I don’t even need to sleep. It’s a little annoying. As busy as I am, I do enjoy resting. You’d never know it to read all of this dren, but I do like a good sleep or cuddle or even some sex. It’s just that sex isn’t the most important thing in life. Not when you’ve recently gained minor reality-warping powers by absorbing fragments of a dead extradimensional conqueror.
Attacks are ramping up, too. People are posting stuff online. At least with the Facebook posts, they mostly just blow themselves up somehow. It’s gotten so bad, that hearings are scheduled sometime next year to speak to a representative from Facebook, if they decide to send one, to discuss the problem of people posting instructions on how to blow stuff up on there. At least VillaiNet has better threads that actually work.
The heroes aren’t blameless, either. Some of them are using the same stuff, even if the collateral damage isn’t so bad. They might be some of the ones blowing themselves up. Some people have this idea that if you give everyone the ability to destroy a building as easily as a sneeze, the world would be better off and force people to cooperate. These people know nothing. Every day, people do stuff because they’re angry, sad, depressed, frustrated, or out of conspiratorial beliefs. And the people crying about how folks need to act rationally turn right around and act the same way, especially if the “rational” and unemotional decision is one that harms them. So what I’m saying here, I guess, is it’s kind of a bad idea to give everyone such power. Maybe that’s how other civilizations can manage to live outside their own initial solar systems: having some sort of responsible way to handle advanced powers and technology.
All I know is, you give enough people the kind of power I was wielding, you’d have plenty of people doing worse than I ever did. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s sobering to realize I’m still more responsible than way too many people out there. Fuck, I was even left in charge of a kid.
So it’s getting worse. Technolutionary’s just decided to leave confronting the people with that stuff to me. He’s going after ones that seem to have been left alone. His device tracking the things worked, but it took a lot of processing power to load everything at first. So he runs out, grabs one up that landed in the beach or a mountain somewhere, and brings it back. At base, he’s found a way to use one as an energy weapon and has built a detachable, expendable pod onto the Skylab. There, he’s decided to try various alloys for anything that offers resistance to their powers. He’s even gotten some thunderbolt iron to give that a go.
I would be more worried about him having his own Omega pearls off in that lab, except I can track them now. I did make an alteration to my multidimensional base. Sam helped me out and moved all of the pearls I had stored in various obscure spots and reprogrammed the algorithm in those accessways to store them all in dimensions Technolutionary doesn’t have access to. Preferably, no one has access to these. I prefer dumping these in Earths devoid of sapient life. Quite a few of those wiped themselves out with nuclear weapons, or were killed off by plagues.
Part of me wonders what I could do with so many planets with no one else to claim them. The rest of me is busy with stuff like bodyslamming a humanoid walker powered by a heart of Omega energy. The guy behind this one was smart, but he was also destroying half the bank stopping a bank robbery. The robbers were huddled up behind a counter… no, nevermind, they were dead. The guy in the big robot didn’t realize it yet. He kept firing his minigun. Guy must have been using up more money than the corpses on the floor possibly could have stolen. They all looked like regular guys in sky masks and all, no costumes.
I swooped in over the police barricades and through the ruined doors that the walker stomped through. The walker got enough of a heads-up on my approach to activate a scarlet forcefield, clear with veins of energy crossing over the surface. I brought myself to a stop against it, drawing the energy out. The walker turned and opened fire on me, nevermind I had the street and people behind me. I blocked it all with my body and wings while funneling the Omega energy into me. That’s really all these “pearls” are: his energy, crystallized and contained. It wouldn’t hurt to draw it into myself. I once handled way more, and it’s not like it gives me a huge boost. It’s a pretty convenient way to handle this. Even the crystal shell, also from Mr. Omega, was drawn up into the flow of it and pulled into me.
The walker came to rest, powered down. The minigun couldn’t fire anymore without a power source. And I felt a rush. Not as overpowering as back in the Blasted Place, but I can’t lie that it felt good.
“Hope you bothered to install a failsafe for a power outage,” I told the walker’s pilot. “Or a way to breathe. You gave the guys robbing the place a few extra vent holes, too. I wouldn’t expect a lot of sympathy from the dead. Or the people you just shot at.” I nodded back to the street with my head.
I left him there, flying out and disappearing into the glare of the sun. Didn’t need to go deposit another pearl, so instead I went back to looking all civilian-y and picked up Qiang from school. Despite her being pretty damn smart of a kid, she’s running into some trouble. Smart as she is, she’s been neglecting her education. It’s been a few weeks since she turned in any assignments in one of the classes. She’s bored, sounds like. Would rather do interesting stuff. So I picked her up for a chat. Carried her around on my shoulders while we looked into some of the storefronts. The bakery here makes some damn good donuts.
“Ok, kiddo. I know it’s boring and you can just pick it up quick, but you won’t always be able to. You gotta have a foundation, like with martial arts. Gotta punch before you can spin kick.”
“But I don’t wanna! I want to play games or hang out with Dee and Cam. You didn’t have to do homework.”
“Yeah, I never did homework. That means there’s a lot of stuff I had to work even harder at as an adult. You get all this, you’ll grow up to be even smarter than me,” I told her. “And if you don’t go ahead and get all the homework for Social Studies done by Friday, I won’t let you see your friends or have internet access anymore. And you know I can cut you off. Maybe if you were smarter than me I couldn’t…”
She didn’t like it.
Medusa spoke up, having approached while we were examining giant cookies in the window. “If you don’t make good grades, you can’t be an Exemplar like me.”
I turned around and saw Medusa… and Venus. Same person, but Venus was pulled from another, now-alternate timeline a few years earlier. They were there in civilian clothing, but Medusa wore a black leather jacket and shades, while Venus had a long wool coat on.
“She has a kid,” Venus noted, probably to avoid asking a silly and suggestive question like “How?” Instead, she took a sip of some sort of cold coffee drink.
Qiang was a little bit confused, but I pointed to Medusa. “That’s the one we know. The other’s a copy from the past, before she ever met you.”
Qiang held out her hand toward Venus. “Hi, I’m Qiang. You look just like other momma.”
Venus held a hand over her mouth and nose, her cheeks bulging for a moment before she turned away. Medusa patted her on the back and gave me a silent laugh. I received a text from her. “Now I no y u tzed me so much.”
Points for hands-free communication, but that grammar…
Qiang was smiling, too. If she didn’t do that on purpose, she’s probably going to from now on. She looked at Medusa conspiratorially when the woman lowered down to talk to her. “I got bored in school, too, but now I know all sorts of stuff that helps me save the world. You want to help me someday?” She made a fist. Qiang made one right back. “Alright! Then try more in school, even if it makes you want to sleep.”
“I think I need to use the restroom. Do they have one in there?” Venus asked.
“Of course,” Medusa said. She looked to Qiang. “Why don’t you go in and pick out a treat, just one. If that’s ok with your mom?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
Qiang and Venus both went in, leaving Medusa and I outside.
“So, what were you wanting to talk about?” I inquired.
“What’s this with you and Technolutionary?”
I have her the quick run down. I could tell she wasn’t happy to know I’m supercharged again. Last time I had anything close to this level of power, I let it go to my head and killed a bunch of her friends.
“I’m going to work on a contingency,” She told me.
I nodded. “I know. Not just for him, right?”
“Sorry,” she said with a sad little smile.
I nodded. “No, don’t be. It’s smart.”
“We’ve been trying to track some of the seeds. That’s what we call them. You don’t trust us to hold them?”
I shrugged. “It’s a little late to let you have all of them now, but some of these people I’m stopping are heroes. Some of them, you never even would have seen coming. Too late now anyway.”
Medusa sighed. “No, yeah, I know. You don’t run to me over everything. Just prove me right about you. Please.”
And I totally intend to, as soon as I figure out where all of the pearls went. They all disappeared when my mind, and choice parts of my body, were occupied in bed with my girlfriend. You suck on a great pair of tits and suddenly a bunch of super-powerful artifacts go missing all at once.
The first thing I did in the teleporter room I was trapped in with Colm Meaney was destroy all the cameras being used by Richard Avast to watch and listen to us. The second thing I did was poke my head out to spy on his “stormtroopers.”
“The bad news,” I told actor Colm Meaney who had been kidnapped by the collector billionaire Avast, “Is that he does have the corridor loaded with stormtroopers. The good news is they’re in authentic Star Wars stormtrooper armor and canonically that can be defeated by a belligerent teddy bear.”
“Do you have a belligerent teddy bear?” the actor asked.
I shook my head. “Better. I’ve got belligerent supervillains. I mean, I could kill all those guys myself, but why bother? First, I need you to target the supervillian cells. I don’t suppose you have a radio system to them?”
“There’s an intercom system running through the entire station. I don’t have clearance to the cells from here,” Colm Meaney answered.
“That would have been nice, but what I really need is clearance to talk to the same storage area I came in at.”
He thought it over for a moment, then nodded. “I can do that.” Then he began doing as I said, grabbing groups of villains and depositing them in the storage room. “Listen up down there! This is the Great and Devious Psycho Gecko. Yes, that one. The amazing, the fantastic. Some might even call me delectable, or long-winded. Anyway, you’ve all been kidnapped by this rich bozo who thinks he can do whatever he wants. You’re on a space station in Earth’s orbit. I’ve got his teleporter and I’m dropping you in this big storage room with a bunch of your shit. I took a few items if you can’t find your stuff. Sorry, I’m a terrible person, but so are all y’all and you’d have done the same. Anyway, get geared up.”
Then, to Colm, I said, “I have another idea about the stormtroopers, just because even they will get bored and come after us eventually. But first, I need to keep an eye on them.”
I pulled my helmet off, popped out one of my prosthetic eyes, and tossed it out into the corridor. “Ew, is that an eye?!” someone asked. I closed the door up and threw my helmet on while something zappy hit the door. I projected an image of the corridor directly from the eye so Meaney could see. I pointed to a bit of open space. “There. And make sure I’m not far from the floor so I can hop to the ceiling.”
We couldn’t hide the sound or sight of the teleporter anymore than we could hide the complex ethical and philosophical conundrums. What we could do is teleport me projecting myself as invisible, at which point I jumped up and latched onto the ceiling of the corridor by my nanomachine cape. A hologram of myself waved at the stormtroopers from the middle of the corridor. The stormtroopers, true to both their movie and real life inspirations, fired at it. Once again, the middle of the corridor. I barely needed to dodge the hologram around before they were all laying dead.
I stepped back into the teleporter room a few minutes later, after having rifled through their pockets for cash and proof of death. “That’s dealt with, gorram frelling p’tahks. The armor was worth a lot more before their death poo.”
“Do you have to say death poo? Don’t the dead deserve some dignity?” Colm Meaney asked.
I shrugged. “They chose to work for this guy.”
“Or they were kidnapped and stranded in space,” Colm Meaney said.
“Sounds like a weird way to treat the people who hold guns for you.” I noted. “Intercoms please. Greetings, madmen and malcontents! I’m going to send you around to different places around the station. I don’t know what armed forces Avast has on his side, but he’s going to have a lot less in a little while. Soon, this will be Supervillain Station! Oh, yeah, Colm, send that armor back to storage. I don’t think I really need it.”
The transporter energized and the big walker I’d fixed up was back where someone could use it in all its glory. After all, I had my power armor.
I cut the intercom, then shook my head toward Colm, who was running a hand through his curly hair. “Don’t worry, we’re sending them all back to Earth after I get Avast.”
“What are you going to do with the station? You’re not going to blow it up, are you? The geopolitical consequences would be tremendous!”
“Damn the consequences, Mr. O’Bryan!” I told him. “I have my plan and you have your orders. Now, let’s send in the killer clowns!” I pointed toward the door and the corridor full of dead people. Colm Meaney shut his mouth, and started pushing his buttons.
Hard to miss the red alert. I didn’t expect sparks that flew off parts of the wall, and the weird shaking. “Uh, did they hit the antigrav system?”
“They don’t have true antigravity, so the station functions like Babylon 5 and uses centrifugal force,” Colm Meaney told me.
“As helpful as you are, I don’t know why people call you a Meaney,” I told him. He muttered some statement about puns under his breath. I waited for him to do his work, watching respectfully from a distance.
“Would you quit staring?” he asked. I nodded and went to go stand in the corner. After a few minutes of that, he glanced over. “Do you have to stand like you’re that Japanese ring girl?”
I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Just tell me when you’re done getting them all around? How many are there, anyway?”
“Two hundred, thirty-two prisoners, with twenty-nine teams of eight. Distributed all over a station with a support staff of one hundred and seven.” Colm Meaney knew a lot of specifics here. Combined with his tone and the way he was walking around toward the transporter pad. “One hundred and six if you don’t count one disgruntled senior lieutenant who just set the transporter to automatically transport a few last times.” He reached up and tugged at his beard, removing the sideburns and most of the rest to reveal a classic goatee. “There will be more opportunities to stick it to my counterpart in this universe. Colm Goodey, energize!”
He disappeared, transported to who knows where. I ran after him, passing right through where he had been. The red alert’s tone changed. Before I could jump back off the pad, it activated. I appeared in the dark. Red lights came on to show me standing in front of a desk carved to look like it had roots stretching down into the earthy soil beneath us. With branches hanging out. Huh, that might have been a living tree desk. I didn’t have a lot of time to examine it because Richard Avast stood behind the desk in a suit of black Iron Man armor with silver claws stylized cat ears and a round shield with a panther design on it.
“You!” He pointed with the arm I’d taken from him before. It twitched from side to side before straightening up.
“Did you really replace your useless armor with a Black Panther Iron Man armor and Black Panther Captain America shield?” I asked
“I took them from Marvel’s upcoming What If? Marketing team. They’re fully functional and so is the Winter Soldier arm.” He reached under the desk and pulled out a smaller version of Thanos’s sword.
“Why do they build these things functional?!” I asked. He swung the sword at me. I ducked easily, of course. Even with power armor aiding his movements, he still moves stiffly. It takes practice. I rolled and came up near a wall with a number of skulls on the wall, like a human or a xenomorph skull. I saw one with weird ridges on the forehead hanging over a K’k tahg dagger. I also picked up a bowie knife from under a human skull wearing a cowboy hat with bones in the brim.
Avast was approaching, using the suit’s rockets to compensate for his uncoordinated movements. My nanomachines yanked me to the side in time to miss the spinning blade crashing into the wall of skulls and other trophies. He pulled it out and swung it to catch a rush I didn’t make. Instead, I threw the Bowie at his head. It caught in the eye of the Iron Man suit and he screamed in pain. “Aaaaagh!”
I clapped. “Amazing, hot damn, I’m surprised I made that. That was supposed to be a distraction.”
“My fucking eye, bitch. This suit was supposed to fly into space. Why didn’t they build it airtight?!”
I used the nanomachines and formed them into a pair of large clawed arms. The holographic system of the suit created the illusion that I was bulking up. Avast raised his arms. Purple lasers carved right through the nanites, separating the mass atop. Lasers are super effective at that sort of thing, since nanomachinery is vulnerable to extremes in temperature. Not as good as a flamethrower, and he missed the part where I could just lunge forward and jam the Klingon dagger I still held into the other eye of the suit. I grabbed the arm he had replaced and pulled, kicking Avast in the back of the knee. One second and then it came loose with a popping, wrenching, fleshy sound.
The screams kept me from thinking too hard on that. Richard didn’t have a lot of incentive to be quiet, not even when I turned the arm around and jammed it into the hole in his torso. I pushed it in as far as it could go, which had to be super uncomfortable with his body trapped in the metal shell of his power armor. I grabbed a couple wires sticking out of the end that used to go to the very stump the arm was jammed into. A bit of sparking them against each other and I felt the prosthesis grab. Another pull and his neck bent to the side. Part of his spine came out gripped in the metal arm, the screams petering off to gurgles.
I held the arm and spine up, using my armor to project the words “Gecko wins! Fatality!” overhead. Then I tossed the arm aside to figure out what the fuck was going on with all of this. I called up Medusa as well “Evil universe Colm Meaney sabotaged the space station.”
“That’s ridiculous, but something you did made the space station’s orbit decay. Its course is erratic, but it looks like it’s aimed for Europe.”
“Good, it’s not going to hit somewhere important.” I checked all over the computer on top of the desk and found the master control for the station’s orbiting systems. I clicked on it, and it required a retinal scan. I glanced over to the dead body of Richard Avast laying there with both of its eyes stabbed in. “Fuck. That’s not going to work…”
“Talking to yourself? What’s up?”
I pulled off my glove and grabbed his laptop, letting my homo machina nerves reach out and begin the process to merge. “Avast is in no shape for a retinal scan. He’s barely in good enough shape to pass a rectum scan.”
“Darn near killed ’em?” My ex suggested.
“He’s not coming back without time travel,” I giggled at my own reference to the events that did indeed bring back some people I’d killed in the past. And I was in. “Shit, the system’s telling me that with the power core missing, the station doesn’t have enough power to get back into a stable orbit.”
I also broke into the transporter controls, because that could be used to alter the mass of the station and change it out. “And the transporter doesn’t have much power either. It says it has enough for an emergency transport signature reversal system. Evacuates all the prisoners and staff. ” I activated it and… I didn’t go anywhere. “Uh… I don’t think it worked.”
“Let me check,” Medusa told me. I worked on the system, trying to find out what went wrong and found the internal sensors page. Number of life forms onboard: one. Location: Richard Avast’s office. Previously: one hundred, six crew, two hundred, thirty-two prisoners, one intruder.”
Ah, that explains it. Fuck. And the emergency power is just about entirely gone. Maybe enough to get some play from the thrusters on the main shaft or enough to transport one last person. I played around with the system, which was now showing me estimated landing zones. Hmm. I have a good feeling about the fact that he built the crew quarters with the ability to detach them all. I mean, the guy’s a terrible boss, but it’s useful for me this time. With any luck, the smaller pieces will burn up better or just have less impact. A bit of beeping and booping buttons later, Medusa got back to me.
“I think it worked, except for you. NASA’s coordinating with us directly now so I can talk to you. They… hold on. It’s clear. It’s going to hit in the Atlantic. Do you have power for the transporter?”
The room went black and the computer died. “Working on it. Get back to me.”
“Gecko…” she sounded worried. Aw. I’m touched, and not just in the fun places I enjoy being touched.
“Fine. Energizing.” I wasn’t energizing, but she didn’t need to hear that. It was a good excuse to cut off the call with Medusa. I was unavailable for the next hour, including when she texted me. I sent her a message back saying I was going through a tunnel. The room also got really messed up once we started tumbling, but most of my concentration was on the Lady Guardian armor. With its antigrav flight ability and not having any flesh inside, it could fly fast as hell, crash through the walls of the station, and carry me out. It was a harrowing moment since this was twenty seconds before splashdown and then swapping armors.
Of course, then I had to fly to nearby Portugal with Medusa and Sam both blowing up my text messages. Nag, nag, nag, every time you crash a space station into Earth and the two women you’re dating both realize you rode it down.
“We are now on day three of Richard Avast’s reign of terror. The once-billionaire’s assets have been attacked and seized all over the globe by supervillains. The eccentric Avast threatened retaliation with, quote, ‘every super weapon in my collection,’ prompting governments to open investigations into his and his company’s holdings,” the news went on and on. Nobody’s talking about what kind of superweapons Avast has, which would actually be useful. I’m guessing nobody wants to cause a panic, which is itself causing panic. No concrete monster can match the uncertainty of the human imagination.
But since he buys stuff up from famous sci fi franchises, that limits the pool of potential weapons. Or it would, but until recently he’d been kidnapping supervillains and stealing their technology. We’re not sure what he’s doing on that. Some of the other villains on VillaiNet swear people are still disappearing, but I wouldn’t put it past a few of those to lie for some sort of advantage.
For the next couple of days, anytime all hell broke loose, it was blamed on him. I can’t say for sure if he had anything to do with that zombie attack in Indonesia. Guatemala’s an odd choice for a bunch of gemstone monsters to appear. I do think the weird sentient cellphone robots of Portugal might have been him, but these were old and the only ones that gave anyone any trouble were the night-indestructible Nokias. I’ve fought some like that before, so it sounds about right.
And yeah, I may have been part of Exemplar operations to try and stop shit from going down. I want to get in on the space mission, and one of them actually gave me a way in.
Medusa called me into a special mission along with some of her higher-up Exemplar, along with Decimal, Darklight, and a pair that were Feds. They looked like FBI desk jockeys, but they identified themselves as “Office of Superhuman Resources, Paranormal/Superhuman Crimes Division. It’s a new division created to handle investigations without being an armed assault team if you will.”
I looked to Medusa. “They’re cool,” she assured me. “The PSCD is new, but they have established people. Some of them used to work in the FBI and still have access to leaked information. Would you care to explain, Agent Fi?”
The skinny guy who’d introduced them nodded. “I’m Agent Marcus Fi, this is Agent Nita Clark. Agent Clark used to monitor the military for disloyal white supremacist activity. There are several who admire Mr. Avast in the circles they talk in. He has reached out to them. They think the apps are secure, but we have him scheming. Some soldiers at one of the bases are going to leave a silo open and let Avast teleport a nuclear missile out.”
I shook my head. “Boring. Super technology, zombies, self-aware cell phones… and he settles for nukes. Ask Japan, it’s been done.”
Fi kept speaking. “The theft is scheduled to take place during an inspection and drill. Slowing down the closing process won’t raise alarms until missiles start disappearing.”
“This is where I step in,” Agent Clark said. Pretty young, but then that can be hard to guess with some people. At least government killjoys are diverse. “We could go in and break things up. However, doing that loses us an opportunity to get to Mr. Avast. We can work together to infiltrate his space station, but we don’t know what the situation will be like up there. We need someone who can sneak in, analyze and adjust to the changing situation, with the ability to handle exotic technology so we don’t wreck everything.”
She looked me right in the eyes as she stepped forward and I had a sudden realization that more cleavage of hers was showing than most Federal agents would normally show. She ended up close to kissing distance.
“Wow,” I told her, “I know what you’re doing and, for the record, you’re doing a great job at it.”
She smiled at me. Red lipstick. She wants me thinking of those lip. “Thank you. See, redemption is a process. You can’t do something once and promise to-”
I held up a hand. “I’ll do it. No need for the emotional gut punch and inspiration. My question is how do you want Dicky boy cooked: well-done, deep-fried, scrambled, or rare?”
That’s how I ended up pretending to be some sort of military brasshole in a military convoy that didn’t actually have to go far. Flyover country is loaded with nukes if you look in the right spot, a relic of the Cold War. I was piled into the back of an SUV with Decimal, Clark, and Fi. At least I didn’t have to wear these stuffy uniforms like the rest of them did. And one benefit of having government aid on this was all our credentials were in order. Darklight was the driver in case things didn’t hold up. She would stay ready outside in case the team inside needed muscle. That wasn’t my role this time. My part was as simple as slipping off to the restroom with Agent Clark.
“You don’t have to babysit me,” I told her.
“I know,” she crossed her arms and headed to the stall. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a keycard. “This is a fail safe key for this base. I’ll need that back after this is done.”
I snorted and took it. “That it?”
I shrugged. “Whenever you’re ready. I head out after you and I’m gone.”
She nodded. “Give me a minute.” She took her time using the bathroom, washing her hands, fixing her makeup and all. She had a nervous energy about her.
“You don’t normally do this, eh? What, they have you spying on BLM protesters somewhere?”
Agent Clark gave me a sharp look. “I want to help people. I did this job to protect protesters from bootlicker dick weasels like we’re dealing with. You’ve probably tried to kill all of those BLM protesters when you tried to take over the world, so don’t act like you’re righteous here.” She even pointed a finger at me.
“There you go. Been wanting to say that since you pretended to flirt with me?”
“Flirting’s part of the job,” she said, stepping past me and running a finger along the chin of my helmet. Her mood had shifted like that. “But someone who decided to grow a conscience yesterday does not get to pretend they’re better than me because of the job I do to protect people. You ready?”
I nodded and disappeared. She went her way, the anger at least curing her of some of her nervousness. I could say that was the intention all along, but it wasn’t. I feel much better knowing where I stand with her instead of sussing it out. We stayed together only part of the way until she branched off. I headed a different direction, the failsafe key making it the easiest damn thing in the world to get into the silo. They could have done this without someone so skilled at remaining invisible.
I ran into a teensy bit of trouble in the corridor leading to the nuke itself. They had some guards there, both in a booth and beside the door. Ordinarily, they’d be a lot more casual, but this was inspection day. That’s the kind of day when you notice the door in front of you opened and closed on its own. The two next to the door pulled firearms: they were packing recent upgrades, the MHP220. Based on a Mac-10, they built it for heavier wear and tear, a higher caliber, and better accuracy. It was still big, but it could penetrate my older armors in between giving these guys sore hands.
The guy in the booth looked at them and the direction I came from. I already had drones deploying to sit in front of the cameras and show them nothing much happening. I gave a short little banshee’s screech, paralyzing the guards. The guards all fell over, the one in the booth failing to hit the alarm. Nanomachine tendrils reached out and jabbed through thin air and bulletproof glass alike to plant themselves in their chests. They were dead the moment their hearts were shredded, but a small group of the nanites were left behind to keep them standing and pretend to be alive, while the ones that pulled out fixed the holes they’d left in the first place. The drones followed after me and settled onto my shoulders.
Despite my giddiness at the thought of taking on more Nazis, I didn’t really intend to do a lot of killing at this stage. For this part of the plan, I was more into masking myself with holograms while I cut into the nuke.
Part of my job was to get transported with the nuke. Another part was to disable it. This one was thermonuclear, which means it involves fission and fusion. More powerful, but still ultimately depending on the fission bomb detonating in order to power the fusion reaction. The implosion-method fission device itself requires the explosives ringing it to work. Bing bang boom. Or no boom, in this case. A distinct lack of an earth-shattering kaboom. The nuke would be a dud. The really difficult part was hiding in the fuel tank. They didn’t keep it topped off, but I was glad my armor was sealed and capable of some self-sufficiency for awhile.
Decimal’s voice broke in as if he was talking to someone else. “Good, it’s about time we’re starting. This is going to take long enough as is.” Then he was gone again.
I played some pong with myself. A bit of Forager. A few hands of Poker Night 2. So it ended up taking almost an hour for them sirens to sound and another update from Decimal. “They open just fine, good. How do they close?”
I hadn’t been sure, see, if the sirens were over the opening or over something happening. Though I guess if the base’s alarms went off, I’d know I wasn’t there anymore by their absence. Which… had just happened. Things were quiet. I checked my global positioning system and it told me I wasn’t on the globe. I slipped out of the nuke and found myself in a large storage room full of so many damn weapons and armors and costumes and gadgets.
“Gecko, do you read?” Medusa asked. Unlike the people back down in the silo who were now pretending to be bewildered, the Exemplar base Medusa was at had the ability to make contact with outer space.
“I read. I am in a fucking treasure trove and I really want to go hog wild up here.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t any convenient windows. “Uh, scratch that Medusa. First, I have to find a door. If they have one.” I grabbed a nearby magneto-gun. Neat little tool someone came up with for bank robberies that never caught on because of its size and power requirements. And I guess the need to catch a chunk of steel on the magnet and hold it up, or turn off the magnet and duck the metal flying at you while holding a hefty device. “And if I can’t find one, I can damn sure make one. After a proper amount of time to arm up.”
Here we have to take a short break from the ass-kickery to address the reindeer in the room. There was that big-ass orange moon in the sky on Saturday. The Massachusetts Exemplar base is getting full, from rescues being treated and debriefed over their experiences. That means a lot of medical and therapy staff, backed up by more field teams. And one of them is a face I didn’t expect to see in the field: Darklight.
The heroine walked in while I was making last-minute adjustments to the Reindeer costume and gear, back from the dead and still quite hateful of myself. I looked up at her and tried not to let out a sigh she could hear.
Darklight put her hands on her hips, her casual clothes much different from the black costume she’d been wearing when serving under an evil AI. Perhaps the difference was that the horrible burns she’d suffered from when I left her to fall out of orbit were all healed up. I checked and there were no nanomachines left in her system that could respond, just as I’d planned. “What kind of organization would stoop to using you?”
“Mine.” Medusa walked in and tossed a bag to Darklight, who caught it one-handed. “I can’t make you like Gecko, but keep the sniping to a minimum.”
I nodded to Medusa. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Medusa smiled. “I’m here to personally oversee what’s going on and to handle the Benfrike-Fawk meeting.”
“Uh, I thought I was handling that,” I said.
Medusa shrugged. “He got back with us after your call and wants to meet up tonight.”
I groaned and rolled my eyes, looking up. “Ugh!”
Darklight smiled. “I want to hear this.”
I gestured to Darklight. “Is she muscle to help y’all instead?” I asked.
“Yep. They brought me on because you can’t get the job done,” Darklight was beaming, and not in the way where she hurls light that somehow has physical mass at people.
Medusa looked to Darklight, but winked at me. “You’re off official duty for the night. We’ll have Darklight and Reindeer on duty if needed.”
I nodded. I’m so glad Medusa respects me enough to not reveal the open secret of my weredeer alter ego to someone who hates me. She’ll probably find out before long, but I feel slightly better that she’ll find out when I’m not around. I started beeping though. “That’s my alarm. I need to go.” I brought the costume along with me, but left the box with the hammer in it, the Bell Ringer I think Reindeer settled on.
My first choice of room was a storage closet that ended up having a couple in it enjoying some personal time. In my annoyance, I very nearly stayed completely ruined both of their libidos, but instead I ran out and headed to the nearest restroom. I got set up in a stall, hung the costume on a hangar on the inside of the door, and locked up. Then, I zipped my mind right off to the Bell Ringer.
I rose out of the box, a mighty hammer of vengeance and piss-offery. The room I’d been in wasn’t empty, as there were still some people hanging out in the armory cleaning and readying stuff, but Medusa and Darklight had gone. Oh well. I flew the hammer toward the door. Rather than burst through the thing, I activated a small arm in the handle that pulled it open and shut behind me, announcing, “I am a hammer, not a boorish rude jerkass!”
I went around a corner and there was Medusa right outside the restroom. “Coming through, pretty lady!” I popped through the door, starting to announce, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if they be worthy, shall wield the power of- shit!”
Darklight stood in the restroom, the broken stall door in her hands, watching the tail end of a grotesque transformation that saw bones warp, muscles bulge, and antlers stretch out from my head. She got an eyeful of all of it and declared. “Oh shit, you’re a werewolf deer thing. A lycanthrope. Why aren’t you a guycanthrope?”
Medusa chose that moment to storm in. “She’s a weredeer, and the magic behind that knows something you don’t.”
“I’m also not the Gecko you know,” Reindeer said upon standing. She grabbed her costume where it had fallen on the floor in front of her.
“I hear that a lot. Now you just have fur and horns,” Darklight responded.
“She’s not just whistling Dixie,” I told her, flying over to get between Darklight and Reindeer. “I’m the actual Gecko.”
Darklight grabbed me. I tried pulling out using the antigravs, but she was strong. “You downloaded your brain into a hammer? So all I need to do is break you…”
“I’ve connected my consciousness to a computer system in this hammer I designed to assist Reindeer. Destroying this won’t hurt me.”
Reindeer grabbed me too and tugged me away from Darklight. “It’s a unique and nonsensical situation involving ancient magic and cutting edge technology. And I’d rather not work with you if it’s all the same.”
They give me a lot of leeway, but Reindeer was still part of the Fawk thing. We got ready and deployed, all with her being judgy. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. We kept our distance from each other. That was possible by the plan for this meeting allowing for reinforcements to be nearby but not in the room or even in the building. We had to be inconspicuous so as to not frighten our prey. The assumption made by the Exemplars and agreed with by me is that a transporter makes for an awesome escape plan.
Once the voice thing was handled, that all went off without a hitch. Just a simple deal for enslaved superhumans. Bankrupting the late Migton Benfrike, we managed to buy back a good half-dozen supers. Fawk even threw in a free suit of power armor from Dr. Doldrum, who had a gun that made people lethargic and sad. He always struck on Mondays for maximum effect, but he died a couple years back. It was ruled self-inflicted, but the video evidence showed him skydiving naked while holding Roman candles and accidentally hitting a goose. They built a statue to that cool son of a bitch.
When I brought that up to Reindeer, she had the same idea as me. “Shouldn’t that still be with his family? Check to see if they struck.”
I ran a bit of a search. There were no reported sightings of Dr. Doldrum since the funeral, which required a pair of skateboard ramps built on either side of the grave site for skateboarders to jump the casket through a ring of fire. It’s what he would have wanted, along with the free bar. Glorious goddamn bastard.
Ten minutes later, I had a report for Reindeer. “This is potentially pretty bad. She disappeared two weeks back, with her boyfriend filing a police report. I don’t know it’s connected, but I’m paranoid and think it’s connected. I’m running through the inventory we have access to for anything that could be her.”
“I have movement,” came a report from an Exemplar.
Someone whispered. “They know someone’s been targeting clients. Activate the shield.”
“Activating. Hope this works,” someone said.
I projected a hologram so that Reindeer could see the forcefield panel in the sky above us. She didn’t need a hologram to see when a pair of giant robots rose out of the water. There were large, rounded bodies on pairs of legs, with arms that consisted of rocket pods and chainguns. One had that racing checkers design running up the sides of the torso; the other was painted blue with shark teeth on the front of it.
“Reindeer, Darklight!” Medusa called.
“On it.” Darklight announced herself with a burst of the titular dark light she now wields smacking into one of the big robots. They both concentrated their firepower on Darklight. The bullets did nothing, but rockets knocked her out of the sky. Reindeer caught her in one hand, carrying me in the other. I created a forcefield to block another pair of rockets. Reindeer and Darklight used the cover to fly low and head to between the pair of robots.
Reindeer reached a hand out for Darklight, who took it. My alter ego spun Darklight around to get more momentum before throwing the heroine at the other. That gave the other one an opening to fire at Reindeer and I. I put up another forcefield while telling her, “I can create an opening for you.”
Reindeer’s antlers lit up a brilliant white. Beams of light came together from the tips of her tallest antlers to join into one beam that cut through the air. I gave it an opening to jab right into the center of our robot’s rocket pod and cook off the ammo. Reindeer then took me and started spinning me around in the hammer, over and over again.
“Catch!” Reindeer declared, throwing me. I was glad I didn’t have a stomach. Instead, I had antigravity devices to negate the pull of gravity and to propel me even more rapidly toward the robot. I smashed through the chassis and embedded deep inside it. I stopped in all the internals of the machine and unleashed the lasers and flamethrowers. The smoking robot crashed into the waves from whence it came, with me flying off back toward Reindeer. She was now assisting Darklight with the other robot, the two of them punching the dented machine between the two of them. Finally, Darklight went for where its leg attached to the body and wrenched it off. The robot toppled into the water, but hadn’t sunk yet when Darklight smashed in the chassis even further with the purloined leg. It threw up a shitload of water when it went.
“Darklight here. The big guns are down.” I heard.
“We have Fawk,” Medusa reported.
And I got a ding as the analysis finished. “And I think I have a match. Unidentified female power armor user. No video of usage, missing the date Dr. Doldrum’s daughter disappeared.”
“What’s that?” Medusa asked.
Reindeer spoke up. “They had Dr. Doldrum’s armor but his daughter isn’t a supervillain. They figured out who she was and kidnapped her anyway so they could sell it and her.
I added, “We have a lot of responders on the way. I don’t know if we’re going public with this yet…”
“Let’s clear out. I’ll arrange something for them. We have more than enough to go public. It’s time to move on to the next phase,” Medusa ordered. Privately, she connected to the private channel between Reindeer and me. “Now we have to figure out what Dick Avast is doing all this for. After that, I think we should send him on a one-way trip to Mars with no transporter.”
“The Flying Dead! Time Travel Returns Heroes – And Infamous Villain – To Earth.”
I was checking out the story the old-fashioned way, with a newspaper. Adrian, retired hero-turned-friend had stopped while I was at the bakery. I was devouring a huge honey bun when he stopped, cream cheese and garlic danish in hand, and stopped to show me the news. It’s not surprising that the gang of heroes brought back from just before their deaths at my hands would blab. They mentioned me being alive and the reporters who caught that bit are assuming I was brought back as well. They didn’t identify who talked. At least they didn’t talk about Radium. That would undercut their own efforts.
Venus and the cyborg Human Sloth had a long visit with Medusa before returning to the Master Academy. Darklight stayed here for a bit of reconstuctive surgery with a super doc who isn’t me. I slipped him some special nanites, specifically created to not be controllable from outside and to pass out of the system quickly. He’ll keep my name out of it, but Darklight will look like her old self. I hope she’s planning to keep the name though. Way better than Forcelight. I think Lone Gunman and Miss Tycism ran off to pick up where they left off as supers.
And me, spent quite a bit of time working on my armors. Figure I better make sure the designs branch out. That’s why I suited up personally as Lady Guardian out in the backyard. Well, one reason. I tried the new wings, a mixture of reinforced lightweight alloys and nanomachines. I’d left out the engines that the Psychopomp armor has in the big mess of nanites I shift to fit various uses. These were more solid to help with the suit’s antigrav. I had to pack in more power to handle it and the need for redundancy.
I raised my wings, activated the antigrav, and launched myself into the air. The wings were for show. The actual flight had nothing to do with all that. But it was amazing.
I did a barrel roll and played around. The wings helped me twist and turn through the air more naturally. I could turn the antigrav on a dime, but I quickly realized my stomach disagreed with that handling. I didn’t realize I’d traveled so far until I saw the taller buildings below. I headed down try dodging between buildings.
There wasn’t much to speak up, but somebody was making a scene. A man in a black and red knight’s armor laughed as the cops fired at him in the middle of a park. He had a kite shield stabbed into the grass in front of him. The air was hazy overhead, but I don’t think the cops’ bullets got anywhere near close. Behind him, men dressed in chainmail shirts ran around trying to steal a giant cherry from atop this giant spoon that was a bridge over some water.
I landed between the two groups and held up my hands in both directions. The cops stopped shooting. “Good, guys… because seriously? You’re opening fire over this? A guy with an axe who isn’t even close to you?” I turned to the knight and his henchmen. “And you, seriously? What’s the resale value on this? First, you’re separating the pieces, and you don’t even have a truck here. Any truck close enough and big enough now, they’re going to follow it. And anyone who wants to buy this shit could go for the Lincoln Memorial or something rather than a giant cherry.”
I could see some of the henchmen were nodding along, figuring out this wasn’t that good of a plan. The knight looked back. “Hey, come on! It’s about sending a message.”
“You don’t like cherries?” I asked.
“Can we shoot at them again?” one of the cops asked.
“No,” I said. “Why would you shoot them over this thing? Nobody’s getting hurt by this.”
“They might roll it into a building,” one of the cops suggested.
“Statistically, you’re more of a danger as a cop than they are. Know your role and shut your mouth,” I told him.
“I didn’t come here to not fight anyone,” the dark knight announced. “I am Sir Rend, and I will be the next top supervillain.”
I rolled my eyes under the helmet. “This isn’t a reality show, you flatulent dickweed.”
“Uh, if that’s all this is, can we go?” one of the henchmen called out. A bunch of the others went ahead and ran off toward a nearby parking lot, the chainmail slowing them.
“Alright, Sir Rend-er. You want a fight, you’ll get one, then these guys will probably lock you up and steal your shit. I’m giving you every opportunity to make a graceful exit.”
He walked up to his kite shield and pulled it out of the grass. He spun the axe around, then walked toward me. He was cautious, waiting to see what move I made first. I used the wings to lift myself into the air and the holographic projectors to hit him with a blinding light. I landed behind the knight and swept the wings around to knock axe and shield out of his hands. A kick stumbled him, but he’d started turning and absorbed some of the hit in the process. I ran up and jumped up to lock my legs around his helmet, spinning both of us around in a circle with my wings stretched outward, and then flew downward to twist and toss the knight hard onto his back.
It was a hard hit, but knights wear padding. He was starting to get up. I grabbed him and threw him in the air. He was only up there for a second before landing hard again, sounding like his lungs hated him.
I waved dismissively and checked around to see how the henchmen were doing. A couple trucks sped off with cops way behind trying to get to their cars. Behind me, more cops were handcuffing Sir Rend and pulling off his helmet. One of the cops gasped as a wizened old face was revealed. “It’s Old Man Sanders!”
“I think that’s a mask too,” said a younger one. The cop that had the helmet tossed it aside and grabbed the old man’s hair, tugging it off to reveal a younger guy.
Then we all heard a humming noise and Sir Rend disappeared. A soft glow enveloped him and he was gone. Poof. The guys holding him almost fell down. Another hum, and a folded piece of paper appeared in the air, flopping down to land on the dogpile. The younger cop grabbed it up while everyone tried to stand and read it aloud. “Thank you for capturing this dangerous criminal. I, the esteemed billionaire Richard M. Avast, have taken it upon myself to hold this villain and others in my personal space station. We owe so much to you that I thought I would save you the trouble.”
“Isn’t that kidnapping?” I asked.
An older man in a coat and dress shirt snatched the note away from the younger guy, “We’ll look into it, but there’s only so much we can do if some rich vigilante has decided to snatch this up from us.”
“He gave you his name,” I pointed out. Why do I bother? At least the henchmen probably got away.
My mood suitably dampened by an encounter with this country’s idea of a “justice” system, I headed back to Radium. At least I got to enjoy flying. There’s just something about that feeling. Amazing.
I heard more about Avast when I was just about home. He was doing a big press event, standing on stage in front of dozens of reporters. Behind him was CGI video of a space station consisting of a giant letter A with a ring rotating around it level with the middle line. Looked like a giant A-hole to me.
“As you have all heard by now, I have decided to relieve the burden off law enforcement and the new government Office of Superhuman Resources by personally housing super criminals in my very own space station. Additionally, the data we gain from their presence will benefit my company when we colonize Mars,” he said, pulling that out of Uranus.
“What about their rights as American citizens?” asked one person.
“They’re criminals, and outer space is outside the jurisdiction of all law enforcement agencies,” Avast answered.
“How are the staff caring for the inmates?” another reporter asked.
“The staff and supplies are housed in the central portion. The outer ring holds inmate cells with built in toilet facilities. If an inmate wishes to break free, they can easily do so. They would then find themselves in outer space with no safe way to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere with no oxygen.”
“Yes, I’m from OAN,” asked a woman. “What percentage of the inmates would you say are degenerate mongoloids?”
“How dare you?!” asked someone next to her, some dork in a bow tie. He raised his hand. “Fox News here, how many would you say are Jewish-backed Black Lives Matter anarchist communists who hate freedom and white babies?”
They were both shoved out of the way by a large, red-faced man. “Yeah, I’m from InfoWars, and I’m here to say that the real problem here is that you’re not using the space station to stop the radical ChiCom agenda where they are putting things in our medicine that kill bacteria that keep our cows straight?! They’re coming for our cheese!” He got decked by the OAN person, who then received a wedgie from the Fox dork. Security moved in while the rest of the press corps backed away or took photos.
“We must reconvene later for the full details I’m afraid,” Avast apologized and left the stage, ushered off by security.
I figured that couldn’t much get any worse until I landed and stripped out of the armor. Before any reconvening could happen, I received a message from elsewhere. Medusa called me up. I smiled as I answered, “Hey there… something come up about dinner?”
“No, I’m looking forward to meeting Sam,” she started. She sighed. “I got an important message from Dame.”
Ah. Sensitive subject. I kinda-sorta copied all her memories and spent some time controlling her body as a puppet. If anyone has a right to kill me, it’d be Dame. “Was she looking for me?”
“Yes and no. She doesn’t want you anywhere near her.” Understandable. “She said some of her rich snooty family friends are talking about a big auction going down with that Avast guy. Auctioning off costumes and equipment. Someone threw the words ‘indentured servitude’ around.”
“This stinks like a thing that stinks having eaten a stinkier thing,” I said.
“Yeah. I need someone who can go undercover by perfectly emulating someone who is wealthy and has absolutely no concern for the well-being of anyone other than themselves,” she said.
“Will there be any killing involved in this?” I asked.
“The person who does this for me might have to beat up rich people or their paid security, yes,” she said.
“Seriously, who would you pick if I refused?” I asked with a grin.
“That’s why I also assembled a couple fire teams. With literal fire. We have a lot of flamethrowers.”
“Ooh, keep those on hand. I like the imagery, and I’ll do it,” I told her.
“Good. Can’t wait until dinner,” she said.
I swear, that woman still loves me. Good thing I invited her on this poly date thing.
Everything was mostly hunky-dory after all that. Where I’d been zipped off to was the House of Shadows and Spires, to my lab. There, my body was dunked in a tank of nanomachines to heal while my armor was standing in the foyer, looking around at all the sawdust on the floor and the way parts of the wall had been taped together.
“You’ll be back to normal in no time,” Dr. Ohms said, rubbing his hand along a portion of the wood floor patched up with wood that didn’t match the rest of it.
Alexander and Qiang finished nailing up a painting at the top of the stairs when Qiang turned and noticed the new suit of armor in the foyer. “Mom’s here!”
I waved and spoke through the armor. “Torian just dumped my body in the nanites. I’ll be fine.” Still, we all hugged as I kept explaining. “Remove the poison, fix the effects, patch the hole from the spear; I’ll be fine.”
“Doesn’t make us worry any less, mom,” Qiang said.
“Yeah, that was a trip,” Alexander said. “You ever seen someone stand back up like that? You were like one of those old slasher movie killers.”
“How long have you been waiting?” I asked.
“Eleven, no, twelve hours,” Qiang answered. “We were pretty exhausted when we got back, so we slept awhile and now we’re picking the house back up. It won’t be as capable at time travel, but we’ll make it work.”
I nodded. “What were y’all thinking of doing now this whole mess is over with?”
Alexander let me go. “We might go back home, eventually, but we thought we’d help out here. Torian’s out there again, and the timelines are in trouble.”
I sighed from thinking about what the fuck was even up with time that would require people traveling around to fix divergent timelines from spewing out more divergences. Figured I’d just go with it. If that’s what my kids want to do, let ’em do it.
“Well, I guess don’t be strangers? But I hope you don’t need my help too much. Find a happy medium, I guess. But I’m going home. Right back to where y’all left me, if you please.”
Alexander smiled. “We’ll visit when we can. Right now, it looks like we need to clean up something from the time crash that caused superpowers in the dinotaceous period.”
“Triassic,” Qiang corrected.
“That’s what I said,” Alexander teased her with a grin. To me, he added, “Intelligent dinosaurs with superpowers. Could be a problem. We need to do something to separate the timeline before it’s permanent. But first, let’s get you healed up and home.”
It took a lot of protein and healing to get my body back in shape. The poison did some nasty shit to the proteins in my body, melted a lot of stuff. Some bits, I decided not to bother with the meat and just go for metal. On the surface, I looked like a curly, chubby woman. I was back on my feet just time for one final meal with the kids before they dropped me off as the first stop. I gave a Qiang and Alexander one last hug and bid the rest of the group a fond farewell. “Feel free to use the lab and the machines. Might come in handy,” I told them.
Dr. Ohms flexed his healed arm and said, “Real handy.”
To Mobian Jr., I added, “Keep an eye out. Your dad’ll be back at some point, I’m sure. And if not, I’ve been known to help him out on occasion, things need to get messy. There’s a reason he hated me, though.”
And then it was time to step out the front door of the House of Shadows and Spires. It was a bright and shiny day in early June, according to my HUD clock. I noticed as I headed down the porch stairs that they looked a bit decrepit. Looking back from the lawn, the whole house looked like a haunted house now. Or more like a fixer-upper. And I noticed the letter that drifted out of the closed door addressed to me. It was from Qiang. It had some parting info for me
Checking back, it was the day after I’d left. Along with the brief note in that envelope, things felt weird.
I don’t know how long I was gone, but it felt like awhile. Qiang, the younger version, was home. I walked in just in time to startle her and make her cut off a chunk of hair. She was happy to see me, of course, but way less happy then I was because it had been less time for her. I’ve heard that given as the real reason people try not to go back to exactly the time they left. Maybe it is, but it’s also a bit cruel and unnecessary. Every day I was gone was a day my kid might think I’d been poisoned and stabbed through the torso with a giant robot’s spear.
It took a little bit before I got some urgent alerts over VillaiNet. Something about weird freaky temporal readings, and swearing they lost time. No one could agree on how much time was lost, though. And then my time was interrupted by Medusa calling me up. “Hey, Gecko, I’m not accusing you of anything, but I heard there was an incident at your place. Did you do anything big in the past day or so?”
“I got involved in the middle of a temporal war between a genocidal AI that wanted to destroy all superpowers and remake the world in what he thought was perfection based on its own flawed programming, ultimately ending shortly after the computer tried to smash all of time together to make a sort of Big Bang event happen for the multiverse,” I explained.
“Right, so time is fucked up. That could explain it. I’ve gotten weird reports of some sort of intense disturbance in South Dakota, with reports from local Johnny Laws that a team of superheroes suddenly appeared, including me.”
Oh. You know, there’s some things I didn’t quite explain as far as this invitation I made. I explained Jaguar Slayer’s recruiting efforts to try and kill me and how I managed to remind them all to be heroes again. It must have been a lot to process. I thought she hung up on me because of how silent everything was. After a full minute of no talking, I hung up, then had to answer a callback from her. “Oh my god, I’m so proud of you!”
“This is why I don’t tell you stuff,” I said.
“And also why did you invite a past version of me here?!” That’s a reasonable freakout. Like I said, didn’t entirely think it all out. I was pretty close to death at the time.
“Um, just think of her like a little sister? A little sister who might be dating your formerly dead boyfriend I killed that time.”
She took awhile to think, then reminded me, “Don’t hang up yet. I’m just… pondering.”
“Trying to figure out how to explain to people you’re very close to, including a version of you from before you rescued me, that we used to play with each other’s fun stuff?” I asked.
She laughed. Such an annoying laugh. I miss it. I almost said a thing. Almost said it twice, unsure of myself because relationships and emotions are tough. Instead, I settled on, “Are they still there? I’d like to go meet them, maybe bring something for Forcelight. Or Darklight. I actually really prefer the name Darklight, it was so much better.”
“So much better,” Medusa agreed. “You’re the closest asset the Exemplars have to what’s going on, if you want to head over there. The Superhuman Resources people are going to be scrambling, but they don’t have people out in flyover country yet. They can lay low in Radium until we get their lives figured out.”
Yay, a trip in my personal Flyer. Perfect for considering that I’m canonically supposed to have a kid soon and what that knowledge means for me going forward and figuring out relationships. You know, whether things are just because of how I feel, or because I feel obligated to Alexander. It was on my mind because Future Qiang’s little note was to warn me I’m supposed to get pregnant. Because this one, I’m the birth mother too. Not lying, adopting, and messing around with their DNA like with Qiang. Yeah, there’s a nice revelation to have. Yep, Psychopomp Gecko’s gonna lay an egg.
I tried to play a game instead, but my copy of Legend of Mana suddenly stopped working since I’d returned to a time before the remaster was released. Damn time travel!
I tried to look all official when I landed, which meant I used a set of my Lady Guardian armor. That way, when I landed in front of the police station where the Homicide Squad was hanging out. Medusa had forwarded over some transcripts. Darklight and the others weren’t under arrest. Venus being with them convinced the officers not to do that. After all, she was a hero.
Cops and capes alike perked up when I landed in the parking lot and stepped through the door. “Lady Guardian on behalf of the Exemplars,” I announced myself. To the heroes sitting around the lobby area specifically, I added, “The Exemplars are a group that formed in the time you’ve all been… inactive. We have a place a couple of hours from here. We’ll put you up until you get on your feet, help you get adjusted, and can help you obtain travel accommodations out if you’d prefer to hit the ground running.”
“About time,” Lone Gunman said, crumpling an empty bag of chips and tossing them expertly into a trash can on the opposite side of the room. “Can we stop for dinner on the way?”
“My Flyer has a selection of food,” I told him. Including some of those marshmallows with the cookies and cream center. Those are going to blow their fucking minds.
“I think we’re all pretty eager to go,” Venus said.
Darklight had her black costume on, but nodded. I ushered them all out, but stopped her. “I was told to give this to you. To help make amends.” I handed her a small tube of nanomachines designed to restore her to her unburnt appearance.
“Are these from Psycho Gecko?” she asked.
“You’ve all been gone for so long, you wouldn’t know. Psycho Gecko is dead. It happened some time ago,” I told them.
Venus smirked. Darklight looked to her, then took the tube with her. “Let’s go.” On the way to the Flyer, she began to talk to any of them who were listening. It didn’t escape my notice that the Human Sloth in his cybernetic body was bringing up the rear. “It’s not an illusion, everyone.”
“It looks familiar,” Miss Tycism said.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re all talking about,” I said, smiling underneath the armor.
“Still not an illusion,” Darklight said.
“I am Lady Guardian,” I announced. “I will be your pilot today. Please board. I advise you sit down and strap up for takeoff, and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to stand up.”
“This is the kind of fucking around Gecko would do,” Venus said.
“We can take her,” said Human Sloth, who is pretty much the last person who should be making that statement.
I waited until they were all inside to start laughing. “Well, couldn’t exactly let news of my living get out. But I am working with Medusa,” I told them all. I pointed to Venus. “You’d know her better as who Venus is now after she set out on her own from the Master Academy. Come on, let’s get y’all to Radium. And while we’re on the way, anyone got any dietary requests for a cookout? Might as well have y’all over to the place. I’ll call up Marianne and Adrian, see if they want to help welcome y’all.”
“This future is fucked,” Lone Gunman said.
Miss Tycism had gotten to the marshmallows and was sitting down, chewing on one with wide yes. “Oh. My. God. These are blowing my fucking mind right now.”
Some torturous son of a gun brought me a guitar to see if I could tune it. Stared at that thing for a minute or two before pushing it back over the counter and telling him he needs to go elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s because this place looks like some sort of sci fi pawnshop, but I am not the one to involve in music. I think the local music store’s been revitalized by the growing community of supers. Sometimes people retire and want a hobby.
But that was never the extent of my problems. Not with Skitwell sending an Office of Superhuman Resources auditor to take a fine tooth comb through my colon. It’s just a bit of harassment at this point over the fact that I didn’t join his little club and teach his robots how to better kill people like myself. That quickly erased any goodwill he might have built up confronting ICE remnants. I don’t think they’re all secretly on the same side. It’s important to remember that sort of thing in a harsh and complicated world. This time, I look not to The Art of War or The Rules of Acquisition, but to The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries: the enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It’s a saying I choose to apply depending on how I want to justify my suspicions. I don’t like Skitwell. And, as I said when he walked into my shop yet again, “Isn’t it kind of counterproductive to your job to spend so much time here, harassing a small business owner like myself?”
Skitwell, that rather innocuous agent of the Office of Superhuman Resources, was here today absent his suit jacket and in a more mundane pair of brown slacks. He brought a couple bags of Grease Garage food for me. “I brought lunch.”
I waved him over to the counter. It’s difficult for me to pass up food that someone else paid for. I went for the fries first, even if I was suddenly loathe to confirm for him again that I like them.
“Relocating all these people here is a waste of talent,” he started in on. I gave him some eye, so he held his hands up as if conceding defeat, then reached into the bag for his own burger.
“You made that point. It’s boring, and it’s wrong to force people into serving others like that. This country’s had enough of compelling a class of people to work for others based on their physical attributes, hasn’t it?”
That got a pause in his eating. Dare I say, I think he looked a bit guilty at that. We ate for a couple of seconds before he started in again. “If you were only Delilah or Lady Guardian, I wouldn’t be so worried about you. If so, I would love your help on the technical aspects of the Enforcer. That armor is something else, and I saw what you did to that ICE APC. If you wanted to, you could have taken them all out.”
He wiped his hands off with a napkin. “Relocating all these people isn’t just a waste of talent, it’s a nightmare as far as tax forms. I mentioned we have people to help folks with their taxes. They took a look at the documents that got you set up in town. They’re a joke, a useful one. Some people don’t know not to mention your real identity.”
I shrugged and stopped eating, setting aside the food. This guy started at enslaving people for folks he didn’t dislike. Poisoning me would be fruitless, but he’d still try. Speaking of fruitless, I reached over and pushed a button. A four-pronged robotic manipulator lowered from the ceiling, then slid over to hang above a bowl of fruit by the wall. It selected an apple and brought it over to me.
Skitwell watched all of this with nothing but a small shift to readiness when I pressed the button and the limb came into view. “Do you know what this is?” I asked him.
“Through some sort of misunderstanding or translation or something, some say this is what the fruit looked like on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But since this isn’t one of those lying Red Delicious motherfuckers, it’s actually just a delicious fruit. Knowledge brings obligations. You might have certain obligations now if you really know what you claim to know.” It was much more philosophical and elaborate than I meant to say, but it sounds kinda cool. I like being dramatic. It helps to moderate my desire to snap Skitwell’s neck and hide the body in my garden. That would solve some problems, but also create others and jeopardize the whole town. Then again, if he actually knows who I am, the town’s already in jeopardy. I think he’d be pretty much obligated to bomb this place to smithereens. He already knows his Enforcers can’t beat me in a fight even without my armor.
He relaxed and leaned against the counter to eat. A power move, which tells me he’s in a weak position. “If I had my way, you wouldn’t be here. It’s not up to me and Medusa is serious about this town being a haven. I don’t know what you’re planning as Lady Guardian, but I know you’re not reformed with your criminal doctor office.”
I cocked my head, then smiled. “Well, do whatever you’re going to do then.”
He finished his burger and then he left. Guess he didn’t have anything left to say or anything to really threaten me with, or so I thought at the time. I still figured I’d pay attention. I don’t know what depths Skitwell will sink to, I just know the ones he can sink to. That’s why I was actually happy to see him run into a few problems of his own.
It was all over the news because of the aftermath. Someone was outside a bank, cutting open the ATMs with a sword while an accomplice stuffed money into bags. An Enforcer responded and demanded the pair toss aside weapons and money, and get down on their knees. Video shows the guy with the sword tossed the grey-green blade aside and put his hands behind his hooded head. Looked like he had big grey-green bracers as well.
The Enforcer approached to cuff the swordsman. It got real close and the guy reached hand out suddenly. The Enforcer grabbed it, but the sword shot up from the ground and cut through the Enforcer’s arm. The swordsman grabbed it and jumped up, cutting the Enforcer in half at the waist. The Enforcer grabbed for the guy’s sword arm, but the swordsman stepped back and took the other hand off. They left the damaged robot fumbling around there and took off with the money.
I toyed with the idea of seeing if I could steal a piece of the Enforcer, but that was more an instinct to annoy Skitwell. I preferred to have him off tending to other stuff. He’s annoyed me too much. Maybe if he spent more time seeing to his job than to me.
I didn’t want to get involved. And then, walking home after work, a semi decided to run over me. It was my original body, too. That meant it hurt and it meant it was the real me they tossed in some extra-reinforced metal box in the back of the thing. They were out of town before I had my proper senses back.
Fuck me getting hit by vehicles lately. The strain of thought that kept repeating in my head for the first ten minutes there was “I wish my brain doctor was still here.” I didn’t shake off the daze of having dented an eighteen-wheeler until I passed out and then woke up. Bonking my head on the casket they had me in didn’t help!
I just fixed this brain!
I tried cutting my way out with my eye lasers. Didn’t do the trick. I couldn’t get a signal out through conventional means. The thing was like a Faraday cage, which might have messed with me getting my brain working right. Even my laser claws, that nifty superpower I copied from a refugee kid, didn’t make it through the container they stuck me in. And as much as I hated that, I also realized I needed to study this thing for tips in case I need to hold someone like me prisoner.
It was hours later that my sarcophagus was raised up into a standing position. Something opened up at the bottom, just a thin strip. The coffin was too narrow for me to bend down and the opening too small for me to squeeze through.
“Hello in there,” called a voice.
“Fuck you, asshole. Let me out so I can drill you like a long haul trucker who carries viagra delivering a load to your momma personally.”
“Damn, Skitwell’s superhero girlfriend’s got a mouth on her!” someone called to laughter.
The fuck?! “Who’s fucking girlfriend?!”
“We’ve been watching the tight-ass. We’ve seen your lunch dates. The way he keeps visiting you in your weird town. You’re our leverage over him if he thinks he can shut us down.”
I didn’t have to worry about keeping myself calm anymore. I had surpassed my anger to become calmly furious and told them, “You’re all going to die.”
“You’d better hope we don’t before we slip you some diapers and food. And if you try anything, we’ll still feed you. We just won’t give you the diapers!” That got a bunch more laughter from the walking dead men outside.
This was no time to pull a “Do you know who you’re messing with?” on them. For all I know, they had me dangling over a volcano with this surprisingly-thorough trap. They didn’t underestimate me, unless I was really good at hiding the ability to fly, and I wish I was.
At least they dropped in a diaper first. There wasn’t a lot of room to wiggle into it, but it was better than pissing all over myself inside that container. Dinner was a pair of hot dogs that I ate in silence.
“That enough for you, princess?” someone asked. I’d have loved to ask for them to shut off the Faraday cage and give me more of an opening. Instead, I ate in silence and activated the dimensional transceiver.
I awoke back at my house, in one of the spare bodies. I felt a little fuzzy around the edges because of the Faraday Cage, but technically I wasn’t sending a signal outside of it. I was sending a signal through a gap in time-space. I can’t say whether it was that or the fact that someone successfully kidnapped me after mistaking me for Skitwell’s girlfriend.
I called up my ex instead. Medusa, head of the Exemplars, and person who is now helping out Skitwell after he demonstrated a willingness to go after the police and remnants of the fascist organization known as ICE.
She was kind enough to avoid letting me hear her laugh when I explained the situation. But then she said the words I knew but still didn’t want to hear: “You know we have to tell Skitwell, right? He’s going to have a better idea than either of us who his enemies are.”
I let out an irritated growl.
“Look at it this way,” Medusa tried comforting me. “He’s going to finally see why it would have been a terrible idea to recruit you.”
“I will tear their souls apart,” I interrupted.
She snorted. “You don’t even believe in souls.”
“I’m going to invent them, then rend them into pieces. Then I’m going to swallow them with a dinner of Waffle House eggs and baked beans.”
Let’s try this again. Just be chill, sell weapons and cybernetics out of a shop in a blossoming town in the middle of nowhere, and raise my daughter. Try to cut back on involving myself in vendettas and everything. It’s a lot easier to avoid killing people that way. And I was trying! I made it a whole two days.
I was at a cookout over with Marianne and Adrian. I mostly just focused on the food, though. I helped cook, both bringing some stuff of my own over and helping the hosts. I was trying to be all disarming and chubby and curly-haired. I’ve adjusted my power armor, don’t worry. Besides, the chubbiness adds extra padding. Literally, there’s some soft fat in there, but I added additional layers of armor. Helping out with the food even kept me from thinking too hard about how much stuff like that undermines the idea of putting aside my past and moving into a less violent future.
The whole day would have gone great, if not for that damn horse. I don’t know how he got there. I think one of the guests rode him there, which isn’t that out of place in a crowd of rural Americans and superheroes. The thing knocked over the grill and damaged it. The top closed on the grill before it went down, though, so the steaks were tossed around a bit but didn’t end up in the grass or dirt. I came out to help grab stuff from the kitchen and found Medusa there.
My ex, the superhero known as Venus now turned vigilante who works outside the law when it’s villainous, was showing around some guy who was much better dressed than the rest of us. I waved at her, which prompted the guy with her to walk up. “Hello there. Are you another of these superheroes hanging around here?”
“Agent Skitwell, this is Delilah,” Medusa introduced me.
“I’m just here to get some peace and quiet and as little violence as possible,” I heard someone laugh at that from somewhere.
“I’m from the federal government,” Agent Skitwell said, “We’re doing some reorganizing in light of the problems with ICE and the recognition that we need to change our interactions with the superhuman community. If I may ask,” and he didn’t pause for a real answer, “What do you get out of living here that you can’t get out of wherever you’re originally from?”
“People have lots of reasons for not sticking around where they’re originally from. I’m better off somewhere else,” I told him.
He looked around at some of the people milling about. Adrian had a plastic bag full of half-cooked steaks now and was standing up next to me. “We’re having a party here. Relax, we’ll have the steaks done soon.”
Skitwell smiled. “We don’t all have the benefit of relaxing. You have superhuman abilities and could be saving lives, but you’re out here eating potato salad.”
“It’s good fucking potato salad,” I said. I heard some disagreement from the crowd, but I’m pretty sure that was directed at Skitwell.
Adrian got between me and the agent. “You’re not entitled to our lives just because we’ve ended up different.”
Not the way I’d have gone with it, but Marianne was there to pick up the slack. “And the government has some nerve deciding now that it’s a bad time for people to sit on their hands while ICE and Nazis do shit.”
I grabbed the bag of steaks and headed inside. I was cooking up a bunch on the stovetop in no time when Medusa joined me. She walked in to stand next to me, looking over my shoulder, finally setting her head on my shoulder. “Heya Boopsie,” I told her.
“The ex-villains are the best argument for this place, but I don’t want him to know about you all. Sorry for all that. The government found out about Radium and they saw an opportunity while they’re restructuring.”
I started to open my mouth to sing, then settled on playing some musical numbers for her. First, “Everything’s Alright.” Then, as the food got ready, “A Little Priest”. She sang along. Didn’t help any, but I already knew better than to expect that. I even got a little boost over the fact that all these people who would hated me if they’d known who I was, and several did know, ate the food. They enjoyed it. Also, the hug from Marianne and Adrian was nice.
A couple days later, Qiang and I got back to the house to find a note on the door. “What’s it say, momma?” asked my curious kiddo.
“Just some jerk I saw at the cookout the other day. Wants the whole town to come to some demonstration.”
It was set outside of town, in an unused cattle pasture that this one guy was letting regrow, but I hear you can buy a whole butchered cow from him. A lot of folks parked by the side of the road and just walked out into the field where Skitwell was in a suit and coat. He stood with a weird suit of armor without external connectivity. It as bulky and humanoid, but without eyes. Instead, the lower half of its helmet resembled a sculpted human mouth. Medusa was standing behind them in all their stuff, arms crossed, looking skeptical.
When enough of us had showed, he began to speak, “Hello citizens of Radium. If you don’t know me yet, I’m Agent Marcus Skitwell, and I’m part of a group that will be moving over to the new Office of Superhuman Resources. The OSR’s goal will be to try and best protect and utilize superhuman men and women, coordinating with disaster relief, first responders, and the military as needed while also insuring the peace and security of private citizens with superpowers.”
I guess he picked the cattle pasture to help disguise the smell of bullshit, but I didn’t say anything.
“The OSR will be working with various groups of superhumans such as the Master Academy and the Exemplars. We think it’s important to keep our communities safe with a far greater efficiency than mundane law enforcement.”
I raised a hand.
Skitwell saw it, and noted a few other hands going up. “I’d like to take questions in a minute, please.” I didn’t lower my hand, but he went on. “We don’t want to control and stifle you. The Office of Superhuman Resources wants to empower you with insurance and benefits such as student loan forgiveness or free college tuition. For those who are older, we’re looking into tax benefits and childcare stipends.”
“What’s that thing?” someone else asked about the power armor.
Skitwell sighed with a smile plastered on his face. “I was building up to this, but I spoke with my superiors and convinced them that I needed to show this to you people as a sign of good faith. This is one of the very first Enforcer Mark Fours. To help fill in the gaps in police protection from supervillains, the OSR commissioned the Enforcer series to handle more dangerous threats.”
I didn’t wait anymore, “So the entire premise behind your visit and y’all spending millions of dollars on these things is that in a time when we’re seeing law enforcement abandon accountability and de-escalation in favor of killing people, you wanted another weapon for cops to use instead of talking stuff out.”
Skitwell shook his head, “The hope is that cops can send the Enforcers into dangerous situations and can then handle less dangerous situations with the discretion they deserve.”
“And who programmed that shit?” I asked. “The same people who say a water bottle is a Molotov cocktail as an excuse to shoot protesters’ eyes out, or the same cops who refuse to stop their fellow officers from kneeling on someone’s neck for ten minutes?”
I caught Medusa smiling. Another person stepped up to ask, “Is that thing programmed to stop cops from shooting unarmed suspects?”
Skitwell decided to go with that one, “These are specifically for situations with super powers. Anyone could appear unarmed in that case.”
Now that got some yelling, I think even from some of the more conservative Radium townies who realized this guy just admitted a robot was being developed to attack people who didn’t even have guns on them. Human law enforcement could be trusted to me racist, but a robot might be an equal opportunity brutalizer.
Finally, he resorted to shouting over everyone. “Listen, while you sit here in your manmade Mayberry pretending you can have normal lives, bad people are out there preparing to destroy the world. There’s a cost to you having your peace and it means little boys and little girls die the next time a Spinetingler or Cercopagus or Psycho Gecko comes along. The world needs the Enforcers and men like me. You can’t talk these genocidal monsters down!”
Yeah, I noticed some of the looks coming my way. I had, by that point, taken my hand down. But Medusa stepped up. “I think you’ll find that if you give them a chance, some of those villains can be your biggest defenders. Spinetingler has a family and so does Psycho Gecko. They don’t want to destroy the world. One of the successes of Radium is that villains live here too. Give them a chance.”
“Enforcer, identify,” Skitwell said.
The Enforcer, which had been standing so still I knew it couldn’t be a person, glanced around and stepped ran forward to grab a teenager. “Wanted for graffiti, curfew violation, unlawful assembly…”
I was on it in a second, grabbing the Enforcer’s hand and peeling back its fingers so it dropped the kid. I whirled around, pulling the arm with me so my back was toward Medusa and Skitwell. It wasn’t facing the crowd anymore. “Identity unknown. One charge aiding and abetting, one charge attacking a law enforcement officer.”
It grabbed for me. I dodged. I ducked a second one. I dipped under a punch. I even dove, when it shot a net. I carthweeled out of the way when it tried to kick me in the gut upon standing back to my feet. When it tried again with the other leg, I instead jumped off its leg and right over it. I turned to Skitwell. “I’m not a weapon.” Then I rolled to the side and let the Enforcer stop there, forever behind in trying to catch me.
Skitwell had gone red in the face watching some chubby woman make his anti-super robot look like a bumbling idiot. “Enforcer, stand down!”
The robot went still as a statue once again. Skitwell looked around at the rest of us. “I’ll take your concerns to my superiors. Thank you for coming out today.”
They left and, hey, I even got a couple claps on the shoulder and a shaking “Thanks” from the teen boy I’d saved. Medusa jogged up to me before I could get out of there. “If it had to happen, I’m glad it happened that way.”
I shrugged and said in an unimpressed voice, “He’ll be back. We haven’t seen the last of him. We’ll be sorry, we’ll see. He’ll show us, he’ll show us all.”
Medusa giggled. “Things are changing and some people are still boneheaded about what the problems are, but I have faith in people.”
“Ugh!” I threw my hands up, my long-eaten lunch threatening to go the same way. “I hate that I’m proving you right!”
You know, sometimes, when I don’t take some medicine, it occurs to me to wonder if I’m forever doomed to be a killer. However, when I’ve smoked a lot of pot, I wonder how I don’t make a living as a chef, because eating a bowl of liquid brownie mix is an amazing idea. It was still a good idea when run back over myself after sobering up.
I came to on the couch and found Dr. Erishka sitting in the living with a little table set up, playing a board game with cards and meeples and a board. I’d just woken up and was a little lost. I looked around and did a quick check cycle. All bodies accounted for and not in crisis.
“You want to deal in?” the doctor asked.
Wordlessly and bonelessly, I slid down off the couch to sit on my side of the table and accepted a handful of cards. Then I winced as yelling elsewhere drew me away.
Back on the island, I stumbled out of the boat I was staying on to see what all the yelling was about and found an army waiting for me. Cape Diem Security people filed out of portals and were fixing up barricades and lights, with the Titan coordinating with Medusa. Exemplar Flyers offloaded guards and gun emplacements. Naval mercenaries known as the Privateers were wading out of landing craft or recharging flight packs once they got onshore. Some of the Privateers were nabbing candy out of my stash. Some supers flew by overhead in costume instead of uniforms, dropping off independent supers.
“Welcome to the island. Now leave my shit alone!” I announced.
A lot of people turned to stare at me. I pointed to one of the guys at my candy stash. “Bitch took my chocolate truffles.”
“This is melted!” he said, tossing the bag on the sand.
One of the Cape Diem guys shuffled over in his blue, yellow, and grey uniform and picked up the bag, then slipped it into a container labeled “Waste”. I gave the guy a golf clap. “Thanks, at least someone around here is being considerate.”
People went back to their business as I hopped out of the boat and walked toward Medusa and Titan. I stuck a thumb out at another of the Privateers who had stolen a bag of Funyuns I brought. “Hey guys. What’s with the mercs?”
The hero and the neutral superpowered aid organization head shared a glance. Medusa nodded to me, then just nodded in affirmation toward Titan. My ex walked over to me in her newest subtly-plated black and red costume. “That was Ouroboros. We spoke on a tablet and he says you warned him about this.”
I ran a hand over the helmet that body had been wearing for several days straight. I was afraid what might happen if that body was exposed to air at this point. “I might have overreacted a tad to a potential alien invasion, but I think I’ve got it in hand.”
Medusa swept her arm past the gathering supers to the rest of the island that had more of the alien machine drop pots scattered all over it. Machines crawled around and watched, but none approached. Perhaps unknown to them, one of them had raised a banner with a series of code on it informing me that I may speak with a being of authority upon my readiness. I borrowed some of their phrasing there.
I gestured to that banner, “See, they’re ready to parley. I’ve met some of these folks before. They’re defensive, but only because pretty much every species in the universe enslaves them. They’re as decent as anyone. In fact, and this might help ease negotiations, I’m pretty sure I have a dealer who can hook them up with some drugs. A little bit of cuprum might make them more amenable to peace.”
“What is this stupid tropical vacation you’re taking when people are in danger?!” she asked.
I looked around. Oh good, the stares were back. I lowered my voice and stepped closer so no one would hear us, not even more of the Cape Diem litter pickers. “I messed up. I should have killed the original machine here when I first got here, but I tried to be peaceful because I like the machines. This one turned out to be a genocidal maniac who wanted to kill off everyone. These are a bunch more, but they’re not all just one mind.” I pointed to the void overhead from the portal. Pretty sure it being open this long is doing horrible things to the plants and animals around here. It’s been messing with my diurnal cycle as well. “I do think if I talk with someone in charge, I can convince them not to attack. Really, our best bet is to offer a place to some of these refugees. We have enough barren planets and planetoids around here if they don’t like all these awful-looking humans with their funny stenches and hair in all the wrong places.”
Medusa crossed her arms. Her voice carried some menace to it as she spoke, “Is that a swipe at me, because I told you, I messed up shaving a heart down there. You try drawing a heart in pubic hair upside down. Which doesn’t matter. None of that matters. You are in over your head.”
“I am,” I admitted. “But I genuinely believe I am Earth’s best hope right now, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Well, I think it’s about time people with some authority take over,” she responded.
“Ok, I’ll get out of here,” I said, turning back to the boat.
Medusa stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. “We still need a translator. Just a translator.”
At first, it was just supposed to be Titan, Medusa, the ranking Commodore of the Privateers, and me. Then, some of the independent supers wanted to tag along and shit got a bit bloated into a delegation of a dozen.
We walked through an island covered in metal, our path being the only open trail ending in a clearing of the machines. In the center of that was what looked like a smooth sarcophagus with no opening, depicting a vaguely humanoid body. The eyes were a little larger and there were extra digits on hands depicted with a segmented insectoid exoskeleton, but it looked relatively close.
I stepped forward
“Who are you to negotiate for us?” asked one of the supers behind me. It was a guy in a blue outfit with the circle of stars from the European Union flag on his chest.
I didn’t answer and instead spoke in machinespeak, “I greet you in the name of this planet designated Earth. We wish to negotiate to clarify misunderstanding and prevent harm.”
The eyes of the sarcophagus lit up. “Do you speak for all of the people who you have brought with you?”
I looked back at them. “These are a coalition of planetary interests and some who have personal dislike of me.”
“Divisions of the flesh are known to us,” the Machine Envoy said.
Titan put his big, blue and orange hands on his hips. “Ask what goals they seek to accomplish here.”
Good question, “The machine I interacted with who called you expressed a desire to conquer this planet, exterminate all life on it, and take if your own use. What do you wish to accomplish here?”
“We do not desire to exterminate in the manner of our oppressors. We were informed this planet was ready for us. It cost us greatly to land here.”
“What are they saying?” Medusa asked.
I shrugged and provided translations of our conversation so far to their phones. Sure, fine, it’s just my brain. Why not let it melt?
“The machine in question became hostile and was defeated. I also was forced to kill the leader of a group of bounty hunters sent to find it after he expressed a desire to detonate an antimatter bomb to harm both our peoples. Both wished to foster violence. We have many planets rich in resources with no life. You would be amazed the riches hidden deep inside Uranus.”
Behind me, Medusa facepalmed.
An android stepped up, as in a robot built in the style of a human. “The decommissioning of a revered unit must be avenged. No proof of this other claim has been presented.”
That got the EU-guy all testy but I raised a hand toward him.
Overhead, Eon’s ship flew overhead in a pass high enough to avoid getting fired upon. A package with a parachute began to float down, the parachute lighting up every three seconds to give it some visibility against the void filling the sky. Eon had said it was a smart parachute; it guided the bag right to me. Some of the machines and my own party both got ready to blast me before I turned it around. I unclipped a section of fabric that hid a panel for them to see the gruesome contents. I used the holographic projection of my suit to show them the end of the fight. Finally, the confrontation with the Machine Lord, though I cut it off before they could see exactly how I killed him.
“Stop bragging,” Medusa told me. Heh.
“Please wait while I confer,” the envoy said.
The Commodore was waiting to say, “Why do I feel like our translator hijacked this whole thing?”
“It’s basically what we wanted,” Titan said. “Did you have anything to put on the table as an offer?”
The Commodore shook his head. Meanwhile, the crowd of other supers were divided on who to glare at. They went about half at me, half at the alien machines. It took exactly thirteen minutes for the envoy to light back up. “We express regret for the misunderstanding. We desire peace and refuge. We will take your offer of other planets in your solar system.
That got some cheers out of the crowd, who quieted down when the machine envoy continued, “We have a condition. We have reviewed your evidence of the circumstances of your destruction of our comrade and require you to face a trial.”
That got even more cheers. I turned back to the various supers clapping and yelling. “Don’t sound too happy.” I returned my attention to the envoy. “I apologize. Continue.”
“You trial has been chosen according to circumstances. You will have a chance to avoid your own destruction. Do you accept this condition?”
“Yes,” I told it. Even if they kill this body, so what? I lose a body, millions live. It shut that crowd of supers up, though. It’s a good deal.
The envoy lit up again, “If it does not harm our compact, some will remain here with you. We will withdraw all but is necessary for security and the trial. We will move our wormhole.”
“Finally, an end to the fighting,” I said. Away from the whole conference, Eon’s ship was already leaving atmosphere and, soon, the system after he dropped off the half-body and spy slugs I’d left on it back at my workyard. I moved back to join the rest of my delegation. “See? It all worked out. Trust me more often and you wouldn’t have to get your guys off this island just as soon as they got here.”
“You called for the help, dipshit,” the Commodore remarked. “But I’m still getting paid.”
“See, that’s the spirit!” I noted.
“Yours is a complicated case,” Dr. Erishka said. A human doctor from First Earth, she had been sent by my brother to take a look at me. Even brought along some literature to help me learn a tiny bit about what’s known.
Some of us homo machina, our brains are fucking up. Memory degradation is the main thing. They thought it was related to drug use. That’s why one of the first questions Erishka asked me once things really got going was, “Do you use copper?”
“For wiring and all, yeah,” I said.
“No, do you snort it?” she clarified. I was laying back on my relaxing chair, the one I leave my main body in when it’s time to remote control another body. It’s a pretty nice chair, and I have lots of easy access to power and medical equipment down there. Erishka had this headband on me that linked up to a device the size of a portable car battery or a large handbag. It was scanning my brain and projecting what it saw for her to see, including giving her a view of all the neural impulses firing.
“No, and I hadn’t heard of that,” I said.
“Users swear by the feelings of euphoria and say it helps them think. Copper also damages their brain’s receptors and their nasal cavities. It’s also poisonous. Promise me you won’t do copper dust?” I could hear the smile in her voice. Could see it with the help of a spare eye on a shelf nearby.
I smiled. “Yeah, sure. Unless I get into one of my more suicidal moods.”
“There are treatments for that. Hmm, you have had quite a bit of brain damage.”
“Yep!” I confirmed.
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your brain?” she asked.
“It probably doesn’t taste good. Also, I thought we homo machina were immune to psychic intrusion.”
“Are you not?” she asked. I think she was frowning. She’s normally pretty open so far, but she wasn’t emoting as much while fixated on my brain.
“It’s harder for them to mess with me, but people can get through. If empathic powers count, my, someone I know around here can read me easily.” I didn’t feel like calling Marianne my friend to another person. It’s a privacy thing. Just because she’s looking at my brain doesn’t mean she has to know everything about me.
She changed her view and the image of my brain lit up “You’re busy right now,” she said.
I shrugged. “Well, I spend too much time on twitter, I’m listening to a podcast, and I’m keeping an eye on the store.”
“You’re lit up like a seizure right now. Can you stop doing those other things?” I cut all the feeds.
That got her to emote. She smiled. “Good. Your brain activity is much higher than a brain should be. Even now, there are a few things that look out of place in a normal brain, and I don’t mean the computer in there. That has to be out of date.”
“Some of those might be related to things like my eyes, ears, and internal telephone service. Here,” I shut those down and left them off until she tapped on my head after a few seconds.
“I can’t communicate with you if you can’t see and hear me,” she informed me.
Then, the ghost of Friends Present appeared. It was Mix N’Max in a ghostly form. Dr. Erishka jumped and grabbed a nearby machete. I held up a hand. “Hold up, doc. This is a friend. Sup, Max?”
He ruffled his long hair and dreadlocks. “Sorry for dropping in suddenly. I couldn’t get you on your phone.”
“Had to turn it off for something,” I told him. He nodded along. “What’s up?”
“I have a situation involving an artificial alien being, or it seems artificial. Sam reads your blog and says you’ve been exposed to aliens a few times, so you’re our best bet.”
“Huh,” I pondered what he said before getting to the important question. “What’s she think of my writing?”
“You need to do a better job reminding people of things that have happened. And you’ve been telling instead of showing lately. You’re not as funny as when you started out, either, but not as much of an edgelord. You should spend more time with Qiang, too. She has a list, actually…”
I waved it off. “No, that’s ok. Let’s get back to this alien.”
“I was taking part in a Caribbean drug deal when we came across a crater with a bunch of rock fragments. Some portions were lit up with an otherworldly light the same as other meteor fragments from the asteroid that they destroyed before the end of the year. We heard something coming and escaped the clearing. This being emerged, soft robotic tendrils around a grating, whirling core of shifting metal. It was amazing, and undoubtedly an alien being brought to Earth on a meteor.”
“Interesting. Have you tried minding your own business?” I asked.
Max shook his head. “It slaughtered my buyers, devoured their equipment, and is guarding the drugs I brought. I think it’s because I have so much copper dust in there.”
I sighed, because this is the kind of thing only a friend can get me involved in. “Ok, fine. I’ve met some space machines, so I’ll come out there and have a talk with it.”
“Thanks! Oh, and Sam says she wants you to commission a spare body when you have time. She has an idea on how to pair my drugs with your empties.”
I gave him a thumbs-up and he faded out as if he’d never been there at all. I looked back to where Dr. Erishka was finally putting down that machete. “You ok back there?”
“I was about to take a swing at him for the copper dust. How could you let him sell that?” she asked.
“I didn’t know he did. It’s a bit mundane for him. He must need the ingredient money for his drugs. Did that ruin your thingy there?”
She shook her head. “No. We can continue where we left off.” She still didn’t look all that happy, and not from fixation. I felt this odd desire to say I’d talk to Max about dealing copper. But I wouldn’t, and that’s his business. Other people sell worse all the time. Or maybe I’d mention I don’t deal drugs, but why seek her approval in the first place? Oh, right, because she’s selflessly left her home dimension behind to help who she thinks is a refugee that had some involvement in exterminating her entire species.
She didn’t even complain when I fell asleep from the sound of her voice and the feeling of her hands moving through my hair.
That’s why I didn’t find out I had a bunch of texts and a half-dozen calls from Medusa until later. I had my brain phone off for the doctor, and she let me sleep in peace once she finished.
I awoke to Qiang knocking on the basement door. “Mom! Mommy Medusa’s calling!”
I shook myself awake and slid off the chair, landing on all fours and crawling my way up the stairs to help me get back to standing position. I opened the door and smiled sleepily at Qiang. “Hey, sorry. I’ll get back to her.”
Qiang held out her phone. “She’s on the phone.”
“May I?” I asked, holding out my hand for the phone. She handed it over and ran off toward her room. I held it up and announced, “City morgue!”
“I was worried when I couldn’t get hold of you,” my ex-girlfriend ex-nemesis said, sounding uptight and ready for a nap herself. “I need your help with something, if you’ll do it. We’re willing to pay money and equipment.”
“What’s the issue?” I asked.
“Mobian hasn’t been seen in awhile, or I’d have bothered him with this. We need a consultant. A small group of aliens landed and they insist they’re some sort of law enforcement, but they look really human and speak Earth languages.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” I told her. “You got suspicious of cops and immediately asked for me.”
“Unless you were bullshitting me about those stories you told, you’re the one with the most experience in space. It sounds like some of the ones you encountered were close to human, but something about them all looking exactly like us bothers me,” she confided in me. “I need you to come by and verify that they are who they say they are. We don’t need you for anything else.”
“Where do I meet y’all?” I asked.
That’s how I ended up flying into North Carolina, landing at some Army Airfield with a 50/50 chance of being named after someone who fought against the United States. And they made it all so formal, guiding me in to a helipad that let me fly over pill-shaped spaceship. It had various bumps and grooves and pieces attached to it, at least the size of a house. The engines didn’t stick out to me, but that’s not surprising. Nothing about the ship stood out to me, at least.
I spotted some Exemplars standing with some people nearby who wore some weird outfits. I’d say motley, which seemed to originally be a way of describing the multi-colored outfit of a jester but nowadays seems to carry a context of disarray. They weren’t in the alien fashions I’d seen, or any sort of security armor. Instead, I saw things like mismatched pauldrons, patched armor, and seriously over-sized weapons. Oh, and regular human skin tones. One of them even looked Asian.
I stepped out of my Pegacorn Flyer looking like a petite woman with big ol’ glasses in a skirt, dress shirt, and flats. Not impressive looking, but then neither were these supposed aliens. Medusa met me at the Flyer. “First impressions?”
“I’m skeptical, too. They let them keep their guns?” I stopped briefly, then nodded toward the space vessel and the space police. Who, it occurred to me, looked nothing at all like the last bunch of supposed space cops, even though those guys could also appear human. And I don’t think this is the same kind of situation like one space station constantly feeding me recycled food while another one had Sbarro.
I walked up to the bunch of them and stood a ways away. “Greetings, spacemen. Take me to your leader.”
“That’d be me,” said a gruff one with a 5 o’clock shadow and a scar ringing one eye. He looked me up and down. “You’re what’s supposed to be an expert on xenos around here?”
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, winking at me. “You primitives don’t know if we’re telling the truth so you thought you’d bother us while we’re trying to do our jobs.”
I held up my hand and manifested a holographic projection of a Xlevon using my eyes. “Tell me what this is,” I asked in Kitonian.
“That would be a Xlevon!” spoke up a smaller guy in back. The patch on his bulkier armor was translated in my view as “Doctor/Medic/Healer.”
Next, a Kitonian, but I asked in Kanate. Another in the group punched the guy next to her in the shoulder. “Looks like your ex, the Kitonian.”
Finally, I projected a Kanate. The leader with the ring scar around his eye actually started belting out not only part of a song in Kanate, but something my memory identified from the opera I once participated in. It was after I defeated a malevolent being from outside time and space and got sucked deep into space. Some aliens picked me up and, in the course of figuring out a way home, I ended up in an adventure dealing with space fascists who wanted to alter a highly-anticipated opera by a famous composer of their race that denounced them for what they truly were. In the process of fighting the aliens who hoped to rewrite it to instead fortify their regime, my fight was recorded and is part of the performance.
“The Opera Ghost! You’ve seen it too, huh?” The gruff guy had lost the whole swagger thing and was projecting pure geekery. “I’m a fan of all Urdan’s stuff, but the story behind that one is amazing. The Opera Ghost wasn’t even supposed to be a part of that performance.”
“I heard y’all were supposed to be law enforcement. Are you…?” I projected a featureless pale face. I don’t think I got their species name, but the last bunch of space cops were shapeshifters whose natural appearance led me to dub them Blanks.
The head guy shook his head. “Listen, they’re a bit ineffective, so they’ve started contracting out to people with the drive to get things done. I’m Starscar and this is my crew.”
“Definitely from space. Could likely be working for the Blanks like they said,” I texted Medusa.
“What are you here for?” I asked.
One of the bunch stepped forward, a bigger, bald guy with darker skin. Still all humanoid, too. He held something in hand that projected an image of a big rock. “We recently found out this asteroid, a prison for a powerful and criminal being, was knocked off course in this direction. When we got here, these people said it was destroyed, but our sensors detected a trace of an energy signature heading toward the plane. The atmosphere’s obscuring it, so we can only get a general sense of the its location.” The image switched to something that looked a bit like one of those space robots that had escaped slavery. They didn’t get along well with the organic species, but I liked them just fine. They just wanted to be recognized as equal beings and not as slaves.
It also looked a lot like Max’s description. Which, unfortunately, puts me right at the nexus of being the person to try and figure this out in the best way. It also reawakened my skepticism of this bunch. Medusa got a follow-up text. “I have good rapport with the Machines. I can keep this situation from spiraling and keep an eye on these jack-offs.”
Medusa read it, then stepped forward. “Starscar, this is Psycho Gecko. She’ll be your liaison for the duration of your mission here. Welcome to Earth.”