The remaining refugee kid called himself Gastrap. “I woke up one day and could spit a toxic gas. My mom freaked. She registered me and then she gave me up because she didn’t think she could handle my powers and having to be a hero.”
“What do you mean, she gave you up?” Medusa asked. The first thing that jumped out at me was the bit about having to be a hero, but that’s a good point, too. We were all sitting around the counter at my shop while I worked on some gadgets. I managed to cover up my basement, but I didn’t think it was safe. Not like my shop is. I had a jammer there I could put on. Fucked with my connectivity, but it also Caligari’s. Medusa wanted to chat with him while I worked on the chip my nanites found inside Gastrap.
He nodded. “They do it sometimes. Powers are a burden. A responsibility. At least, that’s what they teach us.”
“You said ‘having to be a hero.’ What did you mean by that phrasing?” I asked. I held the chip in my palm, feeling it out with my homo machina nerves. Unlike a lot of my tech, running on batteries or on advanced compact reactors, this thing ran on natural body heat. It’s not a good option for anything bigger.
Gastrap took a sip of his soft drink. “They make you go to training and send you out to fight.”
“Conscription,” Medusa said. “They made you fight.”
“I didn’t want to get shot at!” Gastrap said. “All I do is spit poison.”
He could do a lot with an ability like that. I wonder what sort of poison, if it’s even just one sort. He supposedly breathed in all the poison from the gas trap as well, and that’s incredibly useful. Does it apply to acids as well? Even I could tell the kid didn’t want to talk about it, and I could sympathize with not wanting to be forced into that situation. I could tell it tugged at Medusa’s heartstrings.
“Doesn’t sound like Good Earth,” I mused.
“Gecko!” I deserved the admonishment from my girlfriend. Don’t know if it was my love of this Earth or my desire to be right, but it was the wrong time for that response.
“Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I should have this thing figured out. Next time the signal gets where it’s supposed to go, it’ll ping one back to me. I don’t have a way to counter a shrink ray outside overwhelming force applied to the skull of Caligari. I figured I’d burn that bridge when I got to it.
“Am I coming with you?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No need for that. You can stay out of this. He won’t be able to track you now that I have this anyway. The nanomachines have scoured your body and you’re clean of all tech that isn’t them. Also, they fixed a cavity that was starting in one of your molars. You also had this weird thing in your intestines…” I trailed off, noticing the way both Gastrap and Medusa were looking at me. “It’s not important, life-threatening, or anything that’ll likely happen to you again, but I recommend you eat more fiber in general. Worst colon I’ve ever seen inside a person’s body.”
“Why did you say it that way?” Gastrap asked.
“Moving on, Medusa, dear, honey, love of my life: are you joining me?
She crossed her arms. “Didn’t you want Painbringer along with you?” The little smile tugging at her lips told me she wasn’t really mad. Medusa trusts me. How fucking weird is that? But she knows I’ve made up my mind about her and trusts me to stick with it despite years of lying, cheating, stealing, and killing to serve my own benefit. Huh, I guess I ended up dating someone with a mental illness again after all.
“She’s volunteering, so I might as well. Maybe she’ll come in handy. Flak did,” I said.
Medusa laughed. “Ok, ‘Eminence,’ I’m in too.”
She got Gastrap situated staying over with the Sheriff for the night while I prepped the Flyer and got a read on where we were headed. Pittsburgh, eh? I deactivated the chip and slipped into my armor. Soon, Medusa’s silver, gold, and pink power armor joined mine, looking way clunkier now than my more organic-looking version. She looked it over and whistled as she saw the nanomachines shift armor plating all over, me showing off how it could give me claws, add jet turbines to power up my punches, form tendrils and extra arms, help brace me with extra legs. “If you made the whole body like that and piloted it from afar, you could freak people out. You’d look like one of the Terminators.”
“Maybe I’ll upgrade that rustbucket you wear instead. Gotta stay ahead of the curve with handheld flak cannons and those armor-piercing guns people are passing around more and more. Only a matter of time before lasers and Gauss weaponry are in the hands of everyday gangs.”
She cocked her head to the side, smiling again. Her visor was up enough to show off her mouth. Made her look more human, less intimidating. “I might take you up on that. Nothing this complicated.” She pointed all over at the shifting metal and robots that settled and made me look bulkier.
We had a pleasant enough trip, though I made it a little awkward when I told her, just as we stopped to pick up Painbringer, “As much as you do for me, I really want to pay you back somehow. Help you out instead of being such a fuck-up.”
“You’re not-” she started to lie, so I went ahead and dropped the Flyer’s ramp.
“Hello, Painbringer!” I called out. The woman sauntered in again in her whole fetish gear outfit. Is it bondage and domination? Is it sado-masochism? Is it BDSM?
The other villain stopped when she saw Medusa. “What are you doing here? Eminence, you’re working with a fed?”
“She’s not a cop. More a vigilante these days,” I said to Painbringer. “I trust her. Still want to come?”
Medusa stayed quiet, which is for the best, because Painbringer got onboard but stayed well away from her. The villain turned and smiled at me. “I’ll get there.”
I figured I better keep an eye on her.
Our target was located north of the McKees Rocks Bridge, who I guess was someone who really rocked, smack dab in the middle of the Ohio River. “Did he dump the trackers?” Painbringer asked.
Medusa was checking the computers next to me. “The Fort Pitt Blockhouse is missing, so he has been here.”
“Let’s just see something,” I told them both, taking us off to an empty space on an island nearby. I wired together a holodisc and the tracker chip and activated both, leaving a hologram of Gastrap standing there, sending a signal he was in the area. Then it was back aboard my invisible aircraft to wait.
Painbringer broke the expectant silence first. “Do you worry you’ll hit a plane when you’re invisible?”
“Yeah, but I think it’s better than letting them see the unknown, armed aircraft and panic. It’s safer for their peace of mind this way.
“Eminence knows what she’s doing.” Medusa emphasized Eminence, I think because she wanted to call me Gecko.
Luckily, the conversation was interrupted when the waters of the Ohio River split open. “Ladies, gentlemen, and all the wonderful people who are neither, I give you, for his one night return to showbiz… Moses!”
My announcement didn’t cut the tension as much as I’d hoped. It wasn’t a full-on “10 Commandments” split, either. More like circular hole big enough for me to catch a glimpse of more infrastructure down there before Caligari the Collector’s flying disc rose into the air.
“Stealth on,” I said, turning the Flyer invisible and moving us around.
The flying saucer responded by firing off gas rounds into the air all over, filling the air with blue, purple, green, yellow, and red clouds, all over the place. Really hate that so many people know how to counteract the form of invisibility I favor. The smoke clinged to the cameras and projectors, disrupting their ability to project. “We’re exposed. The fiend! Nobody exposes me but myself!” I opened up on him with the guns and the rockets. The spun around and went into a wild maneuver that threw it wildly to the side. Unless they’ve got some really good anti-gravity in there, Caligari had to be puking.
Some of the shots hit, though. And one of the rockets. The Flyer zoomed in on parts of the exterior pockmarked by bullets and bent and blasted from an explosion. While it did that, a bright light grew in size on the front of the disc. I took us into a dive just before a fired from the disc and toppled some Pittsburgh skyscraper.
I thought I had the measure of that ship, but the Flyer gave a proximity alarm as we were came up from the dive. The disc had opened up and a pair of spindly hydraulic arms had reached out to grab the engines on either side of the Flyer’s body. We were in a bad position as far as bringing any weapons to bear on it, but I could jump out. Unfortunately, Medusa’s not a pilot.
“Can you fly?” I asked Painbringer.
She shook her head, face pale. “No, but I can feel the pilot. Let me do something.” She took her riding crop and smacked herself hard on the boob. It looked like it hurt, but she didn’t react. Instead, the Flyer and ship both shook.
“What was that?” Medusa asked.
“I can transfer physical sensations, but it has to be in the moment. Can’t save anything up in the spank bank,” Painbringer said with a smile. No, not a smile. She was biting into her lip hard enough to draw blood. “Spank me,” she ordered my girlfriend. I projected a bucket of popcorn next to me.
“Oh god,” Medusa said, but she gave Painbringer a hell of a smack on the ass with her armored hand. Painbringer moaned and fluttered her eyelashes at the heroine, but it’s disc jumped suddenly and the Flyer slipped out. I spun us around suddenly and popped a pair of rockets into the retracted sections of the disc’s exterior where the arms came out. The explosions sent the smoking disc falling toward the bridge underneath us, arms bending and breaking off from the damage done to them.
I hopped out of the Flyer before it landed, piloting it to the bridge remotely. The disc wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t see anymore weapons charging up, so I went jumped onto the dome on top of it. My armor shifted to brace my legs and added a puncturing spike to my right fist, which began to glow as I charged that gauntlet. The last little addition to it was the twin jet engines shifting to behind my elbow. When I let loose, it smashed a hole through the dome and revealed a terrified Caligari sitting in a messed-up cockpit. He tried to stand, but suddenly flew to the side, a red handprint appearing on his face.
Caligari put up his hands. “I surrender! Just don’t kill me, and please stop doing whatever you’re doing that feels like a finger down there.”
I raised an eyebrow under my armor, but grabbed Caligari and made damn sure it was him instead of another illusion. Nope, real guy. “Not a clone?” Painbringer asked over comms. That stuck with me, too, but a quick check by nanites confirmed he was a really good one if he was.
And so once again, the day was saved. Though it was less of a heroic venture than us leaving Painbringer to guard Caligari while Medusa and I flew over to the hole in the river. And I can tell Painbringer had gotten over her dislike of Medusa based on the way my girlfriend grabbed onto the dashboard of the Flyer at one point and tried to hold in a moan, followed by a similarly flirty wave of pleasure sent to me from the other villain.
“I can tell her to stop if you want,” I said.
“No. I’ll talk to her.” She got up, closed her helmet up, and went back to give the other woman a piece of her mind. Or, ya know, whatever other bodyparts were involved. Painbringer had to know she was taking a bit of a risk with that. Medusa wants me to end the other villain because of some unwanted empathic touching, I’ll do it.
At least it all got worked out by the time we landed and walked out to find row after row of clear containers all designed to counteract the abilities of the living beings held within, whether they were refugee superhumans, black rhino, or even a machine intelligence. My daughter’s looked particularly stabproof, and it was awesome to see the way Qiang lit up when she saw me.
“Time to go home, everyone,” I announced cheerfully. I even turned to the robot and unleashed a squawk through my cybernetic voicebox that vocalized its language telling it the same thing. Hearing that, it stopped and stood upright.
“Rescue?” it asked.
“Rescue,” I confirmed.
It’d almost be heartwarming if you forget the dominatrix with the spank powers.
I didn’t see much of those kids after our little group hug. If I’m not turning them over, then this is going to be done the hard way. No more going in there half-assed. This time, I’m going three-quarters-assed at least.
At least I can still make jokes. If anyone could hear, it would probably put them at ease. I’ve stayed locked in my basement lair since the other day, working on my armor. It needed an initial patch of the areas where the robot managed to cut through. And while I thought how to prevent that from happening again, and about using the tail again, I had an idea. That idea left me ensconced in the lair for days, drastically redoing the tail project.
Rage is safe for me. The kind of anger that can see me through long nights working in a confined space on this kind of project also kept me from thinking about what Caligari might be doing. I didn’t want to ask the kids. It wouldn’t calm me anyway. There was a point when the door swung open and Medusa looked in at me, standing there in the middle of rotating rings of nanomachines with thin strings of the nanobots holding up shards and solid cylinders of metal. “Do you need help with a plan? I’m good at this. I’ve helped out on a lot of kidnappings in my time as a hero.”
“Thank you, Medusa. I have it handled.” Actually, that reminded me I needed to do some stuff on VillaiNet. I had a moment of decision paralysis about whether to do that or implement some ideas I just thought of, but I went ahead and had the nanites start building some small jet turbines. While that was going on, I headed to the Classifieds section of VillaiNet. “Need seven people for group project, not sex. Will pay, additional loot benefits, not sex.” The Classifieds automatically generated a disclaimer that “This advertisement is not for sex,” after I clicked the little box.
I got a lot of responses in a short amount of time, but I had to juggle reading through them while working on a few standard protocols for this entire mess so that I didn’t have to concentrate on controlling it the entire time in the field. Just like I didn’t want a team I had to closely monitor.
I had no intention of doing this the hero way. I wasn’t going to re-kidnap these kids and send them back to him, but I’m not going to take a damn month or something. I want him dead. I want his guards dead. I want to burn down his lair and piss on the ashes. Then, perhaps, get my daughter and myself a milkshake.
I had to shake myself awake at some point. I passed out reading the application for one of the guys. Not a supervillain himself, but a henchman who has been around the block or two, getting older, and feels he has the experience to apply for a more senior role. He says he’s got some kind of handheld flak cannon. With all the applications that were sex-related, I went ahead and threw him in so I could stop going through all of them.
It was short notice, but I figured I could round them all up. Up until I put the finishing touches on this new accessory for my armor and started to walk upstairs. Whew, that set of stairs. The lack of sleep hit me hard. I needed to sit down for just a bit. Lean on them. Blink. Blink. Bli-
I woke up hours later. My awkward sleeping situation kept me from a full-length sleep, but the one I had helped. My body wanted more, but I had to go. I needed to round up some of the crew. Others were going to meet me there, since they were local or near enough to get there in a hurry.
I pulled on my armor except for the helmet and commanded the nanomachines to affix my new tail to my body. I flexed the new limb, the additional nanomachine contacts and their reinforcing protocols helping me get the hang of it a bit faster. It looked solid on the outside, but some of the shards and armor plates shifted to the base to help reinforce it. Unlike the solid tail before that was just a tail with a flamethrower, this one isn’t solid, which doesn’t matter when it creates sharp edges. There are all sorts of parts in there that it can use to shift to help me with a variety of tasks, all without compromising the integrity of the rest of my armor.
I kept the helmet off so that when I went upstairs, I could stop by the refrigerator and help myself to one of Medusa’s energy drinks. Terrible things. Completely unhealthy for her. I downed one all at once, then grabbed another for the road.
I had to pick up the henchman guy on the way. He seemed impressed by the Flyer landing in his yard and me in my armor, letting out a soft, “Whoa.”
“Call me Eminence,” I said, still not wanting to go public with my real identity just yet. “What do I call you?”
He wore a combination face mask and goggles that looked pretty cool while also providing some face protection. He went with one of those urban camo pattern shirts underneath dark body armor and gloves, with the same pattern on the boots tucked into his boots. Was kind of a military or tactical getup he was going for. “Uh… Flak, I guess.”
“Flak? Ok. You ready?” I pointed inward with my thumb. He nodded and walked up the ramp. The thing on his back was all folded up, so I wasn’t sure how practical it was, but it’s his funeral if it isn’t. At least I know the guy can lift, so he can carry shit out of there.
The only other one to pick up on the way, I thought I made a mistake. We met her on the roof, but she was wearing a tight black leather outfit with spiked high-heeled boots. She twirled a riding crop around in her hands and lowered her ballgag as I facepalmed. “I said no sex.”
“It’s not about sex. It’s about my powers. Call me Painbringer.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Don’t forget to ask the asshole we’re robbing for his safeword.”
The others were around when I landed, waiting in the parking lot of a gas station whose attendant had to be freaking out. I kept the briefing brief. I passed around belts with holodiscs on them. “Put these on over your clothes. They’ll give you a disguise. I’m supposed to be making a deal with this guy. Kidnapped my kid in exchange for me bringing him some other kids.”
“What a piece of shit,” someone said. Similar agreements went up, so at least these folks weren’t likely to sell me out. Some villains are cool with human trafficking, but it’s a sore sport for a lot of people who knows what it usually means. And doing it to kids is even worse.
“He said he’d know when we’re there and bring her, so I think he’s close by. We secure my daughter. Or, if he tries something funny, we secure him. Either way, we get my kid, we get him to lead us to his base, and y’all get paid. Any questions?”
Flak raised a hand. “Will these alter our voice if we have to speak?”
“Nope,” I answered. “Next?”
“What if something goes wrong?” another costumed criminal asked.
“I’ll see you’re paid if something goes wrong. I honor my deals.” Which is technically correct, the best kind of correct.
“Didn’t you make a deal with this guy?” asked Painbringer.
“No. He kidnapped my daughter, then dictated a deal. Very different.”
Most of the rest of them nodded. There’s a big difference between a negotiation in good faith, and a “negotiation” made when someone’s holding a hostage over you. Some of them have been on the villain side of that.
Nobody else had any questions.
I brought the Flyer in back to the strip mall. The roof was closed again, but I blasted a hole in it. “Open up, it’s not the police!” I called out as the Flyer hovered lower into the place. I led out my crew, the holographic disguises showing them as the people I picked up originally. I goaded them out, no disguise for me except for my tail.
We were there five minutes when a section of the floor opened up. Caligari walked out, leading a handcuffed Qiang who sniffled and cried. Behind him, a dozen of his giant tardigrades followed. I called out to her in Riccan. “Did he hurt you?!”
No answer. I turned to look at my bunch. “That’s not her.”
What a surprise. Being double-crossed in this hostage exchange. But we had that basement down there to go through. Maybe there’d be a clue, or maybe she’s down there. One of my crew stood up and threw a shadowy circle through the air toward Caligari. The Collector’s hand shot up and glowing claws slid out of his arm to swipe through the shadow disc, which broke apart. The shards of it struck Caligari and revealed a familiar metal body underneath. Huh. Both of us are using illusions.
“I’ll handle the robot,” I told my crew as they all stood and started pulling off illusion belts. Flak rolled to the side and pulled the unfolding cannon off his back to take aim at what was now becoming a flood tardigrades.
And I charged for the robot, which dropped its own illusion. It had been rebuilt. New arms, a new head, and a patched chest with an armored chestplate. I shifted the armor from the new tail all over for increased protection as I stomped forward. The robot walked calmly for me, then jumped suddenly to wrap those claws around my neck. It squeezed, jamming the light into the armor but failing to penetrate. I laughed and stopped hiding it as the tail behind me formed up the end of it into a warhammer with jet turbines. It swung down and smashed into the head of the robot, which opened up into a set of three metal clamps. I’m not the only one who adapts.
I struck at the robot’s elbow to break its grip. It rotated on ball hinges and kept up the pressure. Up top, my mail shifted and slid out of its vice-like grip. The pieces from the tail moved up along my body and formed a second pair of arms ending in spikes. Jet-powered sings smashed them into the side of the robot’s armor plate where it met the chest and dug in, pulling it out. The Adaptbot popped claws from its other arm and rotated the wrist until it became a whirling blur. It cut through one of my arms, disconnecting it but doing little real damage. The nanites on his chest flowed back to the main limb, which split into a pair of thin, whip-like tentacles. They wrapped around that arm. The bigger spike-arm shifted so that it wrapped the other arm’s bicep in the middle of it. So while it dug into the chest plate, all three of my mechanical arms pulled its arms away from me.
Adaptbot bent forward to headbutt me. Correction, headgrab me with its headclaw. But I still had regular arms of my own. I grabbed those claws to keep them away, leaving us one big, twisted mass of metal and machinery. And then I ended the stalemate by giving it my left arm to clamp down on. My right arm popped out a Nasty Surprise, a powerful mini-chainsaw. Now that ate through its arms. The Adaptbot tried to fly off with my arm, but all the others I had with me were enough to yank it back down to the ground. I stomped on it, all the various arms pinning it down. The three artificial ones dug into that chest plate again and tugged it off, then smashed it down against the base of the headclaw. My Nasty Surprise chewed into that as well, but it was on there pretty well. I solved the issue the issue with a rubber chicken grenade from my belt. Twisted the head off, jammed it into the chest cavity, and hopped over so all my body was with my arm above its torso.
I got free when the bot’s body blew apart from the inside. Well, I got “free”. The clamp was still around my left arm, but there wasn’t any additional pressure being added. I looked around and saw the rest of the group had done a decent job tearing through the tardigrades. A couple of the other villains were patting Flak on the shoulders. The henchman-turned-villain stood near a pile of shells and in front of a shitload of tardigrade corpses.
“Well, let’s get ourselves downstairs,” I said.
The place was packed with a lot of his exhibits, but none of the living ones. It’s easier to shove weapons and other valuables into a crowded space, but the black rhino wasn’t around, or the robot, or my daughter. I noted that the old set of my armor had been partially dismantled, so that explains the illusions. And I got the clamp off when I punched through a cement column with that hand.
At least the villains got paid. I had to drop off Painbringer, but Flak opted to stay in town and accept invitations for a drink from some of the others. Good for him. Not so good for me. Even worse, it seemed, when Medusa called me up on my way back.
“He took the house!”
“What the fuck?” I asked, ramping up the speed on the Psycho Flyer.
“Caligari tracked them somehow. I was at the base. The Sheriff says he flew in with this gigantic flying saucer and used a light to shrink the house and pull it up. He got everything but your basement and your greenhouse.”
“So he got all the refugees anyway,” I mumbled.
“He didn’t get one of the boys. He was out shopping.”
I started to laugh. Couldn’t help myself. Some of it was anger; I enjoyed the irony of us raiding each others’ bases at once, as well. But part of me loved the colossal screw-up by Caligari. “Bring the boy to my lab. If he can track them, then we can track them. And he now has a bunch of people with trackers in them. I’m going to collect on his ass. With interest.”
“You are so delicious right now,” Painbringer said. “I want to come.”
“I don’t need you for any further work,” I told her.
“Not what I meant,” she said.
For whatever reason, Medusa insists we don’t have enough housing for this batch of transdimensional refugees. I suspect she’d fucking with me. Qiang’s regretting her enthusiasm for bringing them all along by now, too. At first she liked having other girls to hang out with, then the bathroom situation reared its ugly head. I managed to hide my private lair bathroom from them for a couple days, but then they started hogging that one, too. There was one time in the middle of the night, I had to head outside and use the greenhouse instead. Plus, the teens have hormones flying everywhere and I’m hot. Awkward things happen. Awkward boners happen.
With my patience about used up, but the whole crew having had a decent shower, crap, sleep, and dinner, I gathered them around to get them to draw me a map of the Collector’s place. They were having fun with it, remembering all the defenses. That ended when Medusa walked in. She’s not their Medusa, but she took the name and she looks the same as theirs. From personal experience, I know mine kicks way more ass. But it’s kind of amusing to watch their wariness around her. “Hey, I got pizzas!”
I made sure I got one of the first slices and bit into it before anyone else could. They looked worried at first when I acted like I was choking and fell down. Then I stood back up to choke some more and draw it out, and they figured out I was playing. “Seriously, calm down. She’s one of the good guys. She’s the best guy.”
“She looks like a woman,” said one of the teens.
“She’s that, too. But, seriously, she’s one of the paragons of superheroism on this Earth. Aside from the fact that she likes me. Maybe she got some brain damage in a fight.”
She walked over and gave me a playful elbow check. “She tells the best lies about me. Everyone ready to eat?”
I nodded. “I’m ready. Y’all good for a break?”
Food is a special. Builds trust. That’s what they mean about bringing people together. And it seemed to help out. And afterward, I was able to get enough private time away from her to let her know the kids were driving Qiang and I nuts.
She laughed. “I told them I could place them, but they said they wanted to stay with you. They don’t trust me because of the other Medusa. Just like that robot at Caligari’s will trust you more than anybody else on this planet. And I trust you, because you’re trying to save it and them. But you’re still that nasty badass bitch, and that scratches some itches for me, too.”
I growled. “Really wish the house wasn’t full of kids right now.”
“We’ll get them placed and make up for it. You might want to rethink getting pregnant if you dislike kids so much. You can see if the Collector has anything that can help with that.” She smiled at me.
I booped her on the nose. “I know what you’re trying to do, talking about kids and getting preggers to make me less horny. Joke’s on you, thinking about being your baby momma is a turn-on for me.”
Which was a weird thing to figure out on the fly.
Armed as best as I could with the knowledge from the refugees, it was time to go on the offensive. And since I was in a lighthearted mood, I even threw on some music to listen to. Something to get me pumped. Jazzed. That sort of thing. Science and rationality are one thing, but it’s also rational to understand the effects of emotions and use them to your advantage. Like when I played the song “Legal Assassin” while throwing on my armor even though only the last minute and thirteen seconds of it fits me.
Curious children, some teens hoping for a peek and some kids wondering what the music was, got to at least see me throw the power armor on. It was fun and theatrical. At the end of it, this one teen girl in the group was like “Whoa.”
Back to Philadelphia for me, ready, willing, and expecting to resort to violence. We hadn’t been that far from his, which was dug out from inside of a complex of stores. All the stores being shut down made it easier to stay hidden there.
According to the kids, the last line of defenses they had to deal with was the store they emerged from being locked up tight with stronger glass on the door and windows, and a door with an digital lock that could keep people in. I circled around slowly in the Flyer, stealth mode up. I found that one because Caligari the Collector isn’t Caligari the Window Installer. It looked like chunks of the glass had been gauged out. There were claw marks that tore a hole big enough to let someone out. I decided to stay in stealth so I could hover there and do a little recon. I popped a drone out and sent it in closer. If I was him and couldn’t get this closed up, it’d be the place to concentrate my defenses.
I went ahead and popped a few cameras with the drone. No response. Damn drone didn’t have all the fancy visual modes I’d have preferred, so it was a team effort. The Flyer could shift over to let me see things outside the usual visual spectrum, but holy shit that was tough in the daylight. And unless I wanted to shove the nose of my aircraft right up against the shop, there wasn’t a way for it to filter out all the solar bukakke. That’s on me for not going at night. At least the drone gave me a visual on the inside of the store. Cleaned out, empty even. No pressure pads waiting for me, no tripwires, no paint cans attached to strings, no bear traps hidden under toilet seats. That last one is very important, because your minions will learn not to use that toilet, leaving them the cleanest ones in there, and the toilet most likely to be used by an intruder who really needs to get something out in a hurry.
So I bit the bullet and hopped out, staying in stealth mode with my armor. I brought some more drones with me, but moved the little whirling, helicopter rotor thingies up out of sight. Nope, no lasers. No need to deploy my foolproof disguise as a kitty cat. You can fuck a lot of things up if people think you’re a cat.
Let’s see… next would be the gas trap down the stairs. The guy who belches green gas inhaled it long enough for the one of them who is stronger to lift it up. It was sitting on the ground. Looked like the lifting mechanism was broken. I squeezed past even though it blocked much of the passage and directed the drones in to follow me because the materials were making it tougher to maintain a remote connection. I put the Flyer into a hover mode. That had been triggered by a pressure plate. Around the corner was the corridor full of bees and burn marks from how they killed the bees. It’s a classic trap, but not efficient. Still, no evidence anything was being replaced.
The way in and out from here was more labyrinth than maze. Uh, just something I’ve read, where labyrinth’s were depicted, counter to the old Greek myth, as having only one path. It was long and winding, but impossible to get lost. People build them like that as a form of meditation. These hallways were an underground path you couldn’t get lost in, but it’s a dangerous journey. With all the storefrongs, I doubt there’s just one exit or entrance, which completely throws the comparison to a labyrinth or maze out the door.
And instead of a minotaur, I found a bunch of cages and glass containers with nothing in them. The lights were all off, too. Except for a blinking red one on top of a robot. Not an automaton, I think. The fresh arm on this thing looked familiar. This was Caligari’s guard bot, left behind for some reason. A parting “fuck you” to any cops or supers who showed up. It sensed the drones and let out a blaring siren sound. Good disorientation measure, I have to say. It raised both arms, including the one I made for it. A pair of grenades popped out, glowing purple and heading right for the space in the middle of the drones. Which happened to be occupied by me at that point.
I jumped and scattered the drones, who set to work firing on the robot. One went for the head, another for its original arm, and the other two tried to cut its legs out from underneath it. Nothing got through. A spiderweb of glowing light filled the air that none of the bullets penetrated. Not fair. There were gaps in between that 80s neon spiderweb.
A rocket shot out and destroyed one of the drones. Another caught a laser, so at least we know this robot has variety. I headed for it around the time it lunged for another drone. Metal claws with the same neon glow as its shield erupted from its original arm and went right through the cheap metal and plastic of the drone. I snapped its head off with one good punch, an energy sheathe building up around my other hand. That one I slammed through the robot’s chest. Both arms reversed, with the claw swiping for my head. The claw itself embedded in my helmet and got stuck there while I was using my knowledge of its newer arm to pop that one off. It was close enough for me to feel heat and wetness. I swung the new arm at the old one. The same time I did this, the old one retracted its claw into the arm so it could pull back, pop it out, and go for my chest. My swing deflected it. I dropped that arm and wrenched the older one off.
The robot brought its legs together and shot into the air on a plume of fire. The drones took some potshots but didn’t hit anything important enough to stop it. The ceiling above it retracted, giving my eyes a lot more solar bukkake to adjust to while the robot made its escape and leaving me in the abandoned den of Caligari the Collector. Error messages and danger messages from the Flyer rushed me. I hopped up to the opening and saw the Flyer visible and listing, with the rear ramp down. I heard feedback as speakers below me turned on and Caligari’s voice issued forth. “Wonderful performance, my cloaked friend. I would love to study your armor, but the capabilities displayed in your fight will need be enough. You will have to try harder to steal that robot you were interested in. Yes, using the quick-release mechanism built into the arm gave you away, builder.”
I heard Qiang’s cry over the speakers too. “Momma!”
“I used to have children of my own,” Caligari said. “I’d like them back. Your child for my exhibits. You handled my robot far better than they did, so it should be easy enough for you.”
I called up Medusa real quick, trying to make sense of this. I heard worry in her voice as she picked up and said, “Gecko?”
“I’m fine, but did he attack there? He says he has Qiang.”
“No. I tried calling. We just noticed she’s not here. I think she snuck aboard the Flyer.”
I directed it closer while keeping an ear out for Caligari’s gloating attempt at a deal. “…back to the space I had to leave because of their escape and I will know. My sensors show me everything that happens in there. Then, your daughter will be returned unharmed, and I’ll even consider selling you the robot you expressed a desire for. There’s no reason we can’t handle this like adults.”
“What happened? Are you ok?” Medusa asked. “How did he get Qiang?”
I hopped onboard the Flyer when it got close enough and saw some evidence of how that happened. There was blood around in there, and a dead giant tardigrade that had lots of stab wounds all over its body. “Looks like Qiang invited herself along and hid in the Flyer. I didn’t notice. Stabbed the shit out of this guy’s pet, but maybe he had another, or another robot. He wasn’t at the base. It’s abandoned, but he wants me to bring the refugees we rescued back there to get Qiang.”
“Gecko…” she started to say. I could hear agony in her voice. I know she loves Qiang, too. And she knows what I’d do to get my girl back. Caligari’s going to know what I’d do, too.
Amazingly, the refugees weren’t hiding when I got back. It took a bit to get there with one of the engines damaged, but Medusa was waiting out front for me, running up to hug me. Even in the middle of the kidnapping, she still fussed over little things like the bloody head wound I’d received through my armor. She’s gotten so good at knowing what I’m thinking that she even commented on the kids all gathered around at my front door before I could say anything. “They want to help you after what you did for them.”
I wasn’t in a mood for heart to hearts and Hallmark movies. I was pretty seriously considering giving Caligari the kids, then double-crossing the Collector and tearing his heart out. Then came the group hug from that whole bunch. Terrible fucking night for rain.
The immediate aftermath of the retaking of Washington wasn’t any smoother than grabbing the Nuclear Football was. The codes weren’t still active, by the way. I’d rather not go into details how I know, but I know. The national guard ended up moving conveniently slowly through the same areas of the District that the Exemplars prioritized. They got K Street cleaned up in a hurry, though. But the main threat was over. The Exemplars were mopping things up with the aid of some gangs and mutual aid groups until the military swept in one night and decided that was the time to enforce some weapons laws. Officially, the Exemplars stood by and let them get taken.
But that early morning raid didn’t go off without a hitch. They had a couple wagons out for all the suspects they arrested. Medusa hit the first one hard enough to cave in the engine. I was more refined, tossing a shrapnel grenade into the cabin of the other. All the soft tissue damage, none of the danger to the passengers in the back end, who all disappeared, along with the evidence. And some odd digital distortion messed with records of who they were even going after. The warrants could have been handy for that, if they didn’t go up in a fire. It was all a real clusterfuck of police work. Personally, I think someone should resign.
When the press corps finally returned, word got out that the President was supposed to have a ceremony honoring some of the “heroes” of the occupation. Just none of the Exemplars, or the local leaders. Just cops, firefighters, EMTs, and the like. Give them a medal instead of anything that would improve their lives, but don’t even bother recognizing all the inconvenient people. Cap off the heroic storyline with a big ceremony.
But this particular section of the story isn’t over yet. Not all of the dead have been accounted for. Like my girlfriend, Medusa, one of the few heroes who can take me in a fight and live to tell about it. Except someone tried to have us killed when we were keeping the last bunch of cultists from setting off a nuclear firestorm. She was sure it was the President. He’d tried to tell us he couldn’t scramble the Air Force to shoot down the presidential jet the cultists took, but then a fighter showed up to blow us out of the sky when we’d accomplished our goals. I could follow her logic on that. She had threatened him before.
I’d taken a quick trip home to pick up my daughter. Little Qiang had missed us and I’d missed her. It’s unfair to leave her behind so much, but I also shouldn’t bring her along on my adventures. Armor or no armor, she’s just a kid who deserves a better life than fighting. Or abandonment. The both of us met Medusa at a bar that had seen better days. Some of the harder-to-reach stains were still around from when they had to clear the place of zombies. The doors need to be replaced; they had wood pieces nailed to them from where zombies had broken through parts. A pump-action shotgun hung over the bar, stock and barrel covered with tally marks.
“Hey other mommy!” Qiang said, running to my nemesis at a booth against the wall and hopping into her lap for a hug.
Medusa gave a happy “Oof!” and caught her, squeezing her tight. The look she gave me seemed a little sheepish. She rubbed Qiang’s back. “Hey baby.”
I sat down across from the both of them. “Lovely spot here. A place for survivors.”
A waiter stopped by and dropped off some beer for myself and Medusa, along with a root beer for Qiang. We had ourselves a nice meal with Qiang, listening to her talking about her cartoons and her books. I even let her have her pick of some of the fancy jewelry one of the museums around here misplaced during the recent unpleasantness. When she was sleeping on a bed in my Flyer, Medusa and I sat down in the cockpit to discuss what the future holds. Not the baby thing, or anything like that.
“What’s it feel like to be dead?” I asked, pointing with a thumb toward the screen and the image of the city.
“I’m not officially dead yet, but it could be useful. I can see why you like it,” she smiled. She grabbed the chair to hold herself steady when I plopped her feet up in my lap and started undoing her shoes. She makes about the closest sound a human can to a purr when getting a foot rub.
“People hate me. Liking you so much, they could see it as a betrayal if you decide to play dead,” I suggested.
She purred and closed her eyes. “I see my options as playing dead or punishing the President and making sure he doesn’t try this again before he’s out of office. No way he wins re-election.”
“Strange things happen. The pandemic and the zombies show that a lot of people have no interest working together to deal with a threat to their lives. Especially when they can pretend it’s not their life threatened.”
“Pessimist,” she said.
“Gotta know what’s wrong to fix the problem,” I countered. Not that I cared being labeled a pessimist. I am one, and worse.
She squirmed a little as I inadvertently rubbed a ticklish spot. “Ok, so how’s this? We’ll meet him after the ceremony. If he announces I’m dead, I stay dead and you get to remove him from office.”
You know, killing the President isn’t such a big deal at this point. I’m sure I’d find some way to enjoy it.
Medusa continued, “But if he doesn’t say anything, I’ll make sure to get something compromising on him and hold you over his head like the Sword of Damocles.”
The ceremony was held the next morning. That alone should be enough to kill over. Everyone’s sleep is all screwy from the entirety of the fucked-up times we live in. Venus showed up. Without all the metal in her body like I have, she doesn’t set off alarms. She’s never been shy about hiding her face with how public her heroics have been, but she’s also been in power armor for a couple years now. So she attended, I watched it on TV, and I met up with her afterward to bring her a hot dog from a food truck run by a Deep One immigrant from Ricca.
“Status unconfirmed,” I said while she scarfed down the hot dog.
“Mhm,” she mumbled between mouthfuls. I took her hand and we began to walk, taking a leisurely stroll back to where I parked the Flyer. There, she sat down to play a game with Qiang while I donned my armor. She looked at me, then down to a circle of holodiscs I’d set up on the ground. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
The White House can be tricky to sneak into, but there are several holes left open when the guy in charge of the whole place is incompetent. Like when you piss off a woman who has worked closely with the Secret Service before and who they like more than you. Medusa, in this case. She still had friends who managed to survive everything from me to zombies, and they were willing to let me in on the condition that I not physically harm anyone. They didn’t say anything about emotional harm, so I headed up to the Presidential bedroom to see what dirty laundry he had.
As Presidents go, it was pretty standard. Some women’s clothes in his size. No big deal there. Pills, coke, and heroin. I think he’d be a lot more chill if he was smoking weed. Ooh, nice, dirty photos on the personal cell phone. Geez, this President’s so crappy, he can’t even get a hot mistress. Not to be too mean about looks here. JFK set the bar really high with Marilyn Monroe. Maybe this guy’s into that sort of thing too. I should be less judgmental about the asshole’s tastes. I still kept the photos, along with footage of all that stuff up close and personal in the Presidential bedroom. Oh, neat, he had a bust in the room too. Thomas Jefferson. He’d turned that one around so he faced the wall like a fun little prude.
Enough tourism. I had what I wanted, so I stopped by the office to talk business. I waited at the door. “Medusa, you at a stopping point?”
“Pausing. Ok, ready.”
When I opened the door, the hologram system synced up with the holodiscs. I became hidden under an image of Medusa in civilian clothes and a mask. And when she spoke, it came out of my suit for the President, and an assistant, to hear. “Afternoon, Mr. President. We really should talk about your attempt to kill me.”
“You survived!” he said, standing up He was a boxer guy, but not because of any interns hidden down there. He glanced down at his lack of pants, then sat, “Someone spilled some soup, my apologies.”
“You have a lot more to apologize for than soup. Start with trying to blow me up.”
He held his hands up. “I told you, the Air Force wasn’t under my full control.”
“How did they find me?” Medusa crossed her arms. I copied the movement even though no one could see me.
“The cult-!” the President started, standing up but leaning over the desk for propriety.
“The cult ordered themselves fired on?”
The President shook his head. “Fine, why not? They’re religious fanatics!”
“All that with the plane’s radio and phone lines down?” Medusa asked.
The President went silent for a moment, red building up in his face. “Whatever you think you know or are going to accuse me of, know that you will not come out of this looking good for attempting to assassinate me.”
“I’m not trying to do anything. As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m not even here. The only record of me being anywhere near the White House are your recordings of this conversation. So if I were you, I’d think very carefully about how I spent a week straight fighting zombies, raided one of the jets you use for Air Force One, took out the last of the cult, survived a fighter jet, then walked in here like I own the place.”
The President sat back in his chair. “You owe me for a fighter plane, by the way.”
Medusa laughed. “Take it up with my friend.”
“Friend?” asked the Leader of the Free World.
The image of Medusa vanished, replaced with the swirling cloud of darkness I used to obscure my presence. The best the President could do was a glimpse of sharp claws swiping through the cloud as I jumped onto his desk and said in a deep, distorted voice. “Me!”
I vanished as well, leaving him to create a puddle under his chair that the assistant rushed to try and clean up. I imagine he had another one later when he found Thomas Jefferson’s head in his bed, with ketchup packets to simulate blood and give me something to write the message. “I was here, too.”
It should be obvious by now that killing off the figurehead of a bunch doesn’t necessarily end the whole problem. But it turned the tide. The Dominionists are still a problem, but some of them are surrendering rather than dying for their faith. I’ll bet plenty of others are demoralized now. If it were me, I’d have attacked right when they got the news. But them, I’m a murderous bitch who’d prefer them dead to surrendering. Same difference, if this gutless President sticks to the traditional punishment for treason.
At least he and his guys finally moved back into Washington. He got some fanfare, mostly from folks who didn’t live in the city itself. Those folks had decided to share a drink with Medusa and the rest of the gang who actually showed up and lent a hand. I was invited too, but I felt weird accepting. I joined in only to kill Reagan again. Barring any more interference from time travelers, his threat is over for good. Time to go hang out with my daughter.
Or it should have been. Medusa’s victory drink got interrupted, causing her to interrupt my victory celebration. “Whatcha need, babe?” I asked of the voice in my ear as I strolled through the dark, arms full.
“Where are you? Are you in the middle of something?” she asked, frantically.
“I don’t want to say,” I answered.
“You mean I don’t want to know,” she said.
“Yep!” I didn’t have to be quiet. The curators still weren’t back to this museum, and they have insurance anyway. No big deal. “Need me to pick up anything?”
“Yeah, a football. THE football.”
“The ancient football of Amun-Ra?” I posited. A legendary sports artifact said to have been forged by an Egyptian sun god cult. Nah, probably not. “…The Nuclear Football?”
“The President just called. Son of a bitch didn’t get the codes out when he evacuated. His people are back and they found the body of the person who was handcuffed to it. His hand is missing and so is the case with the codes in it.”
“They really oughta booby trap that thing.” I said. I had an idea where this was going, so I started hurrying on back out, ready to stash my loot in my Flyer.
“The President’s people are scrambling to change the codes and certify the loyalty of the nuclear staff, but he’s worried they won’t get it done in time. It’s a mess out there. He’s requested our help one last time in all this.”
“Are we bad enough dudes to save the President from getting nuked?” I asked. I kicked open the museum door and ran down the steps to the Flyer. I ran in and started strapping the paintings down, right next to the bust of Lincoln I took from the White House.
I could tell from her voice that she was running, “Can you pick me up by the White House? It’s you and me on this.”
I had the Flyer activate remotely, close up, and launch while I busted out a tarp to hide stuff. She’d know. First thing she asked when she hauled herself up the deployment line of the trapdoor in her armor and looked around was, “What did you steal?”
“That’s not important right now. We’ve got nukes to stop!” I said, deflecting.
Medusa shook her head, but jogged to the cockpit. She checked around the cockpit, then plugged in a USB stick. “The President says they stole one of the jets used for Air Force One. This will let us track the transponder.”
They had a lead on us, but they hadn’t used it well. What were they going to do, flee to Mexico or Canada? The trip gave us time to work out a plan based on blueprints of the plane that would normally be more secured than JFK’s sex tapes. She ran a gloved finger from the door to the cockpit. “We need to secure the pilot. These fanatics could secure themselves inside and launch the missiles.”
“My guess is, they’ll start launching as soon as they know we’re there, on breach at the latest,” I said.
“Two targets, two of us. One of us needs to take the cockpit, the other needs to hunt down the briefcase with the codes in them and stop the launch, which can be done from the plane’s phone systems.” She pointed to a panel toward the rear of the plane. “This panel controls the phones.”
Inside my helmet, I raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know that?” She was right, but that wasn’t clearly marked on these blueprints the President sent over. Lack of transparency just making our job harder.
“I’ve been invited before,” she said. Her finger swept toward the cockpit. “If something happens, there should be a way to disrupt the phone systems from the cockpit.”
Looking it over, it struck me that a much simpler solution to this entire thing was available to us. “Why doesn’t anybody just shoot it down? Either blow the whole thing up and they’re not calling anyone, or at least send the plane into freefall. Hard to dial out in a situation like that. They have a way to track it, just like us.”
She looked at me, then immediately pulled out her phone and dialed. I didn’t hear a dialtone. The person on the other end picked up quickly. It wasn’t long before Medusa talked to herself, or likely to the person she called through her armor’s integrated comms, “Hey, why don’t you just shoot this thing down?”
She crossed her arms and started tapping her boot on the floor. After a second, she pointed to her head. “He’s talking to someone. Oh, yeah, I’m still here.” She listened to something on the other end, then started growling. “With all due respect, I’m tired of cleaning up your messes.” Finally, she shoved her phone back into a slot on her armor that closed up around it. “The Air Force is fighting itself right now. The President doesn’t know who to trust there.”
I facepalmed. “Perfect. Wonderful. Let’s roll this shit train out of the station then. Who’s going after what?”
“Can you fly a plane?” she asked. When I nodded, she said, “You take the cockpit. If something goes wrong, you would be prepared to scuttle the plane.” She’s got a point there.
We ended up catching up to them over Arkansas, by which point Medusa had taken the tarp off and given me as stern a look as possible through the mirrored visor of her helmet.
“The eve of our possible death is not the time to complain about this,” she said, nudging Abraham Lincoln’s bust with her boot.
I picked her up in a hug, “Hey, I believe in you. You will complain the shit out of this later.”
She giggled. When I set her down, she returned the favor and lifted me up. “And you’ll get to brag about hijacking Air Force One to steal some nuclear codes. Now let’s do this.”
She set me down and we opened the trapdoor, pressure alarms going off in the cockpit. I set the Flyer to follow above the jet in stealth mode while I was busy.
“Ready?” Medusa asked.
“Ready,” I answered.
“Music?” she asked.
I put on Seal’s “Fly Like An Eagle.”
Medusa held out a hand. “Wait. Too slow. Give me something to get my heart pumping.”
“I want to have your baby,” I said.
“What?” she asked, looking over suddenly.
“Nothing, I didn’t say anything,” I said, preempting a follow-up question by blasting out the opening riffs of “Danger Zone” and throwing myself out of the bottom of a perfectly good aircraft to plummet toward a jet. At least I’d remembered the heavy-duty parachute for power armor. I didn’t use it, or the cable in my hand. Instead, I popped my Nasty Surprise and embedded it in the plane just above the door to catch myself. That set off alarms inside, but those were quickly overwhelmed by the alarms from me tearing open the door. I swung myself inside and pulled the mini-chainsaw back into my the underside of my forearm armor. Still holding onto the cable, and held on tight while Medusa slid down it to be helped inside. I got her in just before a panel slid into place and locked down the opening where the door used to be.
“Neat,” I said. Medusa didn’t say anything before running off, heading down toward the accommodations on the vessel. I broke for the front of the plane. A cultist stumbled out, holding a damn musket. Ornate mystical etchings spiraled up the barrel. I grabbed the thick metal of the barrel and bent it around so it faced the guy. Somehow, through my armor, the metal felt like it burned. He didn’t fire, and I’m 99% sure it wouldn’t have followed that extreme curvature if he did. He swung the gun at me instead. Again, I felt a burning sensation when it smacked my face, bringing a growl to my lips. I twisted in the direction of the hit and ducked, sweeping the cultist off his feet. I came back up to my feet and stomped my way past him, smooshing his head into the carpet of the plane along the way.
Another cultist saw me coming and threw a knife at me. I caught it in midair and pulled a little sleight of hand to make it disappear. When he turned to run, I caught him and made it reappear in a very uncomfortable spot for a knife to be in, leaving him to scream in a higher-pitched voice on the floor of the plane.
They hadn’t locked down the cockpit by the time I got there. I could see a pilot and co-pilot up there, with some really big robes. No, wait. Birds. They rushed out at me, as did a shitload from behind me and to from a couple cabins all around. I clocked one, but the others swarmed around, cawing and trying to peck at me. The little peckers couldn’t find a way past my hard outer shell, but they obstructed the view. Too bad that was all they could do in this environment. Then they parted just long enough for Unkindness to give me a punch that bounced my head off the wall and left a dent in it.
“Got some strength to you,” I said. He grabbed my head and smacked it against the wall in a different place. I bounced back off and grabbed his wrist. He threw a punch with the other hand. I caught it, leaving us locked up.
“Why won’t you just die?” asked the undead superhero. His costume spread out behind him, forming wings. They didn’t even flap as he rose into the air. He pushed me some, forcing me to step back along the plush carpeting of the Presidential jet. Then he used the leverage and force of his flight to go for a headbutt. I ducked and brought my cybernetic tail forward. It punched through his chest with a ripping noise. He looked down on it in shock. Maybe the birds that let him see me also let him see with the tip of the tail rotated around and shot flame to incinerate his head. The birds all collectively went a bit crazy after that, going all over the place, flying off further into the plane.
I left Unkindness’s corpse behind and ran for the cockpit door. I found the co-pilot standing beside it, peering into the bird-swarmed hallway. I pulled him past and closed the door behind me, ignoring the scream, the hand dropping to the floor, and a bit of blood. I turned to the pilot, who put his hands up.
“Good,” I said. “Step away from the controls.”
I put us on autopilot, then called in to check on Medusa. “Cockpit secured by the motherfucking Lizard Queen.”
She didn’t pick up. I kept an eye on the cameras in case the pilot tried anything and looked over the plane’s console. Ah, there’s where they stuck all the communications switches. I flipped them all for now, to make sure nobody was making any calls they didn’t need to. “Phone lines are down. You alive back there?”
I turned to glance back at the pilot, wondering if decapitation would help my sudden anxiety.
“I’m here,” she panted over the line. “Codes are secure.”
We got a surge of radar contacts. A gigantic red light bigger than my head went off on the wall. “Holy shit, that’s a big alarm. We’ve got things inbound.”
“Air Force in rebellion, my ass,” Medusa said. “We need to get off this plane.”
I jumped out of the chair and past the cultist, who still had his hands up. I tugged the door open and ran past the downed and de-handed cultist laying there in shock still. The one behind me took a look at the alarm and radar screen and decided to follow after. I met back up with Medusa at the door. She had a necromancer in a red, white, and blue robe with her. She took one look at me and said, “Shit. Your chute.”
The guy in the flag robe cackled. “You’re not getting out of here without our help after all!” He shut up when Medusa smacked him upside the head with a metal case.
The world exploded. I got my senses back plunging end over, with a big hunk of metal coming at me. I was so mixed up, even my music ended up on random, with the Bayonetta version of “Fly Me To The Moon”. I opened my arms wide and welcome the piece of plane, which smacked into me and rolled. I rolled with it and stood up, leveraging my weight to stop it rolling anymore. I gave my chute a try, but the shredded fabric trailed out above me and did nothing else.
“Visual on a survivor. It’s one of the Exemplars,” I heard over a nearby frequency.
“You have your orders,” someone said on the other end. I ignited the energy sheathes around my lower arms in anticipation, trying to get a fix on whatever was going on.
“First mistake,” I broke in to tell them. “Assuming I’m one of the good guys.” Out of the clouds came a hail of gunfire. High-velocity shit. It shot holes through the piece of fuselage I stood on and shot up my legs, but most of my body was protected by the energy sheathes and the armor did a good job keeping me standing. Didn’t make it hurt any fucking less! Thanks to the energy sheathe, flattened bullets scattered into the air around me instead giving me new holes to breathe through.
With the aid of my armor, the visual of where the shots came from, and the Psycho Flyer that was dropping after me and everyone else, I got an idea where in the clouds the offending jet was and took a leap. Yeah, my legs still fucking hurt.
The jet cleared cloud cover and the pilot had time to see me just before I smacked into his cockpit. “Holy-!” he started. It shattered under the release of energy from my armor. “-Fuck!” he finished, looking up at me.
“Second mistake, getting on my bad side.” I grabbed the pilot and ripped him out of his seat, tossing him into the sky. The co-pilot saw all this and hit the ejector seat, knocking me off and ruining that way of going about it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of another piece of wreckage, part of the wing. A familiar power armor clung to it, looking over at me. I maneuvered over that way. “Medusa. Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.”
She jumped off toward me. We collided in midair and held each other. “In other words, hold your hand?”
She hit her chute. It slowed us down a little, but it wasn’t enough. Then the Flyer dropped past, drop cable whistling. We both grabbed it, wrapping it around us. Medusa pulled a cord to detach her chute. “In other words, I love you.”
With us secure, I brought the Flyer out of its dive. The forces involved wrenched on us, pushing my stomach down somewhere south of my tailbone from feel of things. We held tight to the cable and to each other, and when we were finally horizontal, I had the mechanism inside start reeling us in. It was all very romantic until I told her, “Gravity just squeezed my bladder like a thing of toothpaste, so don’t be surprised if I’ve pissed myself.”
“Wait until the President realizes he failed to kill us,” Medusa said.
Oh to be a fly on the wall of wherever the most recent President was hiding out. So I could kill him. I know I tend to be a hypocrite about things like decency and doing the right thing, so take this with a grain of cyanide. But I sometimes justify the things I do by pointing out that a mankind willing to set aside its differences for the greater good wouldn’t give me something to exploit, or that they need to suffer to learn to be better, or just that I’m punishing them. And not the good kind of punishing where Medusa bends me over and whips out the paddle
By now, y’all can guess he did something fucked up. Medusa insisted I take a break and that we were all capable of it. After the decapitation of the Washington Monument, the zombies are less organized and they’re thinning out. I guess my superhero girlfriend actually cares enough about my well-being to suggest I get out of armor, take a shower, and catch some more stable sleep. I’m personally opposed to her smelling me after that long stuff in power armor, but I’ve had this really annoying itch on the bottom of one of my feet for like a week now.
We were all stuffed into a hotel, so it was easy catching a shower and a nap. I was dragging my armor into the command center/conference hall while de-ranking it. It was quiet despite all the supers, Exemplar soldiers, and locals in there. They were busy listening to a call on speakerphone and Medusa arguing with the caller. “You can’t be serious.”
“I wish I had the manpower to aid you, but my position is precarious. I’m hamstrung by a mutinous military and the incompetent cabinet approved by my predecessor in the office. I fled because I had no other choice. You’re all heroes for staying and fighting, you truly are.”
“That’s bullshit. I don’t want to be a dead hero!” called out a local in the crowd. From the brown stains on his clothing, he must have been out in the thick of it recently. He was a recipient of my medical nanites. Medusa didn’t want to fight a virus the same time we were dealing with zombies, so she’s doing her best to distribute the nanite water I’ve imported into the country. I’m selling some of it at a huge mark-up to those with the money to afford it, and that’s funding the altruism my girlfriend decided to force me into.
“Mr. President,” Medusa said with more rage than I thought someone could manage while being respectful. Even at the heights of our mutually-sustained hate boners for each other, she never respected me enough to be that angry and polite. “Courage is exceptional for a reason. I hoped you were an exceptional man after all the pain your predecessors put us through.”
“That’s why I have you heroes to go out and be the self-sacrificing paragons we need right now,” the President said. It said a lot that I was trying to clean out and remove week-old stink from my power armor but a phone call from the President of the United States was disgusting everyone more.
“Don’t you ever use our selflessness as an excuse for inaction again.”
“I don’t like your tone. I could still have you brought up on charges,” POTUS said.
“Who gives a shit?!” someone listening in the crowd yelled.
“I can do worse to you, Mr. President,” Medusa said. “I know the world’s best assassin.” She grabbed the phone’s receiver and slammed it back down, cutting off the President like a beautiful badass. A badass who just threatened to send me after the President because he wouldn’t send people in to retake Washington but thought he could handle arresting her.
The living President, whose name I never even bothered learning because we all thought he’d be killed in no time during the civil war, was failing at his job. The dead one, Ronnie Reagan, had himself an announcement from the Oval Office. They flashed the Presidential Seal on this weird text message override program. What an intriguing system. The message that followed had a link to the website of a prominent right-wing news network, where the Seal appeared again before cutting to Reagan seated in the Oval Office. They’d given him a touch-up from a mortician, but there was still an uncanny valley look to him, not helped by the glassy, unfocused stare of the dead.
“My fellow Americans, I come before you with full awareness of the challenges of my office. The men who held this office the past few years have been weak and cowardly. Now, regular men and women pay the price. I’m here to assure you, our democracy and our economy remains strong. To honor that resilience, I am calling on all governors to reopen their states and stop living in fear. Death is not the end, and I promise that everyone who succumbs to the pandemic will be brought back. The cure cannot be worse than the disease, ladies and gentlemen. Have faith in our republic and in me, and you will be rewarded by the good lord.”
After that opening, he went into a rambling speech going into more detail. Like a series of loans for large businesses to return bankrupt corporations from the dead. Or the need for a national think tank of the juiciest brains around to try and disprove climate change. He even decided that the time was ripe to revisit his Star Wars initiative that he’s now renaming Star Force, meant to protect the free world from the dangers of space communists.
When it was all said and done, the right-wing network cut to a show where one of the cultists, still in full robe, had on this millionaire journalist who had fled to another country years back. The journalist was in the middle of assuring everyone there was no difference between the zombie actively trying to kill everyone, and the Democratic candidate for president, when I turned it off.
I left my armor aside for a bit. It needed to air out, and I figured I’d see if Medusa needed me for anything. Killing Reagan was already my responsibility. Which, is actually why when I approached and saw she’d watched the same fuckery on her phone, I apologized. “Sorry I haven’t gotten him yet.”
Medusa waved it off. “You didn’t bring him back as a zombie. I’m real pissed at Mobian. He should know better. Torian played a role, but Mobian’s supposed to be one of the good guys. It’s frustrating that he thinks so little of us he can play with our lives and tell people with a straight face ‘you need to let a dictator win for some mysterious future good reason’. So many self-described allies are fine letting us die…” She chuckled. “I bet you’re happy having corrupted me.”
I hugged her. “Hey, don’t sell yourself short. You corrupted me, too.”
We held each other for a bit, just feeling close, feeling each other. “I need to push through and get in there,” I said to Medusa. “The White House, I mean.”
“Should have known you only have eyes for Reagan,” Medusa joked. I stuck out my tongue at her. She laughed, making me wish she’d never eventually hate me and break up with me. “Every minute he’s in power, more people die. The other guy’s nothing special, but he’s also not as bad as this ghoul. If you need cover, I can talk with the locals. We’ll see if they have a way to help.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got an idea,” I lied to Medusa.
She poked me in the chest, between the boobs. “Let’s go talk to the locals first.”
I intended a self-destructive attack, fast and hard. The White House doesn’t just look pretty; the place is a fortress. Even once you get in, there’s a bunker underneath. The Secret Service can lock it down in minutes. What I was looking to do was what we in the business call a Booth. When someone absolutely, positively needs to die no matter the risk to the assassin, they can pull a suicidal attack that’s not meant to account for escape or personal safety. For obvious reasons, it’s the sort of thing ideology-based assassins go for more than contract killers.
One of the many values of listening to marginalized communities you’re trying to help is they’re really good at surviving there. Medusa dragged me along to talk to the same brown-spattered guy who interrupted her call with the President. “We need to get her into the White House. We need help, if there’s any ideas or resources you have.”
The guy looked me over. The name tag on his coveralls said his name was Dean. “Why do you need in?”
“I’m going to kill Ronald Reagan again,” I said.
Dean looked me over again. “You sure about that?”
“Yo, hold up,” said someone else, another of the locals. This guy had a handgun sticking out of his pockets, which stuck in my mind because it was such an easy way to take it and turn it on him. “She’s the one who I was riding with when she blew up the Washington monument. She don’t look like much, but she’s got armor and skills.”
“Word,” I said, which made both of those guys bust out laughing at me.
“Check it out,” Dean said, “I know someone who can help you, but you better do what you say you will, ’cause they’ll blame her for helping you if you don’t.”
More than a century after abolition, it’s unheard of for the White House to still have black servants. And some situations require a person to take a job no matter who they’re cooking for. The cultists were so happy to have the staff around again, they didn’t take a close enough look when she came to work that morning with a huge load of food. The need of the powerful for someone to serve them proved to be their undoing again. Proved their value to me, too.
For once, health food kept me healthy. The carrots, okra, collards, and other fresh veggies they piled on top of me shielded me from prying eyes. Raven eyes, too. She needed some helpers to lower the box onto a cart and wheel it inside. Away from Poe’s favorite foul, I could free myself of the veggies and commence my journey through the Presidential manor.
I kept careful eye out for any ravens hidden around. The congregation of them outside confirmed that the enchanted necromantic weapon I’d destroyed so recently hadn’t put Unkindness in the ground. I just hoped the cult was too stuck up to let them inside. The place had activity all around. Dominionist marines guarded it and walked the occasional patrol, missing the invisible killer in their midst. Cultists ran around. There were also White House staff and abandoned interns. The last group really helped me get where I needed to go. I tailed one of them into the Oval Office where he walked up to the desk to set down a cup of coffee.
“Thank you, son,” Zombie Reagan said. “Say, do you mind if I pick your brain?”
“Um, no sir,” the intern answered. Reagan lunged over the desk at him, grabbing the unpaid twenty-something’s head and drawing it closer to his lips. They were both shocked when the Presidential text override went off. The intern instinctively pulled his phone out with a hand that had been fending off the zombie attack a second before. Reagan had stopped, though, and they both looked down at the screen of his phone where the Presidential Seal was replaced with a view off the Oval Office showing the both of them. They looked up at where it had to be coming from, then down at the screen, then back up.
I’m the one who lunged forward to attack this time, appearing to them as an unclear, swirling mass. The world doesn’t need to know Psycho Gecko still lives. Reagan held the intern up in front of him, so the poor guy ended up with my fist through his face. When I pulled the body away, Reagan was shoving some of the guy’s gray matter into his mouth before he slammed a fist on a button. Part of it retracted and an M4A1 with attached grenade launcher popped out of the desk and landed in his hands. “Say hello to my little buddy, as the kids say.”
I let him shoot at me so everyone could see it didn’t work. The moment I saw him try to activate the grenade launcher, I reached for his hand. And I came away with it, too. He was really brittle and dry.
“Give that back!” he said. I held up the hand so the viewing audience could see it, then pushed down all but the middle finger.
“You degenerate pinko bastard!” Reagan said. He tried swinging the gun like a club. I ducked and dropped his hand. Sure, he had a gun, but my weapon when I arose was a lamp. The next time he swung the gun at me, I deflected it with my tail. I’m getting a little better with it. I smashed the lamp over Reagan’s head.
Behind me, marines filed in, along with Unkindness in place of the Secret Service. A cultist ran in, too, the one with the flag pin. “Stop!” he yelled. I twisted around Reagan and held him in front of me.
“Let him go and we’ll be lenient!” the cultist said.
I grabbed Reagan’s head and did some quick mental division, by which I mean I shoved my fingers down through the skull and in between the left and right parts of the brain, then pulled them apart.
The marines raised their rifles, but the cultist raised his hands. “Wait! We can’t risk damaging the brain any further.”
“Sic semper tyrannis,” a distorted and layered voice said from my armor. I squeezed what remained of the brain until it smooshed. There was no coming back for Reagan this time. The marines opened fire, and that wasn’t a big deal to me, but the cultist turned and fled. Unkindness grabbed him and started carrying him off under the understanding that they didn’t have the mans to counter me right now. The marines tried to do their duty, but as far as they knew, I vanished.
“From the hall of Montezuma,” I said, again distorted. The two closest marines felt their rifles twist in their hands to each other’s face, and fired. The other one in front of my pulled a combat knife and stabbed at the air. I caught it. “To the shores of Tripoli.” I twisted the knife up toward his face but he twisted to the side and dodged it. I broke his forearm to stop any further fancy acrobatics, the set my foot on his chest and pulled. Unlike, this guy bled when he lost a limb. I flipped the arm around and slapped the marine in the face with his own hand as he sunk to the floor, rapidly bleeding out.
“No one’s safe from me,” I said, cutting the Presidential override feed. I gave chase a little and even caught another cultist. I hung him from this big chandelier hanging over a staircase, but I the last I spotted of Unkindness and the cult’s leader, they had both taken off into the air in a mass of retreating ravens.
I suppose the tough part’s taken care of. And Medusa even gets a very public display of why the President doesn’t want to cross her.
I’d say we found Reagan, but he and his cult came forward. Not to turn themselves in. We foiled their plan to raise the dead of Arlington. When the government of this wreck of a country saw what was going on, they began to guard major cemeteries more thoroughly. There’s only so much they could do, though. There are too many graveyards. They had the resources needed to raise the same size of undead army piecemeal. And they had supers.
When the Million Moaner March shuffled into Washington, they weren’t as large as they would have been, but they had a few standout zombies in costumes. Unkindness soared overhead with his ravens. Whoever else the others are, he’ll definitely have to be dealt with. Just maybe not by me. All it takes is destroying the right enchanted weapon and the zombies connected to it become inanimate again. Whatever the cultists did to successfully create super zombies, they left them with a weakness that even the strongest of the zeds can’t defend against.
The marines who showed up to defend Washington from the oncoming horde of zombies did a good job. The first time engagements with the mass of dead, they put a disproportionate dent in them. The firefight was still going on when breaking news appeared and reporters from various right-wing news outlets and propaganda networks were gathered around a number of cultists. One cultist in a jet black robe wore a flag pin near the top and spoke to a reporter. “This is what we deal with as conservatives. This is censorship, terrorism, and, I’ll say it, slavery. They want to steal our hard-earned money as taxes without giving us a say. We can’t even organize a protest without the government gunning us down. We demand our First Amendment rights!”
“And you, sir, what do you have to say about what’s going on here?” asked a hot blonde reporter moving on to the cultist in the flag robe. I’d seen that one before at Arlington, but they disappeared when Unkindness retreated from the Exemplars.
“I think-” the man with the flag pin started, not waiting for the guy in the flag robe to speak for himself. He threw back the hood of the flag cultist’s robe dramatically when he continued, “it’s criminal what they’re doing to an esteemed elder statesman such as this.”
The embalmed face of ex-president Ronald Reagan stared back at the camera, eyes glassy. He opened his mouth and let out a garbled moan. From the way the reporter recoiled, his breath must have smelled as bad as his teeth looked. Guy had a serious case of meth mouth going on. He didn’t speak an solid words. Instead, one of the cultists had to hold him back from lunging after the reporters. Which still didn’t clarify for me if he was a normal zombie, or if they had succeeded in restoring his premortem intellect.
I’d spent all my time after the last encounter repairing the engines on my Psycho Flyer. I couldn’t shield them from the same kind of attack, though. There’s just not a lot of options to stop an aircraft being taken down by a determined raven. I always thought they were smarter than to resort to such suicide tactics, but Unkindness used them well.
I was ready and willing to link up with Medusa’s Exemplars. They’d gotten good at responding to smaller attacks on population centers. They’d even come up with a contingency for an all-out push on a major city like this appeared to be. As effective as a bullet to the brain is, organized resistance from supers is a game changer. And unlike the military, she planned to defend the areas where poor people lived.
“You see this?” she asked in my ear thanks to the comms. She’d been spending a lot of time at her headquarters again once this started. The Exemplars had shut down a lot of activities, but then she found out I had a stock pile of medical nanomachines and helped herself. I let her. As a result, even without armor, she could bring in her full staff to help chase down the undead menace.
“Yeah. Not a smart zombie. Makes me wonder how they covered for him initially back in the 80s.” I need to go back and get reacquainted with any divergences they might have cropped up. The Mobian and the Torian, rival time travelers, made sure to preserve the major events of history. That meant Reagan still served two terms and still ignored the AIDS crisis. But they seem to allow some play over minor events. Maybe those occurred. Or maybe there isn’t really a difference between a braindead Reagan who wishes to feast on the brains of the living, and the original version. He was close enough for maintaining the timeline, after all.
“Is your Flyer ready?” asked Medusa. I shrunk the news feed and pushed it to a corner of my heads-up display.
“Yep. Hope you guys got enough to stop that bunch of zombies. I think I saw some in Civil War uniforms.”
“I saw one of those in the crowd, too, but he had a tiki torch. That one was alive,” she informed me.
“Must be nice not having to fear zombies because you have shit for brains,” I noted, getting a laugh out of her.
“I cannot stay on the line just for you,” she said. “The marines are protecting K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. We need to hold more of the line. You’re going to be out headhunter.”
“That’s going to be tough if Unkindness can still see me somehow. Smartass ravens…”
“We’re… hold on. Do you see this?!”
I pulled up the news feed again, which showed the marines slowly ending their barrage of gunfire. Some continued as the zombies overran them and they realized they weren’t going to be spared, but most pulled back. The chyron at the bottom of the screen declared that the marines were standing down under orders from Reagan. That was clearly some bullshit right there. Reagan’s a drooling, garbled corpse. He didn’t make enough sense to give orders. The ones who defied the orders and kept firing ended up either abandoned by retreating marines or shot by comrades who agreed with the cult.
Medusa’s voice went cold. “Get to Washington. Headhunt. Take out Reagan if you can get to him, and as many super zombies as possible.” She sighed. “I trust your judgment, ok? I’m going to be too busy evacuating people to micromanage, but this is bad.”
Her statement was punctuated by footage of Marine One lifting off from the White House as the current living President abandoned the capital to escape the ravenous hordes of the undead and the flag-wearing cult directing them. It was a bad sign, but if even the military’s joined in, it might be the only option left. The whole damn place is so fractured, it shouldn’t even count as a superpower anymore. It was finally started to see peace again after all the bombings and shootings.
Well, nothing at all to be done about that unless I want to take over. What I can do instead is the headhunting. That’s just a fun term for going after leaders and other high-priority targets. It’s also a unique challenge when the head you’re pulling off tries to bite you after separating it from the body.
I turned off a lot of other news and social media feeds before long, too, when way too many people came out in support of a zombie horde that was killing poor people just because it also threatened the rich and powerful. There was even one guy who was interviewed who claimed to be a socialist, saying he’d only vote to oppose the zombies if someone paid him $6,000.
I don’t get why my weredeer alter ego wants to help these people.
It was nightfall before I reached the capital. The darkness was broken by fires in much of the city, in contrast to the influential sections being lit up. Anywhere there was light, there were bodies. The ones in the well-to-do section were scattered zombies and resting ravens. In the poor side of town, people fought house to house, hand to hand, brick to face. They had guns, too. I can’t really fault people who’ve been given up as a sacrifice by their leaders for not being perfect shots.
I saw a superhero flying over the scene. The guy I’ve seen a bit over the last year, with the glowing skin and a tank on his back with nuclear hazard symbols on it. He flew overhead, stopping on occasion to set a group of zombies on fire. Zombies didn’t have to worry so much about damage to their DNA, but they could be microwaved like anything else. And our nuclear super had to fight off birds like anyone else. I didn’t see Unkindness around, but I caught a glimpse of fog drifting through the city near the hero. I saw people flee, then fall over as something shiny spread over the ground.
Safe behind the cloak of my Flyer, I zoomed in. There was a woman walking in the middle of the mist and the ice. She wore an elegant, poofy dress. It didn’t distract enough away from the way her jaw and a chunk of her neck were missing, or the dead whites of her eyes.
I tried to land elegantly, but the roof of the building I dropped onto had been iced over as well. I slipped and knocked off a vent. That alerted the ice zombie lady, who turned to the sound. I was still invisible, and that gave me a moment’s surprise over her when I jumped. She raised a hand while I was in midair. It’s like the air was vacuumed into her hand and a cone of ice appeared instead. The ice clung to me and slowed my momentum, but didn’t stop me from crashing into her and sending the pair of us gliding across the ice and threw a window into a corner store.
Oh, I get it now. She sucked the heat from the air. Makes sense, given how hot and cold work.
She howled and rose to her feet. I did the same, but without the howling, or the getting to my feet. So I did nothing like what she did because I smacked her in the face with that big round mirror stores use to keep an eye on customers. It broke the mirror and sent some teeth flying. She spun around, ice beginning to coat her body from the inside out. It raced up her hands to form a pair of spiked fists. I threw myself under one and came up near the chip aisle.
Come on, come on… there we go. Perfect. I grabbed a spicy flavor of chip, tore the bag open, mashed them up in my fists, threw them into her eyes. “Eat capsaicin, you frigid bitch!”
She howled, so I guess she still had some capacity to feel pain and/or Scoville Heat Units. I rolled backwards onto my feet, sliding across the ice that spread along the ground. She lunged for me, a lance of ice stretch out of her fist. I opened one drink cooler door which deflected a swipe. She burst through another with a lunge. The last one, I ducked under her arm, grabbed her by the head, and pulled her into the door as I opened it. The thud and cracking shut her wailing up for a moment. Now I needed to break her brain.
I grabbed her and tossed her onto the shelf of chips, dragging her along it, my tail flapping behind me every which way. She tried to freeze my feet to the floor, but my armor helped me pull out of it as I tossed her into the bathroom. She had barely crashed through the door before kicking it back out at me. It jostled me for a moment since I was in midstep, then I punched through it, grabbed her, bonked her head against it, and kicked through to knock her against the far wall. I tore through the rest of the wooden door and grabbed the super zombie, forcing her face against the toilet and bringing the seat down. Once, twice, three times a lady. She nearly jabbed me with another spear of ice, but I avoided it, broke her hand off, and tossed it aside. Then I pressed my boot on the seat and gave it my all until I felt the snap and she went limp.
Just in case, I removed the head, leaving it in the toilet bowl, with the “Out of Order” sign hanging around the remains of her neck.
That was one down, but I had a lot of headhunting left in the Battle of Washington.
Medusa found us a lead. Which is nice, because I’ve been busy designing some things to make the zombie pest control situation a little less tedious. I made some incendiary grenades, but they smell pretty bad. I don’t think we have to worry about the element of surprise when it comes to zombies. I also redesigned a pistol to function as a flamethrower. It gets more usage out of the fact that it fires a quick burst of flame. It saves on fuel and makes the thing lighter, but the fact that it’s a modified handgun means it doesn’t handle all the fire so well. I’ve got my autofactory assembling a better design as more of a rifle. Or even a facemask. I don’t expect people to like the facemask option with the heat being what it is.
I’d be further along, but I spent awhile designing an add-on to my suit. I now have… a tail. A tail that can shoot fire. A tail that, when I first wore it, accidentally set my lair on fire. It’s a work in progress, and that progress gave me less time for the firearms.
So when Medusa had a lead, I was ready! And also glad that, soon, I wouldn’t be working so much with a group of people who were still on the hero side of things. Vigilantes and not fans of the laws, but still trying to help people. This zombie apocalypse doesn’t appear communicable. The only reason it stands a chance is that people risk dying if they get too close to each other. A couple of military units in their godawful biohazard suits have shot up a horde over in Maryland. A competent military response cold wrap this up or force them to go underground.
I sat around, waiting for her to get to my part of the plan. There was some sort of lodge or something they were going to hit up. Some social club for influential people in Richmond, Virginia. They expected living guards, so they wanted to bring in more people to try and round people up without killing everyone. I felt like that part was a bit of a knock against me. I felt that even further when she finished the briefing without telling me what I needed to do. I called her up real quick.
“Hey Gecko. How’s the tail coming?” she asked.
“Work in progress. But I do have guns and grenades y’all could use. You know, on the mission. I can just zip ’em on over to you whenever you want. Great time to let me in on my part of the plot. I’m great at sneaking in and subduing people.”
“I’m happy for your enthusiasm, but you’ve been too enthusiastic and it’s hindered the intelligence-gathering aspect of our mission,” she answered.
“I got you useful info from the mountains and I took care of the problem to boot,” I told her.
“You burned up the bodies and any documents we could use to identify them. It’ll take forever to figure it out from DNA testing. We don’t know who anyone was, who was involved, where the money was coming from, nothing. I appreciate you helping us, but this is the wrong operation for a resource like you. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well remember when you asked me how you looked in that purple dress? I lied. The straps stand out too much against your muscular shoulders and you would look better with clear straps. Or strapless!” Seeing as the phone equipment was part of my head, slamming the phone wasn’t a good option. Regular hanging up would have to do.
Qiang walked up and looked up at me. I smiled down at her. “Hey kiddo. I get left behind too, sometimes.”
She nodded, then pointed right in front of me to a large metal pot. “Are the meatballs done yet?”
“Indeed,” I said menacingly, thinking of turning my enemies into meatballs and spilling their guts like noodles. You know, fuck it, I’m 99% sure those aliens didn’t fix my brain. I shouldn’t have gotten that upset over not helping heroes. I should be happy to spend all my time at home with nothing but childcare, homeschool, and hobbies to keep me company. Well, with dinner just about ready and my daughter’s lessons over for the day, I cracked open one of my incendiary grenades for a sip. That is some truly foul-smelling stuff, but it’ll get you drunk.
I passed out early that night thanks to the drinking. It’s a good thing the sunlight didn’t light me on fire, I had so much of that stuff in me when I passed out and while I slept. Pretty sure my blood alcohol level was enough that I’d need a liquor license to give a blood donation. I felt like the walking dead until I topped myself off with nanomachines.
Medusa hadn’t come home that night. I checked out front, then winced and hid from the sunlight like Ben from Night of the Living Dead taking a shot to the head. Except I did my shots last night. I’ve been on a zombie movie kick for obvious reasons lately. As a supervillain having to take part in a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to be aware of and avoid some of the common pitfalls even if they didn’t all apply here. It’s the same reason I wanted to make damn sure my daughter didn’t remove her armor when she went with us. I figured most movies, her doing that would be the exact moment she got bitten. But if they spread by bite, some of those dead bodies on the mountain wouldn’t have needed to be raised separately.
It made the scenario much different from movies, but I wasn’t taking my chances. And some of the movies feature unusual scenarios. Like the Return of the Living Dead series, where the zombies are nigh-indestructible, capable of speech and thought, actively seek out brains, and are created by a mechanism that could raise the dead from a graveyard. Huh. Well so could these necromancers, ya know? And if I was a right-wing mage raising the dead to help me take over Washington, I’d pretty much have to stop by Arlington.
So I hijacked a government satellite passing by and took a snoop down on Arlington National Cemetery. There was a crowd on Roosevelt Drive, near the walkway up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They had chunks of wood they were offloading there, using a clear, paved space to build. A handful of them standing around wore the usual black robes, except one whose outfit looked like a flag. My first instinct was to keep it to myself, but for all my pettiness, I knew Medusa had a point. And I can’t be going around hating that they leave me out at the same time I’m so instinctively opposed to the hero work. So the way this is supposed to work is I stay petty, I run off and try to do this on my own, and this time the other guys have some way to beat me.
I sighed. Time to be all responsible and mature. I called her back up.
“You done acting like a baby?” she asked.
Time to bite my tongue. Remember, I love this woman for some reason. “Yeah, sorry. You’re right. I’m used to doing things my way and I messed up. How’d the op go?”
“We neutralized some Zeds and guards, but they don’t seem to know where the leadership is. No sign of the Reagan zombie either. We have some notes they made about a mass animation.”
“I think I know where they’re doing that,” I said. “I got the idea to check around graveyards since they can just raise the dead right out of the graves, and I prioritized where they’d probably want to go if they’re planning to take Washington D.C. There’s a small group of cultists at Arlington National Cemetery right now putting something together. They brought some zombies with them.”
“Good job. Can you send us what you have?” she asked.
All professional, no more sniping. No more bullshit like a high school TV drama.
I still went, of course. I came in loud and proud, dropping an anvil on whatever wood altar they were putting together. I dropped out of the trapdoor and into the biggest group of shamblers, fire erupting from around me thanks to a pair of my moonshine-based incendiary grenades. Even without apparent zombification as a threat, I’m still glad for the environmental seals of my armor. This shit has a smell that tells you it’s flammable. I actually can’t know if the ignition or the scent is what knocked the closest zombies away. I tossed plenty more around, lighting the area around me aflame, and charged for the group of cultists.
The folks doing the heavy lifting were in fogged-up hazard suits, so they didn’t try for me, but they had a group of guards in tactical gear. I could tell they weren’t military from all the Punisher and “Don’t Tread On Me” patches. The wannabe weekend warriors charged while firing. I dropped forward so I balanced on my hands and feet, a tail of metal swinging in the air. The tip of it ignited in fire. I went around with an extra pair of arms for awhile and that took some getting used to, but a tail isn’t an arm. It’s not a leg either, so I haven’t entirely worked out how to make it fit in with my neurochemistry. It swung around, spurting flame a little higher than I meant at first, but the second pass was low enough to catch the clueless fake soldiers on fire. While the zombies would stumble along in flames until it burned through them enough, these guys had more immediate things to fear from being caught on fire. And I think only a couple of them remembered to stop, drop, and roll.
I passed by one of them who was trying to shake off all the fire and handed him one of the incendiaries. “Here, hold this for me.” I had a nice chuckle when I heard it go off behind me. That guy nearly did the Wilhelm scream!
I didn’t expect much from the Cultists left until one stepped forward and threw off his robe. This one wore a dark costume that looked like a bunch of black feathers, working its way up to a plague doctor-style mask.
“And who shall I be killing today?” I asked, leaving a holographic copy in my place while I cloaked and stepped to the side.
“Unkindness,” he responded with a moan. I glanced at his skin and noticed heavy rotting. Ah, that’s be that secret weapon of theirs that would inevitably come into play. I went to grab him and break his neck, but he dodged and knocked me to the road with a shimmering wing that resembled his armor. While I was down there, I saw the sky filling with birds, heard the cawing of ravens. Some were perched nearby, on trucks. A lot were perched nearby, actually, and I got the impression they could see me somehow.
Unkindness took to the air, his wings propelling him a little higher. A sword just kind of grew out of his hands. I rolled to the side, letting it miss me and embed way further in the dirt than it should have. Its patterning glistened and I realized it was supposed to be a metal feather. I rolled to my feet, but a black shape crashed into me hard right when I was getting to my feet and knocked me back down. It was a raven. More filled the air, landing on me and pecking. They weren’t a danger, but they kept me from seeing anything. I tried using my tail, but it whipped around all over the place and shot fire into the sky while I had to roll around trying to get birds off me. Couldn’t get the thing to turn and douse me in flames.
I didn’t figure I was in any real danger until I felt my weight shift. We were flying. And by we, I mean the ravens were flying. Every time I went to brush them off, more would land on me. Finally, I tried one of my incendiary grenades. I scrambled for the pouches I’d brought them in. How the hell were so many gone? I tried one, feeling a beak try to slip it away. Damn smart birds. The wave of flame from the malevolent moonshine gave me a little bit of a clearing as birds fell off or escaped en masse.
That gave me a second to check out my situation. The birds were regrouping, flying in to cover me the same way. Unkindness was with them, grabbing onto me wherever my arms and tail couldn’t brush. And we were pretty high up, but not enough to guarantee my death. They wanted me higher, and I was out of grenades. And blunt force trauma is a well-known way to get around armor.
I called for my Psycho Flyer remotely. Should be something onboard I can use to shoot at all these guys without penetrating my armor, or at least catch me when I fall. But the sky was thick with ravens. The birds flew into the jets, sacrificing them to cripple the engines and force it into a crash landing. Yeah, so I got a little worried.
I didn’t really notice a pattern in all the squawking until they got loud and panicked, too. They all retreated, leaving me to fall from a height that might possibly do me in. They were fleeing a trio of Psycho Flyers, one of which did a roll to catch me through a trapdoor that slid closed while it rotated around.
I tuned into the Exemplar channels on my internal radio. “Bird 3 reporting. We have Lizard Queen onboard.”
“Nice flying,” Medusa called out. “Ex-squads, let’s mop them up, see if we can gather some people. Priority on disabling the bird man.”
“Called himself Unkindness,” I said. “Is my codename Lizard Queen to y’all?”
“No time for discussion, Lizard Queen, but thanks for drawing fire. Now we know what their surprises are. Birds, don’t let the crows take out your engines. Swing low, let’s drop some squads.”
By the time it was my time to jump out along with the squad of power-armored Exemplar soldiers in the back of that Flyer, there was no resistance left. What zombies wandered close were taken down with headshots without a need for flamethrowers. And the guys in robes were just plain gone.
“Any sign of the cultists?” I asked.
“Negative, Lizard Queen,” someone reported. “We lost them. Squad One reported they disappeared into a crowd of birds that flew off.”
“Bird 2 here, we no longer have a visual on Unkindness,” I heard one of the other pilots call in.
Well, I was thoroughly grumped out. I don’t like it when the list of people I want dead doesn’t match the list of people I’ve killed. And my flamethrowers seemed to be too much work when compared to a simple bullet. For what it’s worth, Medusa came along after the end of it and patted me on the shoulder to say, “You did well. And you did good.”
I shuddered. She playfully smacked me upside the helmet. “I’m serious. You’re a good vanguard, and without you, we’d have almost half a million more zombies to deal with. If they keep raising supers from the dead with their powers, I think we’ll need someone on our side who is good at killing supers. You up for it?”
I jumped up, smacking my fist into my palm. “Leave ’em to me. Once I’m done with Unkindness, you’ll quoth a raven nevermore!”
“We’re going to have to discuss why you have a hidden basement lair with a torture chamber already,” my girlfriend, the superhero Medusa, asked me. She should really be asking how my chili pepper plants are growing so big.
“Every homeowner should have one,” I told her. “You never know when it’s going to come in handy.”
“When would it come in handy?” she asked.
I pointed over to where we had an old guy shackled to a chair. “A zombie apocalypse was always a possibility, but you can’t tell me you’ve never had to deal with a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon.”
“You have to learn to let go of that grudge against religion,” she said. She leaned down to double check the restraints. I’d upgraded since the last time I had someone trapped down here. A nice, heavy chair with shackles controlled remotely from across the room. The enhancements I gave to myself and Medusa could lift it up, but not if we were strapped in. The seated position is poor for that kind of lift.
Most of the rest of the room now is just atmosphere. There are two lighting levels: dingey bare bulb or hyper bright fluorescent. Hidden speakers can be used to pump in infrasound or other sounds to throw a person off, like unintelligible whispers, dripping water, or creepy child laughter. There are fake plastic medical implements on a nearby cart, stained red with blood. Or, as Medusa put it, “This is the worst place I’ve ever seen to interrogate someone.”
“Maybe, but it’s a pretty good place to torture someone,” I said. “Which is a terrible way to get info, but I’ve been really lucky.”
She eyed me for a minute. “Yeah. Ok, let’s see what he has to say for himself.” She walked over to the guy who was shackled in, blindfolded, and had earmuffs in to keep him from hearing anything. “You ready?”
I flipped through a few illusions on my armor before settling on a purple robe with silver stars on it and a pointy hat. My face was a woman’s, but with a big fake grey beard hanging off it. “Ok, ready. Let’s make the magic happen.”
She pulled the guy’s ear muffs off, then his blindfold. He was an older fellow. Very pale. I walked over to stand next to Medusa. “Hi, we’ll be your captors today. I’m Tara, and this is Mara. Who do you work for and what’s your evil plan?”
Medusa pushed at my shoulder and I let her move me away. “What she means is we’d like to get to know you better and why you feel it’s necessary to raise the dead in an unholy conquest of Earth.”
The person whispered something. My armor didn’t pick up anything solid. Medusa leaned in. The guy bit down, hard on something in his own mouth. When I saw that, I barreled into her and knocked her aside. He got me with the weird yellow-green cloud he exhaled, but my armor was already filtering out the toxins. Medusa caught herself against the wall, then looked at me. She ran for the door, covering her mouth and nose. I think I told her where the nanite syringes were kept. I know I showed her the nanite bath. I had a strangely arousing mental image of the nanomachines somehow fusing us into one complementary form before my mind started going all horror-story.
It really isn’t a good idea. Another bad idea would be trying to poison me, but that’s where the guy’s tools took care of the consequences. He was seizing up in his chair, eyes rolling back. And then he was still.
I used a Q-tip I left in there as a prop to take a sample of the gas from where it landed on my armor. “Medusa, I’m coming out. Stay away from me. Did you find the nanites?” I tried to take it easy, but then considered it might have gotten her and she might be reacting as quickly as he did. Tense, I pulled open the door.
“I am fine,” she said, pulling a syringe out of her arm. She got out of the way and maintained her distance as I walked over toward the nanite bath.
I held up the Q-tip. “Get a bag. We need to seal a sample of this up. Over there in the filing cabinet.”
“You filed it under B,” she noted. Yeah, makes sense. She approached and reached out, opening the bag. As soon as I dropped in the Q-tip, she closed and sealed it. I went down into the bath in full armor so my little machines could do their wonderful scientific magic and tear that nasty poison apart.
When I emerged, Medusa was already on her phone. She turned to me and said, “I’ve got my people chasing down some leads they were watching. We need a new one now that we don’t have our friend in there anymore.”
We both agreed the best lead would be spotting Reagan himself, dead or not quite alive.
Now, like all smart people do when fighting zombies, Medusa and I split up. We’re still a couple, but we both figured our firepower and abilities worked better separately. We didn’t need two one-person armies to handle some dead bodies. And I think everyone’s inclined to split up more with this social distancing going on for the virus. That’s making it hard to get information on our end, too. Ordinarily, I’d love cops not wanting to do their jobs. I just don’t want to spend a whole month hunting down a zombie over a time traveling grudge.
That’s why Medusa called me up about handling an outbreak in Appalachia. She was busy looking after something funny near Washington D.C., and we both agreed it was a safe bet something was going on there. Looking at the briefing she sent over, I knew why they preferred me for this. It’s a small town up in the mountains, so I can blow lots of shit up and there’s little risk of collateral damage. It may not be an outbreak. This is all based on some weird call that got filed but not believed because of all the misinformation and lack of cooperation out here. This is the perfect time to pull some stuff like raising a bunch of zombies that would ordinarily be taken down by organized resistance. Even the Exemplars wouldn’t be of much help if not for all the nanites-laced water I have that fights disease AND prevents gingivitis.
I came in with the Psycho Flyer and was surprised by other aerial contacts. I cloaked the thing and came the rest of the way in on stealth while the computer identified a large cargo copter heading into the area. I figured I’d divert to follow it, but it was heading to the same town. Was it the United States military? A shadowy company that conducts unethical research into bioweapons? A zombie that learned how to fly? The answer awaited.
Whatever the town used to be, it was different now. It looked like someone had cleared out a trailer park to set up this big tent city. Someone else had brought in what had to be the world’s fanciest mobile home. Anywhere else, it’d be a modest two-story house, but one with a pair of rotors on top and wheels on the bottom. The chopper landed a short distance from the tent city in the trailer park so as not to disturb it too much and opened its cargo bay. Zombies shuffled out chained to carts like oxen. It looked like they had body bags on the carts. Someone in camo-patterned cult robes walked out behind them, overseeing the offloading with an AR-15 in hand. I didn’t see any glowing lights coming off it, so I didn’t know if that gun was some way he had to control it like the guy Reindeer nabbed, but the first guy we encountered in California didn’t have one either.
In the interest of learning things, I chose not to kill people just yet. As Al Capone once famously said, you can get more with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word. You can get more than just using a gun, even if your gun is a fist, and the word is spying on people when they got to the bathroom, and Al Capone is a supervillain with a detrimental love of analogy.
I parked Flyer on the ground and locked it behind me. Then I was like “Fuck that, I’ve seen zombie movies,” and had it lift off to hover above the ground. If they got flying zombies that can get up there to sneak inside, we’re in a way worse situation than I thought.
I wanted to see what that whole tent city was about, so I made my way in. They didn’t seem to care a lot about posting guards. Maybe they expected the moaners scattered around to alert them. They had enough zombies, maybe more than were living in this place originally. They can get more, but it won’t help them and fighting them isn’t even much fun. More tedious than anything. Still, if they’re flying in body bags, that could make this place some sort of staging area. Pretty shitty place for it, as far away from major targets. Zombies aren’t the fastest of minions. I guess you could pack them in tighter than any person, but it seems simpler to ship the bodies and raise them up when they get to where they’re going.
I decided to keep an open mind. Maybe these guys are incompetent. So I check these tents, and they have a bunch of these carts in them, waiting. The first couple of bags I opened didn’t look like anyhting special. Some were old, some were young. Men, women. Children. Incompetent or not, looks like it’s not just Reagan’s wrinkly undead ass on the chopping block. A few had ID on them that I snapped a photo of, but I didn’t recognize them. Maybe pocketed a couple of them I with ages and similar appearances to me. I left them like I found them, until I found the one in the costume. I didn’t know him either, but he seemed to be a super. I sent a few photos of him along to Medusa, along with a bunch of others I’d taken.
After that, I broke away from checking the bodies of the dead to looking for the living. It took awhile before I found a trio of cultists. Two were in dark green robes that had “Trainee” written on the back. They were with someone wearing dark black who was chanting over one of the bodies using a Bowie knife that alternated between striking red, white, and blue coloration along with the chant. That was another one in a costume that I think I recognized. Some minor villain maybe I’ve seen around or something? I began to wonder how many of these bodies were supers.
They managed to raise the body from the dead, but here’s where it got weird. The body coughed and looked around. It groaned, “Waaaaaaaaaargh am I?”
The man in the black robe looked down. “You are under my power. Obey me. Stand.”
“Get away from me,” the dead body said. “Where am I? Who are you?” He was a bit slow and his voice was gravely from disuse, but that’s more than I hear from most of the dead.
“Another failure,” the black-robed necromancer said. He brought the blade of his knife down with word accompanied by a mystical echo. The zombie went from trying to escape to still again, losing all signs of what life it had been granted.
One of the trainees piped up, “We have plenty more to try. We’ll get one of them right. Maybe half as much autonomy next time?”
“You can get one who would want to help us anyway. There’s got to be some superhuman with enough love for their country out there,” the other suggested.
“Perhaps,” Black Robe said. “But we must not risk creating a being with the hardiness of a zombie and the powers of a superhero that could disobey us. We must strike now, while the iron is hot, while the virus rages and forces humanity apart. An army can not oppose us for fear of infection, but individual superheroes already slow our progress. We need our own superhumans, reliable and loyal.”
Whew. Saves me having to beat the secret plan out of them.
The lead necromancer stuck the knife into his belt. “It’s 11 AM, and I’m hungry. Let’s take an early lunch.”
I figured I’d grab the knife and slice him up with it, but it flashed at my touch. I felt a zap of electricity that pushed me away.
“The hell?” asked the necromancer, turning to look as my hologram failed. I punched him where his face would be in the shadow of his hood. I felt his nose break before he dropped.
One of the trainees pulled a wand and pointed it at me. I tried turning invisible and leaving a hologram of myself putting my hands up. Success! The armor’s working again!
“Yeah, you keep your hands up, bitch,” said the trainee. He reached a hand down and grabbed his junk through the robe. “Suck my balls, superzero.”
He deserved death for the crappy banter alone. I snuck up behind him and grabbed his wrist. With a twist, I jammed the wand back until it poked at the back of his robe.
I appeared in front of the other trainee. “Got any smart ideas?”
He turned and tried to run, clotheslining himself on one of the tent ropes.
“Heh. Smarter than the other one.”
The chopper had lifted off by then, so there went my preferred source of fuel. I had some spare gasoline back at the Flyer, though. I managed maybe a quarter of a semi-circle that weaved in and out of some of the tents, then hopped back in my little vehicle and burned it all down, like a great cleansing fire.
Damn it, I forgot to bring along marshmallows.
I’m back in my proper time, and am glad to see there isn’t a mob chasing me anymore. There isn’t much of anything chasing me. I had to check the news when I got back and found that while there wasn’t much in the way of a change to history, there was a new pandemic that swept the world. I headed home first and foremost. I didn’t mean to lose so much time to time traveling, but The Mobian is always so inconvenient. He even brought Reagan back to life after I killed him during the assassination attempt on the guy.
The problems of heroes fighting for the status quo seems to be magnified when it comes to time travel. Hitler loses in the end, and that’s good, but a bunch of other improvements don’t happen just because people failed at the time. Until or unless I can do the same thing, there’s not too much I can do thinking about it. Especially when I have to find a daughter during all this “social distancing” stuff.
She was at home. So was Medusa. Amazing, my vigilante girlfriend wasn’t off trying to save the world from a disease. Instead, she sat there watching TV on the couch while Qiang played on a tablet. Both of them jumped up when they saw me.
I scooped up Qiang first, then welcomed Medusa into the hug. “You’re not infected are you?” asked my girlfriend.
“Hey now, I stayed faithful while time traveling,” I assured her.
“I meant with the disease,” she said. “When and where have you been?”
I owed them an explanation, so I gave them one, careful to leave out the worst of it for Qiang’s sake. Yeah, she’s seen and heard worse, but she doesn’t have to be like me. She can have a childhood. So I gave the reader’s condensed version where people still died. Medusa borrowed Qiang’s tablet at one point to check something. She turned it around to show me the Wikipedia page about the hospital where I tried to stop Reagan’s resurrection. A coincidental accident. That’s what they list it as. Somebody accidentally crashed a bus into the Presidential Limo, injuring and killing some Secret Service agents.
“What changed, momma?” Qiang asked.
I held up my hands to signal I didn’t know. “Don’t know yet. I didn’t see this virus anywhere when I was gone. I don’t know about some of the rest of it..” I suspect my own downloads of various archives and internet subjects changed.
Medusa shook her head. “This was around before you left, but it hadn’t spread much. It’s shut down much of the world temporarily. It came from China, originally.”
“Huh. China,” I pondered it. Can’t think of anything special Reagan did with China, so maybe she’s right. Or maybe this is one of those butterfly effects. A butterfly in China flaps its wings, and people around the world start getting sick.
“A lot of people said mean things to me,” Qiang said.
Medusa stroked my daughter’s hair. “There’s a lot of racism going around because of where it started.”
“Oh yeah? What ended up happening?” I locked eyes with Qiang. I’d be more worried about the racism if my daughter wasn’t a certifiable knife nut who I’d trained in martial arts and sneaking around, with her own suit of power armor.
Qiang looked down at the floor. “Mama Medusa caught me breaking into their houses so I didn’t get to finish it.”
I reached out and patted her affectionately. “Aww… I know you tried your best, baby. If it makes you feel better, Medusa’s caught me before, too. Tell you what, you and I’ll get together and…” I looked up to see Medusa fixing me with a preemptive glare. “…constructively work out our problems with the other people in a way that teaches everybody a lesson.” Internally, I sent a private digital message to Qiang and only Qiang that showed a pair of stick figures with long hair, meant to be me and her, beating a pinata with baseball bats. When it cracked open, a small stick figure fell out that had the word “Meanie” pointing to it.
“How’s that sound?” I asked Qiang. She giggled and nodded.
Medusa emitted a strange noise. I raised an eyebrow but played it cool, in case she was somehow spying on us. I had my doubts when she pulled out her phone. Nice to see one of those again, though. You don’t realize how much you miss them until they’re gone. Well, maybe y’all don’t, dear readers, but I do. But Medusa’s still typing on her phone’s touchscreen, so I doubt she’s sophisticated enough to intercept private communications between myself and my daughter.
She looked up at me and held her phone up. “So this is your doing then?”
Someone had forwarded Medusa a video of a news report coming out of California. “This is live aerial drone footage brought to you safely from social isolation. There’s a crowd of people in flagrant violation of the lockdown order at the Reagan Memorial Library. Police have been dispatched to tell them to go back into lockdown, but I don’t think they’re listening.” The drone zoomed in to show a bunch of people in really bad shape shuffle forward and lunge for a bicycle cop. The cop shouted at them, then pulled a baton. He got a couple good hits in before collapsing underneath the weight of the horde. “Oh god. They’re eating him. Shit, this is the zombie apocalypse. Fuck this. Fuck my boss. Fuck my lying, cheating girlfriend Brenda who I know is sucking off my best friend. Fuck you too, Ron. I’m out.” The drone zoomed out of there.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not my doing,” I told Medusa. “Torian and Mobian kicked me out and I don’t think they’re the type to raise a zombie horde.”
“What’s a zombie?” Qiang asked.
“Usually, a human body returned to life. Some versions are just infected with a disease. Either way, they try to eat people. You’d be safe in your armor, though.” I felt like ending the explanation on an uplifting note, in case I just gave my daughter nightmares. Still, there comes a time in every girl’s life when she has to grow up and realize she’ll be opposed by an unthinking mass of people who will try to tear her apart. But enough about Republicans.
Oh, wait, zombies at Reagan’s library. It’s not over yet. Medusa cleared her throat. “You’re going to help with this, right?”
I pretended to think it over. “I mean, it’s just zombies, right? That’s not really a big thing with me.”
She held up two fingers. “One, too many horror stories involve someone thinking zombies aren’t that big of a deal and not helping out fight them.” Very good point there. Those folks are usually called dumbasses. “Two, the Reagan Memorial Library is where he’s buried. Your story can’t be a coincidence, but more than that… don’t you want to kill Zombie Reagan?”
I stood up as the beginning strains of the Superman theme began to emanate from my body. “This looks like a job for Super Gecko!” I left Medusa to make her calls while I went down to the basement to throw my armor on. One does not fight zombies without wearing armor that can withstand bites and lives no room open for infestation. I’ve never regretted making sure my armor was sealed up and filtered air from the outside.
When I got back, Medusa was waiting on me, but Qiang wasn’t around. “Where’d she go?”
“She ran off to her room when you went to the basement,” my girlfriend answered.
I went off down the hall and knocked quietly on my daughter’s door. “Sweety, did I scare you talking about the zombies? I’m gonna go beat ’em up real good, if that helps. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I don’t want to stay here alone,” she said.
I could understand that. “We’re going to fight them, and it’s dangerous. And you’re a kid.” Kids are like people in that they make bad decisions, but they’re way less predictable about it.
The door swung open. “I have armor!”
She had on her power armor, which I’d so recently let out for her. Unlike the slimmer and more organic look of mine, hers featured heavier plates over a thin layer that no zombie would have been biting, shooting, or stabbing through regardless.
Medusa stepped up next to me. “This is a horrible idea.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I worry about leaving you here alone, so…” I ran and got a bottle of water from my former nation of Ricca. Former in the sense that they deposed me. It still exists, probably pretty safe from this new virus thanks to all the medical nanomachines I made sure were in the water. “Here, have a sip. Just to make sure you’re healthy.”
“What is that?” Medusa asked while Qiang popped her helmet and drank some of the nanite-laced water.
“Nanite water. When I sell a health supplement, I mean business,” I said. It would sell better if I was a barely-legal Youtube e-girl claiming I’d bathed in it, but… ew. “Anyway, dear,” I rubbed Qiang’s hair. “You stay here, and stay safe. Keep your armor on if you worry. We’ll go handle this.”
Cut to Simi Valley, California. Despite air travel being pretty quick, by the time we’d arrived, Reagan’s library had been ransacked by the zombies. Most of them had moved on, too. The Psycho Flyer we were in, one of my VTOL’s that Medusa had taken for her vigilante group, sawed through a group of them with its guns. I was one of the first to drop down, along with Medusa. She didn’t usually wear armor that concealed her entire face, but this was a good time for an exception. The rest of the Exemplar squad who followed her were in power armor that protected them just as completely from the few biters we encountered.
I tore one’s heart out of his chest, but it had stopped beating well before I punched its head off with the fist holding the heart. The Exemplars were all business, going through rooms of the library and either declaring “Clear!” or shooting first and declaring things later. It was the sounds of Medusa fighting that drew me to Reagan’s tomb. It had been emptied, possibly by the hulking, bulging mass of dead tissue Medusa was fighting that looked like a group of bodies had been mashed together into a larger form that was about ten feet tall. I saw one of Medusa’s punches disappear into a gap in it and the closest bodies grab for her. She wrenched away.
I walked up, holographically appearing to be one of those sports hot dog vendors who walks through the stands. “Chicken! Get your chicken here!” The arms reached for me, too. I handed out headless chicken grenades and tossed some inside before jumping back and calling a warning to Medusa. “Babe, watch out for the-!”
The chickens exploded in sequence throwing blood and undead ass everywhere.
“…splatter!” I finished. Real glad Medusa wore a mouth covering, even though she looked ready to vomit.
“You fools!” someone called. It was a person in a brown robe with sewn-in glyphs all over it, likely a man from the voice. He waved a dagger and pointed a handgun at us from atop this short wall above the pit that had once been Ronald Reagan’s grave. “You are too late! Our lord has come again, to walk the Earth and render judgment upon the heathens.”
His dagger lit up red, but then he stumbled forward and fell into the pit. His screams ended with a loud crack. Qiang became visible on the little wall and waved a balled up fist at him. “You smell funny and you’re stupid!” she called down at him.
“What are you doing here?!” Medusa called.
“I sneaked off with you!” Qiang said. “See, I’m not afraid, and I didn’t take off my armor.”
“Did you know about this?” my girlfriend asked.
I shrugged. “I thought she might do it, hence the nanites. I was keeping an eye on her.”
Medusa growled and hopped into the pit. “We can’t ask him any questions now.”
Qiang scuffed her boots against the wall. “Did I do wrong?”
I shook my head. “You didn’t do wrong. You just could do better. For instance, fantastic timing, honeybunny. Perfect.”
Medusa hopped back out of the pit, holding the man’s wallet. She looked through it carefully before holding up a laminated card. “What do you make of this?”
The Esoteric Order of Reagan. “Sounds like a secret society. Considering the circumstances, it’s worth chasing down. But first,” I leaped up to the wall, threw Qiang into the air, and caught her piggbyack. “Family bonding zombie-killing time.”