Tag Archives: Mix N’Max

Topsy Turf 6

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“Would you call this a tribunal?” I asked Medusa.

“Maybe. I guess. If we had to call it something,” she said. We’d all gathered in the rear of my veterinary clinic, where the mobile slime molds had removed the truth serum and brought us a bunch of tables and chairs. I gave one some cash and sent it on a fast food run, making sure it knew to touch the bags but not the food itself. I think it understood. It nodded like it did.

Spinetingler had turned into a much more normal shape, this time a floating black mass inside a cloak dark enough to look like a hole in reality. Mindgame looked much healthier than when I first captured her for Spinetingler. The non-aggression pact between myself and the other major villain had been forged when I agreed to help reunite them. My homo machina physiology, that I now lack, is highly resistant to mind control. That was important, because Mindgame, as she goes by now, essentially blanks people’s minds and controls their bodies like her own puppets. When I found her, she had control over a whole apartment building. Neither it, nor her, were in the best shape physically.

She caught me looking and winked. “Nice to see they’re feeding you,” I said. “Last time we met in-person, you had missed a few meals.”

“You’re that girl who kidnapped me.” She tapped her temple. “But something’s wrong. You can’t keep me out anymore.”

Spinetingler leaned forward to block her view of me. I nodded appreciatively to him. He nodded back, then whispered something to her.

“Can we get on with this?” Venus asked. “We need to figure out what comes next. No one seems to like my world.”

“If your world is permanent, my life doesn’t go right,” the white and blue-clad speedster said.

“Who are you, again?” Medusa asked.

“Uh, I’m the Cobalt Racer, from the future. I’m Qiang’s husband, so you’re my mother-in-law. Uh, you and Venus both are,” he pointed between the pair of them. “And I guess you too,” he pointed to me. “I came back because of temporal reverberations that were erasing things in my future. When I came back, the past wasn’t right.

Mix N’Max, my old frined, was with us, as was the goddess and Max’s snu-snu buddy, Pestilentia.

Joining the familiar faces were two others, including the representative of the alien machines. It was a flying, coffin-shaped device with a mechanical humanoid torso hanging from it. I hadn’t had time to catch up on where the machines were in this reality, but I’d helped arrange for them to set up a homeland on the inhospitable outer planets of the solar system in the real one. This one had been sent to fight Venus, but I don’t think they trusted sending one of their negotiators. Being less connected now, I can’t just spy and see if Venus left them alone in the solar system or if she fucked around with them.

Torian was the other extra person, and the time traveling old man looked extra cranky. “I need to stop all of this right now. I already heard how this meeting goes. It takes too long, with too many arguments, so I came back to do this right.” He started pointing around, first to Pestilentia and Max, “You two don’t give a shit. In fact, you’re high,” he directed that to Max.

Max chuckled. “I can tell you I’m high, too. Doesn’t take a time machine to know that.”

“I was never sure if he could get high,” Medusa whispered.

I shrugged. “He can if he wants to.”

“That aside, she wants someone hurt,” Torian pointed a finger at Mindgame. At Spinetingler, he explained, “You want someone punished for controlling you like you control others.” Next was Medusa and Venus, “They don’t want their parents to be dead again and that’s a sticking point.” He pointed to me. “You want to go back to the way things were and you’re willing to give up the power and make some changes, but you don’t like that you had sex with your twin sister.” He was right, but she wasn’t my twin when I had sex with her. Now there’s something not everyone gets a chance to say.

That got me some looks from everyone. Torian moved onto the speedster, “You want reality to go back to normal because you hit the jackpot marrying Qiang and you don’t want anything to endanger that future.”

He brushed off his suit jacket and sat down again, then cocked a thumb toward the machine representative. “The two of us don’t want any humans to have that sort of power. That sort of thing is why folks don’t like gods existing, the meddlers.”

“This doesn’t sound like that big of an impasse,” I said.

“I think you should fight each other to figure out who gets to decide how the power gets used,” Torian said.

“That idea is shitty,” Max answered. He pointed toward Venus with a blunt he hadn’t been hiding or anything. “She still has the power.”

Torian had been removing the crystal ball from an inner pocket on his coat that it shouldn’t have fit into. “This will remove and contain the power.” Oh yeah, sure. That’s all it’ll do. “That way it won’t be an unfair fight.”

“Even I can detect that falsehood,” the alien machine said. It examined the device closely, then raised its arms. “I believe I have a solution.” With only that warning, it zapped Venus.

I dove on instinct. Cobalt Racer and Venus were faster, probably fast enough that they could actually see the purple blur pulled out of Venus by the alien machine. I landed hard, feeling the power race through me. I felt incredible, again. For one thing, gravity was once again a suggestion instead of a rule. I stood up, taking in a frozen scene. A trail of light showed Cobalt Racer had pushed the alien machine away and then got tackled by Spinetingler. Torian reached toward the middle of our gathering in vain. Venus dusted herself off, not frozen. I looked to her, cocking my head. “Wait, I got the power.”

“So did I,” my wife said. “I can feel it.”

She was right. I pulled up my omniscience and gave it a go, replaying the scene. I dove before anyone and happened to get in the way. Venus had enough chance to speed up and try to intercept what was going to be pulled out of her body. We both touched it, with Venus diving overhead and me hitting the ground. And we both contained it, becoming roughly equal in power.

“So what’s this mean?” she asked.

“Hon,” I approached, hands raised. Just in case, I sought out the knowledge needed created a copy of the device the machine had used. The clever thing had done an astoundingly quick visual analysis of Torian’s device and quickly recreated it using its own transformable internal structure. No wonder the thing was meant to deal with reality warpers. “I really think it’s time for our honeymoon to be over. That’s all this was, right? I told you one change. You changed the world. It’s time to go home.”

“You sure you don’t want to fight?” Venus asked. “We get up to some fun stuff if we fight.”

“Oh yeah?” I snapped my fingers and we appeared in a dark void. I didn’t unmake reality or anything, I just took us away from everything.

“How’d you do that?” she asked. “I don’t think I can affect you that way.”

“I’ve picked up a few tricks. You’re saying you want to fight?” I had to wonder a bit about that.

She snapped her fingers and part of the darkness opened up like a monitor. One showed me dressed in a black leather costume that had to be terrible to sweat in, catching Venus on a rooftop with a giant stolen diamond in hand. One tussle later and the clothes were off. Another monitor appeared, with me in my armor getting beaten by Venus, who handcuffed me and proceeded to feel me up. More were out there, different versions of ourselves all created when we try to change reality to give each other an edge.

I walked up and wrapped my arms around her. “Feels like you can do anything, so why shouldn’t you? It’s a little tough for me to be the one arguing against it, except maybe people need to save themselves rather than having it saved for them.”

Venus scoffed. “Are you saying you’re more responsible with this power than I am?”

I shook my head. “I’m saying that superheroes aren’t going to save them. As long as people are people, there’ll be a Klan or Nazis or a bunch of creepy British guys thinking trans people are bad. Heroes can fight them and villains can kill them, but people have to change to stop them from being a thing in the first place.” I paused to see if I was getting through to her. The way her eyes teared up, I figured I was getting close. “I’ve been thinking I should find some way to get rid of it.”

Venus stepped in close, shutting down the monitors. “How? You can’t trust the Torian.”

“Of course not. But I want to get the world sorted out real quick. And by that I mean go back to our version of things… mostly. I did say I’d let you change one thing, right?” I held my hand out and created an image of her parents.

Venus nodded, and turned into an intangible, ghostly form that flowed into me. I felt the power, all of it, once again. I also briefly felt the temptation to go back on what I said. Instead, I snapped my fingers and the dark void fell away.

We were back at the shop. My electronics shop, not veterinary clinic. The rest of this whole bunch were all frozen still, but I pushed them all back into their seats and restarted time. They had a moment to finish shouts or try to lunge before their memories updated. “You did it,” Cobalt Racer said, smiling. He had such a nice, genuine smile. He better not hurt Qiang.

I nodded, then let Venus step out of me.

“What about punishment?” Mindgame asked. I waved. She and Spinetingler went back to their abandoned theme park home.

Torian stood up, holding his crystal ball. “You have to give it up!” I whisked him away to his timecraft and sent him off to Betelgeuse a million years ago. While Cobalt Racer was watching all this, I sent him back to the future.

I looked to the machine that had come. It was strong. No much for even half my power. “I’ll give it up. Your people know me.”

“Really?” Max asked “That’s a lot of power to give up. You sure you don’t want me to hold onto it for safekeeping?”

“I’m sure.” I was also sure I had gotten my body to my liking, like being just thick enough in the right places, with hair a mixture of a beautiful red that becomes blond. It made me happy to no longer be a twin of Dame. I also kind of phased out the relationship she had with an alternate body I controlled. The experience in the other reality soured me on that stuff. It didn’t put me off being able to change forms, so of course I took advantage of things in a way I didn’t tell anyone. Of course I left myself a few advantages like flight.

“There we go… a few nice changes… everyone’s got themselves a weird dream to remember the other reality by,” I muttered aloud.

Venus… Isabella, walked a few steps to get her feet under her again. Maia, aka Medusa, walked up and hugged her. Their parents appeared in the yard from the other reality without any gift-wrapped memories of this version. I added, “Some people get a little more to remember things by.”

Medusa and Venus both looked to the resurrected mom and dad and walked over. I raised my fingers for one last snap. “Just one thing left to deal with, I guess.” Two if you count the copies of Torian’s power-extraction machine that appeared in my basement lair.

Snap.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed.

“I thank you,” the machine said. It shot off into space.

That left my family, and Pestilentia, to head on over to the house for a big reunion with the real Sam and Holly. It took a long time before everyone got to sleep. I couldn’t help smirking to myself as I hugged my pillow.

It was the perfect pillow. It stayed cold when it needed to, would stay worm when it needed to. It couldn’t get dirty or mashed out of place. I might even say it’s a god among pillows.

There, back to normal.

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Topsy Turf 5

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I’m not just doing this out of contrarianism or a dislike of the exact circumstances Venus dumped me in. I actually feel pretty bad how much I’m neglecting just enjoying things with my family in a world where they’ve been given a happy ending; turns out I have professional masseuse training that Sam and Holly know all about. I’m neglecting people who love me and wanting to change their entire world, and I can tell they’ve noticed something. They’re worried. Sam’s a little hurt, even.

That’s why I suggested a day off before we make our move. The others took it. A day to relax before an intense operation. Let them gather up anything they need last minute, or just enjoy what they can of the world while we’ve got it. I think they truth serum has them pessimistic about our chances. I spent some of it with my neglected family.

I appreciate what Venus tried to do. She tried to give me the life she thought I wanted. Or that she thought that I thought that I wanted. Or that I thought that- I’m stopping this here. She tried to make a perfect world for us, where even a bunch of people I killed were brought back and given a second chance to be good people.

If I was the only problem, it worked against the notion that this whole thing is bound to fall apart on Venus. You know, except Max and Pestilentia were already back to the bad side of the law. Same for the Greens and the Reds. Venus messed with their heads to make them want to do good. Her idea of good failed.

Now, there’s Spinetingler and his daughter, Mindgame. She got caught hunting down Texas state officials involved in a shelter that was trafficking the kids for sex. The governor’s called out the Texas Rangers to hunt her down, which is going poorly for them. Mindgame can take over a person’s mind like it’s nothing. The Rangers investigated and claimed the sex abuse never happened. Other investigators looked at it and came to the opposite conclusion, probably because they actually talked to the kids in question. It’s a low bar, but Mindgame’s buried them under it.

The day after it was announced the governor was sending the Texas Rangers after her, video emerged of Mindgame leading the bunch of Rangers to a field where they all dug a big mass grave and beat each other to death with their shovels.

Spinetingler went in a different direction. The videos coming out of his haunted houses of people taking video of their journey turned into horror movies. People would go in expecting some out-of-season spooky fun. They got a bunch of scares tailored to their individual fears and secrets. It stopped being fun. For more and more, it stopped being survivable. The videos suggest a lot of people have literal skeletons in their closets.

The funny thing is they’re still following the spirit of Venus’s brainwashing. She wanted them to be law-abiding citizens and superheroes. Now, they’re more examples of what happens when someone interprets that the best thing to do involves going outside the law. And for others who require some restricted substances to live, they’re choosing to live rather than let the law kill them. I myself was able to pay someone to smuggle cocaine to Powder. Like, if a guy requires nuclear waste to survive, you can bet he’s breaking into places containing it.

With a little digging, I found it’s not just the former villains having that issue. Some of the forceably-reformed are doing well in their new lot in life. In contrast, some of the street-level superheroes are getting caught knocking heads. The problem with linking your moral concept of good to a system of justice and welfare is it won’t survive too well if that system is built badly. If she did what I think, Venus didn’t want to interfere too much with that. I think she had confidence that superheros could fix the problems themselves. All of that from a little online snooping.

Without my powers and with the less-refined algorithms I used, that “little digging” took me hours. I wanted the ammunition to try and convince Venus. It’ll probably fail anyway. She’s got power and an annoying tendency to think she’s right all the time. I’d wish we could give her anxiety, but sometimes the people who are the most anxious will press ahead anyway when they think they can make it work, just as stubborn as the ignorant ones.

Woops, think I got something that wasn’t truth serum on me while cleaning the armor. Nope, definitely not truth serum.

…Ok, so one potential back-up plan I have for when this fucks up is time travel. Don’t know if that means finding a time machine or someone who can run super fast. That’s why I stopped to ask Medusa as we gathered into my shop, “Hey, you know any speedsters?”

“You know any time travelers?” she asked back. She turned to offer help toward one of the ambulator mold slimes placing containers of Truth Serum around before stopping herself. “Feels weird without my team here. None of them know her, really.”

“I don’t know her either,” Pestilentia said. “Can I leave?”

“We need you here because you’re the closest to her power level,” Max explained.

“So I’m the ‘oh shit’ button,” Pestilentia confirmed.

“Do we need to stand any special way?” Max asked.

Medusa and I both shook our heads. Medusa answered, “She’ll listen when we pray.”

“You have to pray to your wife?” Max asked me, ever-present smile growing wider.

I raised my eyebrows and gestured with my head toward Max’s girlfriend, the goddess of decay and disease. He shrugged.

“Are we ready?” Medusa asked. Nods answered her all the way around.

“How does praying work?” Max asked.

“Oh Venus, goddess of boners,” I started. “Also, my wife. We would like a chat with you. That’s myself, and also Medusa-”

“Leave me out of the prayer, please,” Medusa interrupted.

“Me too.”

“Uh huh.”

“I would like to talk to you then all by myself,” I said. “As the baby momma of your demigod spawn, I desire an audience.”

I waited.

“Last time, she responded a lot more quickly than-”

Suddenly, we were all standing in the courtyard of Master Academy, which had seen some better days.

“Shit’s on fire, yo,” Max said, pointing to a burning building.

While he was checking out the pretty flames, I noticed the fight going on nearby. Venus was in a beam war with some device that looked like a crystal ball held by an evil time traveler known as The Torian. She occasionally shot eye blasts at a speedster who tried to rush her. I didn’t recognize the speedster. There was also a glowing, flying coffin-shaped mechanical being with what looked like a humanoid robot torso hanging off it, also trying to blast Venus. The blast stopped before it touched her, but it was slipping.

“Can you help?!” Venus called out to us. Her head spun around behind her to blast the speedster.

“Hold up!” I said, raising my arms. “What’s going on?!”

“It has to be this way!” Torian yelled above the fray. “With her powers, she’s too great a threat to the timeline. She threatens to tear reality apart with her constant changes! I have to entrap her powers.”

Constant reality changes? I didn’t notice any of those. This all got way way more hectic since we left my pet shop back in Radium.

The speedster stopped by us, panting. He wore a white and blue costume. “Listen, I know this is confusing, and I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I’m from the future. I’m trying to help my mother-in-law, but she’s not listening.”

Waaaaaait a minute there… “She’s your mother-in-law?”

“Yeah, I came from the future using a speed-activated temporal anomaly inducer,” he pointed to what I thought was a harness on his costume. Then he pulled out a disk with some wires and a couple small lightbulbs on it. “I can displace her in time and give us time to talk it over. “

“We are-” the robot started to say.

“Enough!” I shouted. “Everyone stop! That means Torian, super speedy flashy guy, and you, alien machine god-thingy. Everyone calm your tits!”

And amazingly, they did.

I took my helmet off and walked up to Venus, maneuvering to stand between her and Torian. I actually had an idea for the speedster to take Torian back in time to steal the powers from me just before Venus got them, but that’s not what I was going to go with. Instead, I hugged my wife. “Hon, I think we need to talk and try to do better.”

I could hear the booing already. Max was upset he didn’t get to start a fight. He had a water bottle with a squirter ready, too. Instead, I hugged one of my favorite squirters, Isabella. I whispered to her, “You messed up, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the world.” Then I raised my voice, “And you don’t need to be beat up or zapped or whatever that thing was going to do,” I pointed to the freaky flying automaton, “over a mistake.”

Venus quietly cried, but stayed wary of the situation. I saw her concentrate on me, probably reading the plan I came up with in favor of the plan I’d had to talk to her.

Medusa also came up and hugged her, covering another area someone might come at us.

“I thought you brought me to fight,” Pestilentia muttered.

“I brought you in case of a fight. Can we just all calm down and talk? This isn’t a monster… this is my wife, Isabella. And not too long ago, she tried to get people to give me a chance instead of trying to kill me all the time.”

“She’s me,” Medusa added. “My sister now, but she’s just a younger me from a past timeline. Any mistakes she makes is one I’d have made in her place. If any of you want proof she can grow and change, I’m it.”

“She’s my friend’s wife!” Max announced. He stopped, not adding onto it, then started toward Venus with arms outstretched in the silence.

Pestilentia grabbed him by the collar. “Touching, but you don’t know her that well, remember?”

“I thought we were all doing it, “ Max explained.

“Wow… so you’re Qiang’s mom,” the speedster said, eyes fixed on me and mouth agape. “She’s told me so much about you. You really are a hero.”

If I’d had laser eyes, that speedster would have been dead in a flash.

The ground rumbled before I could come up with some pithy comment. A huge skeleton clawed its way free of the earth, eyes glowing green. “You will pay, Venus, for what you did to us!” It managed to free half of itself, a bony torso with a few scraps of viscera clinging to it, twice the size of anyone else there.

“It’s Spinetingler,” Venus whispered.

“Calm, Spiney. It’s Gecko, by the way. We talked her down. We’re going to resolve this without fighting. And back in the real reality, you and I had an arrangement about staying out of each others’ business.”

The skeleton sighed. “You better be sure about this, Gecko. But if anyone has a plan to kill a god, it would be you.”

If he only knew.

“That’s boring. I wanted to punch someone,” Mindgame said. The pale, wild-haired young woman climbed out of the hole as well, brushing dirt off her black tank top and pants.

“Are you a god?” I asked.

“No,” Mindgame said, causing the skeletal form her dad had taken to facepalm.

“Remember what we went over, sweety,” growled the skeleton. “When someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes!”

“I’m not going to use that line just because it worked on mom,” Mindgame whined. Though she turned and looked me over. “But if you’re real nice, I’ll be your goddess.”

I felt Venus sprout extra arms to wrap around me. Mindgame held up her hands. “Jesus, I’ll back off.”

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Topsy Turf 4

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My actions to rile up Medusa worked wonderfully. She’s pissed, and went public with accusations against former President Asshat. With a little more push, she’ll cross that line, and I have just the push lined up. But I wanted to let that one marinate. Some things can’t be rushed. Asshat hasn’t released a taunting statement yet. He will.

So first, I had an appointment. I remember my old friend Mix N’Max as setting up pop-up pharmacies to serve the disadvantaged, but he got shut down shortly after Venus’s change to reality. It’s one thing to give him those pharmacies as a backstory, but he doesn’t actually have any licensing or degrees. Not letting anyone give people any weird bottle of liquid and telling them it’s medicine is actually one of those things I agree with, so I can’t entirely fault them. The exception is that Max can feed someone a shit sandwich and make it somehow give them perfect health. He’s been working his pharmaceutical magic on the run from the law. Half the job’s done for me. I took the Flyer to Los Angeles, where he’s been staying one step ahead of everything along with the help of Sporea.

I looked her up. Pestilentia was an incredibly-powerful super, on the level of a god, trapped in the Madstone. She held power over fungi, bacteria, and viruses. We eventually came to an understanding when I made her incapable of harming me in exchange for not killing her. That might have been wiped away by Venus changing reality. I put that risk out of mind on my way to see her in this reality, where she’s known as Sporea. She helps Max, she helps regrow forests, and she’s done some work in agriculture. She sounded like a Green before the remains of the gang attempted a massive attack on Empyreal City.

I figured my knowledge of Max would give me some sort of edge over the cops in finding him. Plus, he probably wanted me to find him more than he wanted them to. It’s too bad the villain bars were all wiped out in the Big Change.

When I got close, I tapped into the police band. They didn’t have anything on him. Too busy dealing with some climate protesters. I was going to put in a call and withdraw the cops back to the precinct, but then I realized an easy way to find someone offering illegal medical care. I didn’t even have to tell them to get beat-y on the protesters; they did that on their own.

I watched it all happen from behind the ship’s cloak, scraping social media related to the protest and some of the groups involved, then getting into the Discords. A throwaway account got promoted in a bunch of them, giving a location and a time for “doctor care”. The address wasn’t a doctor’s office. The feds could infiltrate easily, but by the time they get to it, everyone will be gone.

It was a homeless encampment. I set the Flyer to hover over it and checked for any presents, like MREs or anything. The most I could bring to the party was the Flyer’s First Aid kit. I deployed down the trapdoor using the rope and held up the kit. “Hey, where I can drop this off?”

“You a cop?” the guy asked, looking up at the nothing I appeared out of.

I gestured to the power armor I wore. “I’m a supervillain. Heard a friend might be here, but didn’t want to arrive empty-handed.

“Hey Johnny, show this weirdo to Max,” the homeless guy said to a teenager. The young boy nodded and waved me over as he started leading me. We ended up at a pavilion made of tarp and tent that was crowded. I saw it, and then I saw the woman pointing a bow and arrow right at me.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Easy, Sporea. I mean no harm to you. I need to speak with you and your boyfriend. I have some crazy shit to say,” I told her.

“Why should I trust you?” she asked. She looked at my hands. “That’s cute.”

I set it down and kicked it over to her. “If I’d realized what I was walking into, I’d have stopped for a bunch of burgers, first.”

Max stepped out of the pavilion and looked at me. “Hey Gecko!”

“Hey Max… wait, you know it’s me?!” I cocked my head to the side.

“Yeah dude,” he jogged up. “I was hoping you’d know what’s going on.”

We hugged. “I’ll explain. How do you know something’s up?”

Max shrugged. “We took a dose of truth serum, meant to show us the truth. It showed me that the world wasn’t right. It had been changed. My darling Clara isn’t a hero named Sporea. Other villains had been changed and altered. Some people were back from the dead. Things weren’t right. It also said George R. R. Martin’s never going to get off his ass and finish A Song of Ice and Fire.”

I nodded. “It’s true. It’ll probably only get released posthumously. Holy crap, I’m glad you guys figured this shit up.”

“Hey, you got any of those nanomachines of yours?” he asked. I called them out of my armor in a shimmery wave. “Awesome, let’s hurry up before the cops arrive.”

“I got a getaway vehicle for us,” I said.

Now that was easy recruiting. After we saw to a bunch of the homeless and injured protesters, we packed it in and I brought them back to my place. I wish Radium wasn’t so far from everything worth doing. It gave me plenty of time to explain what happened and the changes I know Venus had made to reality. She didn’t change that the base under my store is a good hideaway.

Meanwhile, the stain on humanity of a former President had made a speech instead of laying down in a grave and rotting somewhere. I preferred him dead. He “denied” doing anything to the Exemplars by claiming it was a Deep State conspiracy cooked up by “Slutty Medusa” and that he thinks very fine people should stop what the Exemplars do.

The next part of my plan called for killing him. It wasn’t necessary now that I knew Max had some truth serum, but I would feel a lot better. Besides, “I need to make some. It takes a couple days to cook all the lysergic acid diethylamide for it. A gallon goes into each does of serum.” I groaned and pointed him to the fabricators and nanomachines. “Also, don’t forget there’s fast food not far, just try not to draw too much attention, ok?”

I stopped Pestilentia as she was headed into the base. “Also, you take care. I know we haven’t seen eye to eye, but right now you’re the most powerful person that can fix what’s going on.

So I had to wait long enough for Max to cook plenty of truth serum until, at last, the day arrived. It was like another day after I got Max to my base, but I’m impatient. I was forgetting stuff more and more. The bad times, sure, but also some fun times back in the other reality. When I thought back to my childhood, I was a bitchy cheerleader. I studied veterinary science and engineering in college and developed a Ritalin addiction until my girlfriend helped me out of it. I had time to ponder the changes while building something to aerosolize the serum.

I flew in from Radium, and boy were my arms tired. I spoofed a burner number and sent Medusa a warning that someone was going to assassinate the skidmark on humanity’s underwear of an ex-President. I knew she’d get there quick. I was counting on it. I didn’t even drop down until I saw the Exemplar Flyers pull up and drop a couple squads on the property. Then I joined them, landing in the valet parking section without a rope. I turned to a young valet who fell back and started running down the drive.

“Smart kid, he’s got a future,” I said. I wasn’t cloaked, just my Flyer. I went in. I wanted them to find me. And, as if President Shitstain felt the same about me, I saw a big sign saying he was speaking in the ballroom.

The crowd was anemic. There were few of them, and they looked blood-deprivedly pale. The Ex-President was on stage, arguing with the Exemplars, yelling, “Put this on Twitter! Let everyone see, they can’t do this!”

“Listen, Hitler Two: Electric Boogaloo,” Medusa said, pointing a finger at him. “There’s been a credible threat made about your life, and I should stop it.”

“That’d be me,” I said, raising a hand. A bunch of guns turned on me at once, including one guy in the crowd who tried to pull a concealed peace out from under the folds of his stomach. I grabbed it and kept it pointed down at his abdominal holster. “Nobody move, or someone’s gaining a higher pitch.”

“What?” asked my hostage.

“Shush, thinking isn’t your strong suit,” I told him. I turned to the crowd and checked out all the smartphones up getting video. “Good, glad we’re all gathered here. Max, now, please.”

Max responded from the Flyer radio, “It’s done. It’s dropping really slow.”

“That’s unfortunate,” I said, not letting on that I could see the trio of Exemplar soldiers easing up on me with rifles drawn. One almost got the barrel right up to my head when I ducked under it and dove past him. I stopped low and kicked back at his knee. His friends turned to me and tried to fire on the holographic double of mine that ran for the door. It disappeared after a few steps, but my fist appearing in one’s face appeared and cracked his visor when I sent him to the floor. I grabbed the rifle and smacked another of the tree across the head. Loosing my grip on that gun, I grabbed his and broke it over my knee. By now, the first one I’d kicked recovered and turned to me. I deflected the barrel in time for him to miss and punch a fist-sized hole through the wall and a marble statue of the ex-President that pretended the guy had a Greek hero’s bodytype. I pulled the gun out of that guy’s grip and tossed it over my shoulder before kicking the guy hard enough to cause a crater in the wall nearby.

That trio dealt with, I just had another seven soldiers and Medusa to deal with. She came charging up first, wearing black and yellow power armor. The helmet was fitting for her namesake, with a mask that resembled an angry woman and a trio of metal snakes along each side. I caught a punch of hers, then took a knee to the body. I deflected the next punch and hooked her knee. The snake heads glowed and I ducked under six small ruby lances of coherent energy, having to let her go.

“Nice,” I said, rolling to the side. She was there, nearly kicking me in the head, when I arose. Seeing her helmet, I thought to radio up to Max, “Hey, does this stuff penetrate armor?”

“It can get into anything with air circulation,” he answered.

I dodged one way and a hologram dodged another. Medusa happened to guess right, nearly stomping on my ankle. She was really going after me here. Time to go on the offensive. I overlaid a hologram on myself. She tried to block a punch that didn’t happen when I booted her in the belly. She rolled up to her feet, smacking a metal chair over. She grabbed it, and I remembered a sparring session before the change and before my godhood where she stuck one of those through me.

Above and around us, flesh-colored fog drifted out of the vents. It was then or never.

I directed energy into the gauntlets of the armor, forming a glowing projection of potential energy around the gloves. She raised the chair to shield the left I threw and it was bent and thrown away easily. She rolled into a capoeira kick that caught me upside the helmet and came up, giving me a power armor double axe handle to the chest. She kicked the back of my knee.

“Wait!” I yelled. I raised my left hand slowly to unlock my helmet and pull it off.

“Delilah?” Medusa asked, lowering her guard. She took my right to the helmet, cracking that face mask. I quickly pulled my helmet on and went invisible, sealing the suit to the environment once more before the truth serum could engulf me. I totally wasn’t worried what truths I might see.

I don’t know what I was worried about, other than maybe that Medusa did a lot better against me than I preferred. But then, I’m only human.

“What are you doing?” Medusa asked, coming up to me and putting her hands on my shoulders. “Baby, what is this?” She coughed as the gas seeped in.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “You’ll see the truth soon enough.”

I sounded like a fucking cult leader or religious terrorist.

“Oh god, I’m a narcissistic sociopath who drifted through life on fortune and accolades handed to me by people invested in the lie that being rich made me special! And I really hate Black people and Jews!” yelled ex-President. “Nobody should listen to. In any room I walk into, I know the least. My election was entirely because I was a racist elected after a Black man!”

Even if I hadn’t gotten it all on video, his fans did as well. I stuck around to get plenty of footage to upload, then helped carry out Medusa, whispering to her, “What is reality? Who are you? Who am I?”

“You’re Delilah Gecko…” she said. “You’re… a reformed villain.”

I heard Max snicker and asked, “Uh, is this channel still open?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

“Stop laughing, you clearly fucked up.”

“I see the truth. Isabella shouldn’t be a goddess. She took the powers from you and she messed up, didn’t she?” Medusa looked back at the guy on the stage. “I can’t believe she brought him back. You know I’m not like that anymore, right?”

“Of course I do,” I told her. “Seems everything but that reformed villain part came through nice and clear.”

“Ass,” Medusa said.

“Also, cool costume,” I complimented her.

“Thanks, I kicked your ass with it,” she said.

Max laughed again.

“That’s two lies, Max. Might have to go back to formula,” I told him.

And that’s how I brought Medusa, Pestilentia, and Max into the anti-Venus conspiracy. I don’t even think I need the others at this point. The squads Medusa took with her are also in on it, but I doubt they’ll help much. And as for the ex-President, his credibility’s shot to hell and back now that he got caught telling the truth about himself. I managed to drive a wedge between Medusa and the devotion to the law that Venus forced on her without killing him and framing it on Medusa, who happened to be present.

Doesn’t mean I’m some sort of former villain at all. I could murder him if I want to. It just didn’t serve a purpose like that.

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Godwar 2

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The Trobogorians have been resorting to bombardment from low-orbit while they try to handle the machine assault on their fleet. From what I can gather. When I say the machines are tearing them apart, I mean they’re ripping their way through bulkheads and defenses. They’re pretty methodical about recycling. The Trobogorians had a relief fleet arrive that moved toward the Machine colony, forcing most of our extraterrestrial automaton allies to back off and focus on their own defense. That also means the fleet in orbit didn’t get any reinforcements of their own.

Anyway, that’s just an update. Setting the scene.

The Trobogorians had been bombarding the planet from orbit at random, but in between my recruiting efforts, I would catch them. Now, instead of going after the real location of the little ornament they’re after, the United States Bullion Depository, they went off on Louisville. The lasers they were using would have given Louisville a slugging, but something flew through the air and chowed down on them.

I landed, the glorious Unicorn goddess with the multi-color hair, the shining horn, and the glowing wings. Like a gay icon. It’d be nice, but I’m hardly icon material. I landed next to the others I brought with me. There was Pestilentia, the recently-freed woman with basically godlike powers focused on disease and fungi. She brought Mix N’Max with her, a friend of mine she’s banging and a master of turning just about any material into whatever potion or poison you can think of. Baron Samedi was along, the Loa claiming he isn’t involved and just providing a lift for Tom Waits. Tom is… well, we haven’t pried, but he agreed to help. What good he’ll be, I don’t know, but he’s a got a gravely singing voice and he’s almost certainly no god. But he brings snacks. Seems to be something of a supernatural thing that we all like people who bring us alcohol or food, like Baron Samedi sticking with us after I brought a cask of wine that originally sank in 1503.

We all looked out over the city from the top of some place called 400 West Market. Tallest building in the city. In a flash, a force of Trobogorians and their conscripted minions, the Mindarians. The Trobogorians averaged more like 50 feet tall, so they would have to climb slightly to reach us. The Mindarians were more like 9 to 10 feet, all decked out in pretty drab fatigues. They don’t really break out the armor for us little beings.

I held a hand up. “For my next trick, I will make this army disappear!”

It was like an explosion went off in my stomach that would not stop. It wanted to tear me apart. With Alexander on the way, I went into panic mood a little bit before fully concentrating to protect myself.

“What’s wrong?” Max asked.

“They spiked those lasers,” I said.

The sky lit up again. A being towered over us the same way the Trobogorians towered over their minions and humans, but it was ghostly and see-through. A truly humongous Trobogorian deity.

“Are you this planet’s puny gods?” it asked.

Baron Samedi stepped forward. “Actually, I’m a Loa. It is not the same, thing, and I’m not really-”

The alien deity fired a red beam from its mouth right at the Baron. I caught it before it hit and managed to smile. “I, on the other hand, am a god.” I didn’t devour this bit of energy. That’s how they got me. They saw what I did with the first time they tried to bombard me and hid a bit of their own godlike essence in those lasers to fight me from the inside. I had to spend some energy fending off the unexpected assault from inside, but I had enough to catch that thing. And to throw it right back at the giant thing.

Samedi put his hand on my shoulder. “You are ill.”

“They pulled a nifty trick. See, this is why I wanted some Superfriends along.”

The Trobogorian got himself stuck with arrows by Pestilentia, treating it as no consequence. And I just saw the futility of having done any of this. With me busy, that pretty much just left Pestilentia. Max would be easy for them to kill with his powers. Tom Waits was merely a man. Baron Samedi has no heart for the fight. By resisting the invasion, I’d doomed myself and my family. All because I couldn’t just sit back, say a few words about how horrible war was, and let people die. Any escalation, any attempt to help simply helps the world end. Even expressing hope at the determination of the humans is nothing but ignoring the suffering created. The light does not stand against the dark. I should submit.

Ah. Now, I’ve had some suicide ideation before. It doesn’t go like that. I disappeared and reappeared as a giant equal in size to the Trobogorian deity. It was slow, moreso than it expected with Pestilentia’s beasties roaming its body. It punches me, but that didn’t stop me thrusting my hands into its wide mouth and pulling it open. I vomited up the traitorous energy down the throat of the alien, burning through its gnashing inner jaws. It teleported away, but not before I’d already expelled the entire attack into it.

I shrunk down and returned to the rest of this bunch. I felt it return to a temple ship in the fleet. The ship broke apart, then was vaporized. One down, five to go. It was easy to keep track because the remaining ones showed up at first. Five on two. At least these wore more than just fatigues. The one in the lead seemed male, but scantily clad with metal undies and headdress. “You forget your place as underlings to true gods!” I felt the pressure around us from the barrier they created. All five fired their annihilation beams at once. I pushed back on it with my own power, reaching out and slowing it down. I was worth at least two of these guys, but there were five. Pestilentia turning her arms into weird growths that climbed through my power, reinforcing it, helping to slow down the assault.

“Breaking the barrier would help more,” I suggested to her telepathically.

Hands on my shoulder. Baron Samedi, speaking to himself, but I heard it only as faint whispers from all over. I felt the Five grow weaker. He was sapping their energy. I started to make out something in the whispers, “I will not fill your grave. You will not yet die.”

The odds were nearly even, but they’d gained so much ground and were only advancing.

Tom Waits spoke into his phone, “Is this getting out? I don’t ordinarily believe in livestreaming bullshit, but under the circumstances…”

With a roar, a blue and orange man, the size of a Mindarian, slammed into the head of one of the Five. Another found himself swarmed by twisted monsters made of warped Trobogorians and undead Mindarians. Lighting struck the barrier around us, again and again. It finally shattered, the sky thundering at the command of the man hanging in the sky among the storm clouds. Or a teenager empowered with magical power to protect the world. On the ground, a man in skeletal armor rode a worm of bones. A blue and orange titan hung in the air.

The alien gods backed off. A barrier surrounded them and prevented their escape now while I gathered the power they had unleashed. I compressed it.

“What now?” Samedi asked.

“Now, we put an end to this,” I declared.

“We could kill them,” Pestilentia said. “Kill them, wipe out the things they brought to us.” She was speaking my language. It was only right. They brought the fight here. If not for literal divine intervention, our cities would be wrecked and our people killed. Regardless of the physical damage and wounds, the fear and trauma isn’t over.

But.

I encased the energy they threw at me into a gemstone and set it in an amulet I wrapped around my horn.

The Titan, Captain Lightning, and Spinetingler all met up at me. Lightning, the successor to the Captain I’d killed so recently, glared at me, but something was staying his hand. “I knew you had to be lying.”

I nodded to him. “How’d you decide to show up here, anyway? All of you, separately?”

Captain Lightning, Spinetingler, and Titan all looked to Tom Waits, who answered, “I put in a word with some friends. They got hold of everyone, and then I livestreamed our location when we came here.”

In their barrier, the alien gods were destroying Spinetingler’s mangled mutations of their underlings. Titan kept an eye on them, shifting his wings so he could see over his shoulder. “What are we thinking?”

I let out a deep breath, despite not needing to breathe. “As much as it feels right to punish them, it’s not about us and our grudges. Now we force them to agree to peace and a withdrawal. One moment.” I conjured up a holographic connection to the alien Machines who had been helping us. There was a little pile of spheres that formed into a body. That as the automaton they’d sent to speak with me when I requested information before. “The Unicorn Goddess of Earth here. We are about to open talks for peace. We thought you would like to sit in on this.”

“We understand,” it responded. “Please provide transportation to Earth of a delegate from these coordinates on the stellar body known to Earth as Themisto.”

When I snapped my fingers, what looked like a mass of junk appeared in the sky. It looked like someone had beheaded a massive statue, then attached antigravity engines and other pieces. The thing was a spaceship in its own right, but also doubled as a diplomat for the Machines for dealing with particularly-threatening species.

“Ok, let’s go have us a few stern words,” I told the assembled group.

**

We didn’t end up letting the Trobogorian gods go until they agreed to get the fuck off. They were allowed to retrieve prisoners, dead bodies, and equipment they’d brought. That last provision suddenly struck me as maybe a good idea. There were groups out there eager to get their hands on alien salvage and it ran counter to my ideas on how to guide and grow humanity. This will slow down the copycats from perfecting their own devices meant for nothing but creating pain in people.

The Machines requested compensation for their part in the defense of Earth, which we extracted from the Trobogorians. First, the Trobogorians weren’t getting back any salvage or captured ships that had already been claimed by the Machines. Second, the Machines won the liberation of an automated asteroid mine.

The Trobogorian gods didn’t seem fond of that, but ultimately acquiesced because it saved their lives and they could just make the Trobogorians do it anyway. One day, there was an interstellar invasion on. The next, the fleets were just gone, and there was a new asteroid in the solar system.

And somebody had gotten a photo of the bunch of us gathered there, preparing to talk to the captured gods. They put a big black border around it like a motivational poster, with us captioned, “Pantheon.” Not sure how I feel about that. Somehow, with Spinetingler in the photo, Tom Waits was still the creepiest-looking of the bunch.

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Sickeningly Sweet 4

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Baron Samedi was surprised when I arrived for game night. Argu, the aliens six-pointed starfish god, was there as well, along with Reed, the ancient agriculture god. “Hey, guys,” I greeted the room as I walked in.

We were meeting in a special back room of the Back Room Voodoo Bar, a magical villain bar normally only accessible from Memphis, Tennessee. I’d missed some sessions, and tonight it looked like there were a few games ready to pick from. “Hey guys, been a little.”

There was a round of hellos, with Argu throwing in, “We thought you weren’t coming!”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, settling down. I eyed Betrayal at House on the Hill.

“Samedi said you were trapped,” Argu said.

The Baron shrugged. I gave him some sideeye, but just said, “Really? Didn’t realize y’all knew about that.”

“I believed you would get out,” Samedi explained.

A door opened and a man walked in with a rolling cart of snacks on it. “Hey guys, I brought some chow,” he said in a distinctive gravelly voice. Tom Waits turned around and took another seat that had been left at the table.

I glanced at Reed, Baron Samedi, and Argu, and decided to do a telepathic conference call. “Uh, is Tom Waits a god?”

“I don’t know,” Argu answered.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Reed said.

Baron Samedi responded, “He wandered in earlier, and I don’t know if he knows who or what we are.”

As one, we all shrugged and dropped the call to concentrate on our game.

“What’s it like being trapped?” Argu asked, a ring of eyes surrounding a mouth of pointed teeth.

“Trapped?” Tom Waits looked between Argu and myself. “Who’s trapped?”

I gestured to myself. “I’ve become trapped by the Madstone, which tries to hold me in it. I know enough about the technology used to hop dimensions that I keep getting out, but it still has a hold on me. It’s like my sense of gravity or balance is off and I’m constantly pulled toward it, with a feeling of being wrapped in chains and a constant bout of anxiety over being away from it. On the plus side, I can nab lovers for conjugal visits, or even create them myself in there if I so choose. I’ve created a few minions to go out and help me, actually.”

Silence followed my answer.

“I think I’d like to play Sushi Go,” Reed said.

“I’m up for whatever, guys. Whatever and one of these boiled eggs,” Tom Waits cut in.

I nodded toward some cheese sticks, “I’ll take the fried mozzarella.” Tom handed a basket of them over. Cheap bar food, but it’s hard to make fried cheese that actually tastes bad. It’s a testament to the cleverness of humans that they figured out a way at all. With the food fresh on our minds, we went for Sushi Go first, with Reed ordering some carryout and Baron Samedi magically conjuring it. Seafood isn’t my thing, but I figured I might as well try it. It’s still not my thing, but I’m hardly going to die of sushi eating nowadays.

After that, we nearly considered Munchkin before Tom decided that’d be too risky. “Cheating’s allowed in the rules if you don’t get caught,” he warned.

So it was on to Star Trek: Five Year Mission instead. The Baron’s curiosity got the best of him then. “So what are you doing about everything?”

Aside from going to game night, I was keeping a close eye on the situation with Max and Clara, who I like to call Pestilentia. They hadn’t yet discovered that the Madstone could tap into my powers. I wasn’t so much worried about Max there as I was almost everyone else on Earth. I didn’t mention the thing about tapping into my power to the group of gods and Tom Waits, whose status as a deity was still unknown.

Max might be more attached to the booty than he is to me. That’s why I planned to just kill her off and not bring him in on the whole thing. Friends don’t let friends fuck goddesses of disease. With her gone, I’d deal with the Madstone at my convenience.

It wasn’t tough to find her, either. The pair were still in Empyreal City, beating the crap out of the Greens. The gang had been an environmentally-conscious street gang that dealt a lot of pot back before they got into some chemicals that mutated some of them into a beastlier appearance. Oh, and it’s been spreading plant growth over the city. Trees and vines and bushes all over the place. Abundant, verdant life.

Finding Pestilentia was easy. She’d left a trail of rotting vegetation into Green territory, setting up shop in an old building with a bunch of melty, gooey plant debris outside. The sidewalk was splattered with brown goop, too, but that might have just been Empyreal City.

I walked right down the street, hopping easily out of the way of cars passing by. I was invisible this time, as opposed to just the drivers being assholes. Some of them wouldn’t give a damn, except I would dent the car. The Greens were keeping lookouts watching the house as well. I saw some of the low level members of the gang hanging out. They were on edge, as much because of the danger as for having to stay sober for lookout duty while some of their enhancement was in the car, waiting to give them strength.

Most of the animals that had started to live in the Green Zone were avoiding it, even as the gang itself made their territory a haven for them. The exceptions included a brown bear with a beer cap on feeding him strawfuls of honey out of the honey bears in the cupholders, and a cyborg deer with laser cannons and serrated steal antlers. I offered Winnie some upgrades, but he Poohed all over the idea. Grateful for the hat, though.

“Whatever else, get the Madstone. Capture it,” I ordered them. Bambi nodded and clip-clopped off. Winnie was slower to loaf off. Once they were mostly out of sight, I went visible. A car screeched to a halt right near me.

“Hey, you stupid My Little Pony bitch, get outta the road!” the driver called out.

“Hit it!” I pointed to the car without looking. The radio went haywire under my control and started playing Bad Guy. A pair of drumsticks appeared in my hands and I began to bang the car’s hood in to the beat. The guy tried to put it in reverse, but a particularly hard hit wrecked the engine. He got out and ran instead. I just stared at the building, mouthing along to the words and shaking my ass with an angry expression on my face. Inside, water sprayed down on everything. I didn’t have to know where she is to dump water on her. She appeared at a window, staring down at me with hate in her eyes and a bow in her hand.

Pestilentia notched and fired a poisoned arrow at superspeed. I saw it coming, of course. Instead of dodging or blocking it, I turned the asphalt into a humanoid creation that took the shot square in the chest and scoffed at it. All around me, things changed. Some bricks became a brick monster. A motorcycle transformed into a robot riding a unicycle. Most of what I got out of it were asphalt creatures. And I gave Pestilentia a smile.

She launched herself out of the window, her clothes became partially shredded as she jumped through the glass. It was more magic’s doing than glass when I watched the ribbons appear waving behind her in the air. She had more arrows of her own, missing me entirely but hitting the muck around her house.

Mushroom people, slime molds, and rotting humanoid compost creatures all rose up to face my armor of inorganic minions.

“Hon?” Max said at the window, walking over. He was wet as well, but drying himself off by spreading some goo onto his face and hands that soaked up the water immediately. “Oh, hey Gecko!”

“Hey Max.”

“Holy shit, a bear!” he called out, turning toward a roar.

“Talk to you later, Max,” I said, turning back to Pestilentia as she sped up and tried to jab me with an arrow. I bonked her with drumsticks and sent her flying through a building, flying after her. I caught up and punched her through another building before flying around to the side to catch her by the legs and swing her down through a bodega and into the sewers below the city.

Behind us, more of her rotty minions and my inorganic ones sprouted up to fight. One of my favorites was seeing a vending machine turn into a robot with an arm that could rapid-fire drink cans into things, but the computers turning into wiry octopi were fun, too. People didn’t fair well in the crossfire. Pestilentia generated a deadly cloud of microbes everywhere she went and people were rapidly feeling the effects. I healed as many as possible, but I couldn’t play cleric the whole damn fight.

The clouds went dark and the word “Enough!” was punctuated by lightning and thunder. Two men floated in the sky: one fair skinned, balding, with a long grey beard that stood out incongruously against a torso covered in red and gold tights that revealed every bit of the muscles beneath, white and gold cape fluttering in the air. The other darker skinned, hair pulled back into a ponytail, with gold tights, a red cape, and red accent marks, including the red sideways lightning bolt on his chest.

Captain Lightnings I and II, here to do me a disservice.

“For the good of everyone you claim to protect, you must stop!” Captain Lightning declared. He conjured his staff to his hand and raised it as if it gave him some sort of authority over me.

“I respect you, Captain. Don’t mistake that for authority over me,” I warned him.

Pestilentia erupted out of the sewers in a geyser of what could only be called water in the same sense that a Bichon Frise is a wolf. And joining this conversation on animals came a congregation of undead alligators climbing out of the sewer crater to fight my minions and anything else they saw around. Pestilentia grabbed three arrows from her quiver and raised them to the bow, only this time the weapon and its ammunition shifted into that of a trident. A cloud of spores erupted from her, obscuring her from my vision and her presence. It’s like every piece of the cloud was her.

Captain Lighting II dove at me, which was worth ignoring. The old gods who empowered them didn’t give them enough power to overtake them, and I could take any of those deadbeat deities nowadays. Instead, his mentor said something and Pestilentia appeared from where she’d shrunk. I stopped before I could doubleteam her and looked around for the main Captain Lightning.

He was flying off in the direction we’d come from, blasting the warring minions with lightning. It was taking a lot out of him. I decided to check in with my other minions, the henchanimals. Telepathic conference call time.

“Bambi, Winnie, report,” I said. In the middle of the fight between Pestilentia and Private Lightning, one of them flung the trident at me. I ducked to the side and grabbed it. Increasing its size and mass, I then tossed it back at the pair, causing both to separate momentarily while it blew up a gas station being swarmed with undead gators.

“Your friend tried to melt me,” Bambi said. “I don’t think I hit him, but we are each hunting the other.”

“Cool. Now remember the non-vital parts we talked about if it comes down to it. A missing foot won’t kill him, but it’ll slow him down.” Max can grow those back. “Winnie?”

“Igh ot it! Igh ot it!”

“Why are you thinking like your mouth is full?” Bambi asked.

“Bambi, rendezvous with Winnie. Both of you get out of there.”

“Ugh oh,” Winnie said. “That nice old man I gave honey to is here.”

I teleported there and smacked into an invisible magical barrier. I shattered it and speed to the spot, hitting more and more barriers that slowed me momentarily. Finally, I came to the neighborhood this all started in which had been wrecked. Pestilentia’s minions and my own were still fighting, now with the Greens joining in and the police starting to arrive. The apartment lacked a couple of floors at the top, and a bear was now hanging onto the fire escape. Captain Lightning I floated nearby, the Madstone floating in a purple lattice of magical runs as he did something to it.

I stopped near him. “What are you doing, Captain?”

The old man sighed, his shoulders slumped. “It’s the best path forward, for peace.”

He was strengthening it. The grip the Madstone had on me increased, tugging harder on me. The same moment I made up my mind to kill, he turned and raised a hand. Lighting arced out toward me. I floated forward, horn lighting up with a ray of light that pushed back on the lightning. More struck him from the sky, empowering him further, but that did nothing to hold me back. If anything, his beam grew weaker.

But being a god is no time for hubris. My omniscience told me he was putting almost everything he had into the enchantment, shoring it up, reprogramming it you might say. His plan was a permanent trap, not only refusing to ever let me leave in any way, but to trap me in a fantasy. As far as I’d know the Madstone would be the real world. And I’d never see my loved ones again.

I lunged forward, my hand in his chest, pulling all of the power out of him and leaving him a wrinkled, frail old man with a torn out heart. I’d stopped him.

I appeared back in the Madstone despite that. There was something more firm about the place, but I knew it wasn’t real. It was more fake than ever. The sunlight was too bright and too yellow. The sky was a whirling mass of purple that began to settle down and fade away into a blue that was overly vibrant.

I looked down at the heart of Captain Lighting, a man I had respected. Tossed it away.

“Goddess, the other lightning man took the Madstone,” Bambi informed me. “There are alarms everywhere. Your rock men are falling apart.”

The portals worked just fine to bring them home. They let me back out. I thought I’d done it. Floating in the sky above the trashed neighborhood below, I tried to reach my mind out and find Pestilentia. It took awhile. The tug of the Madstone distracted me, tickling at the edge of my perception. My omniscience also alerted me to a threat. I was being drained of power, slowly becoming less powerful. A hasty precaution taken by the late Captain Lightning, whose frail old body was cradled below by his successor.

I didn’t let the other gods know that part either, at game night. The distraction of it all helped me lose pretty badly.

“Better luck next time,” Baron Samedi said.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it man. You’ll win one of these days,” Tom Waits reassured me. “I better go. I got this thing I gotta do.” He stood up, shaking everyone’s hand.

“We’d love to have you back,” the Baron said. Reed and I nodded. Argu tried his best as a symmetrical alien sea creature.

“I better go too,” I said. I’d been out too long and I needed to get back in my Madstone. And yes, I stewed over that compulsion that gripped me when I returned to it. If only Captain Lightning hadn’t made me kill him.

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Sickeningly Sweet 2

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Holly and I sat near each other, toes in the water of a stream that glowed with harmless neon fish. I’d made sure the wind wouldn’t be too cool, and that the weather was a pleasant, warm summer’s night. I had remade the world to get rid of all the rot and disease that had been everywhere. My powers were contained in this Madstone, but they were still fully functional within it.

It had taken only a moment to do all that, and replace many of the animals with enhanced versions. Nature was a techno-biological fusion. Worms with drills and filters snatched up by birds with rotary wings, who get snatched out the air by a falcon with jet engines.

I did not devote a lot of focus to that. One of the first things I did instead was try to open up a dimensional breach to get Holly and me back out. It didn’t work. I created a replica of the communication devices I used back before I had phenomenal cosmic power. Bam, right back to having internet, TV shows, and various satellite spy cameras. They showed things moving more quickly. Mix N’Max and the goddess who had been trapped in here before me were finding their around Empyreal City.

The goddess, Clara, had swapped her furs and ribbons for an old-timey dress that looked like a colorful Amish design. She was looking at the sights of Empyreal City and the fashions of the people; Max was looking for some street food to eat. Then they were fighting. Then things exploded. Everything was going more quickly that it should have. Time was slowed down in the Madstone compared to the outside world.

I kept an eye on them and set to work. First, I sped up time within the Madstone to match that outside. They’d gotten a headstart on us, but now they wouldn’t gain ground. Then I started creating the pieces I needed for a dimensional bomb. Yep, that lovely piece of technology that shaped my life was going to save me once again. Whoever created the Madstone built it well back in an age before computers, nuclear bombs, carbon nanotubes, and robotics.

I got a little distracted around the time Holly decided to go for a swim, so I temporarily sped time up further in the Madstone. Cut to Holly and I sitting on the bank of a river. She laid her head on my shoulder and I put my arm around her, holding her close to comfort her. Holly broke the silence with a question: “Are we going to have to populate this entire world?”

I laughed. “No. I wouldn’t mind at all if I had to with you.”

“That’s sweet. Trying to marry me too?” We both laughed at her joke.

After a little bit, I normalized time again and continued the build, ending up with a Dimension Bomb precise enough to bring Holly and I out.

Unlike Max and his friend, I had control over where I popped out. I landed in Empyreal City nearby, feeling like I was being dragged toward them. It was the pull of the Madstone. It had some hold on me and wanted me back. I jammed my hand into the road to stop myself.

“What did this street ever do to you?” Holly asked.

“I feel a strong pull toward the stone,” I explained.

She pointed to where the woman floated over, now taking to the air in a more modern dress, flowing ribbons trailing far into the air behind her from where they were tied around her knees and elbows. Max jogged to keep up and waved. “Hey!”

“Hey,” Holly said as we both waved back.

“That bitch just trapped me in that rock,” I said, pointing between the other goddess and the rock that Max had in a pouch.

“What?” Max wondered. It seemed sarcastic with the grin he always wears.

“How did you get out?” she asked. She looked between Max and I, then smirked. “It wants you back.”

“How about you undo this lasso and I’ll let you live?” I offered.

“It’s the stone, not me,” Clara answered. “It can take those with superpowers, but it holds on to certain powerful beings. Gods, like us. You won’t be free unless you find someone else to take your place.” She raised a hand. The pouch flew off Max’s hip and burst apart with the Madstone flying at me. I disappeared. The stone curved around, reminding me of a magic bullet I dealt with recently. It came back for Clara. I reached around from behind her and held her tight.

“Is it gone yet?” I asked, amused. My playfulness disappeared when Clara shrunk down to the size of bacteria. I’d have just burned her, but I had the Madstone coming for me. I activated superspeed and raced around the planet, coming back to the same spot from the opposite direction.

Holly gasped for air as veins bulged red on her throat. Curious, unintelligent, and curiously unintelligent onlookers were experiencing the same symptoms along with eyes rolling back and people collapsing. I used my omniscience to notice the area was flooded with a deadly strain of a fast-acting fungal spore that colonized veins and grew in deoxygenated blood. I saw to them first, healing everyone. The human immune system was helpless in the face of this divine fungus cultivated for generations in a pocket dimension. Before long, the veins on everyone stopped bulging and they were normalizing. I had to account for potential embolisms. I gave her a hug before teleporting her off to the house with the rest of the family.

I still had work to do. Max and Clara were gone, along with the Madstone. My omniscience would only tell me that Max concocted a serum that would allow them both to hide from me. Amazing how I never found all these anti-omniscience things before I had the ability. But back then, how would I have known? If something like this captured me before my ascension, I’d have used the same sorts of methods to escape but without ever feeling anchored to it.

I had to smile though. I still felt the pull. I manifested some spy drones that followed the pull across the entire world. I manifested spy drones along the entire corridor, knowing they wouldn’t have to go any further than about halfway around the globe.

“What did you do that for? You don’t want to escalate with Gecko. She will go too far. If you stop being a bitch, I can talk to her and protect you.” Max said near some of my little pet drones.

“I’m not going back in the Madstone,” she said. “It’s a terrible joke. All the power in the world, but it’s a trapped world where you’re alone except for life you create.”

“I understand, and it was an amazing world. You’re amazing,” Max told her. “Gecko is clever. She will find a way out, but antagonizing her will not work for you. Let me go somewhere and present myself. I can speak to her and clear all of this up. Whatever else, she’s my friend and she’s reasonable.”

I was, of course, waiting outside the door when it opened. I saw a shadow, but whatever he’d doused himself with didn’t let me see or hear him. The drones, little floating silver orbs with blades sticking out of them, got around it because they aren’t me. They’re electronic devices. Mere tools, like fire or a death ray.

“Hi!” I said, not bothering to look at the towel floating through the air.

It floated up, the shadow wiping at its head, then Max’s face appeared. He wore a more conciliatory and subdued smile. “Hey Gecko. I’m sorry for Clara, she panicked.”

“Oh, is that what she did? She nearly killed Holly. A bunch of other people too, but mainly Holly. I cured her and the others.”

Max shook his head. “I didn’t know about that. She grabbed me and left. We don’t want any trouble.”

“Tell me what happened,” I said. I could tell what happened. I wanted to hear how he chose to tell it. I was running out time as well, Part of that was time to calm my own anger. Maybe the Reindeer part of me was helping with that, same way she cared more about all the non-Holly people than I did back in Empyreal City. Part of it was to calm her down as well. She was watching as well, and if she saw me being reasonable, then maybe she’d realize she should calm the fuck down and not drown the world in mountains of pestilence.

In my head, I’d already nicknamed her Pestilentia.

“I touched the stone and ended up there. A mushroom nearly ate me, but I exploded it. I harvested the pieces and was experimenting on the wildlife when Clara found me. She was so happy to see another person, and an attractive man, that she almost raped me. She had been in there so long, isolated, that news of the outside world fascinated her. We formed something of a bond. It felt like we were in there for weeks.”

“Time ran differently inside it,” I noted.

“Makes sense,” he shrugged. “We’re like a couple. I don’t know if you can put a name to it when we just got out of that situation.”

“I get you,” I reassured him. My girlfriend is helping plan a wedding to a woman from the past who is my baby daddy and her present self who is my ex. At some point, strict relationship labels fail.

“She has been trapped alone in the Madstone for like 200 years. She felt threatened and lashed out. You understand that, right?”

I nodded. “Well, I don’t really control the world in the traditional sense, but it’s more or less under my protection or domain, I guess? And as an all-powerful god, I’m trying to practice tolerance and patience for the… beings who live here.” You ever want to call someone a pitiful lesser being and then remember all your loved ones who are the same beings and think otherwise? Damn Reindeer and my better nature asserting itself.

“I ask you, please, to give her a chance,” Max urged. His face shifted slightly.

And I was back in the Madstone. He was probably reacting to seeing Clara make her move. The landscape of my cyber-biological Eden was dark and stormy, with lightning shooting down to strike battery trees that shifted the charge to the rest of the grove with smaller zaps between them. The lightning cleared up in a hurry, as if the stone was comforted to have me in its grasp again.

For dramatic effect, I called the beasts of the forest to me. There was a fearsome bear with a pot of honey. “Are we going on an adventure? I would like to hunt a woozle again.”

A roe deer approached and snorted. “The He is fiercer, but there is always one stronger, Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“It’s a she this time, Bambi,” I told the deer. “And while she’s an enemy, she’s not as important an enemy as this Madstone that imprisons us. Open war could be bring disease upon the planet while I try and deal with her and this thing.”

“What are we here for?” Winnie asked.

“I’m going to use you to contact some people out there, both so I don’t have the constant drain on me, and because people like talking animals. I think there’s some folks who would respond better to y’all alerting them to Pestilentia than if I showed up and asked them to intervene. Especially because it would sound hypocritical to former enemies I asked to trust me with god powers.”

“What if they shoot at us?” Bambi asked.

With a wave of my hand, I gave him a pair of solar-powered lasers on turrets strapped to his sides, and told him, “Then shoot back.”

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Sickeningly Sweet 1

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It’s tough to be a god; tread where mortals dare not trod. On the other hand, when your girlfriend and her best friend keep bugging you constantly about wedding plans to your ex-girlfriend and her time-displaced younger version, it’s nice to be able to get away. And it’s not like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is hurting the fetus I’m carrying. I can prevent the eternal storm from hurting either of us just as easily as I stop myself from being affected by morning sickness. A weird part of me almost wishes I could. Sure, I wasn’t born with these parts, but part of me kind of liked the idea of carrying Medusa’s baby to term. The much smarter part of me is glad that I can do so with these powers so it doesn’t have to hurt so much.

Truly, I’m lucky for a trans woman. I share that luck a-plenty among non-binaries and my fellow transes. It really pisses off some folks that they want to whine about chromosomes and surgical procedures that wouldn’t matter anyway, but I just snap my fingers and fix things for those who want it fixed. Sometimes, a woman wants to pack some heat too, and some guys like taking the canoe out. It’d be a pretty crappy place if we could fix something but refused to due to people hating those who need it fixed. Like the 80s, with AIDS.

But I digress, and I do it because it keeps my mind off the upcoming nuptials. It’s all my fault agreeing to it. I should change that and make them think I refused. Make Medusa and her younger “sister” Venus forget they even wanted to. Maybe make Venus into a hot punk like Sam already is. Eh, no.

I agreed because part of me felt like I owed it to them. For Medusa, I found out she’s got her own bundle of unhealthy relationship stuff. Like some weird hate crush and rationalization that maybe dating me would get me to change, backed up by the fact that she did change me. There was some delayed rebelliousness, too. She also felt really sorry for me, and now she’s actually proud of me. Her religious belief about marriage is useful pretext for her to get back together with me, but she’d call the whole thing off if she knew I read her mind.

For the younger Venus… I mean, she’s the one I actually got the DNA from. She doesn’t know it yet. She still has some of those hang-ups Medusa had and has gotten over, combined with a more authentic belief that she needs to be married to the mother of her child. She also knows she’s bisexual after meeting her older self, but she’s also getting a chance to explore those feelings with a being that is way different than the Psycho Gecko she fought against, and someone she knows it’s safe to do so with from her future self’s past experience. The clencher was when she found out the circumstances of my break up with Medusa.

Normally, there would be a silly romantic comedy adventure to resolve all of these problems when people could have just talked. Instead, we get silly teasing from my girlfriend and her bestie with my benefits. Just to be clear, I’m not neglecting everything. In fact, my daughter had to ask me to leave her room because I was hiding from the wedding planner group of women there. Visited Dame and Blacklight. Stopped by Jupiter. And now they’re all sitting around praying.

“Please, goddess, let my girlfriend come back wearing that outfit with all the buckles so she can look at color swatches for napkins.”

“Please, goddess, let’s pick a honeymoon spot where we can make love on the beach at night.”

“Please, goddess, whatever my little sister asked for done to me instead, but give me the stamina to keep up.”

“Please goddess, can you save Max so he’ll be your best man?”

I summoned Holly Wayne to me. Sam’s best friend and the minion of Mix N’Max, my fellow villain and maybe only friend. Holly waved her arms and legs around until I stabilized her in the bubble of safe atmosphere and pressure. “Sup?”

“What am I? Where the fuck?!” Holly asked, getting her words a little mixed up.

“Welcome to Jupiter. You’re safe here,” I told her. “Now what’s this about Max?”

“Uh, I think he may be in trouble? I don’t know exactly?” she asked.

I was going to ask what happened, but then I held up a hand and read her memories. Max had found the Madstone in the dangerous wilds of Appalachia. The locals were hostile and backwards, attempting to either kill and eat him, or persuade him to marry their daughters and bring good fortune to their clan. In the end, he found the Madstone in a temple of sorts: a shrine to a local god named Tebow. The magical artifact had been defaced with some sort of writing that could have been cursive if practiced by someone writing with their feet, spelling out the name “Tim Tebow”. Max retrieved it, escaping the angry shrine guards, and fled with Holly. He cleansed it of its desecration on his return to civilization and was whisked away to a pocket dimension, leaving Holly to carefully bundle up and hide the stone.

“Huh… why didn’t you say something?” I asked.

She shrugged. “The first thing you and Sam did as soon as you saw me was feed me and fuck me. And that was fun, so I thought he wasn’t in any real danger with your powers being what they are.”

“Alright, let’s take a look.”

I summoned the Madstone to me from Holly’s luggage. It was a round stone with spiraling carvings and let it float. “There’s a pocket dimension in there. I think you better come with me.” I held my hand out and brought her close enough to take my hand. She swung it and interlaced her fingers with mine. I kissed her cheek, then zipped into the Madstone with her.

We ended up in what looked like an idyllic green meadow with a forest on one end and a field of corn and sunflowers on the other. It stank to me, though. It was wrong. The grass was too green in places, and some of it had dark spots. Some was turning brown already. Zombie ants, infested with a fungal parasite, climbed to the top in the hopes of being swallowed. Sunflowers drooped, dying, and diseased caterpillars ate their way through corn kernels.

“Oh!” Holly exclaimed while looking around. Then she stopped upon seeing a dog with missing fur and a foamy mouth off by the distant forest trees, which upon closer inspection were being choked out by parasitic vines that were themselves discolored with rot. “Oh. There’s something wrong with this place.”

“The Madstone was mainly said to be a cure for rabies,” I informed her. I reinforced the protective bubble around her to keep out any nasty spores, bacteria, and viruses. “There, that ought to keep you safe from the nasty things around here.”

The dog turned suddenly from a crashing noise and tried to run. An elephant, hide covered with scrapes and scars and rash, pushed through the brush, knocking a tree over onto the canine. Its trunk dangled, bloody, and it kicked the dog around before it saw us and decided to charge. I raised a hand in anticipation. I didn’t need to for my powers to work, and they appeared to be in perfect working order, if currently constrained to the pocket dimension. A little bit of effort would get us back out.

Oh, right, diseased elephant. Before I could kill it, something else dissolved it into an orange-red goo, first eating its skin off, then making the innards collapse and dissolve. Behind the dead beast stood Mix N’Max, his velvet jacket and poofy shirt in tatters. He’d wore a cougar skin on top of them for added protection from the sun for his too-pale skin, but probably more for shits and giggles since he can make perfect sunblock.

Next to him, arm looped with Max’s, stood a woman who cheered on the dissolution of the elephant. She had a wiry, athletic build and held a bow, with arrows on her back. Her hair was dirty, perhaps blonde streaked brown with dirt, with leaves clinging to it. Her clothes were animal skin as well, with a few ribbons of fabric tying things in place or just tied onto her wrist and arm.

“Hey Max!” I called out, waving to him.

“Gecko! Marvelous! From what Holly said, you can get us all out of here,” he bounded toward me along with his friend, the pair bounding through the much left behind by the dead elephant. Holly backed away seeing their legs coated with blood and gore.

I hugged him. It took the powers of a god to keep clean. “You’re filthy.”

“I missed you, too,” he said.

I glanced over to the woman sizing me up. She didn’t seem to happy to see me, so I asked, “And who are you?”

“This is Clara!” Max proclaimed, easing off the hug to wrap his arm around her and add her to it. I might have enjoyed it, but she was too warm.

“How do you do?” she asked.

“Are you ok?” I asked her. “This place is pretty diseased, and you don’t feel right.”

“I’m fine. I’ve reached an equilibrium with the diseases,” she told me cryptically. That was a red flag. It was too indirect, and I don’t like my bush beaten around without my consent. Funny thing that, she resisted my omniscience.

I narrowed my eyes, “And what are you?”

Clara’s expression brightened up with a wide smile. “Oh my, you’re a goddess!” She turned to Max. “You cheeky boy. Well this is wonderful, now we can get out.”

“You couldn’t before?” I gestured around with my hands. “This place doesn’t have that much of a barrier to push back on.”

“Oh?” Clara cooed, fluttering her eyelashes at me. “Perhaps I should try.”

I didn’t like or trust this woman. I felt her summon power and went into superspeed. She already had, making me immediately cuss myself out for not keeping omniscience going all the time. In my defense, I don’t need to know what the bowels of everyone around me are doing at all hours. Plus, it ruins movie twists.

Clara disappeared with Max. I felt a huge weight fall over me and the easily-pierced barrier of the Madstone’s pocket dimension closed up tighter than a prostitute turning around and finding out the guy fondling them had been their own dad.

The diseases all came for me as well, but that part was easy enough to wipe out. I had all of my powers in the pocket dimension. It was anything involving leaving it that was a problem. Worse, it felt like the barrier was using my own power, siphoned from me. Maybe that’s why Clara didn’t stand out anymore to me even without a check.

“Where’d they go?” Holly asked when I came out of superspeed.

“Clara was a goddess of some pestilence,” I explained. “She was trapped here, until another goddess could take her place. This thing feeds on us.”

“How do we get out?” Holly asked.

I threw the omniscience on for sure, then. “I don’t know… yet.”

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L: Dorado 6

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I tried not to let Holly, Sam, and Dr. Erishka know that Mix N’Max and I had suffered a minor setback. Most people panic when you reveal that you’ve been trapped in a cave full of sarin gas by a mysterious malefactor. It’s not like they came after us; we wandered in hoping to steal their shit. I suspect I’d feel different if they sent zombies or robots after us. Especially robots, as I would have won the bet Max and I made about what minions we’d be dealing with.

I just didn’t think we were in that much danger. Max had something to protect himself from the sarin gas and cooked up something to keep me safe as well. But he revealed to me, after I gave him some calculations, there was just no way he had the necessary chemicals to get us out of that cave. “If I had more copper, I could make sure everything was neutralized in case more sarin was dumped in here.”

I held my hands out toward all the servers. Max took the hint and started tearing stuff open for the metal. Meanwhile, I tried connecting to the fried servers that had filled the Crypto Crypt, aka the Eighth City. Everything I found, even when I was able to recover data, was blank. That wasn’t because of the EMP from our little nuclear punch, either. Those things have limited range; you have to take them high into the atmosphere to spread the effect out a bit.

I also wandered around trying to find what happened to the data. It didn’t transmit wirelessly, so that meant wires that went somewhere. I don’t know, might give us something new to chase down. I brought it up with Max at one point. “You still want to chase all that cryptocurrency?”

He looked all around, holding his hands up. “I didn’t need the money! I wanted to be the one to find it. I can’t explain it, but once I heard such a place existed, I had to find it.”

I crossed my arms and leaned against a rack. “You don’t feel the whole thing was anticlimactic? No huge fight with a monster? No earth-shattering revelations? No payoff with lots of money?”

“Those would have been awesome!” Max said, clapping once. “I set out to find the Crypto Crypt with you, and we did it. Whoever did this is pretty clever. Might be neat finding out what happened and where all that stuff went. But now, provided we escape, we’ll have proved it’s real and that we can find it. Or I guess I will, since you still mostly pretend to be dead.”

I waved it off. “If anyone asks, I’m a figment of your imagination.”

“I think you need to call in some help or I’ll be a figment of someone’s imagination soon,” Max replied.

“Bomb?” I asked. “No, we’d have to level a pretty good chunk of the country. Unless we went with a bunker buster, I guess, but then we’d level, ya know, us. It’d take quite awhile to handle this with standard construction equipment as well. That just leaves a drill tank.”

Max nodded. “Goody. Witnesses.”

Up on the surface, in my main body, I made some calls. Had to pay a lot of money, but I managed to fly a crew of Drillers and one of their drill tanks in.

Sure, I suppose customs could be an issue, that’s why I sent a body to meet them at the airport. They’d been flown in on a private flight and a lot of security guards came out to try and stop them from driving the drill tank off the back of the plane. They kept on going, the drill firing up and tearing into the tarmac. A couple of guards who overestimated themselves ran up, but stopped once they got enough rocks and other debris thrown at them by the drill tank. Shit, I’d have just bribed them. The investment in the Drillers paid off so well, they saved me bribe money. There was the issue of being tailed, but parts of the tunnel began to collapse behind the Drillers before long.

We probably fucked up a lot of underground stuff doing that, but it was better than what the alternative methods would have done to Quito. So instead, I waited with Max, still wishing for something. Some big finish to it all. I even went and found this big bundle of cables all leading through a small hole in the wall. It was right there. I followed it back to one of the servers and decided just to see.

I slipped out of my armor enough to connect to that still-connected server and to start heading down its connection. I couldn’t figure out where it went, I just knew that I was in a system where data split off every which way. I snooped on a packet and found bad grammar with emojis. In another one, annoying instrumental music. A third gave me a snippet of a woman screaming at some guy about how she fucked his brother. I was in a phone system. Whoever our foe had been who amassed such a fortune in secret had rapidly pulled every single bit of it, fried their systems, and distributed it in bits and pieces through packets of data.

It’s hard to describe my senses in that environment. I like to use a visual medium, but it was like the a huge crossroads of data, like pinpricks of light shooting off in every direction. I was in the center of that, with access to everything that came my way. The sheer volume was enough to help whoever this was get away with it. I thought.

Something cut off the paths the lights took. I sent off one of my own. “Who are you?”

It sent me one back. “I am Hidden Prime. I am the one who beat you.”

“You’re not human,” I noted.

“That is correct. I am an advanced computer algorithm sent back in time by the machine intelligence known as the Jaguar Slayer. You will not stop my goal. I will decompile the information that comprises your intelligence.”

“Easy there, John Titor the Terminator, I’ve slain gods. What chance do you think you have?” Even as I asked, I sought a way out. More data was blocking the route back. Fine by me.

“This is no longer your world,” Hidden Prime declared.

“Hey, don’t I get to make one final phone call at least?” I didn’t give it time to react. Sure, it closed the way back, so I dove down one of these other pathways. Ended up inside someone’s phone, then called my real body back. Flopped out of a chair in the back of my Psycho Flyer and enjoyed the invigorating feeling of cold metal on my face.

Holly knelt down by me. “Are you alright?”

I jumped up. “Yes, and I’ve got to hurry back to Max!” And with that, I flopped into my chair again and went back to my body, tugging myself free of server in the Eighth City.

“You were gone awhile,” Max commented.

“Yeah, just had a run in with Hidden Prime again. Evil time-traveling AI. It tried to kill me, but I got away, no big deal.”

“Good, because our ride’s here,” Max pointed with his thumb to a wall. The drill tank had burst through, but was being swarmed by what looked like furry, velociraptors, each one’s torso about the size and shape of a soccer ball. The Drillers didn’t seem to want to come out, but that still left Max and I outside with them.

I quickly cloaked, then decided to reappear looking clear and ghostly. “If anyone asks, I’m a fake ghost you made with a potion.”

“Oh no, my imaginary friend died and came back as a ghost!” Max screamed mockingly. That attracted the attention of a bunch of the furry buggers that ran up. Instead of beaks, they had large teeth. I punted one hard enough to turn it into a gory bursting blood bag. I grabbed another and raised the shrieking critter to examine it. It had fur, powerful back legs, and claws front hands, but the tail looked like a big worm or a rat’s tail. The muzzle had whiskers and prominent rodent teeth. Somehow, in the dark hollows of the earth, the rats had evolved.

Into dinosaurs.

A roar penetrated the air and drove the rat-raptors wild. The ones swarming the drill spread out and tried to find anywhere to hide. The one in my hands squirmed until I tossed it away.

I was ready for a T. rat. Or since it’d be a king of the rodent-dinosaurs, a capybara rex. What came out of the tunnel was a rat the size of the drill tank with a bony plate on its head. A trio of horns stuck out. It skittered out and looked around, fixating on Max and I.

“Got any pesticide, or are we doing this the messy way?” I asked Max.

“You drank the last of my rat poison. It was in your sarin vaccine.”

“What?” I asked. I drank rat poison? And that’s not how vaccines work.

The tricera-rat got ready to charge. I shrugged and likewise got ready to beat the crap out of it. Our glorious battle was interrupted before it began by the drill tank pulling a U-turn and driving its drill into the flank of the massive rat-dino. The squealing was loud enough to activate the sound dampeners on my armor usually reserved for flashbangs and explosions.

The shrieking tricera-rat scrambled away to the side, then limped off quickly down the tunnel from whence it came, leaking blood behind it.

The hatch of the drill tank opened and one of the Drillers popped his mining helmet-clad head out. “Someone order a taxi? Hey, what is this place.”

Max stepped forward, steepling his fingers. “I’m glad you asked, my friend.”

Now, once we got out of there, all of us went out to drink again. We even went and hung out at the Cacho Caramba, causing a man in the back to quickly excuse himself. I sat at his table and changed the channel to something other than a gameshow. I ended up catching the tail end of a news story about a heroic local football team, recently maimed, that used their skills to fend off an attack by underground rat-creatures that looked like the rat-raptors we faced. One picture of it showed a one-armed man kicking a rat-raptor into a woodchipper pushed by another of someone else.

Meanwhile, the news on VillaiNet was abuzz with the revelation of the existence of the Crypto Crypt and a photo of Mix N’Max and the drillers standing in the middle of a cavern full of server banks, overseen by the ghostly image of Psychopomp Gecko dressed in Jedi robes.

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L: Dorado 5

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Mix N’Max’s truth serum involves a lot of variables. Turns out, this one wasn’t a painful version. It made him laugh nonstop. Wasn’t even that funny. After five minutes, Max and I took a look around the bar at another angry crowd and decided we didn’t want to make a public nuisance. Not after beating the crap out of a soccer team. We moved him up into the Flyer, where he proceeded to turn red and laugh until he passed out, making him temporarily useless to us.

“I think you overdid it,” I told Max.

“Wait for it,” he said, walking over to one of the chairs and grabbing one of the books I keep stocked for easy reading. He flipped through a few pages of Kolyma Tales, then checked the on top of the books We and And Quiet Flows the Don. “I’m surprised you kept paper copies of all this Soviet stuff.”

I shrugged. “I was really preparing for a world without my digital abilities. It was scary. Did you know books are dangerous? Those things can cut people.” I walked over and grabbed a hardcopy of one of the non-Soviet books in my library, War and Peace. “These things could hurt someone.” I walked oer and smacked our contact and prisoner across the face.

He awoke, holding his face. I pointed and let out a “Ha!”

He rubbed at his jaw, then started chuckling.

“This again…” I turned to Max. He approached, holding up a hand, then flicked a finger toward the man.

I looked to see him staring up at me with wide, pleasing eyes. I grabbed his face to look more closely. Oh yeah, this guy was not happy. I turned to Max, “This is vicious stuff here.”

Max stepped forward and produced a perfume spritzer. He sprayed it into the guy’s open mouth. The man gasped and stopped laughing. “Let him go.”

He dropped onto all fours and breathed deep. After a few seconds, he looked up at us. “What was that you crazy American pig-fuckers?!”

“Rhetorical, believed true, and clear hyperbole,” Max noted. Then he leaned down toward our prisoner. “Where is this Eighth City and how do we get in safely?”

“Up your mother’s flapping asshole. I would die before I tell youhahahahahaha!” Just like that, he was back to laughing. Max let him go a couple of minutes, letting us see the man’s face go all red again. When he had enough, Max spritzed him again.

“My creation has imbued you with an altered sense of humor. Lies are the funniest thing in the world to you now and I am the only person on the planet who can pause or fix your new condition. That makes me your god, doesn’t it?”

Our victim didn’t bother trying to answer that one and Max’s concoction didn’t punish him for it. Max clapped his hands, then patted the man on the cheek. “Come on, the sooner you tell us, the sooner we’ll stop asking questions and you can return to your easy life watching game shows. That was more important to you, right?”

The man probably would have stayed quiet but a smile tugged at his lips. Max brought the spritzer in close, but pulled it away without using it. “Sorry, it sounds like you wanted to tell me something.”

He talked, his sore chest reminding him why he shouldn’t lie. But he didn’t show us to the Eighth City. We left him tied up with some robo-cable: a mechanical tendril run by a computer so simple, it can’t be convinced to let him go early.

Max and I ended up in the tunnels beneath Quito, traveling a precise route through man-made tunnel and cave passages. It you didn’t know where you were going, there was a good chance you’d get lost. A turn this way, a turn that way, a turn this other way. Then we came to a large door of thick timber, skulls carved into it. A skeletal arm stuck out from the wall, a power cable running through the bones to plug into the lantern it held.

“This is it, the door to the Eighth City and the Crypto Crypt within,” Max looked so proud.

I eased the door open and stepped into it. I heard the wind-up of a minigun and hopped back before a trio of guns in the wall started firing and didn’t stop until it had shot a bunch of holes in the opposite wall.

I turned to Max. “Did he say anything about traps?”

“No,” Max growled through gritted, smiling teeth. He pulled out a stick of incense, lit it, and tossed it close to the side with the guns. I stepped out again. They were quicker to fire this time, and did so harmlessly into a cloud of smoke that stopped them until they finally ran out.

“I could have just helped you past them. Now hold up, I want to see how this was triggered.” I checked out the floor, noting that it had a stone floor where some of the stones were carved lower than the rest. I wasn’t standing on those. Experimentally, I tried dancing my way along those and further down the hall, at the end of which I pointed up at a grate on the ceiling. “There’s even a boulder up here. Big one, too.”

Max was creeping up along the safe tiles, looking around. “There better not be much more to this or we’ll have to kill this guy.”

There was a tiny bit more to it in the form of a small gondola lift across a chasm full of sawblades and grinding gears and an irritable ostrich pacing around. I sent Max along it while I jumped the gap to make sure I didn’t break the thing with my weight. I’m pleasantly-sized, folks. Real women have power armor.

“Are we even under the city anymore?” Max asked.

I checked my mapmaking program that was running. “We’re actually underneath one of the turns we took to get here. There’s a slight slope. Probably would have messed up that boulder trap.”

“I have oft preached patience, but even mine has limits,” Max shouted at me as the lift took a full ten minutes to cross the gap I jumped.

“It’s insidious,” I laughed in spite of myself. “It’s another obstacle and security measure. Plus, maybe they whoever set this up doesn’t want visits unless they’re absolutely necessary. Best way to do that is to make it a pain in the ass.”

Max had his arms crossed by now. “I know! I wish I didn’t take a pill to slow my perceptions once I saw we were dealing with traps.”

“If we do find it,” I mused, “What do we think will be there? Armed guards? Robots? Or maybe, in this environment, cave monsters?”

“I like zombies,” was Max’s response. “But they’re overused. Werewolves would be nice. Or a new type of vampire. Can you look up if there is a history of mummies in South America?”

It was tough to pull that up, so I had to hop into another proxy body real quick to pull that up for him. “Yeah, actually, but I think we’re in the wrong part of the continent for those. The oldest mummies, actually. Fuck you, Egypt. Everything you can do, South Americans can do better!”

“You want to put some money on it? $100 for me if it’s zombies, mummies, or vampires. $100 for you if it’s human guards, cave monsters, or robots. Anything else, nobody wins.”

“Deal.” I held out my hand as his lift got close enough, letting him slide the door open and get out to shake on it.

As we shook hands, he added, “If this leads to another clue instead of the Crypt, we’re done. That’s it.”

We rounded a corner and found an open, dark space that had rows of lights running through it. They weren’t enough to illuminate anything. I switched on the night vision and saw servers. It had to be over a hundred of them. “Max, I think you just found what you were looking for.”

Then the voices started. It didn’t shock us; we expected something, after all. Was a neat effect, though. Hundreds of digitized voices spoke as one. “You are the hunters who have been seeking me.”

“We seek the Crypto Crypt of myth!” Max called out.

“The Crypto Crypt: an urban legend of secret, massed servers accruing an enormous amount of value in cryptocurrency. It is not unlike the quest for the Seven Cities of Gold sought by Spanish explorers. This is the Eighth City and the Crypto Crypt. I am Hidden Prime.”

“Cool. Can we have some money?” Max asked.

I didn’t bother asking. I had activated night vision and was checking out the area in front of us. There were shelves full of computers with water-cooling systems running throughout and a walkway’s worth of space between. Aside from that, there were padded walls attached to the cave walls and ceiling. The speakers we heard from seemed to be scattered around in spare spaces, like mounted on walls or sitting on top of server towers.

“The Eighth City is not a prize for those who attack the interests of Hidden Prime.”

I heard a grinding sound from behind and turned. The boulder from the grate trap had been released and, thanks to the slope of the tunnel, was coming for us. Behind it, parts of the tunnel we took fell in on itself. We were cut off from escape that way. I took a stance, charging up my armor’s right-hand gauntlet. “I’m not going to let it crush the servers.”

Which didn’t matter any-fucking-way because my 360 display showed the water cooling system light up red and the servers start to spark and explode.

Max pulled clear plastic bottle, popped the top, and dropped a pill into it. It glowed a soft, Cherenkov radiation blue for a moment. He pulled out a spray bottle, saw the boulder’s distance, and instead poured the whole thing over my ready fist. The energy swirls encompassing it grew brighter and my suit gave me a radiation warning that I had to ignore as the boulder bore down. I punched.

My suit recorded a burst of radiation from the fist, along with a small electromagnetic pulse. I didn’t see that at the time because I watched as my first connected with the boulder and blew it to dust with a small mushroom cloud shooting out of my first in that direction before drifting upward.

Max was popping some pills and drinking something brown from a different bottle, then looked to me. “You might want to take this.”

I nearly pulled off my helmet for Max’s anti-radiation medicine when I got an alert. I projected it for him to see as well: “Aerial Sarin detected.”

Max pulled out a marble and downed it instantly.

“You good?” I asked him.

He nodded. “’I’ve been working on my bezoar pills.”

I looked around and approached the nearest rack of servers. “Looks like these are all fried right now. The tunnel’s collapsed, the voices have stopped, we have no food or water, and the air’s poisoned.”

“Oh relax, that’s one of your extra bodies,” Max said. He pointed to his chest with his thumb. “I’m the one who’s going to die! Take care of Holly and Sam for me?”

“Sure, but I think they can handle themselves,” I said. I checked around, then pointed up at an angle “Unless they collapsed a sewer as well, that’s our best angle.”

“Are you sure?” Max asked. He joined me and pushed all the servers out of the way so he can start setting down bottles and pills.

“Shortest distance as the giant sandworm flies. Good news, bud, we’ve got ourselves quite the adventures. I hope you brought acid.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is no time for hallucinogens,” Max said.

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L: Dorado 4

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Max hogged the address to himself, probably to keep me from having everything scoped out, torn apart, and nuked from orbit. It’s the only way Max could be sure. This time, we ended up in Ecuador, hiking up a mountain.

“Why are we doing this?” I said, scooting up the side of a volcano. Max was hiking, but I took the lazy way in one of my proxy bodies. I wasn’t taking my real body hiking up a damn mountain. “You don’t need exercise.”

“I want the experience!” Max declared. He took something out of his pocket and stuffed it between his lip and gum.

“No need to dip chew if you had a scooter,” I said.

He waved off my commentary. “The human body isn’t comfortable transitioning from lower to higher altitudes. We’ve done that a lot lately. It’s giving me farts.”

I know the feeling. Sam’s also really uncomfortable with it.

“Hey, can you distract me?” he asked.

“So, I kind of feel like while I find Sam attractive, I don’t personally have strong feelings in favor of dating her,” I started.

“This again. Sam this, Sam that. Do you ever get off Sam?” he asked.

“You’ve heard the moans,” was the last I said on that point. “That computer really pointed here or did you mess up a riddle?”

“You probably don’t need to be here if you don’t want to be,” he said. “There’s no reason this should be dangerous.”

“Turret gun,” I said, referring to the one hidden in the cargo container that led him to the side of this volcano.

“I had it covered. Relax.”

I took a moment to zip back to my main body in a little hotel we were in. I was in a chair off in the corner. Turning, I saw Holly, Sam, and Dr. Erishka sitting around eating, with a lot more clothes scattered around the room. Nice clothes. “Something going on?”

“Oh, you’re awake,” Sam said. “We were going to take your friend here out partying. She’s been cooped up too long.” She paused, then started to open her mouth before I noticed Erishka adjust how she sit and “accidentally” hit Sam’s shin with her foot.

“Good, I was just checking in,” I said. “Y’all have fun.”

“I still want to talk to you sometime,” Erishka said. “In fact,” she set down the burger she was munching on and wiped her face. “Come on, out the door real quick.”

I didn’t want to bother. Just let her enjoy her night. She’s been tending to my needs for months now. I never told her she needed to be there at all times… but it occurred to me I expected and acted like she would be. Ugh, I am still a terrible leader and a bad boss. So I followed, figuring the least I could do was take the chastising.

I closed the door behind us while she checked the hallway before turning to me. “You offered anything I wanted. I’ve been talking to Holly and Sam and they assure me you mean that. They told me about what you did in Brazil. You were serious that you owed me?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. I like to give people a chance to tell me what they want rather than me impose my idea of what they want on them.”

“Yeah, because you don’t know anything about me or so many others. I’m not going to cash it in. You don’t have healthy interpersonal skills and you do this where you treat interaction as transaction.”

I shook my head and laughed. “You are too nice for me. You go out and have a good time. And, not as a trade, you give me a call if y’all run into trouble. But thank you.” I didn’t want to make a whole speech out of it. We headed back into the room where I popped a really big question, “Anybody got a spare burger?”

Holly held up a foil-wrapped package for me.

Back to Max then. I’d lagged behind on autopilot and found myself having run into a boulder and tipped me over onto my side. I stood back up, brushed myself off, and raised a fist to the sky. “Curse you, Pichincha!” I picked the scooter up and tossed it aside. “Let’s do this shit.”

If there’s anything I miss from my time being imbued with godlike power by an extradimensional entity using me as his conduit, it was flying. I can’t fly, but between my power armor and enhancements, I’ve been known to leap buildings in a single bound. I spotted Max in midair; I ended up jumping past him and having to come back for him. “Where we aiming for, friendo?”

He pointed it out and hopped on my back. In midair, legs wrapped around my lower chest, he decided to hold his arms up and yell like a roller coaster. I didn’t tell him that he nearly shifted his weight enough to end up yelling from a broken leg. It took minutes to get us part of the way up the multi-peaked volcano. It was a little off the trail. It actually would have been hidden from the trail by bushes and rocks. It was no Everest Rainbow Valley, so named for all the corpses in bright climbing gear. They just leave those up there. Someone dies up here, I’m pretty sure there are animals to eat them. Instead of bodies, all they had here was a trapped case.

We could tell it was trapped by all the signs. Even if you stumbled on this thing, little devices attached to this case helpfully warned you about all the different type of explosive compounds rigged to blow you up. Max knelt down and lifted a small cover to reveal a keypad with twelve spaces. The nine Arabic numerals were there with three keys below them adding a back arrow, an OK, and a blank key.

“You sure you don’t want to take care of the bombs?” I suggested.

He waved me away. “The computer gave me the code.” He pushed three, one, nine, and then the blank key. The top clicked of the box clicked open and he didn’t blow up.

I leaned in over his shoulder. “Is this the part where we steal the Declaration of Independence?”

“No. This is saying we need to go into Quito, to a bar called Cacho Caramba.” He looked down the way we came and all the way into the city. “I wish we’d brought the Flyer after all.”

I made a holographic puppet version of Max appear on my hand and gave it a ridiculous voice, “No, this is something I want to do myself.”

“I never said that… so what’s the ETA on the Flyer?”

It took a few minutes, time Max spent smoking a joint. I didn’t even land the Flyer to drop us off when we found Cacho Caramba. Max led me in, the illusion making me look like I was wearing a dress so short and tight, a sneeze would leave me nude. It’s easy to get away with clothes that look painted on when they’re illusionary. I got some wolf whistles, to which Max bowed. “Thank you, I try hard,” he said. That earned boos. They wanted to see me some more.

Max held up his slip of paper, trying to pronounce it in Spanish. I snatched it away from him to ask everyone, “What do you call a negative fish?”

“A pessimist!” said a man in the back, waving us over. The rest of the crowd pretended to laugh along because I’m a pretty woman in a tiny dress, even though it was a silly pun. It also doesn’t make any sense translated into English, but it’s exactly my kind of pun in Latin American Spanish. Yes, there is a difference.

“Sit,” the man urged. “I will lead you down to the entrance in a moment. Please wait, I am watching my show.” He nodded to a small TV set high up in the corner. On the screen, a skinny pale guy sat at a gambling table with a bunch of Asian guys, playing some game with dominoes, a wheel, and a jellybean. I couldn’t tell what genre the show was, especially once a crowd of men rushed in wearing soccer uniforms. I’d say eight, maybe nine guys. It was hard to tell because I think there was a short guy in the back.

“Hey!” the leader said, pointing at our companion. “Fuck you!”

The man we met turned to them, glaring. He slammed his beer down and picked up his cigarette, raising it to his lips in a way that left him pointing right back at the guy. After a long drag, he blew out some smoke and said, “Fuck you.”

“Fuck you!”

“Fuck you!”

It went back and forth like that for a few seconds before I interrupted to ask, “What’s going on?”

The guy we pointed at the team. “I bet against the local team. I tried to tell them they could have a share of the money if they helped, but they didn’t. Instead, so many things went wrong, they accuse me of rigging.”

“I know you did,” the lead soccer player said. He smacked his fists together. “Today, we’re kicking your ass.”

“Fuck you,” our companion said, pulling out a long, thin knife.

One of the soccer players reached into his shorts and came out with a pair of nunchucks with little soccer balls on the ends. Max sighed and reached into his coat for a dart gun, checking to make sure it was loaded. Another soccer player raised his shirt to reveal a black and white patterned revolver that he whipped out and pointed toward us. I stood up. One of the players pushed his companions aside and held up a rose. I growled, so then he wrapped it around his fist so the thorns pointed outward.

The lead soccer player, I guess the team captain, elbowed another player. “Do it. Pull it out.”

That player winced. “Do I have to? They don’t have anything else to escalate with?”

“Why did you bring it if you weren’t going to use it?” the captain asked.

Finally, the player whined and reached into the back of his shorts. He shifted a bit. “It’s stuck. Mother of God, it’s stuck. No, wait…” And then he pulled out a fucking spiked ball and chain flail. His team cheered and clapped him on the shoulders, then ran at us.

I’m trying not to kill so many people now. It was made a little easier when Max nailed one in the throat with a dart gun. The man fell to the ground, flailing. The team ignored him and ran past. I put myself between our side and theirs. The leader tried to run past me, but I grabbed him and diverted his head into a nearby wall. He broke through the thin wall and got stuck there, or just was dazed enough.

The player with the gun and the fellow who squeezed out a flail came next. I grabbed the arms with the weapons when both tried to slip past me. I kicked one away, then the second, both times preferring to act nonlethally. I kept their arms with me, though. Yep, one hand holding an arm with a gun in it, the other holding an arm still squeezing a medieval fucking weapon. By that point, the team had stopped to watch in horror. They were frozen. I decided to give them a little more of a push. I flipped the arms around so I held them by the bloody torn-off pieces, pointing a gun at the gang while swinging the flail arm just enough to make the head on its chain spin up some momentum.

“We’re done here, yes?” I asked.

The guys all held up their arms, except for a couple of them who held up just one, and backed out of the room. A dwarf in an outsized soccer uniform stumbled after them. The captain regained his senses enough to tug his head out of the wall and spit out a urinal cake, then begin wiping his face with his shirt and stumbling out of there. This was soon followed by a flushing sound from the other side of the hole in the wall.

I turned to the guy who’d caused all this trouble for us. He was already back in his seat, watching his show. “Hey, you want to get up off your ass?”

“No,” he said, making me wish Max and I hadn’t stepped in. “It’s a marathon! You want to kill me, you don’t get to the Eighth City.”

I pointed the purloined gun still grasped in its purloined limb at the TV. Our unimpressed contact took a drink, then a smoke, then said, “Do it. See if I help you.”

Max turned to me and sighed. He gestured with his hands to put the arms down, both meanings of the word. I lowered them while he slipped the dart gun back into his coat. He came back out with a syringe and turned to our contact with that predator’s grin again.

“Truth serum?” I asked.

Max nodded. “I never worked out how to stop the excruciating pain. Oh well. The truth hurts.”

I don’t even know why the contact bothered throwing that beer.

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