“You did what?!” yelled Venus at me through the phone.
She interrupted me in the middle of proceeding over a bit of judicial housekeeping. One of my judges was taking kickbacks to imprison people. Unlike the Americans, we don’t give private prisons contracts that depend on them keeping a certain percentage of rooms occupied. This situation puzzled me as a result. Hu dropped me the details: he’d been taking bribes from gangs to give rivals longer sentences.
I pulled the guy aside for a chat, just the two of us, over drinks in one of the island’s many fine establishments of seductive delight. “I am honored by your presence, Empress,” he told me upon my approach to meet him at the entrance. “But I do not believe this is a respectable establishment.”
“Despite your profession, I wouldn’t judge the respectability of the workers herein if I were you.” I slipped my arm into his to guide him inside. I even paid the cover for him. I’m classy like that.
Inside, I guided us to a table next to the wall. A female Deep One with an epic rack sauntered over. “Get you something to drink, handsomelings?” she asked.
“Are those real?” I asked stopping myself short of groping the bouncy pair.
“Yeah. All natural. Touch if you want.” She jiggled them from side to side for me. “You know we mate with humans, don’tcha?”
I gave them a squeeze. “Filthy habit, laying down with those ugly humans.” I turned to the judge. “No offense.”
“Of course not, Empress,” he said, averting his gaze as I motorboated the amphibious fishwoman, raising a hand with a wad of cash from the judge’s wallet. She snatched it out of my hand and was happy to let me take as much time as I needed until I was pulled away by Venus’s call. I had to leave the judge getting a lap dance from a woman whose tattoos moved and changed.
That brings us back to Venus yelling “You did what?!” at me.
“What did I do?” I handed a bouncer some money and he ushered me through the door into the private rooms.
“You know what you did,” she responded.
“Yeah, I know what I did, but I don’t know if you know what I did. I’m not ‘fessing up to anything until it turns out you already know.”
“This is no time for jokes. You know what I mean,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “I swear to you, Venus, and you should know I wouldn’t lie about something like this… I never do only one thing you think is unforgivably wrong. If only you know where I stuck my face earlier, for instance. Let me know which horrible thing you’ve discovered and I’ll let you know what I think about it.”
“I know, I know, I let her live. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of being judge, jury, and executioner, it’s that many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Not many, but some. Maybe one in a billion if I’m being generous. Really, the ratio is heavily on the living people that deserve death side of the equation, but I didn’t indulge this time.”
“You raped her mind!”
I flopped down on a heart-shaped bed. “That’s being a little dramatic, isn’t it? How much of a mind could she possibly have?” She hung up at the worst possible moment. I’d just decided I liked the bed. They had really fluffy pillows.
Venus had kinda ruined the whole trip, so I headed back out, despondent, to find the judge enjoying the show and a beer. I slid into the seat next to him as the next girl came out. A cat screamed and the multicolor lights around the stage flickered. Rough, droning guitars began to play, a song I recognized as “It Took The Night To Believe”. A pale woman appeared on stage, her loose white dress not really working with the usual strip club aesthetic. She swayed and took a step forward, then the lights flashed off. When she reappeared, she was crab walking, showing off enough leg to see the garter for tips. Another flash, she was upright, her head twisted at an angle usually accompanied by a loud snapping sound and the cessation of life. The next flash left her spinning around the pole, arms twisted around and her mouth stretched unnaturally open. That’s when the dress came flying off, showing tattered lacy bra and panties.
I was in love, and soon short of cash. I even used some of my own money.
Sadly, this whole meeting was business, not pleasure. I dragged myself away after her dance and back to the judge. “I’m having fun, but you seem to be taking things a little too seriously. You gotta relax.”
He sighed. “It’s difficult to relax around one’s sovereign in a gentleman’s club.”
I shook my head and stood behind him, massaging his neck muscles. “Here, let me help you loosen up.”
“I’m not sure-” he started, until I slammed his head forward into the table, busting the bottle.
I grabbed his hair in one hand, the bottle of the broken bottle in another, and jammed the jagged glass into his neck. The blood sprayed into the air over a table dancing vampiress, as did the cash I threw out while yelling, “Make it rain!” The vamp ran her hands down her bloody breasts, mouth open wide in a hiss.
Venus got back to me about 6 AM locally, but I had the call routed through my brain. “Hello?”
“I’ve had time to cool off and get some sleep. We need to talk.”
“Sure, sure. Glad you don’t feel like yelling anymore.” It made it easier to keep from waking anyone on my bed up.
“You’re quiet. Are you breaking in somewhere?”
“No, I just don’t want to wake up the vampire.” Though, with her snoring…
“What are you doing with a vampire?”
I smirked. “Daisy chaining.”
“It’s like sixtynine, but I also had the fish woman and the onryo woman… I don’t think she’s really one, because I’m pretty sure those are ghosts, but I figured I’d ask her over breakfast. I make fantastic eggs, something you’d know if you were so lucky.”
She cleared her throat. “You’re trying to avoid the subject.”
“I’ve made my family safe from an enemy who is inexplicably good at finding me and who works for our enemy. Our enemy. She fooled you too. She’ll never be able to fool me again and it got us valuable information.”
“You don’t do that to people.”
“You don’t. I’m responsible for a nation. Millions of people rely on me for prosperity and safety. That means I know things they would hope never to find out about. When their lives are threatened, I eliminate the threats. When someone infects them with a disease that could kill them or take away their abilities, I’m the one who failed them. Turns out I have the perfect moral temperament for a world leader.”
She said, “You’ve gone full Nixon. You never go full Nixon.”
“This is morality, not legality. Remember how slavery used to be legal in your country? But seeing as I’m the Empress here, you don’t have any way to punish me anyway. All you can do is wake me up in the middle of some very lovely sleep and chastise me for invading Dame’s head.”
“It was despicable,” she said.
“Despicable and right aren’t necessarily incompatible. But, if it’s any consolation, tell her I’m sorry.”
“Wow. Oh my god, do you mean the nation of Ricca, is that what you mean?”
“No. I, Psycho Gecko, am sorry. I’ve gotten to know her more closely than anyone else. And whenever you remember she betrayed you too, and you get all pissed off, I want you to let her know that she may seek asylum here. There are advantages to being someone I know can’t act against me.” I felt the woman I was spooning with start to stir. Her dark hair twisted out of the way as her face looked back at me, almost completely turned around backwards. I pressed my lips to her for a kiss, my tongue dancing with what felt like a couple of tongues in her surprisingly roomy mouth.
Meanwhile, seeing as the call went through my brain, I just thought further responses to Venus that came out on her end as sound. “Geez this stripper’s hot.” As I said, my thoughts. “Anyway, I’m going to have to set up a formal meeting with you and Titan about our endgame. How’ve you been doing?”
“Surprised you’re thinking about how this all ends. Your tips were good. We found where they stored stolen artwork and other valuables in one. Another had a server farm we’re looking over. We took a few people into custody but we had to put them in the hidden cells. We can’t just beat up people guarding a building and insist the cops arrest them because of some conspiracy they’re tenuously connected to.”
“I have video evidence. And I ooooooh… sorry, real life stuff happening… and I followed that guy who was dead.” I squirmed as the Deep One stripper’s hands groped and fondled me fondly.
“The fact that you’re involved committing crimes in other countries makes it questionable. If that’s all we have, the cops will be useless.”
“Yeah, you might see if there’s a way to make them useful. Use some influence with politicians if you can to prep them for this going public. I’ll do what I can on my end, but Belgium’s of limited use as an ally in this regard.”
“You’re allies with Belgium?” she asked.
“We’re still in talks. Medical aid and technology exchange deal, but the Belgians are starting to waffle,” I told her.
“Anyone would if they had to put up with you using that joke as often as I’m sure you do.”
I started to answer, but instead I squealed like a stolen Ferrari in a getaway.
“You sound like you’re occupied with something else,” Venus said. “Let me go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up. Stay on the line. Hey, how husky can you talk?”
She hung up.
After eventually escaping my bedroom and fixing a lovely breakfast, I left the strippers pleasantly chatting with my wife, daughter, and ex-girlfriend who all showed up at the first sniff of food. I had a pretty damn important piece of info I needed to confirm with Max and Dr. Creeper over at the Science Institute in a conference call in my study.
“I’m sorry,” Max told me. “Without a vaccine, any cure is only a temporary reprieve from the disease.” He referred to the one that afflicted the brain with the condition that allowed superpowers of all sort to be disabled by the power collars.
Dr. Creeper’s faux-German accent came from the phone set between us. “Doctor Smith has failed to find a vaccination method. If subjects have a reaction, it is the severe one that risks death. Perhaps if ve could integrate the cure with the human body or nanites?”
“No can do on that,” Max said, shaking his head. “That’s now how it works.” He nodded to me, then over toward the minifridge. I nodded and he walked over to fetch us something to drink.
“You could just try!” Creeper said.
“Doc, if Max says he can’t do something with chemicals, that generally means it just can’t be done.” I waited a moment before remembering I could try to soften the blow. “But thanks for your zeal. The fact that you care so much is why I trust your people are doing their best.”
Max tapped me on the shoulder with a beer. Not my favorite, but it was a breakfast beer anyway. Seems like he’s been wanting me greased with alcohol a lot lately. I grabbed it and took a sip while he popped the top off his own. “Creeper, how are we on that shield generator project?”
“Ve vill be ready for a test soon. Do you anticipate needing it vithin the next veek?” he asked. Is it just me, or is he emphasizing his “w”s more than usual?
“Hopefully not. I just always like to have more weapons and gadgets in my arsenal. Never know when you’ll need to pull them out and surprise someone.” I said, whipping out a serrated rocket knife for emphasis to a man who couldn’t see anyway. Meanwhile, Max looked behind me, trying to find where it came from. “I want us prepared for the peace talks, because I’m going to make peace happen no matter who loses their head over it.”
The Munich raid went well. The point of the thing was to blow a hole in that big ol’ privacy fence around their compound. The Germans are investigating it now, and finding all sorts of weird things scattered around. Drugs, a couple of stolen artifacts, uranium; all sorts of things that will draw a lot of attention to that compound and have people investigating. Expose them, force them to run again, exhaust them.
I’d had… feelings. Thinking of a plan, part of me remembered all the kids and innocents there. Attacking would risk killing civilians, even if a lot of them do have powers. I lived among them, danced with them. I drank beer with them and perhaps even Frenched one or two of them under the influence. I spent a night rocking back and forth in a chair, thinking about what to do. I was practically distraught.
But now, I had video showing they were all ok. The local news reporters provided that glimpse, but I quite enjoyed the view from various drones flying high above it. Can’t blow shit up in Europe without a few different militaries becoming interested. So seeing everyone come out of this fine and dandy, it was such a relief. Such a relief, I started laughing. And, my oh my, it seems my finger slipped on a button in the middle of all my laughter. Looks like someone shouldn’t send up drones for recon with their payloads.
It was so sad, I had to laugh about it. It’s a natural way to handle this sort of bad news, after all. Laugh so as not to cry.
If the cruel fate of the Munich compound wasn’t enough, the Hares themselves are playing on my emotions. I’ve letters expressing the feelings of the Three Hares. The night of the bombing, for instance. I got up to handle some business in the bathroom. I was going over plans for a new island shield and crapping when the jacuzzi began rattling. The nozzles burst out into the tub and streams of water stretched out and formed into a person, a woman with a metal visor with a single big, round glass eye on it and gems on either side.
“Psycho Gecko! Prepare to die!”
I put aside the hologram I was working with and reached for the rear of the toilet. “May I at least have a courtesy flush first?”
“I guess?” she said. Small gems began to light up leading to the glass eye, three on either side. I reached back behind the toilet. As I’ve mentioned before I often keep a gun there in order to clear up any problematic clogs. That’s why I whipped out the Smith & Wesson Schofield. I missed that first shot, causing the cyclopean assassin before me to duck and charge more of those gems up. Another miss, then a hit on her shoulder. When she turned, the final gems lit up, and that’s when I popped her in the central glass eye.
“Fuck shit!” she screamed, grabbing at the eye. I dove off, pulling my panties up. I wasn’t there when she took her hands away and instead shot lasers from the six gems leading up the glass eye. Three smaller beams shot out, putting holes in the marble toilet. But since these were three all along a band, beams were flying all over the place. They bounced off mirrors and mirrored surfaces, so it’s a good thing I was staying low and crawling behind her. When she stopped and looked around, I tackled her from behind and pushed her down.
She cracked her chin pretty good on the lip of the toilet where the seat didn’t cover. I grabbed a handful of her hair and pushed her face down into the bowl to let her gurgle on dinner. I had the Schofield still in hand and gave her a shot in the back. Then I lost my grip on her as she turned to liquid again and flowed down the toilet, flushing it in the process. I jumped up and pointed the Schofield down the bowl, then noticed the blood smeared on me and smiled with an idea. I wiped blood onto my hand and pushed it into the toilet bowl, making a minor programming change.
The pipes in the jacuzzi, toilet, sink, and shower began to rattle. A huge chunk of the room shook. Blood began to spurt from the sink. It started to fill the jacuzzi. The shower head shot off as bloody water rained down. Finally, the toilet reversed and sprayed water and blood all over the ceiling.
When those of the household who cared about my health came running, they found me laughing and soaking wet with blood and water. I shut the bathroom door as I saw Max and Silver Shark run up.
“What’s going on?” Max asked.
I pointed at the door in all my giggling, then waved my hand. “You don’t wanna go in there. Whew!” I couldn’t hardly finish speaking for all the laughter.
Speaking of funny incidents, another occurred as I was enjoying a quiet night in my study, just working on some new material for this joke I’m playing on the world. Mix N’Max walked in and passed right by me to address a chair. “Gecko, you’re doing it again.”
Dame fell to the floor as I awoke and she scampered out of there. I yawned and looked up at Max from my chair. “Whoopsy. Can you blame me for making sure an extra pair of eyes watched out as I slept?”
“I can blame you if they’re her eyes. Look, Gecko, we go back and I’m afraid I have to suggest something is more wrong than usual with you,” he knelt down in front of me to look me in the eye. Even his smile looked apologetic.
“I must use any and all resources to protect myself, Max. It’s the way of the world. Besides, I’m rehabilitating Dame,” I indicated his grin. “So turn that lack of a frown upside and around.”
“How is holding a woman as a slave in her own body rehabilitation? You’re better than this,” he told me.
“I AM better than this. I’m so good, I made Dame perfectly trustworthy. Never again can she betray me for anyone. Always there, in her mind. THAT’s why they wanted me. The world’s changing, and I’m like a god of the new world order.”
“You’re not a god,” Max said, pointing his finger at me. “Remember the rule on godhood.”
I rolled my eyes. “When someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes. Everyone knows the Aykroyd Rule.”
“No, the other rule. The one about supervillains who start declaring themselves gods. Does that ever end well?”
He held up one finger. “Nebuchadnezzar.”
“Gesundheit,” I said.
He cocked his head to the side in a look that said “Really?” even though he didn’t.
“Fine, tried to consume a ball of energy bigger than his own head a little too fast. Blew up.”
Max raised a second finger. “Aria.”
“Used a device to boost her powers, but someone managed to block them long enough and record her super voice to use it against her,” I answered.
“Following the pattern?” he asked.
“Technically it isn’t a pattern until there’s three incidents,” I reminded him.
Max looked at me, lowered the first two fingers, and raised the third one, the ring finger. “You want to be this one?”
“That’s hardly-” and then I shot up into space without crashing through roofs or walls. And it wasn’t really space. I’ve been there. I was being thrown with force instead of drifting without gravity.
I crashed into an asteroid and was thrown at another nearby one while the first one broke in half. The second did as well when I hit it. I bounced off and then stopped in the middle as the asteroids. Those four then crashed into each other, breaking in half. They kept colliding and breaking until a bunch of baseball- and basketball-sized pieces banged into me. Finally, one the size of a large dog slammed into me and sent me hurtling through space again. I landed on a small planet, or possibly one of those things Pluto is, and bounced off in further defiance of physics. The next planet I headed for grew a face and a pair of arms. It slapped me between both hands.
The planet on this trip through Disney’s Fantasia planetarium skipped arm day. I’ve taken worse hits. Didn’t even squeeze any organs out of me. The two arms grabbed hold of me from either side. The planet opened its mouth wide, exposing the glowing liquid hot magma. It unleashed a volcanic roar.
“Get some Jupiter!” I yelled back as it lunged for me.
Then I was laying down on the floor of the study, yelling at the ceiling, which looked to be missing a ceiling fan. I noticed books laying around and crawled off a broken chair. I found Max wobbling from side to side with a pencil-thick needle in hand, standing over a woman in a green catsuit who was foaming at the mouth.
“How’d you see through all that?” I asked. “I think I got beat up by a solar system.”
“Oh Gecko. Precious, vanilla Gecko,” Max said. He winked at me, then looked back down at the catsuit woman. “She has the Three Hares on the back in a shade of green barely lighter than the primary coloring.”
I staggered over to confirm it. “Another damn assassin. I think I need to send a message back to the Hares.”
“You’re mad with power and determined to kill them all. What do they have to lose in sending killers after you?” he pointed out. “That’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. Here, help me with the body.”
“She’s still dying,” I said.
“Give it time,” Max said, bending down to grab her by the feet. I took her shoulders and helped, with us stopping in mid-carry for Max to spray some air freshener when she shat herself in the throes of death. Outside, I saw a lot of the rest of the place jumbled up, with Citra and staggering around.
“Where’s Qiang?” I asked her.
She pointed upstairs. “In bed. Are we safe?”
I stopped beside her as we carried the dead woman around and kissed my wife on the cheek. “Safer than those who attacked us.” Then it was off to see to the respectful treatment of the dead.
We dropped the corpse onto a table in Max’s suite while Sam and Holly recovered with some drinks. “What you’ve told me about their isolation and heredity, the Hares’ DNA could provide amazing insight into superpowers as they relate to genetics,” Max observed.
“Plus, you want to do things with her beautiful corpse,” I added.
He patted her boots. “You know I only care about what’s on the inside. Pass me the scalpel?”
I tossed it to him and started cutting the woman free of her clothes for the autopsy. “I guess I’ve been a bit screwed up. They took my memories from me, and they’re mine. But for that brief time, I was clear of every fucked-up thing of my past. It was… clean. I had morals, and ethics, and I think even a conscience. The did it to use me somehow, and then that whole thing. It reminded me of Elizabeth, back in the other world. And a phrase Venus has been using lately.”
“Oh?” Max asked. He stepped closer to start carving into the sternum. “What’s that?”
“I’d rather not say, but it was the closest thing to washing away so much of what keeps me from changing and being better.” I looked down, which had me staring into the eyes of the corpse.
“It’s tempting,” Max commented.
I nodded. “Even for us. Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can do to someone is show them another way. A ‘what if?’ scenario.”
“I like to take the wrong lesson from my enemies,” Max said, peering inside the woman’s chest cavity. “They had more of an endgame than killing you. What’s your endgame besides killing them? Right now, you’re like a dog chasing a car. You wouldn’t know what to do with it if you,” he paused and took his hands out of the woman’s chest to pantomime catching something in midair. “Caught it. What do you want the world to look like at the end of this that doesn’t involve you trying to claim you’re a god?”
“Good question,” I leaned on my elbow, looking down into the woman’s eyes, my eyes taking the same turquoise tint.
Venus was kind enough to offer me the hospitality of the Master Academy while I waited on my ride. After everything that happened, we all agreed I needed access to as many showers and fresh clothes as possible. Plus, and she didn’t actually state this, I think she was worried about all the laughing I’d been doing. Couldn’t help myself. It kinda had to do with the intersection of Gecko and Tripura. She was so nice, and she was me.
Too bad she had to kill. I just can’t catch a break, even when I don’t know hardly anything. But she killed to save an entire city, except for that part when she murdered someone for being a dick to her. The ratio of assholes to innocents makes it clear how much better a person she was. I could try and argue something about tabula rasa, but most people have really weird ideas about that. Like, they think being born with genetic preferences that can change over time somehow means the mind is born with knowledge. You know, because we should really call a baby’s inborn preference for cinnamon at birth “knowledge”.
Eh, this Earth will grow out of that at some point, maybe realize that a stream bed’s curves determine what path the water travels, but it’s not a stream without the fluid.
This sounds nice, but part of the reason I was tittering to myself so much is my ability to recall the name of that thingy on the table that salt falls out of. A mind is a terrible thing to lose, and now I’ve got mine back. And so many things are being reevaluated that it’s caused me the legitimate giggles, and some instances of laughing to spite the alternative.
It disturbed everyone around Master Academy West. They sat me in a common room with, like dark woods and a tv and books all around. If it was a social spot, it wasn’t after I got there. So I kept staring off into space, comparing memories, reconciling things, and catching up on the news. Like, seriously evolutionary psychologists? A paper about why the Jews are genetically predisposed to dominate the world? No wonder the brownshirts are marching.
In the middle of sitting down, arms around my legs, laughing my head off to myself in a dark room with the lights turned off, I noticed a guy arguing with Venus. “How long is she staying here?”
That snapped me out of my thousand-yard stare. “Hey, stop assuming my-”
“She’s a criminal, a murderer, a- a- I don’t even know what she’s committed so many crimes. And she’s transphobic,” said the teen boy to Venus.
“I’m not transphobic. There are very few people I hate more than I hate almost every one of you damn humans,” I said.
The guy actually responded. “I don’t hear you dropping the N-word or any other racial slurs.” He walked into the room, staring at me. A bit androgynous and chubby, with a wide nose that almost makes me think it’d been smooshed as a kid.
I grabbed him and pulled him onto my lap, cradling him with four arms. “It’s ok there. Shh, shh, shh. Let me tell you a little story.”
“Gecko, let him go,” Venus said. I held up a finger.
“Just a quick story and he goes free unharmed, deal?” I asked.
From my lap came the teen, “I’d rather just go if I have any say in this.”
I patted him on the head. “Hush, Venus is speaking for you.”
“You promise not to harm anyone? This is just a story?” she asked.
I nodded a bunch. “I wouldn’t dare hurt the snuggly little Master Academy students here.” I gave the student a shake. The wind picked up in the room and blew some curtains a bit too much to be the AC. “It’s just a brief story of an assassin who learned how to use medical nanomachines to perform reconstructive surgery to alter the assassin’s looks. Colors were easy, adjusting flesh and cartilage as well. Muscles, harder, bones harder still. So many things were changed… face, hair color, eye color, even skin color. And in all that time, nobody who knew the assassin’s identity questioned anything about the assassin’s personality over the fact that the assassin changed appearances so often.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Venus spoke up.
I blew her a raspberry, then continued. “Then one day the assassin grows a bodacious pair of boobs and starts wearing skirts. Suddenly, everybody starts wondering if they should call the assassin something different over THIS change. THIS change was unusual. This change caused them to worry about the assassin’s mental state more than usual.” I chuckled at that part. “The assassin just changes and doesn’t think much of it. The assassin thinks it’s stupid to assume anything off about a person just because they want to be a woman.”
I pushed the teen off my lap. “Story time’s over kid. Now get out of here.”
The tean dusted himself off and looked at me. “Inside, what do you feel you are?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I’m always just me, no matter what.” I closed my eyes and sat back, hoping they’d get out of my long, beautiful hair.
Venus ushered the teen out, then turned to me. “Maybe it would help you with all your self-loathing. That can be a sign, you know.”
I waved dismissively. “Not all that important right now. But thanks for the tampons and the brief tutorial.” I opened an eye just to wink at her.
“I know about your self-loathing. Do us all a favor and find a version of yourself that’s happier. And just because changing sex isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s a small thing for someone to be made whole on this Earth, you douchecanoe.” Venus crossed her arms as she looked at me.
“If you hate me so much, if the world’s better off without me, why save me?” I asked her, leaning forward, and maybe squeezing the gals a bit for better viewing. She’s not immune to boobs. Hell, these days, the power of boobs reaches far beyond men to all sorts of genders. “Not like anyone there knew what was happening. You could have let me die.”
“We have this talk a lot, but I refuse to go through life believing the best way to solve my problems is to kill everyone,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, “But isn’t saving me a way of condoning my actions, especially when I kill people like The Claw?”
She shook her head. “Your choices are your choices, but I’ll always hold out hope for you, and I’ll always be here if you want to change. It’s never too late.”
Ugh. It’s like she’s got a psychic around to figure out the best way to annoy me. Oh, right, she’s fucking the only surviving psychic to be in my head. I was more than happy when the Psycho Flyer arrived with an honor guard of soldiers in power armor. We made quite the sight, Psycho Gecko walking up a ramp flanked by Riccan soldiers while a force of Master Academy heroes stood guard.
One long, long, long ass trip later that involved a stopover in Mu for refueling, the Flyer passed right over the military base and landed between the Palace Residence and the Directory Legislature building. The Directors were quite curious to see what all the hub bub was about, and were surprised when the soldiers lined up and I stepped out in my armor. Not a copy, or a replica. Not a Dudebot. Me and my armor.
One of the Directors was pushed by his comrades to come meet me. “Empress, we weren’t aware you were away. We have been denied news and prevented from an audience.” He quickly bowed.
My bow wasn’t so deep, but then I’m the Empress. “It was necessary, unfortunately. If it’s any consolation, I’ve missed y’all too and I’ll be more than happy to provide more information after I meet with my family.”
I maintained a properly dignified dictator-walk until I reached the stairs to the Palace Residence. That was when Qiang got loose and came running down the steps to meet me. I pulled my daughter up in a four-armed hug and carried her up to the top of the stairs where I pulled in Citra, my (politically-motivated) wife. Then Mix N’Max, Silver Shark, everyone I could grab. Even that friend of Qiang’s, Kayla, and her parents who I’ve banged.
I got the 411 inside while snuggling Qiang. Max had a whole presentation lined up, starting with the slide, “Infiltrators, Detainment and Punishment, A Play In Three Parts”
“You may be wondering what we did with Dame, the woman you informed us was made to look like you,” Max said. “First step, identification.” The first slide after the start showed photos of the crowd all photoshopped to wear different clothes. Sam Hain, Max’s assistant, looked very pretty in Citra’s dress. Another slide showed a picture of me labeled “fake” either hugging or kissing.
“Second step, capture,” Max said. The next slide showed Sam’s head pasted to the body of a black lingerie model, perhaps to make it obvious this isn’t Sam’s body. Then a cage falls on the fake me. Then there’s a trapdoor, followed by a picture of an alligator, a school of piranhas, and a train.
“This movie sucks,” I said. “The pacing’s terrible, the acting’s subpar, and what’s with this sound design? Nobody knows how to hold a boom?” Max, ever-present grin on his face, flashed me the middle finger.
I held up one of my own toward him, then made a circle with some fingers and moved it up and down around the middle finger.
“Ahem,” said Holly, the preppier of Max’s assistants. “I worked really hard on this, and would appreciate if you paid attention.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the punishment stuff. More photoshopping, along with stills from movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Passion Of The Christ. “Bottom line,” I asked once we reached the end, “Where is she?”
Max sighed and clicked on to a last slide that said, “TL;DR, she’s in the military base.”
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. I hugged Qiang to myself, then set her down. “I’ll be back in a bit, sweetest of hearts. Mommy has to go see the bad lady.”
And I did. The men, human and Deep One alike, were happy to have me back. They showed me down to a special room, one that’d be hard to find for anyone not familiar with the holding cells. Recently, I’d been the one sitting in a darkened room, with a circle of light. She knelt in the circle, arms and legs held to the floor. She was covered by a thin white dress, barely more than a scrap. I could practically see through it.
I stepped up and pulled out a can of spray cheese. “Wakey, wakey, dearest Dame.”
She looked up wearing a copy of my face. She started to say something, but I filled her mouth with cheese so cheap. I had to find the can in a flop house by the dock where sailors passing helped themselves to a high while they were on the island. “I don’t know how much they’re feeding you. I assume some food’s involved. Wow, I know how to put together a body shape, don’t I?”
She fought to get through the cheese. Since she had nothing to say, I kept on going. “This whole game of spy versus spy and who is better at planning and counterplanning, it’s just needlessly complicated and annoying. Never knowing who to trust… it’s just no fun. So today, I make you a promise. If you cooperate, I won’t kill you. Won’t order you killed or anything like that.”
“Your guards beat the shit out of me every day,” she growled through cheese.
I patted her on the head. “And they’ll stop now because you’re going to be my own personal project.”
Her eyes fluttered and she shook her head. “Whaaaaa-why is everything… doing that?” She looked all around.
I knelt and stroked my lookalike’s hair. “It’s just the nanites, dear. I made sure you only go the best cheese.” I held up the can and shook it, smiling under my mask as if she could see it. Then I sighed. “Not quite so fun knowing what’s going to happen.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, kneeling forward, trying to rest her head on the floor.
I rubbed her head sat beside her, moving her head into my lap as the nanites set to work. “I don’t like where your mind’s at, so I’m changing it. Making a few alterations where I can. Looks like you’ve got that little disease that can inhibit superpowers too, even if you use a gadget for your fun. I had a lot of time on my flight to review everything we know about Unity, the same drug they used to make me thing I wasn’t me. Same drug I bet you were trying to steal from Ricca when they first captured you. Neural pathways to access long-term and short-term memory. Funny thing is, it’s entirely possible to start using these nanites to replace parts of a brain with a, what do you call it, cybernetic alternative. There may be a few hiccups, but that’s why I’m trying this trick on you instead of someone I care about.” Here I felt a little bit of Tripura tug at me. Dame started to scream until I forced her to stop via well-placed nanites.
I leaned in to whisper to Dame. “You know, I felt so normal and innocent there thanks to what your people did to me. Then I get my memory back. All of it. Poor Tripura… but that time gave me so many wonderful ideas about how to deal with you, them, and any other problems that come up. Losing my mind has been incredibly refreshing; I highly recommend it.”
I stood up. “Don’t worry about screaming. You got a mouth, but you won’t be able to. New process like this, I told it to take it’s time. A couple of days and I’m sure whatever you’re feeling will go away. Or you’ll suffer brain damage. Either way, I’ll be back later to pick your brain.” I stopped and waved my hands, jazz hands style. “I’m thinking something old school, maybe wrinkly, but cute and… ya know, pink’s a great color.”
I giggled at her shaking her head and waved it off. “Oh, don’t worry about your silly opinions. I’ll replace those later.”
Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?
We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.
Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.
Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.
It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.
Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.
There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.
Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.
“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.
“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.
Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”
“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.
I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.
Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.
“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.
“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”
Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”
There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.
I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.
“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”
“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.
“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.
“I said I got it,” I told her.
She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”
I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”
She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”
I cringed back a little. “Why?”
“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.
She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”
“This is something you have to do?”
I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”
I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.
The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.
That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”
Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”
“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”
“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”
Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.
“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”
“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.
“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”
The trail had fits of stopping and starting, but never for long. Never long enough for the guy who took Psychsaur and Max to sleep. They’d zipped over to India from the portal, but didn’t stop there. They managed to get from there into Pakistan in amazingly little time. When I showed it to Titan, shortly after he and Venus joined me on Ricca, he informed me Cape Diem didn’t have a base there. “They stole our portals. Maybe they built something to hack into our network. Either way, this is unacceptable.”
We’d set up at the residence. It wasn’t considered neutral ground the same way the Cape Diem compound was, but it was a hell of a lot more private and better protected, even with that new hole in the wall of the living room. Everything had mostly turned out ok from that event. Our assailant, the blonde multiplier, hadn’t gone after Qiang at all, and neither did she charge him with a knife or anything. I think I’m raising a girl smarter than I am, but it doesn’t make anyone feel any better about a home being partially blown up.
It was easier for us to coordinate and control information Each of our organizations’ are looking into the attack in their own way, chasing leads, studying bodies and wreckage. Well, the bodies are on my end. It’s a bit inefficient, but cross-organizational cooperation’s going to have to wait.
“They didn’t take anyone for you?” I asked Titan for confirmation.
He shook his head. “No. He killed someone. Hurt others.”
“He took knowledge from you, but he took our friends,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Venus said. “You said Max made a cure?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s just not enough, and it can’t be replicated.”
Venus paced around the office, looking at the monitors of our setup. “Psychsaur found him. Her powers let her do that. He avoided her until he was ready to do this.”
I looked between them. “I thought Psychsaur was supposed to cover Cape Diem first?”
Titan nodded to Venus, “She convinced me otherwise. It’s a good thing, too.”
“How’s that?” Venus asked.
Titan scratched his chin. “If she was at Cape Diem when this happened, the mole at Master Academy wouldn’t have been exposed.”
“Do we know who he is?” I asked. “Because on my end, he was just Funhouse the Clown, aka Ricardo Milhouse.”
Venus said, “He told us he found out his little brother had superpowers and was fighting crime at night. He was concerned and wanted him trained. He told us his name was Rick Houser. He brought a kid in. God, we had to lock up a teen to find out how deep he’s into this.”
“Richard Milford Holmes,” said Titan, tapping away at the computer and bringing up some of the Cape Diem files. “Twenty-eight. No powers, but a lot of enthusiasm to join us. He’s shown an eagerness to do the shit work even when offered duties more in line with what we expect. A lot of people join up to do something grand to help the world. It’s a good attitude, there’s a lot of more ugly work to it than people want. Except him. He was staying under the radar the entire time. Ten months.” He glared down at the table. Venus patted his arm.
“He hasn’t stopped at all until now,” I pointed out, bringing up the map where they’d finally been stopped. “So maybe he’s where he needs to go, or it’s a trap. A trap would be a bad idea for them.”
“Unless they take our powers with that collar,” Titan reminded us.
That was when Venus walked over to stand beside me. “What powers? This is all training and equipment.”
Venus and I had to take a moment to suit up, each of us in bulky armor. Hers was her current generation of power armor with the face taken up mostly by a golden chrome visor. Mine was based on the suit I’d stolen from her future version, but with additional armor plating and strength-enhancing pseudomuscles added to resemble my heavy armor. I was just as agile as ever, in armor far more durable. After all, nobody said the added armor plates couldn’t be the same material as the less-bulky version.
Titan remained his giant blue and orange self, with a pair of wings sticking out the back of his Cape Diem uniform.
On our way out, I gave Qiang a hug, smiled at Silver Shark checking on a burn along her arm, and politely squeezed by Sam and Holly trying to bar our way. “’Scuse me, gotta go save Mix N’Max, just the three of us, no additional help involved.” I picked up Sam with both sets of arms and set her to the side. I turned to find Holly taking her place, so I skipped around her.
“We’re coming!” Sam called after me as I pushed through the doors. Titan and Venus followed, with Max’s assistants coming after.
“You two aren’t villains,” I called back as we walked to a Psycho Flyer parked in front of the palace.
“You don’t know what he means to us!” called Holly.
“Do you trust them?” Titan asked me.
“They’re loyal to Max above all else. They’d never see him harmed or kidnapped in any way,” I answered. “But I doubt they have anything to bring to the table on this other than potential hostages if things go wrong.” I stopped to look at the assistants. “Leave this to us.”
“We are not useless,” Sam said. She pulled out a glass bottle with a simple oval label and “The Cure” written in Max’s handwriting. “Take us or we destroy it.”
I looked up the ramp of the flyer where Titan and Venus had stopped. They looked to me, eyebrows raised. Well, I assume Venus’s were raised under the helmet. I pointed to Sam and Holly. “Nothing about them threatening the cure?”
“It’s your aircraft,” Titan pointed out.
“I’m not saving your asses if you get in trouble,” I said, turning and walking up the ramp. I heard them clatter along after me.
They probably would have regretted it if they knew the flight was so long. I had the flyer loaded up for it, though. Toilets, toiletries, an in-flight meal, and a selection of movies to watch.
“Air Force One, Airplane!, Sully… what are you trying to tell us here, Gecko?” asked Holly as she stepped up into the cockpit.
I created a pair of holographic sunglasses in my lower right arm. “I think my meaning should be quite…” I lifted the hologram into place where my eyes would be through my helmet. “…plane to see.”
“Oh god, I’m going to be sick,” Holly called out from the back of the flyer.
“It wasn’t that bad!” I called back.
Sam winced and looked back. “I better get to her. Flying can be iffy for her.”
I shrugged as she left. “It was y ‘all’s decision to come.”
When we got to where we were going, the nanites indicated that Max and Psychsaur were still there. And where we were going turned out to be a small, decrepit Buddhist temple on top of a hill. I invited Venus and Titan into the cockpit to look down on it. “That’s a pretty cunning way to hide a lair,” I told them. “Anyone who breaks in looks like their sacrilegious. On the plus side, we have plenty of room if there are any religious artifacts left. Gold, sufficiently old stonework, even bones will do.”
“We’re here for your friends, not bones,” rumbled Titan. “I guess you better get in there since you’re the quietest somehow.”
“Okily dokily.” I stood up from the controls and the flyer dropped for like half a second. In the back, Holly vomited. I hope paper bags were involved.
“You fucking psycho!”
The reactions I get. I held up my hands. “It’s fine. I got it remotely anyway. Just decided that if y’all are going to ask the guy flying the thing to get off it, shit might happen.”
“You could land,” Venus growled.
“I’d rather not risk being stranded in Pakistan. Nobody should.”
I landed harder than is preferred for stealth, but at least I was invisible. When I got to the door to the place, I found was in better shape than its appearance would lead people to believe. A quick scan through multiple spectrums didn’t reveal anything. No lasers, no wires, any of that.
I called down a quartet of drones from the trapdoor of the Psycho Flyer. They assembled on their way down, forming a platform big and strong enough to hold me in the heavier armor. I hopped on top as it passed through the doorway. I wasn’t going to get caught by pressure plates this time.
I had a line open to the Flyer cockpit, Venus, and Titan, so it wasn’t long before I heard Venus ask, “Found anything yet?”
“Lots of wood and tiles. Not even any valuables. Not one piece of art, either, except this little thing.” I spotted this decoration built into the base of the altar. Three rabbits, two running one way in a circle, the third another. But that was because the third one was broken, flipped around. There weren’t even any other doors anywhere. No way down to a hidden basement. So I flipped the third rabbit around and clicked it into place.
Behind me, tiles slid out of place along the floor, revealing a circular stairwell down that had to be hell to get hostages down. It also had no room for flying. “I got a way down. Go ahead and get down here. I don’t see anything up top. Y’all should be able to hop or fly to the stairs.”
I headed down and found my way through a rusty metal door, and from there to a circular room with a floor made up of rounded stones. There, I saw a quartet of dead Funhouse. No sign of Max or Psychsaur. But there were two other corridors from there. It was easier to figure out where to go when I heard retching. It’s been a vomit kind of day. “Funhouse was dead when I got here. I think I hear someone. Going to see if I find our peeps.”
I snuck my way on down the corridor when I heard Titan and Venus behind me, coughing. “What’s that smell?” Titan asked.
“They’re discolored,” Venus said from back there, too.
I found Max and Psychsaur locked in a pair of old time cells. Stone walls, a barred door, and a whole lot of hacking going on. I dropped the hologram. “Hey guys. Here I come to save the day.”
“Gas,” Max hacked up. “They killed him.”
Psychsaur added, “It got here.”
I pulled out a couple of syringes. “Venus, got a couple patients here. Some sort of poisoning. If y’all are still alive, I’m guessing it’s dispersed and stuff.” Metal bars and all, it wasn’t even a matter of hacking. I tore the lock off Max’s cell. The alarm started up then.
“I got activity down this corridor!” Titan called out. Then, the world blew the fuck up. But we didn’t go with it. There was a booming roar that tried to kill my eardrums. It got hot as fuck. Wasn’t as bright as I expected. After everything settled to mere shaking, I popped open Psychsaur’s cell, too, and grabbed them up. It’s a lot easier carrying people with extra arms.
I found Venus in the middle chamber, where a pedestal now stood in the center. Titan barred access to the other corridor almost completely. He stepped away slowly, grimacing “Any bomb you can walk away from is a good bomb.”
“You good?” I asked.
He nodded. “I’ve taken bigger.”
I nodded toward Venus. “That’s what she said.”
“She is busy downloading files off this computer while it self-deletes,” Venus said, a USB from her suit plugged into something on the pedestal.
All in all, a successful rescue. We got our friends. We got the collars off without damaging them overly much. And we got some files to sift through about what we’re dealing with, starting with the final message left in the system from a voice that sounded like dozens overlaid on one another.
“We had greater plans for you. You were to observe and report only. You are one piece of a vast apparatus. Our plan could never be stopped by one man with a cure. Ricca was the first, followed by Moscow, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Empyreal City. All within the first week. Thank you for listening obediently while the gas circulates. Your obedience is no longer required. You are no longer a piece in our apparatus.”
Woot! What comes before Part B? Part A!
The whole damn island’s having itself a good time to celebrate the birthday of my little baby girl, complete with an impromptu parade from the palace to the Cape Diem compound. When the first fireworks went off, Max took cover and I grabbed the nearest object, a painting off the wall, and prepared to beat wholesale ass with it.
“Watch it, Cinderella,” said Sam said from over by the living room windows. “It’s just fireworks.”
Citra moved up to take my arm and squeeze my hand in both of hers. “Yeah, it better be,” I said, before tossing the painting to the side and checking to make sure I hadn’t ruined anything on the new dress. Qiang said princess party and the tailor did his best to accommodate her wishes for a special dress to wear. It was a Western dress, very much in keeping with the Disney movies that I’ve been known to throw at her, but not any specific one. I told the tailor to make her Moana, Mulan, any of them she asked for. Disney’s not as anal about what constitutes a princess as I am, but my daughter can damn well dress as whoever she pleases.
Instead, she went with a darker pink with lots of frills up and down the front, and her own tiara. With my approval, the tailor went easy on the tiara. Most people don’t realize it, but wearing a lump of gold and gemstones on your head is hard work. Royals build up to that over like weeks or days leading up to official events. So Qiang’s tiara is better than a flimsy gold tiara. It’s durable, light, and gilded.
My own number resembled hers, except I went with a vibrant green that probably looks more at home in Rio during Carnivale, and had a little more space to hide my second pair of arms. If it hadn’t been for all these outsiders, I’d let them out. But I always gotta keep something in reserve when my nemesis is around.
While I was picking at it and making sure Qiang had hers all together, Citra took one look out the window and suggested, “Why do we not make a small parade?” I really should look into what the transit system’s like on this island. Damn delegation. Regardless, I know plenty of things fall off the back of a container ship around here, so I called up my guys in our local police force. They helped a car dealer clear a little space for more merchandise. It’s good for ’em, helps them rotate the inventory.
So my family had a parade of sorts. Nothing all that special to it, only Max was throwing treats at the crowd, and I didn’t really feel the need for security. Anybody who fucked up my dress was going to get a high heel up the urethra. And if they messed something up for Qiant? Oh, even a cyanide pill wouldn’t save them. I’d bring them back to life, and then I’d really fuck ’em up.
While I was keeping an eye out, Citra actually hopped out of our slow procession and carried Qiang down with her. I hopped out after them as they greeted some of the visitors. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“A princess should meet her subjects, and I think it is good for us,” she said.
I narrowed my eyes at her briefly before stopping myself. We were approaching another group who were getting all respectful and bowing. I stepped back and watched as Citra asked after them, how they were doing, other such platitudes. Empty stuff. Might as well ask how the weather is for all we can do about it. But they liked it. And not just them.
“You want to walk some, Qiang?” I asked the birthday girl.
“Yeah, Baba. I can ride in the car again when I’m tired. I get to be a princess!” She was hopping up and down and running along, eager to follow Citra’s example. As for me, I suppose I can’t fault her for having a will of her own. She is still another separate person, if one thrust into position and events far beyond what her life intended. Chaos can certainly be a ladder, or a pit. So while they were all smiles and spreading good Imperial cheer among my people, I kept a close eye out in case someone decided they wanted to hurt the Empress Regnant on our way to the Cape Diem compound.
Now, even though I was fully prepared to let visitors to my world come in peace, even provide an escort to me, the leader, it turns out the Master Academy people worked something out with Cape Diem. I didn’t see anything change hands, but Cape Diem’s whole portal deal with the UN isn’t something they’d risk losing. I wonder what the cost is for using the world’s only portal network to bring a bunch of kids to a birthday party on an island run by a supervillain. I suppose there are benefits for neutrality. But it’s neutrality that goes both ways.
My minions helped prepare everything, payment being they get to enjoy the party too. As my prior discussion of the cake ratio shows, I put a lot of thought into bribing people with food, fun, and bouncy houses. That even includes the guard detail who escorted the various princesses from the pink castle they temporarily called home. All of them formed a receiving line for my daughter on her way to the cake.
The cake itself loomed over the party like a small castle all its own. It was too big for the compound itself. It’s bad hat to kick your guests out of their own home by bringing in such a giant cake. People mostly contained themselves until we got there, at which point Qiang lost her shit with high-pitched squeals of delight and ran off into a throng of her friends who were being held back by their chaperones from Master Academy. We managed to separate them and, before everything devolved into the inevitable entropic pack of playing people, I let Qiang see all the various princesses. She was excited to meet them, and luckily they’d all calmed down a great deal. Something about being in public, with superheroes around, knowing they were going to be set free, and that this was all about my daughter’s birthday party.
Finally, barely able to contain her excitement and glee, it was time for my daughter to stand in front of her cake. And like all great cakes, it required men with flamethrowers hanging from flyers in order to light the candles. Ok, so required isn’t so accurate a term for lighting five candles. Let me think… fun? Awesome? Nevertheless, she stood there in front of a lower part ready to be cut and served to people. Then I unleashed the real humiliation. “Ok, time to sing Happy Birthday!”
Once I’d finished completely embarrassing her with the help of her friends and a huge crowd of strangers, she finally got a piece of cake, and then servants made sure everyone got cake who wanted it, including themselves. And from there, people mingled, people ate, people played games. I even caught this minotaur-looking super from Master Academy snorting in frustration as he kept missing at the clown dunk. The clown itself had a white face, a big forehead, and red hair. He’d also do this little dance in between throws, glaring right at the minotaur.
And it seemed to go ok. It was more like a big fair for a pretty good amount of time. Heroes and villains and me and my family all mingling. It was almost normal. It felt weird, like I should pick a fight just to have something to do. Fucking ball just wouldn’t hit the target and dunk the clown. I swear, that big-shoed bastard did something to the balls. While missing yet again, and ducking a cream pie thrown in retaliation, I noticed Venus.
It struck me as odd that we’d avoided each other so far. Unless she was avoiding me, which is a crazy thing to think. No, unless she was PLOTTING against me. That’s a sane thing to think. So I went over to where she was looking after some of the kids. “So, what horrifying thing are you going to do now in the name of being a good person?” I asked.
“Watching kids play on a happy day. How are you planning to be an asshole and justify it because other people in the world do bad things?” she asked right back, giving me a forced, closed smile.
“I dunno, figured I’d send missionaries to teach starving kids in Africa the joys of cannibalism.” My smile was more genuine, as was my amusement.
Venus wasn’t so amused. Doesn’t mean she was offended, she just didn’t like me. She turned her head suddenly, checking on a kid that had fallen. One of the Master Academy kids she brought all the way here to my daughter’s party even though she hates me. I looked at her and held a hand out. “I should be a better host. Thanks for bringing everyone. This means a lot to her.”
She shook my hand, and this time the little smile tugging at her lips also tightened up her eyes. “You’re welcome. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s worked magic on you.” After letting go of my hand, she turned to keep an eye on everything, smiling at everyone just walking around, having fun and playing games.
I shrugged. “She’s not so different from me. Orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, and trained to be more object than person. But she’s mine.” I saw a Buzzkill giving piggyback rides to refugee children. “That’s a screwed-up life she doesn’t deserve. No one does. It corrupts you, makes you want to cling to it. Makes you af- it feels more secure that way. Because once you know that’s your life, there isn’t anything that can scare you. I can do that for her, and I can destroy anyone who would hurt her.”
I turned to look at her then. Nothing like a good threat to round it out. Instead, she smiled at me. “That’s very heroic of you.”
I flinched. Couldn’t help it. “And here I thought we were playing nice.”
“You’ve become a better person,” she said. “You jumped in front of that rocket. See, I think staying with us helped you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh yeah, y’all putting in a telepathic block to stop me from swearing or killing, that’s what I really needed in my life. Y’all didn’t help that much. Well, aside from saving my life. And… ya know, it’s been awhile since I got the shakes from not killin’ someone.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
She held up her hands. “We thought it would help your recovery. We weren’t going to leave you in the middle of psychological withdrawals while we kept you from murdering anyone.”
I held up a finger in front of her face. “There anything else y’all did to my brain I don’t know about? Any more secret brainwashing to make be ‘better’?”
“No, I swear.” She’d tensed up, her eyes darting past me. Well, if we were drawing attention from her friends, they’d just get to violate Cape Diem’s neutrality and the sovereignty of my nation first.
I folded my arms in front of me.”I get so many mixed messages from you, Boopsie.” Then I just left her there. I wanted to hurt her or at least yell at her. But, and this is an important thing to remember in this instance, this was about my daughter. Besides, an Empress doesn’t get mad. She gets cake. I just have to hope any feelings for her weren’t somehow the result of telepathic manipulation.
And speaking of good feelings, there were Rhonda and Leland, the parents of my daughter’s best friend from Master Academy, just waiting for me to come say hello again and remind them about that threesome they had with a murderous serial killer and Empress.
Qiang could barely able to stay awake long enough to see guests departing by the end of the party. We didn’t have too many who weren’t already here decide to stay the night. Kayla and her parents for sure, but it’s not like all those kidnapped princesses, including all the Marias and Maries from Belgium, wanted to stick around. Even Venus had decided she’d head back instead of take me up on my offer to stay and ease her tired muscles with a refreshing dip in my jacuzzi.
Once almost everyone had departed, though, I heard a shout. I looked to Citra, carrying my exhausted five year old in her arms. Seeing them clearly both ok, I shot the similarly-burdened parents of her best friend a wink and headed off in the direction of whatever commotion we had going on. I found a pair of Security officers holding up one of their own between them. “Something up, guys?” I asked.
The one on the man’s left shook his head. “Apologies for not bowing, Empress.”
I waved off his concerns, “Bow later, talk now.”
“Very well. He got disoriented and collapsed.” I looked him over. Sweaty, even in the lighter gear he had on, but he had a half-full canteen bottle on his belt.
“Get him to our medical tent outside the fence and tell them to contact Dr. Creeper,” I said quietly. Louder, to a nearby family carrying a kid with a balloon tied around his wrist, I said, “Just a bit of dehydration. Make sure to keep drinking water, folks.”
It was when Creeper got there, along with some of the more medically-minded staff of the Institute, that I briefed him with a simple. “We have a problem.”
The man was still disoriented, still out of it. Babbling and feverish. I continued explaining in case nobody got it, “This isn’t heat stroke. We don’t know what it is. Worse, whatever’s going on isn’t being stopped by the nanites in the water or in the dermal patches they’ve applied. We need to find out what this is.”
“We need a quarantine, especially on outsiders,” Creeper said.
Fuck. “That’s not doable. Most of the ones who were here aren’t anymore.” And the ones who are here, like a little superpowered girl and her parents, won’t look so good. “Well, let’s get to it. The sooner we figure out what’s going on, the sooner we fix it.”
I knew arriving back at the palace that this whole situation would take tact. And probably sex. Just make it seem like Rhonda and Leland are having a nice vacation here while their daughter plays with mine. That’s what I was ready for when I opened the door to the palace residence and entered, only to have to hold back a lot of cuss words.
Psychsaur, scaled and feathered psychic hero of Master Academy (and Venus’s girlfriend), was seated at the bar in the kitchen, swaying, talking with Sam and Holly. She smiled a loose, too-friendly smile and her wave to me almost dropped her from the stool. Plus, I could smell the alcohol from where I stood when she opened her mouth to say “Hey Gecko! I’m not driving home tonight, so can I sleep here?”
The big day draws near. Now that I have fewer people to kidnap, I’ve had time to deal with catering, including getting a big-ass cake done. The design almost gave me diabetes just looking at it, but it had to be huge. We’ve got a lot of guests, and I’ve done some rough calculations on the additional cake necessary to offset the hard feelings from the kidnapping.
It’s one of those areas of science from my more advanced home dimension. Whereas the power armor and nanotech are the results of the hard sciences, my world also advanced in the social sciences and humanities. For instance, we discovered that there is a ratio of discomfort to cake that allows someone to completely offset all dislike from a situation with application of the proper amount of cake. I had to leave out various factors, though. Dairy tolerance, differences between frostings, the ice cream and milk modifiers.
But enough about confectioneries. I also handled the balloons and the shopping. Well, I’m not sure shopping is an accurate name with all that theft. But I didn’t want to just get Qiang the normal toys. She’ll have pretty much one of everything anybody else could possibly have. Then I realized she needed one of things people couldn’t have.
I didn’t need a toy store, or a toy factory. I’ve wrecked China enough for all that. I need… The Toybox.
“The Toybox is a legend,” said Max.
“What’s the Toybox?” asked Sam, his assistant with the more goth or perhaps punk look. There’s a certain point where I can’t tell them apart. But I suppose she’s grown some. She shaved her hair down except for a green poof at the front, so she’s got that going for her. She sat with us at the bar for our mid-afternoon drink. There’s breakfast, like screwdrivers, followed by mimosas or champagne at lunch, something with a bit more zip at eleven or so, then lunch, then the mid-afternoon drink around 3 o’clock, with more drinks at dinner and later at supper. Of course, we don’t always make all the appointments, so there’s the option to put them all together throughout the night.
“Ooh, I know!” That was Holly, the cheerier and generally preppier of the two. She’d been to Sea-Offee. A Riccan entrepreneur partnered up with Deep One suppliers who had cultivated some beans that sunk in airtight storage before the beans themselves went extinct. There’s also a gimmick about iceberg iced coffees, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a common lie.
Holly set her coffees down before answering, “So like so many supervillains went around stealing prototype toys and special toys for gimmicks and stuff or to sell to people. The toy companies got together and used their money to build a secret vault where they can lock them up safely. So the legend goes.”
“But why?” asked Sam. “Why not destroy them or sell them themselves? They aren’t useful anymore, are they?”
Max and I looked at each other before focusing on her.
“You never know when you’ll need a prototype. You can make an inferior version to sell to everyone else,” he said.
“They often have features later editions don’t and provide a practical model for implementing them,” I added. “Those can come in handy later on.”
“It can be even more valuable if the product’s good,” Max said.
I nodded my head toward him, “The artistic value, too.”
“Yeah, they make good trophies,” Max said.
“Some of them are toys they never put into production,” I came back with.
“It all sounds like stupid bullshit to me. I bet they wanted to make a vault to feel special,” Sam said.
Max and I both nodded. “That’s also likely, yeah,” I told her. It really is. Makes me wish I had a giant vault full of traps and valuables just thinking about it.
“You’re going to break into a vault that may not exist to steal toys that don’t work right when you already have everything you already need.” Sam was trying to be the voice of reason, which made it easy to ignore her.
I turned to Max, but he cocked his head to the size and said, “She has a point.”
“It’s a natural way to get Venus’s attention so I can get her here,” I argued.
“I don’t want to tell you your business,” he started, “But I will anyway. Does she bring little kids along when she goes to fight you?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t you want Qiang’s friends to come here?” he asked.
I raised a hand parallel to the floor and shook it back and forth a bit. “For her, sure.”
He adjusted on his stool and was about to talk, but Holly spoke up, “You didn’t go around kidnapping a bunch of princesses for their company, did you?”
“There was one who was actually real pleasant to talk to, but that was mostly about Qiang’s birthday.”
It was Sam’s turn now. “Hey man, if you do stupid shit, you might ruin her birthday. I remember one of my birthday parties, my mom and pop got into an argument over the cake. They both bought me one just like I wanted, but they each got mad at the other for trying to show the other person up by going behind the other’s back. Mom threw his in the trash, he threw hers out the window. I didn’t get any cake.”
I shook my head. “Destruction of cake. Those monsters. Somebody get me the Directors, we need a new law.” I started to stand up and see to that when Sam reached out and put a hand on my lower right forearm. I looked down at it then at her with a raised eyebrow.
“This is her day. Don’t fuck it up for her,” she told me.
Max clapped a hand on my shoulder, subtly moving sliding Sam’s limb away from me. “Think about it this way: now you know what to steal for her next year.”
I pondered it for a moment before heading off into an office area where I’d hung the communication screen. This is one of the newer models using Riccan paperthin display tech, so it just looked like a painting and wasn’t too out of place with other pieces of art around here. I don’t know who hung this one painting in here, but it was nothing like the rest of their aesthetic. Some old-timey looking thing with a woman playing the piano, a guy with his back to the viewer strumming a guitar, and another woman just standing there, all on a black and white floor that looks sorta like a chessboard.
When I was nice and ready, I put out a call and, after a second, Venus’s helmeted face looked down at me. “Who is this?”
I sat there in my pretty red and gold dress, face powdered and made up, my hair running through another golden headdress. I only raised my top pair of arms as the lower pair were hidden inside the dress. “It’s your absolute favorite supervillain in the whole wide world. Did I catch you at a bad time, Boopsie?”
She stared. “Gecko?”
“Empress Gecko,” I answered. “Well, Emperor’s fine, but they insist on calling me Empress right now. I swear, you tuck your nuts between your legs then shove them up inside a pussy and everyone loses their fucking minds.”
“You sound like Gecko. Pretty hologram. What do you want?”
“Hologram? Hey, can’t a guy just put on a dress, do up his hair, grow boobs, and wear makeup and a vagina just because he feels like it? You’re getting awfully judgmental for a Catholic bisexual, you know.”
She reached up, fingers hitting the visor over where it covered her nose before she lowered that hand out of view. “What do you want?”
I straightened myself up. “I’m throwing Qiang a birthday party and she has requested her friends attend. That includes you for some reason, but also that girl she used to hang out with over there, and the others from that school.” I took a moment to consult my memory. “Kayla, that was the name of her friend. She can even bring her parents, if she’d like.”
She looked down at me, thinking. “Is this a plot?”
I gently shook my head, not wanting to fuck up my bitchin’ hairdo. “There are plots involved in it, but this is not a plot. This is my daughter’s birthday and she wants her friends there. Unfortunately, that means… you.” I rolled my eyes. “Good news is, I can provide lots of cover for you-”
“-excuse me?” I asked. I didn’t expect her to just agree to come here like that without some sort of incentive. Over to the side, Citra stood with a photo of one of Belgium Marias with today’s newspaper. She looked at me curiously and started toward the screen’s view, but I raised a hand to wave her off surreptitiously.
“Qiang is a good girl and we enjoyed having her. I think we can make arrangements with Cape Diem to come to the party. When is it?”
“Wow, ok, this actually moves up the timeline a bit. I was planning to rob a place or threaten to in order to get your attention. Dammit, you’ve foiled me again,” I said that last sentence playfully. “A week oughta do it. Should be enough time to wrap up any sudden problems that’ll show up. And if anyone gives you any trouble over coming to see me, you can always give them some spin about it being a rescue operation to get back all those kidnapped princesses.”
“You have them, don’t you?” she asked.
I waved it off, trying to say, “No, no, of course not…”
But that’s when Citra stepped into view, smiling wide while holding a picture of a pissed-off Belgian woman with a newspaper in one hand and giving the V-sign with the other. “Hello,” Citra said, way more happily than I expected. She waved at Venus.
Venus gave her a small wave. “Hi. Who are you?”
“I am Citra, Empress Gecko’s wife.” She linked her arm with mine.
“That is so sweet. Smile, I’m taking a screenshot,” Venus said.
Gonna kill her. Gonna kill her so hard. Gonna kill her and paradox the shit out of Future Venus because she won’t live long enough for me to kill her in the future when she time travels to the past. I swear, she’s trying to bait me just as I’ve often tried to bait her.
I put a hand over Citra’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. She intertwined her fingers with mine and leaned against me. I took a breath and carried on. “Anyway, now that the pussy’s out of the sack, you can bring the whole school over, no shenanigans, and you get to walk away with the princesses that we officially do not have here. And, more importantly, I will have less time to draw out party preparations and decide to rob places for more and more extravagant gifts. We’ll have entertainment, too. There’ll be music and games. Clowns and a dunking booth, even.”
Venus grimaced. “Some people don’t like clowns.”
I waved that off with my free hand. “The clowns will be in the dunking booth. It’ll probably be therapeutic. And don’t worry about the clowns either. They’ll float. They all float.”
That got a shiver from Venus at least. “Let’s work it out with Cape Diem and I’ll see you next week, alright?”
“Fine by me, Venus. Oh, and just so you know, the theme is Princesses. Do dress accordingly,” I said, feeling my grin take on predatory menace. I’ll get a picture of her dressed ridiculously even if I have to roofie her and take all her clothes off myself! And I guess I can put more clothes on her at some point, too.
Grand language. “I have a dream.” I have a plan. Well, part of a plan. And bad dreams, too.
Not the usual ones, the stuff fighting on my home planet and being betrayed. They’ve been pretty strong here, with that time travel business. Mobian and Future Venus found a way to put me back there to put me off my game and I got the crap kicked out of me. My poor bowels. They had feelings, but then they were all empty inside.
I wonder if I’d be having the dream if I’d gotten that damn time machine repaired. Even if I didn’t fix my own life… well, if I didn’t fix my own life, none of this would have happened. But I could have brought it into the future. Instead, I took a coward’s way out. All that power in front of me, just like with that weird tree on the continent of Mu, and instead I turned it down. At least the tree would have destroyed me. The timeship… well I guess the timeship would have destroyed me as I am. Fucked up that I’d choose that knowing what I went through. The heroes and their weakness must be rubbing off on me, and not the way I imagine Venus does late at night with whatever toys she keeps in her room.
Note to self: bug Venus’s room.
I think I know already it was the wrong decision, letting complacency with the way things are defeat the way things ought to be. I’ve become just as bad as the heroes I deride. I get power, and instead of using it the right way, I maintain the status quo. Now that I figured that out, let me just say: the status is not quo. And to salt the wound, Future Venus did change her future. That damn hero beat me. Not physically, of course, I still won that. Obviously. But she changed the future when she didn’t kill me just before I beat her and won and did not at all lose. So I have to hand that to her and feel crappy that she took that leap, of all people. And I didn’t.
That stupid headology is what I worked on while Site Two was raided. Another success, without so much of a hero presence. Pagan went in at a time of night most were asleep, and they don’t tend to stick warehouses in areas where they call the police, especially if the people to be called on have a way to disincentivize the calling, say with weapons, or money. Pagan preferred the bribery route, which surprised me for a guy who used to kill for a living.
I kept an eye on the men, helping them get used to the armor. Without power, it was merely strong. With power, it made them strong. It’s easy to feel that raw strength and get cocky. I had to tutor some in the increased capabilities and knock a few down a peg with sparring sessions. Just Gecko a mano; I even took my armor off and let them keep theirs. I didn’t maim any of them, or make it vicious. These were my guys and gals.
I stayed behind at the military base as the flyers departed for Hyderabad, though I made sure to clap them on the back and so on. Letting them do their stuff without me is important. For me, not for them. They’re soldiers. They know their job and the risks. I’m the one who has gotten way overprotective of friends and my people. Working alone as an assassin, or as a supervillain? Not a dealbreaker then. A problem now. And not one I can solve with a visit to the puppy butcher’s. It’s something of a delicacy with people here, like veal.
So while my guys went about handling the last leg of Dr. Creeper’s and the Institute of Science’s shopping list, I decided to go hit up my personal shopping list. No, better than that, I needed a brand new shopping list all my own. Dr. Creeper’s handling the scientific development. Ricca already had a lot of data we recovered and some advances beyond the norm. Thanks to our notoriously free markets, we have routes for proliferation. What else could a guy possibly need?
I need people. I know, I’m real touchy-feely today. But this isn’t more of that existential crap like realizing I fucked up with a time machine or that I’m not overprotective. This isn’t the sort of situation that involves laying on a couch and talking it out. This is the sort of situation that involves Hu, my still-acting head of Intelligence. I was fixing lunch for this increasingly-large bunch living in my palace residence when I asked him. “Hey Hu, I understand China’s got a shitload of prisoners, but I don’t know anything about how they handle superhumans. Maybe I just never paid attention, maybe they hide it really well, but I’m hoping to figure out what they do with all of those types.”
“Your Imperial majesty, Beijing worked hard to suppress information on superhuman holding procedures, but information is a tricky prisoner. For many years, the Chinese government dispersed its superhuman prisoners in customized holding cells distributed through conventional prisons. It is said they altered this policy and created ten prisons for a small number of prisoners, known as the Ten Courts of Hell. Prisoners remain in both forms of imprisonment to this day.”
I took all this in before flipping the burgers on the grill. All the excess grease from the sausage meat mixed in caused a flare up, but I just pointed a finger and said, “Stop that.” The flames eased off, because fire knows not to play with me. If I wanted anything set on fire, I’d have fucking told it to light on fire. Fire is a tool, but sometimes it’s such a tool.
Once I was sure I wasn’t turning burgers into briquettes, I had another question for Hu. “Any idea where the Ten Courts of Hell are? Are those prison cells in every prison, or just in certain ones?”
“Ricca does not have this information.” I guess he put it that way to clarify it wasn’t just about what he personally knew. “I will look into this matter more closely if it is your will.”
I looked up and posed, spatula pointing into the sky, both speaking and typing my answer for Hu. “I so will it.”
“Will what?” asked Sam Hayne, walking over to check on the burgers. “Ugh, so greasy. I hate greasy burgers. It’s like you added fat to them instead.” She squinted and leaned in slightly to examine my meat.
I turned and pointed the spatula at her. “Sic ’em!” The fire flared up suddenly and Sam backed off.
“God, you almost burnt me eyebrows off!”
“What happened?” Mix N’Max said. My friend checked over Sam, then walked over.
I shrugged. “Eh, just some friendly fire. She got too close to the grill and it had a flare up.”
He looked at me. I raised an eyebrow. “Or do you think I can suddenly control fire now?”
Max shook his head and walked back to Sam, who had walked off to go get a drink or something. “Good fire,” I said, patting the grill with the spatula.
In the meantime, I got to watch the mission to Hyderabad unfold once my guys arrived, radar missing them. Right off the bat, it seemed to justify the superstitious crowd. Small arms fire greeted the flyers, until the pilots activated the side turrets. Twin machine guns, one on each side with a wide range of fire to suppress and eliminate personnel threats. I’d originally wanted machine shotguns but opted for something with better range. With some of them dropping and others taking cover behind walls getting chewed up by automatic fire, guards did the calculus and soon figured out how much their lives were worth in comparison to what they were getting paid. They ran for it, and the flyers let them go.
After that, my people had the run of the place. Locks were blown open and researchers hustled out, at least until Tiu made the call from his flyer to have them help carry stuff to make it go faster. I hardly think it was worth it. Indeed, it may have contributed to what occurred. One of the scientists must have been working on some good shit, because he snorted something and started attacking my guys. Threw one of the soldiers several feet.
Another one close in was at least able to deflect the wild blows and grabs of the man enough to get away, allowing the others nearby to unload on him. He kept coming, despite the blood spray and missing flesh, at least until someone hit his spine and he lost control of his legs. Once he was down, it was much easier for one of the men to step up and plant a couple bullets in his skull. Tiu, watching through their helmet cams from the flyer, ordered them to confiscate whatever powdery stuff he’d been carrying and carry everything themselves. The soldier who’d been thrown around turned out to be fine.
After that, the tension seemed gone. The unanticipated problem had been dealt with easily. It was just a matter of rounding up all the stuff we didn’t want to pay for. It all went well and fairly quickly, and they were just about to withdraw, when a reject from the Blue Man group jumped in from afar. Shoeless, shirtless, pants, and skin painted light blue. Guy started drumming on my soldiers with these maraca things, some sort of maces. Getting shot didn’t see to do anything to him, but one of my guys dropped a grenade at his feet, even with his comrades close by. The force of the explosion tossed him away where the flyer anti-personnel guns started firing on him. He got the fuck out of there after those put some holes into him.
The field medics loaded up the casualties. Not fatalities. The grenades hadn’t done anything to instnatly smear them over the ground, instead knocking air out and doing soft tissue damage. I oughta get shirts for them. “I got blown up by a concussion grenade and all I got was this shirt and a concussion.” And even that was quickly being worked on by the nanites already in their systems via Ricca’s water supply and by those administered by the medics. Helicopters scrambled, but the flyers just didn’t show up to them. Might as well have been invisible. They mostly were, from all sides. Even the satellites looking down couldn’t hardly see anything. On top of that, the flyers themselves screwed around with Indian sensors to screw them up. Some could tell something was there, but not well enough to get a lock.
It was a beautiful dance of advanced conventional warfare and cyber warfare. They were lucky to see us; lucky to hurt us.
It’s almost a shame I want to spread it around to more and more people. Going to be hugely disruptive, too. Revolutions, new wars started, new peace treaties written, borders redrawn. They’re only human, after all. If they want to stand a chance against an ancient god of death, they’re going to have to become something better.
Section 3 Complete
Archive Begin Transmission
I barely slept as I tried to figure out the alien languages I’d surrounded myself with. It wasn’t just the programming language and operating system; I had to figure out the alien language itself well enough to fit into my translation program. I actually passed out at the console exhausting myself. Luckily, the dreams were more of those flashbacks to memories of bad times, which me up again before I could waste a whole night getting nothing done.
I had to find her, though the her vacillated between saving Qiang from Future Venus, and finding Future Venus to murder her. Pretty sure it’d work within those rules of the Parliament of Rogues if anyone wants to make a big deal about it. And if anyone wants to give me shit about aliens in costumes, I’ll remind them this happened in the Cretaceous, like 65 million years before any such agreement existed. I still dumped the body of the alien off the ship with the others in a big cloud of bugs.
Big referred to both the size of the cloud and the size of the bugs. They were tall enough to ride the roller coaster.
Between desperation and anger, I had all the motivation I needed to shove a shitload of information into my brain. I learned to read this weird language as best as possible, which involved touch sensitivity on the buttons as well. I probably don’t even have a mouth capable of making the noises necessary to pronounce the spoken version. And while I didn’t figure out absolutely all the ins and outs of this ship, I learned enough to get it going. That part was kinda important to me. I wanted well away from the ground so as to avoid any more giant gators or giant bugs. Everything’s giant back in the Cretaceous, and here I am without a penis.
I’d lament my timing, but I have at time machine! And with it, I shall find that future copy of my nemesis and tear her apart, molecule by molecule if need be. The only shot she’s got is- no. No shot. No more. Not for this one. Having figured out how to work this thing, I’m going to head back to the time I left and I will see if they returned Qiang. If she’s back unharmed, Future Venus dies quickly and painlessly. Relatively. There actually is a more painful way to tear a person’s heart out through their ass. My favorite version involves music, interpretive dance, and a fistful of rusty, glowing hot nails. The rust doesn’t even do anything at that temperature, but a lot of pain is psychosomatic. So the nails are to mess with her mind. The Thai dragon peppers impaled on the nails, those are for the body.
But like I said, if Qiang is returned to me, I make it easier on Future Venus. I’m undecided on Mobian, mainly because I put all the blame on Venus. But figuring out all that blame won’t exactly work if I’m wrong on time travel. So, once I figured I had the systems under control, I activated Time Navigation Mode. The ship’s viewscreen of the surrounding area shifted from its strange, blue-heavy that analyzed the threat posed by whatever birds, giant bugs, and pterasaurs were flying around. Instead, it sorta whited out, like looking at a wireframe mode. I noticed something off there, though. It showed me some sort of path. When I told the computer to clarify what I was looking at, it came back with the alien equivalent of “Temporal Slipstream”. Flying closer and swapping views, it appeared to be coming from where Mobian was parked.
“Cool,” I said to no one in particular. “Let’s get this bad boy up to 88.8 miles per hour and give it some jigawatts!” I switched back to Temporal Navigation and started charging it up, setting in a course to follow this slipstream. The viewscreen showed it as if I would follow the thing, but instead it created a field around the exterior of this weird little ship to match something it detected in the slipstream. The ship then rose along the same course and existence blinked.
When it came to, the ship had moved quite a bit in various ways. Gone was the marsh, instead replaced by barren plains that grew only scorched grass. And because this is alien, it didn’t use a time system or coordinates in the same way I knew them. I tried reaching out to satellites and the internet, but the ship blocked that. So I figured I’d stop by Empyreal City. At least the ship could give me enough of a view of the planet to navigate manually.
Even from a continental level, things had changed. Where California had been was now an archipelago. Florida hung out from the southeast side of North America, but an awful lot of the east coast north of it had become a bay. China was entirely desert, the middle east was setting off radiation alerts from the other side of the world, and my country was just gone. Ricca and Mu were so thoroughly disappeared, you’d think the Argentinean military snatched them up. I’m just kidding. The Falklands know just how bad Argentina is at stealing land.
And I know just the place to stay up to date on the news. This thing could fly, too. Nice to know in case Maverick and Ice Man were wingmen any time. But I didn’t get any response at all, despite this thing likely being detectable. It became more apparent why when I came into visual range of Empyreal City. The place looked like it’d been home to a kaiju gang bang. Buildings were toppled or half-missing. There were scorch marks everywhere. Then I spot a chitinous leg sticking out of a building, its torn off portion exposed to the sky like it had held up something even bigger. I immediately checked myself for any more of the prehistoric bugs hitching a ride. Satisfied that I hadn’t somehow caused this by exposing the world’s biggest cockroach to time travel, I decided to land.
The streets turned out to be abandoned by people. Not so much cars, but there weren’t many people around. Most hid upon seeing the ship lower. Some of them outright ran when I popped out, but then that’s a normal enough reaction to me. “Hello!” I said, waving at everyone. The dirty, scared people looking back said nothing. The silence deafened, which is when I realized the amazing lack of cars and internet. The phones were almost entirely silent. Satellites? Only a few left. Shit had gone down. Empyreal City’s had its fair share of problems before, but this was a big deal.
“Hey!” I called out to somebody wrapped in an oily blanket. “What year is it?”
“You a time traveler or somethin’?” the boy called back. “It’s 33.”
I looked around. “2033?”
“No, 1933, ya dumbass,” the kid responded. Nothing in those rules I agreed to about not killing civilians.
“Y’all stopped that Mot thing, right?” I asked.
“Shit, no thanks to you, time guy.” He jerked around as a wail started in the distance, then began running for it. “Shit, they doin’ curfew early! Better fly, time guy,” he said as he ran off. Everyone did.
Well, I didn’t know the big deal with curfew, but I knew I was here looking for somebody. And there was one place to find Venus when everywhere else failed. I zapped myself back into the time ship and took off for the East Coast campus of the Master Academy.
It turned out to be nothing left but a pile of cinders and some shiny land that looked like it’d been glassed. So… yeah. Over on the west coast, I found the the original campus of the Master Academy torn to shreds. Not a single whole building stood amongst a campus dotted with crescent moon divots the length of a car. This future version of Earth had been fucked up its earhole.
That didn’t matter. Knowing the year, I was able to make a few conversions and put in a course for home. One second I hovered way overhead a reef in the Pacific, the next I was looking down on Ricca in the year 2018. A little adjusting put me back there right after the disappearance of Mobian’s time ship. I actually wondered what would happen if I tried to stop it from leaving. I’ve seen the future. Fucking up the timeline could only help these people.
Instead, I waited. And waited. And when they didn’t fucking show back up off Qiang, I set it down in front of the residential palace.
“What’s going on?” Silver Shark asked, her large, cyborg body gleaming in the sunlight as she stepped out to greet me. “Where’d you get this thing?”
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Archive Begin Transmission
I shrugged. “Carjacked some aliens. Time traveling super bitch stole my daughter and is probably trying to raise her to hate me. I need explosives.”
She set her jaw. “How much?”
“All the explosives,” I said. “And a shitload of rusty nails.”
I loaded up my armor stand for repair and maintenance, nanites for my health, knives for Venus’s health. I didn’t know how long this bogus journey would last, but even a most excellent adventure would still end with me making damn sure that someone was going in a grave. Oh, and I brought rusty nails.
Silver Shark tried to come with me. So did Max, but I held up my hands. “Uh uh. No. This is something I have to do myself.”
“But Gecko, why?” asked Silver.
“Because technically I’m not supposed to be murdering superheroes for no reason nowadays. So I’m going to go have a very intense… discussion… with this Future Venus. A real tongue lashing. Going to chew her out.”
“So this is sexual?” asked Sam, Mix N’Max’s assistant.
“Oh, she’s already fucked,” I said. “I’m just gonna widen the hole.”
Max offered a hand. “If you ever need us, just say the word.”
I shook it with three of my four hands. “If anyone asks, I’m not murdering a super.” He nodded. I walked over to my ship and it seemed almost like a dramatic moment, but then I was like, “By the way, as long as I succeed, I’ll be right back. Like, I’ll be gone, then I’ll be here again, and you’ll all be disappointed you felt like this was a big deal.”
“Boo!” called Max’s other assistant, Holly, causing me to smile under my helmet.
So I took to the ship, got myself settled into the command center, and flew the ship up, navigating conventionally and temporally. When we blinked through time again, we were back where I’d first come into 2033. I set the ship to scanning for any more temporal slipstreams. I whirled as someone stepped into the command room. It was Citra, my wife, carrying a spear in one hand with a bandolier of bullets over the outside of her dress and handgun sticking out of a sash on her waste. “The hell are you doing here?” I asked.
She set her jaw, which made her look more pouty than anything. “She is my daughter too. I am going to kill the bitch who stole her and left you to die.”
“No, you’re not,” I said, turning around as we got a hit on the trail left by Mobian’s timeship. Citra versus Venus? Not so much a curbstomp as a footnote.
Citra walked over and held the spear out to block my access to the console. “You are my husband. Qiang is our daughter. I want to do something.”
I shrug and gesture behind me. “Whatever you do, don’t get in my way. That’s kinda important since I don’t know where we’re going. Now let’s see what time it is these Mobian folks went to…” I hit the button.
When we came out, it was over Palestine. Zooming in to see what might be significant, I found a large force of cavalry getting their asses handed to them by about 2,000 soldiers in blue coats. “Ok, Citra, you thought this would be nice and easy. Now let’s figure out what they’re doing in 1799.”
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I didn’t turn around and immediately lead some villainous expedition into another world for the sake of getting rich on tech so commonplace, they gave it to science projects. They gave a lot of interesting stuff to science projects, and I had to gather up the scientists, including Dr. Creeper, Mix N’Max, Dr. Quincy, and myself, to try and figure out what had been done to these people to better understand what we were facing. Quincy didn’t appreciate me dumping the tentacle on him, not least of which because I literally dropped it in his lap while he was eating calamari. He didn’t finish his lunch for some reason.
He tried to argue with me. “I specialize in plants. Does this look like a plant to you?” he said, waving the tentacle at me.
I shrugged. “That’s what we’re hoping to find out.”
“I do not have a response to that. Fine. I hope they didn’t wreck the entire lab.”
They didn’t, in fact, wreck the whole lab. It came pre-wrecked, but it was intact enough for us to bring in the gear we needed to perform a bunch of autopsies and figure out what we were facing. The ones assigned to the metallurgy of the guns and ammunition I figured found something valuable, as they soon claimed it was all mysteriously destroyed while testing the strength of the metal, ammo included. And some shiny new watches fell off the back of a truck onto their wrists.
They soon left me alone to escape the Institute and leave me to punching dead bodies. I was boxing against one of them hanging on a hook like Rocky in the meat freezer as just part of my testing. I had to get a good idea how much punishment the bodies could take.
I took a break though, intending to go fetch Qiang. It’d be good practice for her. I stopped into Max’s work area first, to see what he was up to. “Knock knock,” I said.
He didn’t look up from where he mixed some liquids in beakers, then poured them on a leg of one of the mercs. “Hey Gex. Bored?” I noted that the liquid fizzled a bit and started to eat through the skin.
“Thought I’d bring Qiang on over, give her some experience with weird dead bodies. Father-daughter stuff. Looks like you’re figuring out clean-up.” I leaned against the doorway.
Max turned to me, perpetual Cheshire grin on his face. “You really love her, don’t you?”
I shrugged and, in the process of figuring out what to do with my extra arms, traced the fangs on my helmet. “There are some questions you don’t ask a guy.”
“Fine, guy,” he put extra emphasis on the second word there to remind me of my current sex. “I remember you hating children.”
“Yeah, I do. Hyperactive, loud, spoiled, stupid little sons of bitches. And they so rarely grow up to try and avenge their parents, despite what all the movies and TV shows tell you.”
“So she’s special to you,” Max said, winking.
I checked around to make sure we were the only ones able to hear. “Orphan taken in by a government determined to train her and use her for their own gain. They gave her to me.” I don’t know if he fully understood what that meant as far as the sort of person they expected me to be.
“Now she’s your daughter.” Max set the beakers down and turned full to me, putting his hands out cautiously, palms toward me. “Are you trying to make her like you?”
I caught myself with my fists raised and before I got close enough to actually land a punch. I’d instinctively tried to beat his ass for that question. I lowered my fists and moved to lean back against the wall. “No, ya Goth bastard. I want her to have an infinitely better life than mine. Why do you fucking ask?”
“Because since I’ve been here, you’ve taught your daughter martial arts and how to butcher an animal. You wanted to bring her to have fun cutting up dead people. You’re a doting father… mother… but are you teaching her the same things you learned?”
I pondered the question. “Well, yes, but not all the things, and not at all like I learned. No gun to her head, no threats of execution, no competition to see who has to fight to the death as the lowest scorers in the group. And like I said, I’m not going around teaching her the best way to sexually violate the human body. I mean, maybe once she’s old enough I can provide some sex education, but she’s too young for that.”
“I don’t mean to tell you how to raise your kid-”
“Then don’t,” I said, cutting him off. He kept going anyway.
“But I don’t think a kid you want to live a better, healthier life needs to poke around dead corpses all the time as part of her education. Unless she wants to be a doctor, of course. I’d be happy to tutor her.” He smiled brightly again, trying to redirect the conversation to something more upbeat.
There are more than 7 billion people on this planet I would murder for a suggestion like that. The one about what I should and shouldn’t teach my own kid. Max is a friend, though. And he might have a point about laying off on the number of corpses I show to Qiang. I know I’m contrarian by nature, probably because someone once told me not to be, but I figured I could at least think it over. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever really be short of dead bodies to show her if I need to.
That became less important of a point though when Max turned around. “Look what we have here.”
I stepped up behind him. “The good news is, you found a compound to get rid of all those nasty wrinkles and blemishes.” He’d dissolved dermal layers alone, giving us a much clearer view of some of the modifications made to the human. Underneath the skin was a layer of hardened scales. Reminiscent in color to those of the Deep Ones, they were nonetheless tougher than the fish monsters. It’s just that without the skin to cover it up, the resemblance was pretty strong as far as the shape of the thing with the scales. The claws matched up, but Deep Ones were weaker there, too. And these guys didn’t have the fins the Deep Ones had. “I’m going to go round a few people up and send for someone to nab some DNA from a Deep One. This is worth a little bit of looking into.”
It took me a half hour to get a Deep One over from the Drone Division. I brought him, I think him, in to the same lab where Mix N’Max and the rest of the Superhuman Science Crew were gathered. The Deep One gave a croak at seeing all of us there and a dead body with scales on the table. “My Empress, what do you ask of me?”
“Did that thing say Empress?” asked someone in the crowd.
“Shush, that’s not important right now,” I waved off the question, then addressed my soldier. “Just a tiny bit of DNA testing. We were attacked by beings from another world who we’ve just realized bear some resemblance to your people. We just wanted to confirm a few things.”
It doesn’t take much to test DNA, so he lived. He even got a good look at the thing on the table courtesy of Dr. Creeper. Seeing as I’d discarded the same handy-dandy quick tester I’d used to confirm the identity of Spinetingler’s daughter, it took slightly longer for us analyze the DNA and get a good look at its makeup. It was Dr. Quincy, he of the plant biology, who took the lead on this one. “We have samples from standard humans, a Deep One, and one of these creatures to compare to. We would need more samples to gain a fuller understanding of Deep Ones, but utilizing what we have here and the map of the human genome, it appears humanity and the Deep Ones share a common ancestor.”
The Deep One himself scratched at its chin before speaking in a croaking voice, “My people have mated with humans many times in our history.”
“Yeah, there are a stories to that extent,” I said. “That raises the question on whether the Deep Ones are so closely related to us because of all the crossbreeding, or if it was allowed beforehand.”
Quincy shook his head. “The crossbreeding could only have occurred because of how closely we’re related. It’s similar to how neanderthals interbred with early humans. That brings us back to this guy,” Quincy pointed with the tablet he held to the corpse on the table. “As strange as it seems, this thing that used to be human within its own lifetime now shares less DNA with homo sapiens than Deep Ones do. This thing might be so distantly related it may not be able to interbreed with us. If it were alive, I would add.”
It was a valid point to bring up. Technically, it’s hard to breed with a corpse. That’s why it’s important for horny teens to remember that you can’t get pregnant with a dead body. Joking aside, this whole DNA thing was making me glad they didn’t take me for a sample. I mean, homo machina are an offshoot of humanity and there doesn’t appear to be a problem with having someone be half homo sapiens, half homo machina, but I don’t know if it can occur naturally in the bedroom. And then there’s the idea that I might be more closely related to a human than a Deep One is.
“Empress,” the Deep One said, once again calling stares onto me. He walked right over, so it’s not like anyone was confused enough to think there were any other female heads of empires around. “There are elder truthsayers who carry ancient stories. They speak of beings from another world who made many things, such as great pyramids. They are even said to be our creators and gods for a time. May I bring one to you so that you may hear his wisdom?” He knelt before me.
On the one hand, stories about things from another world building the pyramids never struck me as particularly truthful before, but context is important. I patted him on the head. “Sure, go bring me one of those elder things.”
And so he did, leading in a being that proved you can be both scaled and wrinkled at the same time. It’s not a pretty sight, and I’m not entirely sure this guy could see anymore, but he came in to try and regale us with a long-winded tale of the creation of the Deep Ones. I actually fell asleep, but my armor kept recording so I was able to get the jist of it, which is basically just what the one guy said. Broad strokes, the Deep Ones have a creation myth going back to gods from another world creating their god and themselves before nonbelievers from the island of Mu refused to bow down. They were being beaten in battle by the gods, until a small group, aided by traitors among the Deep Ones, were able to sneak into the holy temple and destroy the path between the two worlds.
They thought they had failed, because they disrupted the rituals at the sight of the path, or more likely portal, but it didn’t fade away. In desperation, one of them stole a sacred relic from the gods and fled. The portal began to shrink then, and the gods warned that unless the relic was returned, they would fade away. This was when they retaliated by creating the monstrous Cthulhu, who was sent to sink Mu in retaliation. Or, more likely, he was insurance. Like “return the glowing crystal or your island gets it!”
So this glowing thing we got is probably that thing. And I bet those weird ruins on the west side of the island are the ones that hid this thing until someone, probably the Claw, dug it up and started studying it.
Which means… I’d better bring extra explosives for the enemy. And extra underwear for my allies. As the head of the ACLU once said in the future, don’t mess with Earth. And kill Zoidberg.