured they were coming for me and got to work. It beat thinking too long about what happened. Not just my failure, but Medusa working against me and how she did. It’s not just- nope. Gotta concentrate on my preparations.
The spare body I had up there in the hotel got out, along with the guns and other equipment I’d smuggled up there. They moved him now. They’ll keep his next location secret, but I managed to get the body to a smaller hotel and put him up there. But why even bother with that?
I told her to stop! I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it at all.
It’s weird, but I have been sleeping. I didn’t think I’d be able to, but I had my body in the armor while some things were being readjusted. I grew another body to help me out. I just… I’m scattered. I’ve been flying around in my lair from this to that, barely able to keep anything straight. Pushing my consciousness into another body felt like it helped. Probably just a placebo effect of some sort. So I had my body in my armor and was directing things through the spare when I noticed my original’s vitals had fallen asleep. I thought that would just knock me out as well if I did that.
“I promise, I’m alone out here. I wasn’t thinking and I fucked up big time. Please talk to me,” Medusa called from the doorway. It’s a trap through. It has to be. She was supposed to distract me from the very beginning. How much has she distracted me from? How much of what we had was her way of playing along to control me? I didn’t answer her. The only other person I need to answer to now is my daughter.
This town is so tiny, there’s nowhere here I can hide Qiang from Medusa. I don’t know if she’ll hurt her, but Medusa already hurt me for the sake of defending that monster. It would have been less painful if she punched me.
I’d never used the nanites for this kind of excavation before. They cleared an entire passageway for me through the ground, packing it in to reinforce the walls. I had to wait for my body to wake up before I could crawl to safety. That gave me time for other things.
The Psycho Flyer is repaired, fueled, and capable of unobstructed flight. No one’s stormed my store. My useless fucking store opened just in time for a pandemic. Probably another distraction by Medusa. Maybe General Lulios even made more trips. How many times? How many lies when I finally opened myself up to someone?
I never should have bought into it. If I’d been more cynical, I wouldn’t have this pain like someone ripped open a hole in my chest with their fingers. It hurts because I trusted her. If only she would stop yelling through the door. I want to scream right back at her what she did. I want to force her to understand why what she did was wrong, not just to my body. I deserve my revenge. That is an absolute fact. Lulios is the one person more deserving of death than myself.
Finally, finally, I realized I needed a plan. Another benefit of the detachment of this other body, this other Firecat, this detachment numbed the pain enough to work on that. I had to abandon killing Lulios for now. I don’t know where he is, and the current scramble is to extricate myself and important assets from Medusa and her whole setup. My ties to the community are minimal, but my daughter’s made friends here. I can’t stay, but I don’t want to leave her. I don’t want to take her away, but I can’t stay.
At least I can take some comfort in knowing I wasn’t the fuck-up this time. I feel like a huge one, emotionally, but it wasn’t my fault this time.
For her part, with all the screaming, at least Medusa seems to have realized she messed up with her excuses of “I misread the signs,” and “I thought it would be better than hitting you,” and all that. So at least she realizes doing sex stuff to me over my objections is part of my major malfunction. Finally, she asked, “Is there anyone I can you’d rather talk to?”
Whereas I’d usually seen not having anyone as a matter of self-sufficiency and independence, this time I didn’t. I wanted to talk to someone and let my frustrations out. Medusa was the wrong person for that. She was the enemy. Her question helped give me some idea what to do and where to go.
When after hours of my body resting, I swapped back into it. The nanites on the wall leading to my escape tunnel rapidly pulled dirt out of the way to give me access and sealed it back once I’d passed through. I didn’t close the whole tunnel up behind me as I made my way out to emerge from under my greenhouse. Shame I won’t be here to pick more pecks of unpickled peppers, but the watering system would be automated to at least keep them alive.
The house wasn’t surrounded. Or guarded. It looked, near as I could tell, like Medusa was the only other person there. I shrugged and headed for my Flyer. I flipped a sign at my store, letting everyone know we’re closed indefinitely, and then strapped in. Destination: Vegas. Because I’d rather deal with that place than risk Beetrice being too touchy and feely after what Medusa did to me.
I was still en route when I got some feedback from Firecat. I’d left her behind in case I needed to get in contact with someone. She rested in a chair in my lair, until the door was disintegrated. Medusa tried to block the doorway. “I should see her first, something is really wrong.”
“Yes, it is. Out of the way,” said a digitized voice.
Medusa walked in first, wearing her armor so they couldn’t just jostle her out of the way, and found just Firecat there, with no sign of me or my armor. “Gecko, are you in here?”
A Blue and Yellow Justice Ranger came in after Medusa, with some soldiers backing them up who wore armor inspired by the rangers, but in black. “Sweep the corners,” Blue said to the others. “He’s a master of stealth.”
“She,” Medusa said. While the others messed around with the room, she approached Firecat. “Are you in there?”
I didn’t give her anything, but she still smiled and hugged the body, whispering, “I saw your eye move. I’m sorry. Please come back when they’re gone.”
“What is this?” asked Yellow, moving in to point some sort of pistol at Firecat. Yellow held a hand to the side of their helmet. “Lulios identified her as the woman who attacked him.”
“It’s a surrogate she created. She’s had this idea lately to grow bodies and pilot them remotely. That isn’t her. She’s gone,” Medusa seemed genuinely distraught that I’d snuck out.
“Can he hear us through this thing?” Blue asked.
Medusa shrugged, though I think she knew the answer. She had her hand on my chest and had to have heard Firecat’s heart speed up at the mention of Lulios.
Yellow walked over and looked down at Firecat’s eyes. “Lulios wants to speak with you. He says you have things to work out.”
I laughed through Firecat. “Give me an address. I’ll gladly pay him a visit.”
“To ensure the safety of the General, your compliance will be guaranteed by a hostage.”
“You are not taking her daughter,” Medusa spoke with steel in her voice, raising her firsts and taking in the group packed into my basement lair. For whatever else is wrong with her, at least she still cares about Qiang. I almost wondered then if I should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Whatever loop she’s in, it’s not the most important one. I don’t have to take her back, but I can at least tell her why Lulios must die.
The soldiers and Rangers turned their weapons on her. Yellow said, “You are an acceptable hostage.”
“If you leave Qiang alone, then I’ll come with you,” Medusa said. It’s a bold move, because she has to know how much she’s hurt me. I wonder if she’d do it if she knew my grudge against Lulios? As much as I hate her right now, I think she actually would. I can’t see her ever sending my daughter to be a hostage even knowing that she would likely die to take her place.
“I affirm this compromise,” Blue said, Medusa lowered her guard then and let them lead her out.
Yellow lagged behind as they led Medusa out. “I hope you try us,” they said. “The General will let you know when you can meet him. Watch your new information programs.”
That was where the situation laid when I arrived in Vegas. I still wasn’t heading back to that house. Folks knew where it was and were probably watching it. I don’t trust this “talk” with Lulios. Just one of those ambushes to get me out of the way and pretend to be the hero. Killing the infamous Psychopomp Gecko, who he secretly created, would boost his reputation.
That was the situation when I walked into the High Stakes, one of the bright and shining casinos on the Vegas strip, a gold sequined dress hugging my body, and perused the games of chance. The carpet was a bright red, with support pillars made to resemble large wooden stakes sticking up from the ground. I walked on over to the cashier cage with a bundle of cash.
“You look like you’re here to get lucky,” said the man behind the counter.
I winked at him. “Just looking to even some odds.”
Whatever this is about, my window’s… fucking dammit… my window’s shrinking. I need more words. There aren’t words for this kind of angry. Sounds, aaaargh!
They did a thing. With people asking questions and shit. Shit.
Ok, now that I’ve got some rum in me, and I detest rum, I think I can force this out. Fuck it, I’m leaving in the first attempt. He did a thing with the Canadians, talking about a scientific partnership with the other dimension. They’re saving face. This world doesn’t have a lot to offer the people of my Earth outside of vastly different media. I enjoy good porn like anybody else, but it’s not “future technology bargaining chip” good here, alright?
The thing that pissed me the fuck off initially was the way both my world and the Canadians talked about General Lulios as a respected and beloved statesman. It nearly fucked up me walking one of my bodies down to install a holodisc on the wall opposite the door, capable of letting me tap in and see if someone’s going in or out. Hearing that introduction on the news, I nearly lashed out at the door with a body that didn’t even have good powers for that sort of thing. I walked him back to his room next to Firecat’s, the occasional raven outside being unusually aggressive.
That fucking monster, beloved? Yeah, so I went and checked. It… I… It meant a lot to me to know this. This guy ruined my life. There was innocent little Gecko before, a kid with parents, a birthday, and a name. I didn’t have to be what I became. This guy might be the only living person left I hate more than myself, and I thought I killed him. I thought my world of origin knew what he was. He had just been a general I killed back when it happened.
I had to alter a drone on short notice, give it a holodisc and a stronger transceiver, one with a transdimensional broadcast capability as a backup, similar to the technology I use for this blog. Flew that baby right through the portal. They don’t have a way to shut the portal down just yet, which is part of the reason this has forced either cooperation or conflict. I delivered the drone most of the way by rocket, low to the ground but off the radar. This time, I noticed more emergency measures that could be put in place to block access, but the place was still relatively open. I think it was meant to foster that cooperation, trust, and a degree of transparency. Made it easier for me to violate that trust and sneak through in the interest of murdering someone important to their cooperation.
The other side was more militarized. Like on the Canadian side, they had it mostly open except for an awning overhead, but the area was walled off instead of fenced off, with several round blisters on the wall that housed discreet gun emplacements. The memorial had been cleared away. That made sense. On this ground had sat a memorial to the defeat of their world’s worst villain, to remember the victims and make sure people knew what the original looked like in case the fiend ever returned. They never liked that I actually did return, and the tear in reality that stayed in place probably left them paranoid about infiltration by me. Or maybe I’m giving myself too much credit just because they were so happy to see me gone that they built a monument to my defeat.
I flew the drone out to clearer ground, careful of potential lag. There’s already some reason I can’t access their infonet from this end normally. I brought the drone out and hovered it on up to the top of the wall, settling it there while I concentrated on the more overwhelming task of immersing myself once again in an entire other world’s interconnected information network. It wouldn’t tell me anything, but it could tell me a lot, unless they were going for a Great Firewall situation. That kind of separation is tricky and relies on collaboration from those who provide such a service.
General Lulios. He reappeared shortly after my defeat, at first hesitant to trust homo machina. He was seen with the folks speaking out against leniency and amnesty toward my followers, most of whom had been left in the dark about my attempt to destroy the world. They turned on me and helped stop it, which argued in favor of reconciliation. Along with that, the sheer number of them who had been an abused minority fighting for equality made it a delicate situation. Maybe don’t remind people who were capable of threatening the entire world that you don’t want to treat them like people. Better leaders emerged in the aftermath of my apparent death. Not much of a challenge if you compare them to me. I wasn’t so much a leader as an opportunist. Finally, the Justice Ranger team at the time came out publicly in favor of reconciliation, with General Lulios in the background of the Red Justice Ranger’s speech. After that, he spoke publicly in favor of the idea.
Articles about him make it sound like it was a journey for the General. They didn’t seem to know about what he’d really been doing in the military with the Psychopomp Project. Geez, I don’t think they really know about it outside of stuff I said. And that kind of stuff gets lumped together with some conspiracy theorist nonsense, trotted out by the kind of asshats who believe a shadowy cabal of a certain ethnic group rules the world in secret.
Lulios didn’t reveal his part in my origin. Instead, biographies painted a picture of a guy who has learned he was wrong about past prejudices and who was learning to be better. Naturally, they propped him up as one of the good oppressors, especially since he brought a lot of institutional legitimacy to reconciliation efforts.
I still didn’t see signs of what his grift was at this point. There’s always something. People like him don’t become public figures unless there’s some motivation, usually money. It’s true in both of these worlds. Maybe he was getting donations. Maybe sex was involved. All I know is, he got a lot of people very interested in him and his injuries, all the more so when it was revealed I caused it. The anti-me bias was so strong, nobody stopped to think about if he deserved it.
It all seems pretty simple. The whole time I was here, he was there, being held up as some icon of changing one’s mind. Someone who moved past prejudice, he claims. A humanitarian. A hero who cares about homo machina. Bullshit. Pure bullshit, with little bits of corn floating around in it. Yeah, they were right. The guy’s reputation is great. It’s a lie, but it’s great.
I lifted the drone off and spun it around to find some sort of cover. There was a little bit of a wooded area to the east. Nothing so big as a forest, but something that can provide cover. I rested it on some branches on top of a tree and had the holodisc stay on to mask its presence while the drone itself went into hibernation. I left a timer on to remind me when I needed to do something before pulling back to the real world. The world where General Lulios, the man who tortured and abused me, turned me into a murderer, is beloved by everyone who hated me for what he made me.
I “woke up” to find my arm had gone numb because I was laying on it on my sofa. Medusa brushed my hair. “Hey, sleepy.”
I sat up, rubbing my arm and moving it around. “You’re back early.”
“Yeah,” she said, looking a little sad. “We need to talk.”
I decided to treat this like a traffic stop. “About what?”
“Have you watched the news today?” she asked.
“Should I have?”
She sighed. “Ok, so you know. That makes this easier in some ways, harder in others. Listen, I was informed that general was going to visit as part of negotiations. His staff wasn’t specific, but they had concerns about you. I’m going to be clear here, I can’t let you attack him.”
I laughed and laid my head on her shoulder. “What are you going to do, fight me?”
She kissed the top of my head and put her arm around me. “I’d rather not. I want to cuddle you.” She reached over and took my hand in hers. I think she felt the same thing in those muscles as I saw in the hotel clerk’s face: control. Which meant I was only pretending to be fine. “He’s just some general, right?”
I forced a smile she saw through. “Yeah, sure.”
“Where’s Qiang?” she asked.
“Spending the night with a friend.”
My opportunity came a short while later. While I remained in Medusa’s arms, with her silently reassuring me, I saw confirmation of Lulios returning and a trio of bodyguards taking up stations outside his room. My body went limp as I shot out to more firmly inhabit Firecat.
I blinked, finding myself in bed in a pitch black room. I clicked on the light to the side and let my eyes get adjusted while standing up and stretching. The body, nice as it was, might be an acceptable loss, but it’d be unacceptable to lose it before I kill that fucker. I walked it over closer to the hallway and looked up at the ceiling. Right up there was his room. I set up a chair, which is all I needed to comfortably reach the ceiling. I grinned and extended her glowing energy claws. It was like a burning pressure in my fingers, begging to be released. And I released them, swiping through the orange peel texture and drywall. I paused to listen for movement, signs of awareness. I heard quick shuffling, heading toward the door. Fuck subtlety then.
Flames burst through the floor, stopping escape through the door. The floor of the General’s room crumbled against my claws as I rose, fire alarms wailing, propelled up by a pillar of flame under my feet. Such a grand entrance, I could have smirked any other time. But it was General Lulios. It was the man who made the monster. The man who made me. I don’t even know how the room caught on fire. It was like the heat and anger radiated out from me without my control.
“Gecko sent you,” he said to me. I don’t know when the last time was I heard that voice.
I was distracted a spank. Who the fuck’s spanking me when I’m trying to take my revenge?! It came again, along with the feeling of my skirt being pulled down. Except Firecat was in pants. I blinked and felt my consciousness pulled back to my house in Radium.
“What?” I asked, looking at Medusa.
“Where’d you go?” she asked. “And why did my phone start blowing up with an alarm saying Lulios is being attacked.”
It was difficult to concentrate on the question, or my assassination attempt, with her fingers running along my the front of my panties. “What are you doing?” I whined and wiggled.
“I’m not going to fight you,” she said with a mischievous smile on her face. Something pushed me to the side. No, that was Firecat, up in Canada. I whirled her around toward General Lulios, growling and trying not to pay attention what Medusa was groping with her hands. I swiped with a claw, but stumbled off balance when, back at home, Medusa decided to fold my legs up against my torso. The door burst open. One of the guards grabbed Lulios and pulled him to safety while the others opened up with pistols that burned holes through my chest. The pain didn’t last long, which meant I fucking failed.
I pushed Medusa away and stomped off to my basement lair, panties and skirt left behind on the couch.
So fucked up!
“Babe, what are all these hatchets for?” Medusa asked me the other night. She’s been guarding Lulios, but she had to come back for her phone and then I did the distracting. And then she woke up in the night because she still had to get back to work, and found me throwing hatchets in my lair. I printed off photos of some authority figures for target practice. Cops, politicians, even military bigwigs. Ya know, like generals. It was a bit of foreshadowing on my part, along with seeing if there’s anything she wants to tell me.
She still hasn’t let on about the General’s visit, and I don’t know what she knows. It’s plausible she wouldn’t know who he is and what he means to me. The other side of the portal knows I’m over here and it’d be normal for them to not want me around. I haven’t bugged her or broken into that phone of hers. Some of it’s a matter of trust, but I also don’t want them realizing I’m onto them. A shift in a person’s actions likely means they’ve acquired new information. One of the downsides of Medusa imploring me to build some form of mass entertainment for the town is that it caused a change in how I act that can be used to cover for what I now know.
It’s all Headology, as a character in a beloved fantasy series says. Don’t need to use much magic if you know Headology. Note to self: robotic killer animals I can control remotely? No, too risky with the enemy having homo machina of their own.
I’ve been the big fish in a little pond with those abilities. Lulios has at least one of them looking after him. More by now, if they’re smart and this is a time to prepare for the smart scenario. Just before she left to head back up to her Exemplar duties, Medusa asked what I was building. I told her the gadget I was working on was a way to shock people just a little bit. I’d once seen an arcade game where children held onto these handles and were gently shocked more and more. It didn’t hurt them at all, just made their hands and arms feel numb. If they held on until the end, they’d get tickets.
“That sounds iffy,” my heroine girlfriend told me.
I shrugged. “I’ll make sure there’s a warning about it.”
“Maybe you should look up if any of that’s safe. I don’t want you giving someone the electric chair by accident,” she said, giving me that look that said, “I’m amused by what you’re doing, but I’m serious, too.” I see that one a lot from her.
“Also,” she said, turning to where a few different guns were all sitting on the kitchen counter.
“I was thinking I’d do one of those BB target shooting games, but why settle for the wimpy rifles?” She knows me well enough to know I don’t do much with guns. Even that incident with the poachers, I took a gun along to use as a hidden explosive instead of to shoot someone. They just don’t interest me and it seems like a boring way to fight. And that’s why she didn’t bother calling me out on the over-under shotgun, the lever-action rifle, or any of the rest. That, and most assassination plots nowadays would probably use a more modern pump-action shotgun and an AR.
After that, it was off to look at land around the town of Radium. I already had my shop, which was seeing some customers. It’s not like most people around here can afford a rocket-powered skateboard, but folks need TVs fixed or a cheap pair of earbuds. I keep a lot of the latter in their own section marked, “Ear Pals”.
So on one of my many meandering trips away from my responsibilities, I looked around. That was for my cover. It occurred to me that my fantasies of setting up an evil amusement park to hold and torture Lulios in while would-be rescuers face its dangers is just not feasible for me. I don’t know how long he’s in town and every moment I spend not killing him is a chance for him to finish what he’s doing and go back through the portal. And I need info. I need to know how long he’ll be here and what he’s here for. I’m not saying I’ll avoid killing him if it’ll lead to an interdimensional war. I just want to be aware of if I’m starting such a war. This Earth might decide it’s easier to hand me over. Medusa, too.
If I just charge in there and kill him right under Medusa’s nose, where she knows for a fact it was me, that might be the end of us. That would hurt. She’s far too kind and forgiving of me, and it’s amazing to have someone safe to be with. But I can’t imagine it’s easy for someone with her morals to balance who and what I am with however she feels. I see it sometimes, when she looks up from texting with her friends. Or when she discusses her old gang at the Master Academy. I’m not the only reason she broke away form conventional superheroing, but I’m a sticking point. I wish… I don’t know. Not something I can put into words. And now part of me thinks maybe it’d be for the best to drive her away, like that little voice speaking up when you stand on the edge of a cliff, imploring you to jump.
After a few minutes lost in thought, I stopped staring at a cow pasture with a bunch of curious bovines in it and headed back to the shop. There, I could continue work on a different project near and dear to my heart. The ultimate body.
It’s not so ultimate yet, but it’s a start. I managed to get a couple of different powersets to work in the same body. It’s tricky, because most human chimeras have DNA that’s more similar. In this case, a chimera is when you have an organization with two or more sets of DNA in it, not a mythological beast that’s a bunch of different animals mixed together. One example of that is this woman who had her kid taken away from her because it turned out her womb came from an identical twin she’d absorbed before she was even born. Genetically, her daughter was the offspring of her partner and the unborn sister whose womb and eggs she got instead of her own.
But that still involved siblings. I’m mashing together people. And unlike cheetahs, who faced a genetic bottleneck about 10,000 years back, human genes are varied enough for organs to reject each other. The process Technolutionary and I worked out to turn a human into a homo machina is useful, but I’m not transforming a baseline human. I’m finding a way to keep both sets of DNA and the powers somehow associated with them, both active.
It’d be easier if I was ok with my body looking strange. A lot of supers with animal-based mutations have been affected at a genetic level. Or, like, if I wanted to give myself the powers of one of the bee people, the Buzzkills. I could have a body with a shark’s mouth, Buzzkill wings and exoskeleton, and reptilian scales. Now that’d be a chimera.
Not to self: secondary body project named Chimera?
Either way, I had a body with a couple different powersets. And I needed to be in more than one place at the same time. Whatever shall I do?
When I had idle time, I connected to the transceiver merged into the biomechanical brain of the experimental body I had so far, codenamed Firecat. She had a darker base skin that would tan up well, but ginger hair. I got her dressed, took some spare cash and some identification stolen from supers a cult tried to raise as superzombies, and I took off into the sky.
I love flying, even if it’s not as effortless as when I had the powers of Mr. Omega. Then, wind resistance and friction just weren’t a thing. Now, I found it helped to have an aura of heat and a helmet. If I can find a super with forcefield abilities, that’d be great. I had to sneak Firecat across the border, but that was no problem. Between the various fascists taking power and the civil war that broke out, Canada’s improved their border enforcement. It’s still a huge border.
And just like that, I was in Canada with a body, making my way to a city. That’s when some of the secondary abilities from one of the powersets really hit me. The “cat” part comes from one of those refugee kids. She had these energy claws, but she also seems to have some weird sight where she can see hints of electromagnetic waves in the air. It was a bit trippy in the city where the portal resides.
First thing’s first, a little bit of shopping to look more presentable. I needed some luggage to stick the helmet and clothes into. After that, I needed to get made up and have my hair done up a little. I didn’t want to spend the time on it, and it does take time, but it was a real part of my plan. I needed to look better than if I just walked in off the street so that I could walk into the hotel and act like I was a woman of some means.
“Howdy,” I said, playing up my apparent American-ness. It would also help. “I’m looking for a specific room to stay in here.”
The woman behind the desk looked like she was barely out of high school, but she smiled at me and set to work on her computer without looking. So she had at least some experience. “I’ll happily look that up for you if you give me the room number you’re hoping to reserve.”
You’d be amazed at the kind of detail drones and spy satellites can give you. I gave her the General’s room number. It was a nicer suite, the kind of thing you’d need money to afford. “When would you like that room?” the woman asked.
“I would love to have it tomorrow night if you could, or by Sunday at the latest, if it’s possible,” I said.
Her expression changed slightly. If you know to look for it, you can tell when someone’s professional demeanor has to be plastered on to cover up disappointment. The expression goes from natural to stiff. “I’m sorry, that room is not available on those dates.”
“Well… when is it available?” I asked, crossing my arms and trying to look impatient.
The woman didn’t click on anything else. “That room isn’t going to be available until the 4th of July. Do you want me to go ahead and book a reservation?”
I shook my head. “That’s going to be too late, shit.” I pulled out a cheap prepaid smart phone and pretended to look at it. These days, you need something like that to complete a disguise. I’ve even got a load of auctioned-off police-seized broken cell phones I could use, but they’re still not in at the shop.
Now, if they were any good, they’d have booked the rooms on either side of the General’s as well. That’s an easy way to gain access to a high value target, either through the windows, through the walls, or by setting off a bomb right next to all of it. Through my own brain computer, I checked the hotel’s website to see if it’d be possible to do an online booking of the room below the target’s. Humans and homo machina both have the flaw of checking for threats from around, but not above or below. That one was still good. I smiled a smile of relief and exited out of the website, “Oh my god, honey, thank you. It’s a good thing you didn’t book that for me and I checked. I gave you the wrong floor.”
Asset Firecat is inserted. Hmm. If I have time and more samples that work right, I wonder how many of these rooms surrounding Lulios I could fill with my bodies, like one fucked-up Brady Bunch opening.
“Giant Gummy Bear Defeated By Exemplars!” read the headline. Another one for Medusa’s stack. Nearest I can tell is a candy factory’s evil manager created a gummy concoction imbued with hatred and a desire for destruction. But since it was a giant gummy bear, her team ended up blowing it up.
There were the protests, and other things going on. Elvis was spotted at a burger place in Utah, trying to eat without getting swarmed by fans ever since he got pulled either from another dimension or from the space between dimensions. There’s also a story going around that aliens tried to take over the world using robots hidden as various metal statues. It turns out they’re vulnerable to shorting when completely submerged in water.
The world does its thing and I just do my thing. Maybe I take a few genetic samples sometimes. Nothing much to it. A swab here, a hair sample there. Medusa doesn’t approve, but at least she’s focusing on the self-improvement and consent stuff. There’s also a possibility of me raising a super clone army.
“You can’t just steal someone’s genes,” she said to me while I played around with this little holographic projector I had set on the table. I was eating a bowl of cereal while I showed her my plans. I hadn’t yet shown her how far along I was. Not that I was really far along, but she didn’t seem fond of the idea. And while I was messing around with cereal, she chomped down on some breakfast bar. She had to go
“Maybe I should turn this into a wrist-thingy or a watch,” I said, looking over it. Then I shook my head. “Wait, no, this is for you to see. But I don’t get what you’re complaining about here.”
“That’s someone’s genes!” she said, “That has to belong to them. It’s what they are!”
I waggled my hand. “I mean… between the effects of both physical development and environmental factors, there’s some legitimate debate on if genes make a person who they are.”
Medusa’s flat look made it clear my argument didn’t impress her. “You can’t honestly believe that.”
I looked back at her for a moment, then rolled my eyes, “No, I don’t. But I’m not going to make a copy and run around pretending to be them. I’m just going to use their genes to try and create the most powerful body possible to inhabit. No one gets hurt, and it’s not like anything’s really stolen.”
“This is wrong,” she said. “You don’t need to do this.” Her phone dinged and she glanced down at it for just a second.
“If it doesn’t hurt anybody and it makes me better, why not do it?” I asked. “Would it somehow be right if I was in a wheelchair and it was the only way for me to walk? I got robo eyes, remember? Should I take these out and just be blind? There’s nothing virtuous about forcing someone to stay in a body they don’t want.”
She quickly chowed down on her granola bar while I talk so that she was clear to respond. “You’ve already fixed that, but you’ll never become who you want to be until you make peace with who you are. A certain amount of ambition is a good thing, but not when you get lost in stealing people’s DNA to become all powerful. Remember Mr. Omega? You had more power than you knew what to do with. You flew around blowing things up and killing friends of mine. I know he was messing with your mind, because I know how you feel about yourself. Doing that again won’t make you stop hating yourself.”
I seethed. Some of it is because I have good, legitimate reasons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be in an ideal body, or even to have a body that doesn’t stay fixed to one look. Hell, I think part of the reason I stopped being suicidal came from realizing I’m a woman and doing something about it. “Being in the right body helps more than you realize,” I told her. “And I know you prefer when that body is Reindeer’s and she’s all heroic and everything you really prefer.”
Medusa sighed. “You’re getting really defensive right now when I think we should have a clear, open-minded discussion. I want you to know I love you. I want what’s best for you. But I need to ask, are you feeling inferior to your changed self?”
“No, I feel like you and everyone else clearly prefers that thing that takes over my body to me. And if it came out personally and I stopped existing, everyone would be happier. It’s different than when everyone just wanted me dead,” I told her.
Medusa started forward, then her phone beeped again. She looked down at it and sighed, then back to me, “That’s not what’s going on with Reindeer, but listen: Qiang and I both love you like you are, without wings or horns or shooting fireballs. And I, shit,” she stopped what she was doing as her phone beeped. “I swear I’m going to throw this thing. Listen, I want to talk about this with you, but I have to go do this thing today. You’re important to me, but this is one of those where someone could die today. Is it ok if I go deal with this?”
I nodded to her. The sooner she leaves, to sooner I can do my thing. And what she was trying to get across is that I’m still important to her, but she really needs to tend to something. “Yeah, go on.”
She pumped her fist and ran up to kiss me real quick before running off to go use the bathroom. I sat there wondering what, if anything, I was going to do today when she ran out of the house to get picked up. I had a lot of potential subjects in town, which is easier but risks exposing my plan more. There were way more at Master Academy, but that would be riskier. Finally, there were villain bars, which are more spread out, have fewer powered people than the other choices, and have at least an equal chance of turning violent as the school full of superheroes and superhero trainees. But nobody really cares about villains, so there wouldn’t be a lot of objections to it.
I also did the more substantive work of growing some bodies for testing purposes. Essentially clone bodies built to test if they retained the powers of the person the DNA was taken from. Of the ones I had so far, I didn’t get good results. Just the one, that let me generate fire. Still didn’t know how to incorporate it into another body, so the next set of experiments was to determine if fire powers would under other circumstances. Like, would the powers work if the brain and my transceiver were in another body? Was it just the body itself that had the powers? Is it a combination? Then there’s figuring out how to blend more than one genetic sequence to retain the powers while doing something else.
I figured a bathroom break would give me time to think it over and that’s when I found Medusa’s phone. When it beeped again, I could see part of a message on her screen. “I hope you distracted Psych…” it trailed off. I could break into it. Should I break into it? No, there’s that whole trust thing. The next thing was “! Lulios arrived early!!”
Weird name. One like they’d have back where I’m from. If she was meeting with people from my dimension, no wonder she wouldn’t want me and them to meet. It could be worse, though. It could be the Lulios I knew. But he’s dead. Blew him up.
Ya know, maybe I better peek around and make sure. It’s a common enough name, but still. I left the house and headed out to my greenhouse, just so I wouldn’t be found in the same room as the evidence if something were to confirm my paranoid fears.
I zipped my consciousness up along the information superhighway to Canada, where there’s a portal to my old world. They don’t like me being there in-person. Some people hold grudges over the whole “nearly destroying the world” thing. I spied through phones and cameras. They’d gotten better about wifi-accessible cameras in the area, but good luck getting people to give up their phones. And then I felt another presence in the digital landscape, trying to block access.
I hadn’t had to hide my presence that way in a long time, so it kind of snuck up on me and shut me out of the first one. After that, it knew I was there, so I changed tactics. I pulled back and scrambled my signature, then rerouted and bounced through various intermediaries, including some around the world, then traced back the homo machina blocking me. If I was better at this, or this person wasn’t, maybe I could finesse my way in. Instead, I brute-forced things while this person’s attention was elsewhere.
I was in a body. Not fully in there, just looking. The person was holding their head and looking down. “What’s wrong?” asked an older voice. A hand grabbed the body and pulled the face up to check on. I didn’t get a good look at that person because I was checking out the crowd around the person as fast as I could while this person concentrated on expelling me. They kicked me out pretty easily, then tried to trace me. They couldn’t just kill my consciousness out there. That’s still there in my brain. But it’d probably be bad if they found me. I got out of there, even though I had to sabotage some things behind me as I went. Bluescreened a computer, sent a driverless car off into a pond, and I activated the self-destruct sequence in a wifi coffee maker. With enough distance, I took the time to scramble some of my tracks without destroying CPUs.
In the end, it left me resting my hands on a table in the middle of my greenhouse, going back through the brief video I’d recorded. The old man I’d seen was dressed in one of these suits favored by military veterans on my world. Not the same sort of thing most people wear, something closer to a uniform but for someone not in the military any longer. His face had been a little mish-mashed from where fresher skin had been regrown to cover up injuries to a lot of the rest of a face that had grown older and wrinkly. The younger skin helped me recognize him, too. He’d been older when I knew him and thought I killed him, but not a young man.
I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. When I didn’t pick up, they sent a text. “Its Medusa, did I lv my phone @ home?”
“Yeah,” I sent back. “Also, I got a strawberry growing in my garden!”
“!” She replied, if that even is her, “Ur plant grew?!” Ok, it’s probably her.
No big deal. I left her phone where it was. Didn’t get paid a visit by anybody. No need to let on just yet that I know the guy who used to run the Psychopomp Project is somehow, infuriatingly, still alive. And that Medusa somehow knew he was coming and was supposed to distract me.
I kept watch thanks to the United States’s own satellites, and maybe a Chinese one or two. Everyone’s got eyes on everyone else, but right now they’re my eyes and they spied on the car that took General Lulios and his delegation to a nearby hotel.
The only question is if my subtlety is going to involve actual sneakiness, or if it’s the kind of subtlety where I sneak a bomb in, blow things up, and go on a loud murder spree.
Huh, another text message from Medusa. She forgot to say something before, but she wants to know if I can think of something fun to build for the town, like an amusement park or arcade. Damn woman, even her distractions are giving me ideas. An evil amusement park with killer rides? Murderous animatronics? An arcade with games that brainwash people?
I’m horny with killjoy.