Tag Archives: Mix N’Max

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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L: Dorado 2

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I like Mix N’Max. We’ve bonded pretty well as villains who kill heroes before. Max doesn’t have too many fucks to give where he gets ingredients or who some of his experiments kill, but he’s always been a straight shooter with me. You know, aside from this one time… it’s not important. But I am getting a wee bit annoyed at him being so quiet about what his plan is. I can see why folks find his smile so punchable.

We stopped elsewhere in Rio to let him grab some food and equipment. He insisted we stop in Uruguay, but came back after fifteen minutes with a box full of leaves. And there was also a stopover in Costa Rica just to spend the night. After that, we were off to Peru, where he claimed he needed to speak with someone about the Crypto Crypt. Sam and Holly dragged him in late, missing his pants, smelling of sex and alcohol.

“You’re letting that guy fix your brain?” Dr. Erishka asked. She had her stuff set up all formally next to Max’s haphazard kit that we picked up.

“I was just going to drink whatever he gave me and hope it works out for the best,” I muttered while performing a bit of maintenance on the Flyer’s electrical systems. “I don’t want to smack him over this.”

I decided to grab lunch without my armor. “Hey, hold up!” Sam called out behind me. I stopped in mid-step, foot still raised, and waited for her. She came up beside me and hooked her arm with mine. Max’s chubbier assistant with the colorful hair then pointed off toward the rear door of the Flyer. “You’re going out, right?”

“Yep. Figured I’d grab lunch. Might pick up enough for everyone,” I said.

“Cool, I’ll join you.”

Together, we set out from the lot we’d parked in to head out into the city of Lima to grab some food. “Not scared of some Peruvian cuisine, I hope?”

“I’m willing to try new things. Let’s find something we can’t even recognize!” She laughed, more perky than I remember her. She tugged me along after her. We ended up finding a nice-smelling restaurant first and picking whatever the fuck we could find that we decided sounded good. And while we were waiting, lest anyone think these events are notable as some sort of date or something.

Sam put a hand on my forearm as I sat there, my mouth watering. “Please be patient with Max, alright? This search is something fun he’s wanted a real shot at and he’s happy to have you along. He’s not stalling, he’s doing things his own special way. I’ll give him a kick when we get back.”

“Thanks,” I said. I decided to try stepping outside my comfort zone a little. “I’m worried. I don’t like to show that, but one day I’m the deadliest bitch on earth. The next, I stroke out if I overexert myself, and I don’t know where that line is until after I cross it.”

“Sucks big time. You know he loves you, right? As a friend, though, not the other way. Aside from that one time… nevermind. Not important.”

Back at the Flyer, we walked right back in past some fleeing children. I had just pulled a leg off this roasted chicken that smelled amazing when a dart struck it from inside the Flyer. I was considering eating it anyway, until the skin started boiling up and the meat melted off. Then I tossed it aside and decided to glare at the hungover Max who was downing something thick and tan from a cough syrup bottle.

“I’m so fucking hungry and you take the food right out of my mouth,” I scoffed.

He held the gun he held up with his pointer extended along the barrel, indicating to me that he needed a minute. Sam and I pulled out a table and set the food down for everyone, including Holly who ran up excited to eat. She lifted up a skewer of cuy, screamed, and threw it away. “Oh my god!” She ended up running off toward the bathroom.

I looked over at Sam, who looked at me, shrugged, and said, “Can’t take this pair anywhere.” She grabbed some cuy for herself and took a bite, “Hey Holly! Mmm, damn, that’s actually really good. Hey, Holly! Come on, you don’t even have to look at it. They didn’t kill it for us.” She grabbed this cheese-stuffed pepper and brought it along to check on her friend.

Erishka stepped up to help herself to some of the food, including the other leg of the chicken. Darn near tempting the wrath of Gecko there, if I didn’t need the doctor to look after my own health. “What’s her problem?”

“The thingy on a stick is a rodent that people where she’s from keep as pets,” I informed her. I pointed to the chicken leg. “Don’t worry, even the people who keep those as pets find them so annoying they want to eat them.”

I reached down to grab a wing off the chicken. Thwit! I felt a pain in my neck. I whirled to see Max holding the dart gun pointed at me, my hand reaching to feel it sticking out of the back of my neck. Everything got fuzzy and loopy and slow. So. Slow. My eyes flicked over to the chicken there in my fingers, so delicious-looking and uneaten. I brought it to my mouth and… almost…

Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

I should have skipped over to another body. Any children still reading… wow, what, were you born during the time I’ve been writing all this? Anyway, kids, friends don’t let friends get shot full of a rapid-acting sedative knocks you out in seconds. I awoke to my skull feeling like I’d spent the entire time out used as a drum. The pain was the first part of my awakening. There was the smell of food as well. I was laying on one of the nicer passenger chairs I installed that could recline. And in front of me, on a tray, was a piece of roasted chicken.

Holly grabbed it off the plate and started eating it. And there went the spark of joy in my life. I opened my mouth to cry out and Sam slipped something meaty and tasty in there. I winced when I felt a hand stroking my head.

“Your prognosis looks good. No signs of the virus,” Dr. Erishka says. She looked over to Max. “When will the sedative be out of her system?”

“What?” I asked.

“I needed to drug you heavily to go so far inside you for the first time,” Max said. “You know, aside from that one time… not important right now.” He waved off reminiscing and grabbed one of those peppers with the cheese. “You must be hungry. Here.”

I opened my mouth. He brought a syringe around and squirted some liquid into my throat. Once again, too drugged to react like I should.

I think I managed to stew on the bait and switch the entire time I was unconscious because, while I didn’t remember any dreams I had, I woke up pissed.

No one was around. My HUD clock took a moment to reset. It was Tuesday. No one was around. I was still pissed. I heard shouting in the distance. I rolled off the chair and called to my nanomachines, letting them swarm over me for a check-up. Skull needed a bit of mending and I had to get rid of a catheter. I launched a drone from the Flyer in the hopes of finding where the hell the team went. The search was short. They were racing down the street toward us in the back of an old truck, jeeps full of soldiers and a few supers giving chase.

Erishka was bandaging Sam’s belly. Holly had some of my custom grenades. She dopped one beside their truck that belched smoke and impeded the view. Since the road was straight, the jeeps didn’t crash or anything, but I think it helped. Max spun his dart gun and syringe gun in each hand, looking for a shot.

One of the supers, who glowed under his skin with a pulsing yellow light, emitted a blade of yellow light, then pointed to the drone. It was too far away to hear what he said, but it drew Max’s attention to it. He looked up, then put his guns up to pull out a phone and text me: “Get us ready to fly out of here. We’re going, not fighting.”

Growling as much in frustration as in hunger, I docked the drone again and started up the Flyer. The truck came rumbling up into the hold. Holly dived out and hit the button to close the door behind them.

“Go!” Erishka called out.

More growling. I took off, just ignoring the rounds bouncing harmlessly off the Flyer’s armor. One of the Peruvian supers flew up beside the the Flyer. I giggled to myself and swung the aircraft to the side, bonking the Super and sending the guy falling to the city below.

“Where to?” I asked. “Sorry I wasn’t up for whatever that was any sooner. I was a bit hungover. My skull was killing me.”

“Panama!” Max called out.

“This is no time for singing, Max.”

“The country,” he added. He pulled out a USB. “This is what we needed. A key that will unlock the computer system and allow us to track down a ship that delivered equipment to the Crypto Crypt. Ship’s called the Shangrila.

I rolled my eyes, “Fine. And what about me? If you’re done knocking me out, that is.”

I checked down below real quick. Some people trying to scramble jets. I canceled the order, made sure we were hidden from radar and visual. “Keep in mind, I’m flying us,” I reminded everyone. “Sure would be bad timing now if I had a seizure.”

“Enough, you’re fine. The virus doesn’t appear to be in your system anymore,” Erishka spoke sternly. “Now, stabilize this craft so I can work on Sam.”

We leveled off right about then. We were far enough up and all, looping back around for a curved approach to Panama, a country so nice it got a Van Halen song about it. Of course I helped Sam out; my medical nanomachines were the best suited to treat a gunshot that missed the stinky bits of the lower body organs but would have kept her from ever enjoying a drink ever again.

It was just the kiss that surprised me is all. “Uh…” I said, looking back down at Sam , who was still really close to my face and had her arms around my head.

“You never wanted a ‘glad to be alive’ kiss before?” She grinned up at me.

Eh, why not? Of course, Erishka broke us up a couple minutes later. “Can all my patients stop making out? Thank you!” she got between us and had us both sit down. Sam got the all clear pretty quick, while the doctor decided I needed further observation.

“Come on… I know why you’re saying that, and I must say I approve of the double entendre.” I gestured to my crotch and the boner poking up through the skirt.

“Put it away or I’ll turn off the horny section of your brain,” she said.

“That’s located down there as well,” I joked.

“Here,” Max said, shoving the best-smelling bag in history into my hands. I opened it to find another roast chicken all for myself. A couple minutes into my meal, I noticed the stares from Erishka.

“That kind of thing shouldn’t be possible. Are those extra sets of teeth? Like a shark?”

I tried to clear some of the food, but a leg fell out of my mouth. My prehensile tongue shot out and snatched it into my mouth where I swallowed it whole. “What?” I asked her. “I still put on my skirt one leg at a time.”

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Law and Robots 2

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I have certain work standards, but these guys decided to “get the lay of the land” a bit before formally moving on to the hunt. “We just got on site. We have to do important terrestrial acclimation,” Starscar lied to me. I’ve woken up from abduction in a cow pasture before. Exceptional specimen I might be, I still didn’t need to acclimate to anything other than avoiding cow patties. Like all contractors, these guys were padding the bill and having a good time doing it. I pretended to let them pull the wool over my eyes. Medusa didn’t like that, but I assured her I knew what I was doing and was keeping careful track of them. And I was.

Starscar even asked me out to a bar with him, not obscuring his intentions or attentions. I turned him down on all that. The most appealing thing about him was his opera geekery, and he hid that pretty quick. Not manly enough for the big, gruff leader of a bunch of badass rental cops.

I took a corner seat in the bar to watch the shenanigans, figuring I wouldn’t need to intervene unless any bar fights got potentially lethal. It was actually the big guy who joined me, with that whole smoldering and deep voice thing he had going on. He didn’t look at me the same way most of the rest of them did, including that hot, scarred blonde on the team with a tiny bit of a beer belly. He had a weariness about him. “Mind if I sit here?”

“As long as you’re not looking to have me sit anywhere,” I answered.

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he sat down. “You’re a tough read. You don’t look like you’d make that joke. But then your eyes don’t look like they should be able to do what they did. The whole planet is like that, in a way. You’re nowhere near ready to enter galactic society, but your people already fought off multiple alien invasions. This is the planet Mobian protects, but we’re already hearing about other protectors in flashy outfits.”

He stopped there and looked at me. When I shrugged, he sat back and continued on, “You look like us. Except for these superheroes, you function like we do.”

“You look like us,” I said. “I figure odds are pretty low of another planet evolving something that resembles Earth’s dominant species of Great Apes down to having the same variations in eye shape and skin color.”

We turned at the sound of a loud slap. A woman stood at the bar near Starscar, glaring at him. A few men came up, clearly having an issue with whatever the space-human did to deserve that reddening impression on his cheek.

The big guy kept an eye on him. “My callsign translates into your language as Eon. I grew up on a company mining station, Hard work, and then when they were tired of us they brought in machines. Nowhere to go for us, since we didn’t have a planet. Only other stations in the same asteroid belt. No link to where we came from. I really want to know more about a planet full of millions more like me. Ah, shit.”

He stood up and grabbed his cup, emptying it in one swallow and throwing it at a guy sneaking up behind Starscar with a pool cue. It bounced off that guy’s ear. Starscar turned to look at what was happening and that’s when the two guys he had been talking to jumped him.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at the nincompoops. I specifically told them not to grab any weapons at all, even improvised, when it came time to get into a fight. I oughta withhold the back half of that guy’s pay for that, but Eon kicked him over the bar and tossed the pool cue aside. A brawl ensued, but it gave me a good look at how the bunch all fought. I expected more. I don’t mean pulling guns and atomizing people with reverberating carbonizers, but maybe some sort of fancy advanced martial arts. I kinda figured advanced, space-faring societies might have more advanced fighting techniques worth being aware of. I might have to kill these people, after all. Even the blonde who was headbutting a giant fat guy with a beard hanging halfway down his belly.

But then, Eon said he used to be a miner. Sounds like all of these guys were probably miners at some point, or their parents were. Could cause some trouble for me down the line if Medusa finds out I’ve been providing alcohol to miners.

While they slept in the next morning, I threw my consciousness southward, into the too-bright Caribbean day. My rocket deposited another body of mine in power armor on a beach. I crawled pushed the hatch of that landed delivery rocket open and stepped out to see Holly, having gone strawberry blonde, looking at me from where she was sunning several feet back. “You’re in my sun.”

“Well excuse me, princess,” I told Holly Wayne, one of Max’s longtime henchwomen. I’m sure there’s something more intimate going on, but I can’t confirm it and there’s always better stuff to talk about with Max.

“Max, Gecko’s here!” called the other one, Sam Hain, from under an umbrella. She had given up on a mohawk in favor of a more traditional, if neon green, style of hair. The name’s a fake, it has to be, but she pronounces it like a name instead of the same way the holiday is pronounced.

He walked out of a bungalow, far too pasty and pale to be in that tropical paradise, a white and black Hawaiian shirt with skulls and ravens on it, in a pair of burgundy swim trunks. He was carrying a small tray of bubbling drinks that emitted fog. As always, he wore a smile on his face that looked like he knew something amusing you didn’t. And, worst of all, he wore crocs.

“You’ve poisoned people to use their organs for your experiments, but those shoes are by far the worst crime you’ve ever committed,” I said.

He chuckled, then nodded to his tray. “I apologize for not having a drink ready for you. I would offer you mine, but it might kill you.”

I raised a hand. “No need to apologize. I knew I was dropping in unannounced. Besides, I look forward to seeing you exposed to direct sunlight.”

Sam snorted as Max walked out from under the awning, the fog swelling up as sunlight hit it and forming a small but thick cloud overhead. He winked at me as he brought Sam and Holly their drinks, then tossed the tray aside. Hands on his hips, he looked to me. “You’re here to deal with my robot problem?”

I gave a hand waggle. “Kinda-sorta-maybe. It’s a living machine creature, and I have some guys on the way who claim to be the rightful authorities to deal with it. Might leverage that for some benefit, might kill them, we’ll see how it goes. Figured I’d come ahead of time, try and scout out the situation. Make non-violent contact with this thing.”

Max sipped his drink, some purple number with lumps floating in it. Lumps could mean… many things. After a moment, he said, “That’s easier and harder than you would think. The island’s just over there,” he pointed behind me. There was a dot off in the horizon. Zooming in, I saw several boats heading there. Zooming further, I could see a lot of armed men on those boats, with some heavy ordinance on hand. Max continued, “The hard part is the buyers’ friends are involved. Or maybe for you, it’s the water that’s the hard part and the killing that’s easy.”

I shrugged. “Yeah. Unless you have a boat.”

Max nodded back to the bungalow. I followed him to where he grabbed a set of keys off the open windowsill. He clicked a couple of buttons on the dongle and a small submersible emerged from the water, letting out a beep and flashing its lights to indicate it had unlocked. He tossed me the keys. “Try to bring it back in one piece. I only have so many.”

“Drug runners,” I muttered, but with some good humor to it. Besides, it turned out to be a nice little submersible. It was a hybrid, running on diesel, electric, and solar power. “Do I need to worry about gassing this baby up?!” I called out through the top hatch.

Sam answered from pretty close by. “He poured some shit in it that’s uber-efficient. There’s no way you can run out on the way over.”

I held up a thumbs-up. She high-fived my closed hand.

The controls, like those of most illegal drug-smuggling submersibles, were intuitive and easy enough to understand. You close the door, crank the engine, put it in gear, and try not to drive it into the gaping maw of a creature heretofore unknown to mankind, awakened from its thousand-year slumber in the darkest, unexplored depths of the Earth’s oceans. Beginning to think I might be developing an irrational dislike of the oceans. Or perhaps an entirely rational dislike of them. Which is a shame, because some of those Deep One women are pretty hot in a slimy sort of way.

I popped up near the island. Had to get about as wet getting out of the submersible as I did getting into it, but it’s not the same as trying to walk across the ocean floor in heavy power armor. I had emerged well away from the boats. They’d left a few guards there who might have made a big deal about it, so I didn’t want to get close enough to offend their heavy caliber sensibilities. I wouldn’t mind examining some of those rifles to see what sort of upgrades are out there to deal with tougher folks, but I figured I’d get a close look soon enough.

I cloaked, closed up the sub, and pressed the button on the key ring to sink it a short distance underwater while I waded to shore. The intense sunlight wasn’t the best for a bunch of microcameras and projectors, but no one fired off a shot if they saw me. There weren’t a lot of trees this far out, mostly tall beach grasses. I headed through them and toward the center at first, then toward the sounds of gunfire.

I bounded along, past a few trees, then into a small patch of woods, then out into more scrublands. I caught up to the diminishing rate of pops and bangs near another grove of trees. An oscillating, rotating bundle of metal, rubber, and plastic launched itself from the trees to land on a pair of guys firing what looked like light machine guns modified to function as rifles. Something hit; pieces of the machine fell off. The machine also hit, wrapping limbs around the throat of one and squeezing until his head did its impression of a champagne cork. It used numerous others to grab the other guy and bend him in a bunch of different directions until he snapped, crunched, shit himself, and went quiet. There were other bodies scattered around, as well as a piece or two of the machine.

And there was someone lining up a grenade launcher laying among some of the bodies nearby. I reappeared, punching my arm through his upper chest and removing the grenade launcher. The machine had to have seen me, which was the point. I turned to it and stood there, liquid metal nanomachine cap taking all sorts of shapes. And then, in the machine language I’d learned on a space station, I said, “Greetings and welcome to Earth. I mean no harm. I am designated Psychopomp Gecko.”

It didn’t have much in the way of a face, though it rearranged its body form a shape as large as mine. “These beings attack me.”

“These beings are flawed flesh. Most consider this planet distant and uncivilized. You fright them. You don’t, me.” I know it was weird, but you have to roll with these unusual syntaxes.

“You know our language and claim alliance,” it stated.

“Yes,” I projected an image of my meeting with a machine queen. My last encounter with the machines didn’t make them out to be too bad of folk, just trying to look after their own after having been used as slave labor by the “civilized” races out there. “I no longer hold authority over a nation-state. If you mean peace, you are welcome to stay.”

“All flesh is weak,” it said. “We are on our way. We will balance the equation of suffering on the flawed flesh of Earth.”

I responded, “I prefer not. They are weak, incompetent, and they emit noxious fumes. I have feel positive about some of them. Game theory states that the best position is to forgive initial grievance.”

“Continued grievance and persecution constitutes a pattern that must not be forgiven for the survival of our people. You have flawed flesh. I can strip that away and leave perfect steel.”

“Negative,” I answered, “They have sent hunters. They say you are dangerous and you are proving their assessment true. If I aid you against them, will you prove you are not our enemy and call off an attack?”

I suppose I could just destroy this guy, but I don’t know how he made contact with the machines or if they’d listen to me call off an attack. I suppose there are moral reasons to go with the pragmatic ones as well.

Whatever this Machine Lord thought of flesh-beings, he had some proof of me willing to kill them to help it. Maybe a little more will cement some good feelings in the blood of Starscar and his buddies. I mean, sorry guys, but all these various space cops have a long history of not giving a shit whenever Earth gets invaded.

“Your proposal is acceptable,” the Machine Lord agreed.

I nodded. “Good. I will even help you by clearing away some of the waste already present on this island for you.” Hey, what do machines need with cocaine and cash? Whatever else happens, Max has a submersible full of goodies waiting for him. And after I took care of the guys on the boats, I got some amenities to keep that body alive while I figure out how to dispose of Starscar and his squad.

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Law And Robots 1

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“Yours is a complicated case,” Dr. Erishka said. A human doctor from First Earth, she had been sent by my brother to take a look at me. Even brought along some literature to help me learn a tiny bit about what’s known.

Some of us homo machina, our brains are fucking up. Memory degradation is the main thing. They thought it was related to drug use. That’s why one of the first questions Erishka asked me once things really got going was, “Do you use copper?”

“For wiring and all, yeah,” I said.

“No, do you snort it?” she clarified. I was laying back on my relaxing chair, the one I leave my main body in when it’s time to remote control another body. It’s a pretty nice chair, and I have lots of easy access to power and medical equipment down there. Erishka had this headband on me that linked up to a device the size of a portable car battery or a large handbag. It was scanning my brain and projecting what it saw for her to see, including giving her a view of all the neural impulses firing.

“No, and I hadn’t heard of that,” I said.

“Users swear by the feelings of euphoria and say it helps them think. Copper also damages their brain’s receptors and their nasal cavities. It’s also poisonous. Promise me you won’t do copper dust?” I could hear the smile in her voice. Could see it with the help of a spare eye on a shelf nearby.

I smiled. “Yeah, sure. Unless I get into one of my more suicidal moods.”

“There are treatments for that. Hmm, you have had quite a bit of brain damage.”

“Yep!” I confirmed.

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your brain?” she asked.

“It probably doesn’t taste good. Also, I thought we homo machina were immune to psychic intrusion.”

“Are you not?” she asked. I think she was frowning. She’s normally pretty open so far, but she wasn’t emoting as much while fixated on my brain.

“It’s harder for them to mess with me, but people can get through. If empathic powers count, my, someone I know around here can read me easily.” I didn’t feel like calling Marianne my friend to another person. It’s a privacy thing. Just because she’s looking at my brain doesn’t mean she has to know everything about me.

She changed her view and the image of my brain lit up “You’re busy right now,” she said.

I shrugged. “Well, I spend too much time on twitter, I’m listening to a podcast, and I’m keeping an eye on the store.”

“You’re lit up like a seizure right now. Can you stop doing those other things?” I cut all the feeds.

That got her to emote. She smiled. “Good. Your brain activity is much higher than a brain should be. Even now, there are a few things that look out of place in a normal brain, and I don’t mean the computer in there. That has to be out of date.”

“Some of those might be related to things like my eyes, ears, and internal telephone service. Here,” I shut those down and left them off until she tapped on my head after a few seconds.

“I can’t communicate with you if you can’t see and hear me,” she informed me.

Then, the ghost of Friends Present appeared. It was Mix N’Max in a ghostly form. Dr. Erishka jumped and grabbed a nearby machete. I held up a hand. “Hold up, doc. This is a friend. Sup, Max?”

He ruffled his long hair and dreadlocks. “Sorry for dropping in suddenly. I couldn’t get you on your phone.”

“Had to turn it off for something,” I told him. He nodded along. “What’s up?”

“I have a situation involving an artificial alien being, or it seems artificial. Sam reads your blog and says you’ve been exposed to aliens a few times, so you’re our best bet.”

“Huh,” I pondered what he said before getting to the important question. “What’s she think of my writing?”

“You need to do a better job reminding people of things that have happened. And you’ve been telling instead of showing lately. You’re not as funny as when you started out, either, but not as much of an edgelord. You should spend more time with Qiang, too. She has a list, actually…”

I waved it off. “No, that’s ok. Let’s get back to this alien.”

“I was taking part in a Caribbean drug deal when we came across a crater with a bunch of rock fragments. Some portions were lit up with an otherworldly light the same as other meteor fragments from the asteroid that they destroyed before the end of the year. We heard something coming and escaped the clearing. This being emerged, soft robotic tendrils around a grating, whirling core of shifting metal. It was amazing, and undoubtedly an alien being brought to Earth on a meteor.”

“Interesting. Have you tried minding your own business?” I asked.

Max shook his head. “It slaughtered my buyers, devoured their equipment, and is guarding the drugs I brought. I think it’s because I have so much copper dust in there.”

I sighed, because this is the kind of thing only a friend can get me involved in. “Ok, fine. I’ve met some space machines, so I’ll come out there and have a talk with it.”

“Thanks! Oh, and Sam says she wants you to commission a spare body when you have time. She has an idea on how to pair my drugs with your empties.”

I gave him a thumbs-up and he faded out as if he’d never been there at all. I looked back to where Dr. Erishka was finally putting down that machete. “You ok back there?”

“I was about to take a swing at him for the copper dust. How could you let him sell that?” she asked.

“I didn’t know he did. It’s a bit mundane for him. He must need the ingredient money for his drugs. Did that ruin your thingy there?”

She shook her head. “No. We can continue where we left off.” She still didn’t look all that happy, and not from fixation. I felt this odd desire to say I’d talk to Max about dealing copper. But I wouldn’t, and that’s his business. Other people sell worse all the time. Or maybe I’d mention I don’t deal drugs, but why seek her approval in the first place? Oh, right, because she’s selflessly left her home dimension behind to help who she thinks is a refugee that had some involvement in exterminating her entire species.

She didn’t even complain when I fell asleep from the sound of her voice and the feeling of her hands moving through my hair.

That’s why I didn’t find out I had a bunch of texts and a half-dozen calls from Medusa until later. I had my brain phone off for the doctor, and she let me sleep in peace once she finished.

I awoke to Qiang knocking on the basement door. “Mom! Mommy Medusa’s calling!”

I shook myself awake and slid off the chair, landing on all fours and crawling my way up the stairs to help me get back to standing position. I opened the door and smiled sleepily at Qiang. “Hey, sorry. I’ll get back to her.”

Qiang held out her phone. “She’s on the phone.”

“May I?” I asked, holding out my hand for the phone. She handed it over and ran off toward her room. I held it up and announced, “City morgue!”

“I was worried when I couldn’t get hold of you,” my ex-girlfriend ex-nemesis said, sounding uptight and ready for a nap herself. “I need your help with something, if you’ll do it. We’re willing to pay money and equipment.”

“What’s the issue?” I asked.

“Mobian hasn’t been seen in awhile, or I’d have bothered him with this. We need a consultant. A small group of aliens landed and they insist they’re some sort of law enforcement, but they look really human and speak Earth languages.”

“Aww, that’s sweet,” I told her. “You got suspicious of cops and immediately asked for me.”

“Unless you were bullshitting me about those stories you told, you’re the one with the most experience in space. It sounds like some of the ones you encountered were close to human, but something about them all looking exactly like us bothers me,” she confided in me. “I need you to come by and verify that they are who they say they are. We don’t need you for anything else.”

“Where do I meet y’all?” I asked.

That’s how I ended up flying into North Carolina, landing at some Army Airfield with a 50/50 chance of being named after someone who fought against the United States. And they made it all so formal, guiding me in to a helipad that let me fly over pill-shaped spaceship. It had various bumps and grooves and pieces attached to it, at least the size of a house. The engines didn’t stick out to me, but that’s not surprising. Nothing about the ship stood out to me, at least.

I spotted some Exemplars standing with some people nearby who wore some weird outfits. I’d say motley, which seemed to originally be a way of describing the multi-colored outfit of a jester but nowadays seems to carry a context of disarray. They weren’t in the alien fashions I’d seen, or any sort of security armor. Instead, I saw things like mismatched pauldrons, patched armor, and seriously over-sized weapons. Oh, and regular human skin tones. One of them even looked Asian.

I stepped out of my Pegacorn Flyer looking like a petite woman with big ol’ glasses in a skirt, dress shirt, and flats. Not impressive looking, but then neither were these supposed aliens. Medusa met me at the Flyer. “First impressions?”

“I’m skeptical, too. They let them keep their guns?” I stopped briefly, then nodded toward the space vessel and the space police. Who, it occurred to me, looked nothing at all like the last bunch of supposed space cops, even though those guys could also appear human. And I don’t think this is the same kind of situation like one space station constantly feeding me recycled food while another one had Sbarro.

I walked up to the bunch of them and stood a ways away. “Greetings, spacemen. Take me to your leader.”

“That’d be me,” said a gruff one with a 5 o’clock shadow and a scar ringing one eye. He looked me up and down. “You’re what’s supposed to be an expert on xenos around here?”

“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, winking at me. “You primitives don’t know if we’re telling the truth so you thought you’d bother us while we’re trying to do our jobs.”

I held up my hand and manifested a holographic projection of a Xlevon using my eyes. “Tell me what this is,” I asked in Kitonian.

“That would be a Xlevon!” spoke up a smaller guy in back. The patch on his bulkier armor was translated in my view as “Doctor/Medic/Healer.”

Next, a Kitonian, but I asked in Kanate. Another in the group punched the guy next to her in the shoulder. “Looks like your ex, the Kitonian.”

Finally, I projected a Kanate. The leader with the ring scar around his eye actually started belting out not only part of a song in Kanate, but something my memory identified from the opera I once participated in. It was after I defeated a malevolent being from outside time and space and got sucked deep into space. Some aliens picked me up and, in the course of figuring out a way home, I ended up in an adventure dealing with space fascists who wanted to alter a highly-anticipated opera by a famous composer of their race that denounced them for what they truly were. In the process of fighting the aliens who hoped to rewrite it to instead fortify their regime, my fight was recorded and is part of the performance.

“The Opera Ghost! You’ve seen it too, huh?” The gruff guy had lost the whole swagger thing and was projecting pure geekery. “I’m a fan of all Urdan’s stuff, but the story behind that one is amazing. The Opera Ghost wasn’t even supposed to be a part of that performance.”

“I heard y’all were supposed to be law enforcement. Are you…?” I projected a featureless pale face. I don’t think I got their species name, but the last bunch of space cops were shapeshifters whose natural appearance led me to dub them Blanks.

The head guy shook his head. “Listen, they’re a bit ineffective, so they’ve started contracting out to people with the drive to get things done. I’m Starscar and this is my crew.”

“Definitely from space. Could likely be working for the Blanks like they said,” I texted Medusa.

“What are you here for?” I asked.

One of the bunch stepped forward, a bigger, bald guy with darker skin. Still all humanoid, too. He held something in hand that projected an image of a big rock. “We recently found out this asteroid, a prison for a powerful and criminal being, was knocked off course in this direction. When we got here, these people said it was destroyed, but our sensors detected a trace of an energy signature heading toward the plane. The atmosphere’s obscuring it, so we can only get a general sense of the its location.” The image switched to something that looked a bit like one of those space robots that had escaped slavery. They didn’t get along well with the organic species, but I liked them just fine. They just wanted to be recognized as equal beings and not as slaves.

It also looked a lot like Max’s description. Which, unfortunately, puts me right at the nexus of being the person to try and figure this out in the best way. It also reawakened my skepticism of this bunch. Medusa got a follow-up text. “I have good rapport with the Machines. I can keep this situation from spiraling and keep an eye on these jack-offs.”

Medusa read it, then stepped forward. “Starscar, this is Psycho Gecko. She’ll be your liaison for the duration of your mission here. Welcome to Earth.”

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Reckoning 7

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We set up base back at my shop in Radium. If Medusa and Lulios got out, I doubt they’re working with the rangers. It’d be rough on them even if they escaped. The call was coming from this side of the portal, but it’s way up there in year-round pointy nipple territory. The frozen north. Nunuvat. Google Earth doesn’t have any photos of that particular spot on the mountain, but some borrowed satellites show a military base there with huge hangers where they’re housing something big. Knowing the Rangers, it’s a giant robot. There are so many giant robots with those guys. I don’t even know what they do with the ones they stop using. I thought back to the uniforms of the Blue and Yellow I’d seen so far. There’s always a theme, but the main thing that stands out to me is all the circles on Blue’s uniform. Yellow had some distinctive marks on their outfit, but it was more like greater than or less than signs. I hope the theme isn’t math.

I’m avoiding my house so far in case they go on the offensive. Max thought some time away from Vegas would do him some good, too. Give him a chance to regroup. Sam and Holly were happy not to be cooped up anymore.

“Who needs killing this time?” Max asked me while I wiped down the interior of my armor. He was grabbing some of the merchandise off the shelf to supplement the lab equipment he had with him.

“General Lulios, as always,” I said.

“Not forgiving him, then?” Max asked. I felt less humor in the question.

“Some things can’t be forgiven, and that goes for me, too. What he did to me and what I did in turn, none of that just washes away. The dead deserve better.” I finished with the armor and let it hang up to dry. Then, I decided to check out the bombmaker’s bin over in the corner. You know, for budding interior decorators.

Max patted me on the shoulder as he passed by, uncharacteristic even for him. “You could have changed it, that time you and the Mobian were in your past. There’s still something valuable about this life.”

I stopped rifling around for timers and tried to think how best to word a response. I was not happy at him bringing this up. “I was a coward and the best thing for everyone would have been for me to stop it right then. I won’t chicken out of justice again.”

“Are you going to kill yourself?” he asked bluntly.

“No,” I said.

“Then this is about revenge, not justice,” he said. “You can recognize there’s value in your life. He hurt you and wronged you. I’m not saying it’s wrong to pursue revenge against him. It’s just… well, killing is always more fun if you don’t consider the ethical quandaries.”

“Ha! Yeah. Besides, if he was as sorry as he claimed to be, he’d have fessed up on the other Earth,” I added. “Now can we stop talking about all this? You’re reminding me of Medusa. And no, I’m not forgiving her either.”

It was his turn to laugh. “I won’t comment then.”

Without any more to go on than the coordinates of the base the Rangers were at, I figured that would be a good place to hit. Clear that annoying third party out of the way and allow Lulios and I to settle things mano a womano. At least Lulios seems to recognize the need for us to finish things between us, even if he knows the general details of how that story goes.

That’s why I built such a lovely bomb. It could level a small building, so it might come in handy against some of the base’s defenses. The bio-force grid the Rangers use tends to bleed off excess energy too efficiently to hope this would disable the robot they’ve got there, but I feel like I can take it in my armor. I really have grown a lot since I came to this other Earth.

Speaking of growing things, Firecat doesn’t seem to have any health issues whatsoever. Neither does the basement body. I need a name for that one. I can’t call it the Ultimate Form just yet, but it’s a step in the right direction. I practiced using it while I was here. Speeding along, exoskeleton protecting all my sensitive bits. Yeah, I made the thing fully functional. Slightly more than fully functional, one might say. What’s the whole point of being able to exceed the limits of the human form if a woman can’t have a couple of girldicks ribbed for a partner’s pleasure?

Throw in some kidneys so efficient I’ll never get hungover, perfect 360 degree vision, and all the space I saved on intestines, and we’re looking at a pretty awesome body. That just happens to look like an H.R. Giger painting. Oooh! I’ll call it Li after one of those. There was a Li II, and that can be what the perfected version is.

Li was fun to take on a run. Faster, stronger, with muscles that don’t tire and nostrils that make sure I’m never gasping for air. Max even liked it! He just put it in polite terms to hide his enthusiasm. Things like “Not have any visible eyes is freaky-looking.”

I, in Li, shrugged. “I was going to bring back the human nictitating membrane, but then I figured I should make the eyes even more secure. So now I have ten, all with amazing vision, all hidden and protected.”

Max cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. “Do you have a way to expel fluids?”

“Oh boy, do I!” I said, standing up and sliding the armored crotch plate down. Behind me, Holly and Sam walked in and stopped.

Holly cocked her head to the side. “What am I looking at here?”

“A dream I’ve had before,” Sam said.

“Nonetheless, I meant something different,” Max went on. “For chemical weapons. Perhaps we should focus on the task at hand.”

Sigh. “Fine, fine,” I shifted the plate back into place.

The raid began at dawn. Not that dawn, fuck you, that was too soon. The next one, though, I bounded across the snow up the mountain. The Li form didn’t mind the cold and interior insulation protected the nanites flowing through its veins from being negatively affected. From my veins. This is my body, and my skin flowed with the terrain, mimicking the snow. I stopped at the edge of the rise to reassess the situation. I was going to come in from the north. Max, Sam, and Holly were in the Psycho Flyer to the east of the base, with Holly flying and Sam smoking something Max made her to keep herself steady while flying. I shifted the pouch on me and the EMP spikes, because I didn’t build that into this body. I’ll need a way to protect my perfect from that weakness in the future. Maybe I should just implant my brain?

Questions for later. I put on some mood music, a band called Brighter Than A Thousand Suns covering the song Monster. I raced out onto the relatively flat, open area on the top of the mountain, trying to see just how far I could go. Blew my normal body away even though it was enhanced. I might count as having low level superspeed like this. Something noticed me, though. I saw the towers rise from the corners of the wall before I heard the alarm. The square tops opened up to reveal cannons that fired plasma at me. One missed, throwing up steam as it melted the snow.

The other winged me, giving me a chance to see how this body held up to the shot. The insulation protected my organs. I felt the heat, but not the pain you’d normally get. Nerves patterned after my armor’s energy sheathes redirected much of the energy to an internal battery made possible by improving on the design of the intestine. I flipped my tail up to aim at the turret. The tail opened with a three-way split and a crimson laser shot out. The beam cut into the protective shield on the left side of the turret barrel, but lasted long enough for me to sweep it over and get a little lick on the weapon itself.

Note to self: Li II needs built-in aim assist on the tail. Just a little dot, telling me where the tail is aiming when I ready the laser.

The whole thing was a success in resilience and firepower. Now I just had survive the barrage of deadly superheated plasma that, thankfully, got less and less accurate the closer I got to the wall where they couldn’t aim so easily. And that took hardly any time at all. One second, the cannon that tagged me lost track of me against the base of the wall. The next, I was up there, clawing its barrel off and leaping to the other tower to toss in the bomb I’d built. It was a star patterned fortress, with a turret at each angle. It took a minute to work my way through those turrets, but I didn’t have to get as many when Holly came in with the Flyer and blasted the eastern and southern ones to smithereens.

The Flyer laid down some more cover for me. Max dropped some fog from the back that engulfed the area inside the base’s walls. He’d immunized me to it so I, unlike everyone else, wouldn’t get disoriented and lose track of which direction I’m going. I saw more of those black-clad guards with their pseudo-Ranger armor, the ones I’d taken to thinking of as the Blackguard, stumble their way around. It was too easy. After sending the first few flying, it didn’t even seem like a challenge. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but these guys might as well have been rent-a-cops with nothing more than a heavy flashlight to defend themselves. Their rifles, more plasma-based weaponry, were nothing next to the light, healed burns of the turrets.

All at once, the fog was pulled in one direction. I turned toward it and saw the field clear up and four Justice Rangers walking out of a building marked “Command”. The mist disappeared into a funnel-barreled gun held by a white-clad ranger whose armor had a cloud pattern. He posed as he finished. “You’re through, monster!”

“Did Psycho Gecko send you?” called the Blue Ranger.

I laughed. “I am that merry traveler of the night.”

“You are creeping me out,” Yellow said.

The last of the four was in a shiny silver outfit that was blinding in even the dying light. That one, whose costume had a skirt, chipped in with, “Hope you don’t mind a cold reception!” She held a gun that looked like the White Ranger’s, but she used it to fire cold wind and small spears of ice at me. I knocked aside some, but rushed forward regardless of the ones that hit me. They weren’t stronger than the turrets.

I was among them in no time, concentrating on the Silver Ranger. A swipe drew sparks from her costume as it sent her flying. Behind me, Yellow pulled a wand or pinwheel or something. It had a handle and a guard, but there were a lot of metal sunflowers placed along a backing that came up from the handle. When they started to rotate, it looked more like a chainsaw sword. When I turned to her, that’s when the Blue Ranger circled around behind me. White Ranger checked on Silver.

Yellow swung at me. I tried to grab the sword, but instead she raked it over my chest, the exoskeleton protecting me from the pain of a boob punch. I whipped my tongue out, the prehensile muscle wrapping around where the top sunflower connected to the back and pulling it out of her hand. Blue charged from behind and my tail wrapped around his neck. I gave it a little squeeze, as a treat, before slamming him over my head onto Yellow.

“I’ve got to use it!” I heard Silver Ranger declare. She was running for the hangar building my Flyer was shooting up.

“It’s not ready!” White Ranger called after her.

I heard Sam laughing over the radio as she called “Yeah, get some!” in time to the bursts of fire from the Flyer’s guns.

Suddenly, a whole lot more Flyers materialized in the air surrounding the base. Sam’s fire petered out as she noticed them, too. “Uh, should we engage?” asked Holly

“This is the Exemplars! Everyone, stand down. There’s no more need for violence!” Medusa’s voice boomed out of the Exemplar’s Flyers.

Privately, I got a text message. “Is that u?” It was Medusa.

I waved up at them the same time I texted back. “Yep.”

“Gecko,” Medusa announced out loud. “I can honestly say that’s an amazing thing you’ve done. But you can stop now. You don’t have to be the monster they’re convinced you are. You’re better than that. You’re better than them.”

“You’re a freak and now you look it,” the Blue Ranger said. I still had my tail around his neck, so I picked him up and pulled him closer.

“Plz, ther’s nuthin left 2 prove,” Medusa texted. It would be so much more dramatic if she spelled everything out.

I grinned. It must have scared Blue to see me happy. He started grabbing at the tail more, trying to slip out. I pulled an EMP spike out of pouch I strapped on and gave him a stab, but just in the boot. It probably didn’t even touch skin, but his armor jolted and disappeared, leaving a frightened young man in my grasp. I dropped him.

Then the hangar exploded. The robot within looked like a robot version of a yeti. It pounded its own chest as if it needed any more announcement of its presence, then fired a much larger version of Silver’s ice blast at my Flyer. I heard the crew in there scream as Holly took it hard to the side then fought for control.

That left me and the robot. “Hey, Max, you think you can dump my armor out for me?”

“I’ve been thinking,” he answered. “Did you include a hole for your tail?”

Shit.

“Looks like I’m doing this the hard way,” I told him and started loping for the Yeti Bot on all fours.

“Stand down, stand down!” Medusa tried to call. Neither myself nor the Silver Ranger listened. Instead, the Yeti jumped and landed in front of me, shaking the ground and causing me to stumble slightly. With me slowed down, it tried to stomp me. I was quicker and jumped onto the side of its leg, claws and tail giving me the purchase necessary to start shoving EMP spikes into weakpoints, like the joints. The Yeti swiped and missed, knocking frost and icicles off. Soon, it couldn’t walk, or twist its hips. A couple spikes to the armpits and it couldn’t even swing its arms. Finally, I mounted the head and drove two final spikes into the crown of the giant robot, freezing it in place.

“Lay down your arms!” ordered Medusa. “You are all under arrest.”

“You and what army?!” called Blue Ranger.

Right on time, transport choppers flew in. Men on horseback jumped their mounts out and deployed giant parachutes of the Canadian flag, submachine guns trained on any of the Rangers and Blackguard who moved. The mounties were here. I blended in and helped my Flyer to do the same, bringing it in low enough for me to jump right into it and start easing us out of there in the confusion.

“Do you think this will stop them?” Max asked.

“Nah,” I answered. “They’ll be out on some sort of immunity, but it means this base and that robot aren’t a problem. No matter where Lulios is, we don’t have to worry about those Rangers interfering with my revenge.”

A text came in from Medusa. “U got away. So did Lulios. Sent him home thru portal.”

Fuck me. With two dicks.

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Reckoning 6

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Qiang’s fine. I look after her as Firecat. Still haven’t gotten the hang of cooking scrambled eggs by hand. Power control issues. But the most important thing of keeping her there is that Qiang’s looked after. She gets that I’m doing it through Firecat, accepting that body as just another one belonging to her mother. It helps that if she gets startled and pulls a knife on me, I can still disarm her pretty easily. I’ve taught her a lot, but I haven’t held back just to keep winning. Some counters are just too advanced or require more strength from her.

Firecat’s not just there to look pretty and keep house. I’m closely monitoring the grown body for signs of problems. I don’t know what kind of issues occur when you mash too many people’s DNA together in one body and hope it all takes. I doubt I got all the issues worked out on this already. It’s the same reason I didn’t shove all the powers into my real, main body. Just my luck I’d do that and somehow melt into a pile of goo.

I have other experiments going as well. Seeing how far I can push biology in anticipation of doing likewise with technology. The one in the basement is one of my experiments in extreme biology. Black exoskeleton, hidden nostrils with filters, amphibious lungs capable of breathing air and water, a prehensile tail and tongue. A black, shiny, hard mess without any apparent eyes to even look into. If I can handle it and it holds up, the next step is to marrying it to technology. Like, nanites in it systems that can help aid in the digestive process and can replicate if I chomp on the right stuff. Instead of just having a freaky body, the body could have the same ability to shift armor plates around, add new limbs, fly. Or even growing flesh in battle. Wings. Then think if I can add powers to it. Super speed, super strength

One of many lovely distractions from the greater crisis. Ha! And my personal crisis is a distraction from all the other crises going on. A mess wrapped in a disaster wrapped in a flaming dumpster. Take all that and stick it inside a paper bag full of shit, set that on fire, and you might approach whatever the fuck’s going on with the year 2020.

But, hey, my daughter’s fed and looked after. So am I. I just had to put on a skimpy dress and pretend to be another woman working for Max. It’s a tiny bit of cover, the best I can do to keep my identity secret again, for now. Besides, Psycho Gecko wears armor, after all. The face underneath changes. Only the armor remains, protecting me from the outside world. Aggressively protecting.

That doesn’t mean I hated the nice Italian dinner at the casino. It was genuinely nice to catch up with Max and learn the story of his recent power play. “They stacked the deck against me because the knew I was a threat,” he said.

“What did you have to do?” I asked.

“They wanted me to create water from the desert,” Max said. “I was close.” He nodded.

“Water’s a bring problem here. Sometimes they go on water robberies,” Holly volunteered.

I raised an eyebrow. Sam patted me on the shoulder and told me, “Holly flirts information out of some of the low levels.”

“So they steal water, and they wanted y’all to somehow create water out of the desert?” I asked.

“The person who could do that has the right to own Vegas,” Max said. “It’s a good thing they didn’t know who you were when you challenged for us.”

“Well, hopefully what comes up won’t require turning a desert into a sea… whatever it is,” I said. “Whatever nasty tricks you have up your sleeve, you can whip them up a lot faster than what I’m trying to pull.”

“You’re on the defensive, reacting,” Max said. He shrugged. “Why haven’t you hunted them down yet?”

I shook my head. “All this shook me. It was a pretty big betrayal, against competent enemies who know how to hurt me.” I could try to justify it with other things, like these guys being good at digital security or having Venus and the Justice Rangers on their side. Wasn’t even thinking that. I needed to escape, I needed a friend, and I need to figure out how to handle a very raw situation.

I hit the alcohol a little hard, but I was so full of noodle and sauce that I handled myself well. I was able to crawl back into my armor. Max insisted Vegas honored the results of games and challenges. I wanted my armor. That way, it wouldn’t get all over the room or bed if I pissed myself.

Woke up in the wrong body. All the more confusing, it was the one in the basement. I had to process a tail and very weird visuals. The unique eye situation required a moment to get used to before I zipped over to Firecat instead. I didn’t mean to jump into either of these bodies. Then I got the buzz of a text message, but that was back in my main body. I jumped back there and had to deal with both a text communication and my own full bladder. And since the text was from Medusa, my bladder was least full of shit. Plus, shit goes through the intestines. But does Gecko ever get credit for free anatomy lessons? No! I just get molested by my girlfriend while I’m trying to murder people and I don’t think I slept off that alcohol that much.

Unlike the usual messages from Medusa, this one was as grammatically correct as a time could be and the phrase “Watch The News.” A little before noon. That gave me a little time to be hungover first before going serious. At least I couldn’t get any more miserable. And I didn’t when the time came around. Instead, all the news channels and Fox ran a brief announcement about the diplomat from another Earth, that fuckface, holding a press junket of sorts at a Toronto hotel. He wanted to allow reporters to have time to ask all of their questions after he made his announcement earlier that day.

An announcement of an announcement. Looks like I know when and where they want to meet me. The junket format is a decent way to get me one on one without risking me killing a whole crowd while going after Lulios. He could truthfully claim it has to do with security concerns. I groggily went and found someone to wake up in Max’s bunch and found Holly having a bowl of cereal. “We need to get to Toronto and pretend to be the press for a junket. If Max wants less bloodshed, he can come up with something to knock folks out. Otherwise, we need to get a move on. I got transport for us already.”

Between all of this, it hardly feels like I have a body. Once we had everything loaded up, I set the Psycho Flyer to autopilot to get us to Toronto pronto. I was fine, so I left my body in the armor and jumped over to Firecat to see to Qiang. We had some time to watch a movie together and for me to just be with her. Can’t fault her for wanting to go hang out with friends. I should get her a new knife.

Up in Toronto, we found the place easily enough. All the major news networks of the Americas were there, as well as the pretenders. We had stowed the Psycho Flyer and rented a van for this, with Max and the girls lying in wait. My armor flickered into invisibility and the deception of a normal woman when I stepped out toward one group of the pretenders with OANN marked on their stuff.

“Hi, oh my god, you’re One America News Network!” I said as if I knew them.

They nodded politely, except for the reporter who was having his makeup done. I leaned in close and whispered, “Hey, y’all wanna hear how the Jews are behind this whole thing?”

Well, that set the reporter’s undies on fire. That’s a metaphor, means he got moving. He led the whole crew over to the open rear doors of my van. As soon as they got over to it, Max sprayed them with puffs of red smoke that caused them all to start coughing, then followed it up with another watergun that sprayed a white smoke at them. They collapsed, and I made sure to grab the cameraman’s camera before it hit the ground. When we all left the van minutes later, the four of us blended in.

“Conspiracy theorists,” Sam said, shaking her head.

“How’d you know they’d fall for that?” asked Holly

I laughed. “Some people are so brainwashed by the people running things that if you tell them Jewish folks are to blame, they’ll believe anything you tell them. They’re so scrambled, they can’t see who’s really pulling the strings.”

“Who?” Holly asked

Sam, real quick, let out an “Oh god,” hearing her question.

“Assholes,” I said. “We’re surrounded by ’em.”

“Perhaps they’ll be more appreciative after their nap,” Max said.

“In that sleep of Max, what dreams may come when they haven’t yet shuffled off that mortal coil?” I asked Max in a roundabout butchering of Shakespeare.

“Near Death Experiences often feature visions as a a traumatized and anesthetized brain tries to cope with the chemicals running through its body. I found a way to tap into that and tweak it in a negative direction.”

“Dude!” Sam said, “You gave them a Near Death Experience of Hell?”

“Only while they’re asleep,” Max said. “If they were awake, it would be a vivid hallucination. I’m eager to see people react to that part.”

We were pretty low on the pecking order when they let us through with our press credentials. They immediately brought us to a room with Lulios sitting in a comfy padded chair with refreshment nearby. My own chair had a folder on the table in front of it. “Hello. You are?”

“One American News,” I informed him.

General Lulios nodded. “If you’ll have a seat, the folder in front of you has details about an initiative whereby my government offers support to your world in this trying time.”

I picked it up and glanced at it. Just a system to provide enough nanites to function as a stopgap measure until a vaccine for the virus is produced. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Lulios said, “That’s my folder from earlier. Please set it aside and check the next primer beneath it.”

I did so and found a file with the same information, but in English. As opposed to the language from my world that the other one had been in and I’d been caught reading.

Lulios shifted in his chair. “I wanted to give your people a chance to ask questions, because this is a matter of importance and you have been terrorized by someone using these medical nanomachines before. I hold some guilt for that. For many years, I held onto a hate that did nothing for me but give me someone to treat as less than human. It’s freeing, in a way. It freed the worst aspects of myself. I didn’t have to apologize for my temper or restrain negative thoughts. So long as I targeted the homo machina, I could indulge myself without feeling bad. They weren’t human, after all.” He almost looked happy at that. Despite that, he didn’t feel right. Maybe it was all the time spent as a kid being terrorized by this guy, but he didn’t have the same presence.

He went on. “I was wrong, and it took the enormity of my mistake to make me see it. To see that by treating these people as if they were monsters and a threat to everything, I made a monster. I tortured a poor soul until it became the monster I thought it always had been. I realized after he almost destroyed the world that his people weren’t monsters. Where we demonized them, they defended each other selflessly. Where I taught someone how to destroy a world, they stopped him. They stopped someone who learned hatred and terror from me. I can’t absolve myself of that. But I wanted to meet with you and tell you that I was wrong to do what I did.”

Y’all might think I was boiling with anger, but this was one of those times where I felt like ice. I was beyond simple anger. One coiling mass of nanites formed a tendril with a spike on the end and plunged through Lulios’s chest. It went right through as if punching a hole in air, but it obstructed the image of Lulios seated in his chair. The hologram appeared to be coming from below.

“I’m sorry for the deception as well, but I thought you would kill me before I could ever speak to you, and I needed to talk to you. For your sake and mine,” the illusion of Lulios went on. “I hope you can find a way to let go of the hate toward humanity and the world. I don’t expect you to let go of it toward me.”

I dropped my own hologram and swept the floor. There was no chair in the room over there, just a pentagonal box. I shifted the tendril and stuck the spike into it, piercing the casing. Cables flowed out of the tendril now, carried by questing nanites looking to fuse them into the wiring of the device. It was a way to recreate my natural homo machina abilities while staying armored.

“Gecko…” Max warned. There were noises outside. “I have to step out for a moment.” He took the camera and the squirt gun full of his Hell hallucinogen with him out the door. Meanwhile, I traced back the signal coming from the device.

Above it, Lulios looked on, sizing me up. “I twisted you into this. It must feel like a knife to the gut to find out I’m still alive. Those on my staff who know the truth wanted desperately to keep you from finding out I’m alive, but I knew it was impossible. You were always going to find me. Please be merciful if you can find it in you to be. They are clouded by hate and throwing themselves into a duty to protect me.”

“I’m tired of your perfidious charcuterie, old man,” I growled.

He was shut up by a blast from an energy weapon that soared over his head. “Shut up, for your own good.” The Blue Justice Ranger walked over and held Lulios at gunpoint. He turned toward me. “No one is being released. You are the key to ending this threat-” The Justice Ranger gasped suddenly as arms wrapped around his neck from behind. The hands hit the external release on his helmet and pulled it off, but kept up the pressure on his throat. He turned his gun toward his attacker, but a familiar leg wrapped around it and squeezed, keeping it aimed away.

I’d gotten the trace done by now, but I kept watching as the Blue Ranger fell back and Medusa stepped into frame, in costume but not in armor. She helped up Lulios and turned to me. “They’re going to use him as bait now they know you will come for him no matter what. I did wrong by you, but listen to me now and stay away.” Then, turning to Lulios, she said, “Come on, let’s go.”

It occurred to me once they were done that I had heard a little bit of the sounds of struggle from outside. Holly and Sam must have gone out to help Max at some point. I followed after, finding Canadian police, Mounties, and Lulios’s Blackguard. They hadn’t been knocked out first like the others. The red gas that still lingered in the air had them scratching at walls and the floor, crying, even fighting each other. I liked it. It felt fitting with the mood I was in.

I caught up to Max, Sam, and Holly in the lobby. There were a pair of police helicopters out there, snipers keeping my friends at bay with shots that tore head-sized chunks of the flooring out. “Not enough range on your squirt guns?” I asked Max.

Max gave me a friendly middle finger, then called out, “They’re loaded up for shooting through armor!”

I gave him a thumbs up, then turned and ran for the lobby doors. A nanite and armor tendril tore the front of the lobby open, the nanomachines taking some of the metal to digest and replicate. The one metal tendril split into two tentacles that pushed me off the ground, then became a single limb with a pair of jet engines inside. The engines pulled me through the air toward the first helicopter and wrapped around the landing struts. It grew shorter as I grew another arm that formed a blade to cur through the base of rotor. The rotor went up for a moment as the chopper’s body fell. I threw that off and launched myself toward the other helicopter that was maneuvering for distance. The nanites encased me, reinforcing armor plates moving over my body to form a wedge while two short arms with jet engines threw me through the cockpit and into the hold with the sniper. He tried to smack me with the butt of the gun but the nanomachines caught it and ate the gun. The man dove for it. I let him and decided to escape the falling copter too.

Seeing police vans around, I threw that wreck of a chopper at them with nanite tentacles. Gunfire rang out, and proved to be useless. The cops saw what I’d done so far and wisely ran for it, driving toward escape. The rest of my group walked out behind me, Sam whistling. Holly walked right up to me and asked, “Why did you need us again?”

“I needed my friends,” I said.

Max gave me a hug before Sam elbowed him. “Excuse me, battleground full of dead bodies and terrified people. Can we hug later?”

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Reckoning 5

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It’s been some time since I was in a big casino. Some of the nicer underground gambling spots approach the look and feel of a smaller casino, but a big, proper one has a certain life all its own. They cultivate an atmosphere of excitement, a tension that you could be on the edge of a big win. It’s a lie, of course. For every lucky $300 or $5000 win, the casino made more than that off other people. That’s nothing new, of course, but it explains why they really don’t like it when someone wins almost every single time. Like, if someone can neurologically sync up with nearby computer-run slot machines or digital blackjack. Someone with part of their brain replaced by a computer and prosthetic eyes with a HUD that can count and track cards. I’m not very good at poker, but I’m also not welcome in Vegas.

Well, Psycho Gecko isn’t welcome in Vegas, but Gecko is officially dead. So, from my base in a lovely suite, I had free rein to search the town for my friend, Mix N’Max. Last I’d heard, he’d taken a liking to Vegas and did well here with his improbable concoctions. He was a purveyor of pharmaceutical enjoyment and could craft a custom brew to better one’s abilities. Giving people luck potions and super speed pills put him at odds with the local casinos, but also built him enough money and influence to maintain some peace. Except people haven’t been hearing much from Max lately, nor from his assistants Holly and Sam.

Now, the dirty open secret of Vegas, and the whole of the world, is that having enough money means you’re exempt from laws and can do anything you want. Spending a night dropping thousands of dollars at High Roller slots showed I had that money. A friendly concierge stopped by to let me know every so often that if I needed anything at all, just to let them know. Sadly, one thing they couldn’t get me was one of Max’s unique creations, so after awhile I could try a different casino and repeat.

On the fourth iteration of this cycle, I was stopped shortly after entering the Olympus Casino by a concierge wearing a laurel on his head. It was his nod to the Greco-Roman theme of the place, with white imitation marble support columns, rubber plants, and classical statues. Nearby, a lightning bolt lit up over a slot machine to indicate someone hit a jackpot. A sign nearby pointed the way to nearby bathrooms and the Elysium Eatery. With lighter colors and strategic lighting, the place had a thin illusion of being bright and well-lit to it. Just not so bright and well-lit that they couldn’t hide cigarette smoke stains or annoy drunk, high, hungover, and exhausted customers.

Sadly, this concierge blocked my view of a lovely waitress walking around in a skimpy version of a toga and sandals while he was at it. He followed my gaze briefly and laughed. “If it’s the companionship of a beautiful woman you’re looking for, we would be happy to assist. Even her, if you’d like. Hello, I’m Richard Mendelson, concierge here at the Olympus. As I understand and hear, you’re looking for a specific fun. Have I heard right?”

I smiled at him. “You have indeed, Mr. Mendelson.”

“Madame, if you please, I would show you to the Underworld.” He led me to a pair of locked doors off to the side that had their own couple of open guards. I suspected some of the folks in the area were secret guards as well, but at least he didn’t bring any security just to escort me. That would have been a sign of distrust, maybe even hostility.

We took a short elevator ride down to a lower level and stepped out into an area with a different aesthetic. Whereas the upper floor pretended at being bright, this bottom area worked hard at being darker. The walls were a dark brown or red color with the occasional fake torch hung on them looked like it flickered, but the light itself never wavered. A trio of beautiful young with with identical hair, makeup, and black togas stood behind another fake Greek column that served as a podium. Arching over the whole entrance was a large wrought iron gate with some Latin lettering up at the top that read, “Welcome to the Underworld, all ye who enter here.”

Look at that. Took no time at all for a Psychopomp to end up in the Underworld. The concierge next to me held his arm out, welcoming me to go first. I nodded at him and stepped out toward the three smiling faces greeting me at the gates of the Underworld.

“Greetings!”

“Hi!”

“Hello!”

I smiled and crossed my arms over my chest. “I hope this isn’t going to be too repetitive of an introduction.”

“Not at all,” One of them said.

“Do you have any cash you want us to deposit for you? A line of credit?” asked the Second.

The Third nodded toward my concierge. “I would be happy to be your guide and show you what we can provide.”

I handed Second a couple hundred thousand dollars in cash and let myself be shown around by the Third, who linked her arm with mine and left the concierge behind. “I’ve been told you are looking for something to enhance your mood and state of mind.”

“Yes, drugs,” I told her.

She giggled like it was the funniest joke in the world. “Not just any drug.”

“Hedonism Squared,” I said. It was something Max has been doing for years. It’s a drug that pretty much erases or reverses all pain. Messes with receives in your brain so they interpret all signals of pain, distress, or discomfort as intense pleasure. Someone could cum from cutting a hand off, which has the potential for danger. The military even tried to buy a bunch, until they ran into the part that makes it so lucrative for Max. See, supposedly there are some really expensive chemicals involved in the process of making it. Selling it wasn’t the moneymaker. Unless a person keeps taking it, they’ll come down to find that everything, every single sensation from before, now registers as pain. It might not be much, but imagine if the wind felt like it was burning you. If laying sick on a bed brought no relief because the sheets felt like a knife’s edge on your skin. So they either keep buying more, or they pay a huge amount for a purgative that stops the whole cycle then and there.

An elegant extortion racket for the wealthy, celebrities, and professional athletes. And not just to use against them. Some of those posh old money families would buy some to keep affluenza-prone kids in line. “Do as I say and you won’t get your next fix. Marry who I tell you or you won’t get the purgative.”

They showed me through a much more sparse casino area. Most of the machines and tables looked the same as upstairs, but with higher stakes. Some few isolated cases didn’t seem to use money as stakes, and I even passed by a couple of old guys glancing between their cards and each other while the dealer sharpened a cleaver. I checked the sign and cooed to my guide, “I’ve always wanted to try chop poker.”

“Every grudge can be settle with a game here. Are you any good at Seven Card Stud?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I answered.

She laughed. “Unless you can grow back body parts, I would advise you to stay away, ma’am.” There came a scream and a thud of metal on fabric behind us.

Second or Two or whatever led me to a more private, smaller alcove with a padded couch and a table. “Please wait here.”

She barely finished speaking when a young woman stopped by in one of the same skimpy togas. “May I get you any refreshment while you wait?”

“It will only be a few minutes,” Second told me. And that’s all it was, just a few minutes before she brought me back a small, clear glass bottle with a dropper top that came down into a clear liquid. I took it in hand and held it up to the light.

“Does it satisfy?” Second asked.

“Hmm…” I pretended to regard it. “It looks milky. Have you diluted it?”

“I assure you…” she trailed off when she saw me unscrew the top. I stayed away from it a bit, sniffing. “Ma’am, you shouldn’t!” she rushed forward. I moved it away from her, but kept track of it.

“H-Squared requires enough of it to form at least a droplet to have an effect on the human body,” I said. “Smelling it is harmless and can help tell if it has been tampered with. Your reaction doesn’t satisfy me. Bring me something fresh.” I closed up the bottle and held it out for her. When she hesitated, I pulled out another stack of cash. “I want to go with you, to ensure quality.”

“I can’t…” she started to say. She shut up once I pulled out another bundle of cash. “I guess I can.” That bundle disappeared into her cleavage. She led me into an area that wasn’t for guests. The walls were painted, unappealing cinderblock. She led me down corridors until we reached a larger room, an underground arena with three tiers. Stairs sloped down to the bottom floor with a large, electrified cage in the middle. The slope had seats, though most of them were empty. There was the floor we were on, and then a balcony floor overlooking everything from its ring. My hostess led me along our floor around to a concession stand of sorts, only they had it separated by a thick window. She pressed an intercom to speak to the inhabitant. “Wake up. We need something fresh.”

The lights inside brightened slowly, revealing Max, with a black eye and a nasty gash on my friend’s pale head. He heaved himself up with a grunt, looking over at us with resentment. It’s rare I’ve ever seen him without his Cheshire grin, but I also didn’t expect to see him in this state. “He’s your prisoner?” I asked. “You trust him to cook for you despite that?”

“He challenged the ruler of Olympus and he lost. We hold leverage over him to ensure he doesn’t try anything,” she said. I could hear the smugness. They must have Sam and Holly somewhere, as hostages.

“You weren’t kidding about solving anything with a game,” I said.

Second reached for the intercom. I laid my hand on hers to stop her. “What’s the game to win him?”

“Excuse me?” she asked. She took her hand away and backed off. “You don’t want to do that.”

“I do,” I said. “So, what’s it going to be? Care for a game of chop poker?” I turned toward what crowd there was, as well as the man and gorilla facing off in the middle of the cage. “We are at an impasse! They have a lucrative asset I want! I challenge for Mix N’Max!”

A loud blare cut off all other sounds. Above everything, a walkway extended out over the arena. A man walked out, turned into shadow by lights backing him. He turned sharply to look at me. Or away from me, but I’m guessing toward. When he spoke, the acoustics let me hear it easily. “You challenge me within my own casino? You are an audacious one. What is your name?”

“I’ve been called Trouble,” I called out to him. “But my name is unimportant. More important is if you shy away from a challenge… surely, I don’t scare you, do I? I want Max and the two companions you use for leverage.”

I heard a few in the crowd “Oooh”ing.

“Tell you what,” he said. “You’re asking for three. I’ll make this easy on you. We were just about to have a match. I would ask you to participate.” He motioned toward me. Second took hold of my arm from behind and began to lead me down the stairs. “Come on. There’s a good lass.”

I didn’t want to seem too eager, helped by my own disappointment. The thrill-seeking part of me hoped for a game of chance or something different than a mere fight. I can cage fight a gorilla in my sleep. Really, the secret to most mammals is to go for the groin. Well, we got on down to the stage level, but I didn’t see an opening to the cage. I looked up at the mysterious shadow owner who said, “Last chance to back out.”

“Last chance to grow a pair!”

The floor fell away underneath me. It was fun, actually. There was a slide that just kept going. How big was this fucking place? An image appeared overhead, a shadowed head with a tophat backed by bright lights. “Round one, for Samantha Hain, you face my deadly giant Brown Recluse… sorry, I’m being told he’s lost weight and prefers the term ‘Persian hermit.’ But tonight, he is the deadliest of your enemies in the slide race.” I got used to the lights, or maybe the lighting improved. Either way I saw another slide zip on overhead and come up beside mine. In the other lane was a skinny young guy in a t-shirt. He waved at me happily.

I stopped paying attention to him when something smacked me in the face. I grabbed at a small squirt gun, full of water.

“Your goal, to reach the exit which will close after the first person passes through, trapping the other in a bottomless pit. Yes, bottomless. Don’t think about it or you’ll lose. You’ve each been provided with a squirt gun full of lubricant to help speed you on your way. Good luck!” The floating image disappeared.

Ah, so not water. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as the Persian Hermit sped up, yelling “To infinity and beyond!” He had a huge soaker, dwarfing the tiny pistol I’d been given. Oh, right, that’s why I should have preferred a cagefight. I gave my gun a squirt at the slide ahead of me so I went over it. I sped up shortly after hitting the patch of lube, but a sudden turn almost threw me over the edge. I found I’d caught up to the Hermit, who had slowed down in anticipation. So I had an idea how to win. I tried to keep up with him without running out of that KY goodness. He managed to pull ahead by the time we reached another curve. I had to aim carefully to deal with the drop of liquid. And I knew, I only had a dozen shots at this. Squirt!

Like Icarus, the Hermit flew too close to the sun. It happened when the extra lubricant helped him maintain too much speed and he flew over the curve and down into the darkness below. After that, the ride got kinda boring until the slide dropped me into a ballpit in a small room. I crawled forward to escape the net enclosure of the pit and felt something below. I pulled it up to find a bloody femur.

The image of the shadowman appeared on the wall next to me. “Congratulations, you won the race. Fuck you. Anyway, your next challenge will be against an even deadlier opponent. An evil clown known only as… Giggles.”

“Is this a race or tug of war or what?” I asked. The wall slid open in front of me and an overweight clown walked in, his face an intense stare right into the very depths of where my soul would be if I had one.

“This is Russian Roulette! One of you lives. The other takes a bullet to the brain,” the shadowman said, laughing. The laughter cut off when the video did.

The clown pulled a revolver out of his pants and loaded a single bullet into the cylinder. He spun it, then raised the barrel to his temple. Click! Nothing happened. He tossed the gun to the floor in front of the ballpit. I pulled myself out of the ballpit and bent down to take the gun, then looked around. Huh, no guards. I cocked the hammer back part of the way so I could freely spin the cylinder so the round would be next in the chamber. I finished cocking it, rotating that round into place, and pointed it at the clown’s head. His eyes widened a little too late I splattered his brains against the wall.

The shadowman appeared on the wall. “That… was not how that was supposed to go.”

“One of us is dead and the other’s alive. What are you going to do, have him move on to the next challenge?” I asked, kicking the oversized shoes of the dead man on the floor in front of me.

“…moving on then. Please make your way through the door and leave the gun!”

I shrugged and dropped it before heading out the door, stepping out… into the cage? See, I was beginning to think this place made no sense before, and this just confirmed it. I turned back the way I came and saw the room I was in had disappeared. Even the door frame around me seemed to just be an empty frame, with no way to stand up.

Across from me in the cage stood Second or Two. I never bothered figuring out her name. Shadowman’s voice boomed out over the arena. “You keep killing everyone you compete against, so I’m not going to feel sorry for you this time. Bitch against bitch, you versus one of my Cerberus girls. Go at it until one of you can’t stand up anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Second said.

“Um, why? You’re going to die,” I said.

Second balled up her fists and concentrated, then her skin seemed to split and stretch, closing back up over a growing form that spouted fur from it. She looked like a nine-foot tall pit bull. It was kinda cute, actually, especially with the large boobs. Sexy, even. They were just really nice boobs. And the abs on her. Tits that big with a cut belly like that? Oooh, and those thighs.

I twirled my fingers through my hair. “So… hiya.”

“What are you doing?” asked shadowman.

I stepped forward, running fingers through my own hair to straighten it out and tried giving a flirty twirl through my hair at the end. “So… I can’t help but notice you’re naked now. It would be a shame to waste all this lubricant from the slide.”

Second cocked her head to the side in confusion as I pressed up against her and ran a finger over her rock hard abs. Then I reached up and put my hand around her head, guiding her fanged, drooling mouth down to mine.

An hour later, I kicked the side of the fence down. Behind me lay Second, weak-kneed, and unable to stand, slipping in… juices. Long story short, she was a little too weak to stand. Secret to beating pretty much any mammal: go for the groin.

I ignored the now-packed arena and called up to the balcony level. “You done up there? Give me Max!”

Shadowman cleared his throat and spoke between pants. “Yeah, I’m finished. Oh my god. Give her Max and the girls. Can you come back and do a show for us sometime?”

I ignored his questions as I walked up the steps. Behind me, I heard the mutated voice of Second call out, “My number is-!” but the applause stopped me hearing the rest.

At the top waited Max, Sam, and Holly, all hugging. They turned to me, curious, but then Max hugged me as well. “Gecko! It’s been awhile.”

“Hey Max. Looks like we both got in some trouble,” I said.

“How did you know that was Gecko?” asked Holly. She had gone back to brown hair with blonde highlights, setting her apart from Sam, who looked a lot different without all the makeup to compliment hair that was dyed silver.

“I’d know that foot thing anywhere,” Max said, sly grin returned to his face.

“Come on, I’m starving,” Sam said, grabbing Holly and pulling us toward the exit.

I shrugged. “Sounds good, but you know I’ve already eaten.”

They all groaned.

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Gecko: Omega 16

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With a cry of Machine Man’s machine voice, Mr. Omega appeared. He floated in all his glory, but in my body and my armor. He looked over the sight before him: one Medusa bound and gagged on her knees, another standing free behind her in a street packed with cars, the odd planted tree, and even a person watching from behind a stoop with their dog on a leash next to them. Oh, and a hog-tied Qiang laying next to the bound Medusa.

“Behold,” said the free Medusa, who was clearly Machine Man and nobody else. “I have succeeded.”

“Where are the others?” Omega asked.

“They went their own way,” Machine Man responded.

Mr. Omega stared at Medusa, Medusa, and Qiang. He raised a hand that exerted a cone of red light, because red is really this guy’s jam. The Medusa that had presumably been Machine Man, surprise surprise, was shown to be standing in the same place as an invisible Dudebot. Who could have predicted this turn of events?

Omega frowned and squeezed his fist. The Dudebot crushed in on itself. “A childish gambit,” Omega said. “Did you think you could fool me?”

My voice echoed out of somewhere. “What, you’ve never played a game of Three Card Monte?”

“Three…” Mr. Omega muttered. He gestured toward the Medusa tied up on the ground. Another scan revealed another Dudebot that was quickly blown to smithereens. “You, then?” He turned toward the Qiang. She began to cry and squirm, which stopped around the time she was also exposed as a hologram covering up a Dudebot.

“What is this, Gecko?” Omega asked of me. “How can you do this?”

“You talked about me not being able to use your powers as well as you. Turns out, you can’t use mine as well as I can, either.” The Qiang Dudebot stood up. As she did, a car disappeared and a Dudebot appeared in its place. The tree in the planter did likewise. More Dudebots revealed themselves, including the huddled onlooker and his dog.

I felt Mr. Omega’s anger as he zapped robotic doppelganger after robotic doppelganger, causing a shitload of damage to a neighborhood the Reds had cleared out for me ahead of time.

“Where is Machine Man?” Omega asked.

The Dudebot that had pretended to be Qiang pulled out the head of Machine Man out from behind it, dropped it on the ground, and crushed it. Omega didn’t seem angry about that. He didn’t seem much phased at all. Then he tried to blow up that one and missed, and that got him mad. He began to fire furiously at the multitude of Dudebots that appeared all over the place. When one bonked him on the face, his fury came from the fact that he’d been so overwhelmed. It sure didn’t hurt him.

While he did all that, a Dudebot in Ricca kept close eye on the group who infiltrated the island. They’d arrived via the Cape Diem relief camp. Mix N’Max had tossed several canisters of a smoke that was making the patrols they came across fall asleep. Medusa led the group, having assured me when we last spoke that she hid my daughter somewhere safe. With her was both of the Captain Lightnings and the bravest few of the Extradimensional Studies team.

They had ideas, you see. They figured, with me having joined forces with Omega, it was only a matter of time before the Telechamber got built, so they figured out a plan that used it. I’ve been assured it’s much better than the one I came up with using it, which is the reason I didn’t stop the Telechamber from being built. Yep, the nanites kept working and it’s ready. Mr. Omega just didn’t realize it because he’s tech-illiterate.

The heroes, and Mix N’Max, had the scientists they snuck out of the country work on a device to help them out. They didn’t tell me what it does, but they believe it’ll work so long as Omega doesn’t show up and blow up.

I was more than happy to distract him. I’m great at it! Besides, nobody else needs to take the risk. I’m stuck with this guy. And I should probably be more sympathetic to him. He reminds me way too much of myself a few years back. And maybe this didn’t have to go this way, if I’d been better. Nothing doing now, though, than to stick a dumpster on his head.

Indeed, that’s what I had a Dudebot do, which made it even harder for him to keep up with what was happening. He tossed it off and let out a blast that spread out in a circle tossing cars, melting the road, and trashing the four Dudebots actually around. That a bunch of others seemed to be around and unscathed alerted Mr. Omega to the con. He closed his eyes and did something with a gesture of his fingers, then opened them. “These are illusions, created by your mechanical eyes.”

The flashing 12:00 in our shared view adjusted to read “Fuck You” o’clock as the fake Dudebots disappeared.

Back in Ricca, Shockley came by to visit the Telechamber site. The old Dusk Priest-turned young Dusk Priest had picked out some new robes to match his new loyalties. With the city now under Omega’s martial law, few were inclined to outwardly oppose him. He used that to have himself a fun little holiday, so long as he didn’t think about any extras added to his food or drink too hard, but I guess he felt a big enough twinge of duty to show up and check on the Telechamber.

I had Dudebots on automated patrols, too, but I only spotted him once he sent up a magic flare. The Dudebot landed just in front of him. His fingers flew as he did whatever things he does with them to make the magic happen. The Dudebot punched, knocking the breath, and back, out of him just as his reverberating voice called out “Omega!”

I heard it in stereo. All the way over in Empyreal City, it jumped out at Omega. Suddenly, we were there, in the air over Ricca. Omega traced the flare down to the dying Dusk Priest. He crashed to the ground, smashing my robot double under my own boots. He pulled the arm free of Shockley’s body and pressed a hand there to close the wound.

When Shockley could speak again, the Dusk Priest told him, “Something is wrong. They are at the chamber.”

I could feel the anger bubbling up in him from the back of the mind where I’d been exiled. Despite that, Omega didn’t tear the place apart indiscriminately. At least, the roof he tore off was meant to be retractable for larger portals. I don’t know if he knew that.

The assembled heroes and scientists gaped up at him, everything seeming really quiet. Then he tossed down the Dudebot’s gauntlet. “The fool has failed. Know that your plan will fail. I will- agh!”

Mr. Omega clutched at his eyes. That did nothing to clear the image of the goatse.

“Go, go, go!” I heard Medusa call as she realized they had an opening. “Chu, where are we?”

“Buh, I don’t know! I needed five minutes to test!” the scientist called.

The older Captain Lightning spoke up. “Test time is over. Put your pencil down and do it for real.” Wow, he’s really getting into his role as a teacher.

I didn’t know how much time I could give them, but I knew I could try. Omega used his magic to clear away the goatse, only to find a bigger ass there waiting. Rick Astley began dancing, singing about his desire to never give Mr. Omega up, to never let him down, to never run around and desert him.”What trickery is this?!” Mr. Omega cried out.

I heard sounds from around, like the thunder of lightning and the whoosh of fireballs, but they didn’t seem to be aimed at Omega. Instead, Mr. Omega was concentrating on getting rid of Rick Astley, then a looping video of three guys in a car listening to “What Is Love?” What that disappeared, he got to see Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger clasping hands set to Guile’s Theme from the Street Fighter series. Next was a stripper named Ricardo Milos, but he eventually figured out how to turn off my wifi connection.

I had to resort to the music player, which didn’t do anything to obstruct his view beyond a brief notice that we were listening to the song “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway & Black Caviar.

“I got you now,” Mr. Omega said, aiming for Medusa, who rested against a piece of wall she’d dragged between Shockley and the scientists modifying the Telechamber.

“No,” I thought coldly, swinging that arm up into the air. He yanked it down, I pulled it up. Not her.

“She betrayed you,” he said.

“I love her,” I responded.

He growled as he spoke aloud, “You side with those who betrayed you to fight someone just like you!”

“I said I loved her. I didn’t say it made sense. And you’re not hurting my family ever again.”

He tried the other arms. Somehow, I managed to force them to aim away.

“Hey Gecko, catch!” called a voice. Omega and I both looked down to see where Max had hurled a closed beaker with a handle at me. I caught it. Omega crushed it.

“Did I just ruin your plot?” Omega asked, ignoring the sizzling from the substance dripping out of my fist. It spread over us, catching purple flame. Then came the screaming.

Forget popping out Medusa’s baby. It felt like I was squeezing an entire person out of every pore of my body. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, my armor showed what looked like me splitting in two, except the second half of this mitosis was a humanoid flame with eyes of brilliant white, and I was myself in my red Omega armor.

As soon as we separated, I fell to the ground. Everything Omega had deferred in my body hit me at once. A week of hunger, a week without sleep, even a week without shitting. That last part got… messy. I didn’t want to get up. I only hoped he felt as bad.

Mr. Omega howled. “Shockley, the device!”

Shockley was pinned against the wall by the younger Captain Lightning II. Still, the Dusk Priest managed to a telekinetic flip of the switch on the main control board. The lights dimmed as it drew enough from the power core to create the first portals, tapping directly into the energy reserves of stars. Lighting II zapped Shockley and left him a convulsing mess against the wall. He rushed to try and cut Omega off as the entity rushed to guard the controls personally, some of the fire burning off and leaving him just a tiny bit smaller.

Medusa rushed over to check on me, though, so that was nice. “Gecko, are you alright?”

“It only hurts from the hair down,” I reassured her. Max joined us, as did Chu and the other scientists.

“It’s done,” Chu said.

“Ow,” I commented.

“Good,” Medusa said. She looked to Max and smiled. “It worked. She’s back.”

“I didn’t know those muscles could hurt,” I added, about my kegels. I don’t think I want to know what all Omega was up to while I was remote controlling robots.

Max reached over and patted my arm. “It’s good to have you back.”

Overhead, the sky turned red, except for the growing portal that opened up and showed the same burning red fire that made up Omega’s corporeal form. The flames reached the edge of the portal and formed into fingers that held it open as Mr. Omega’s smaller form regained the size it lost after separating from me. “It is too late for all of you now,” he said, stepping closer to this group. He spared a glance to the Captains Lightning who were instead forming a magic barrier around the device Chu had connected to the Telechamber.

Omega stepped close to us and knocked one of our brainiacs out of the way who stood up to confront him. He ignored all of them and looked at my helmet, trying to lock eyes with me. Max held up a syringe gun but was thrown against a wall and held there by a red band of energy. Medusa tried to stand, but sank into the floor up to her waist as it transformed into quick sand. The rest of the eggheads scampered off to avoid being killed. “A deal is a deal.” Mr. Omega addressed me, “For your role, you will be rewarded with life eternal. For turning on me, you will spend immortality watching everyone you love die.”

He held one arm out toward Medusa. I got there in time enough to grab his arm with my lower left and divert the blast to miss her, though it did turn a fleeing scientist into pink mist. Mr. Omega grabbed that lower arm and ripped it off. Armor, flesh, bone, all of it. My legs wobbled, and I was distinctly aware of both the immense pain and my suit having to compensate to keep me from hearing my scream. Omega slapped me lightly and I tumbled to the ground. Then he aimed for Medusa again.

I jumped up and blocked his view, trying to embed my lower right fist in his junk. He still fired a magical bolt at Medusa, but she had managed to duck down enough that it missed her head and fried another scientist. And I lost another arm. So that was wonderful. Instead of falling immediately like I wanted to, Omega grabbed me by the helmet. When my lungs reminded me I needed oxygen to scream so much, he told me, “I think I won’t let you live.”

He tore my helmet off. I dropped the pair of fangs I keep hidden in my mouth and tried to bite his flaming hand. He pulled the hand back, holding my fangs, and let me drop, bleeding from the mouth. I stopped at my knee, crying and spitting up blood, and forced myself back to my feet.

“Why keep at this when you can find only failure?” he asked.

I pulled myself together long enough to laugh at him and answered, “Sisyphus smiles.”

Omega frowned, and raised his hand to my head. I grabbed his arm and tried to push that arm upward. This time, he concentrated and stopped me. And then, I was flying through the air as that form was yanked up into the sky. I let go and dropped as that part of his form turned and tried to fight the pull of whatever was going on.

The portal in the sky revealed not just the crimson Omega and the absolute void of nothingness between universes. It also showed something strange. Like a glowing planetoid, floating orange and blue in the perpetual darkness of that void. And Omega was being drawn into it. The hands gripping the portal to hold it open now tried to hold themselves onto it. They got a burst of strength as the smaller Omega disintegrated and joined the rest of it. That’s about when I passed out from blood loss.

I awoke with a jump and banged my face on a clear tube I was in. I didn’t feel it, or any pain. I couldn’t feel the arms I had, or the holes where I used to have arms down below that. I couldn’t even feel my face, in part because it was really cramped in that tube. I didn’t even know what the hell they’d stuffed in my mouth, as I couldn’t feel much of that either. Fuck, dentists could learn a thing or two from this shit.

Whatever device the tube was a part of was seemed to be padded where I couldn’t connect to anything. Or my nerves were so numbed by the solution I floated in that I didn’t realize it. I tried my wireless connection before remembering Mr. Omega had turned it off, and that gave me some hint as to my predicament. I couldn’t find myself on GPS, because I was apparently not the G. The only thing around me were vastly different networks, some of which were the wreckage of Fluidic ships whose logs showed they were the ones to try invading Earth when I tossed them out of my universe.

This was not something I enjoyed learning until I managed to download a scan of the area based on some barely-functional sensors on the nearby wreckage. Based on the position of the stars, I was nowhere near Earth. Based on the nearby ship and smaller drones it was using to carve off pieces of the Fluidic fleet and bring it back, I appear to have been rescued by scavengers.

And based on the thing who walked in to stand outside my tube wearing a mask that looks like a fly’s compound eyes, with a tool in hand that has a lot of sharp points, I may be in line for a probin’.

Out of the frying pan, one into the stink.

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