By the time our crew rolled into Atlanta, Monroe looked 100% better and I think the rest of us looked like absolute shit. Which is what the RV seemed to smell like before I turned off my nose. Of course I included the ability to turn off my sense of smell. All this transhumanism isn’t just for shits and giggles. Fuck, if I want a half dozen cocks, I’d do that. Already got one guy in town who’s had me give him a spare one.
So when we reached our destination, all of us were eager to jump out of the RV and take up different rooms in this motel. Except Monroe, again, though that’s because he still has some issues with his leg that Newburgh’s helping him with. Medic, hacker, and physical therapist. Guess there’s some reason Slam keeps a guy around who refuses to scrap. Before we skittered off, Slam called out, “You get an hour for refreshment, then meet in my room to figure out what we’re doing in Hotlanta, alright?”
We all made use of our time before Slam called us into his room to meet Murko, a younger guy with a thick jaw, wavy hair, and a pointy nose. “Gather up. Murko’s got something he needs to say.” Freshly showered, bowels emptied, some of us still with fast food bags in hand, we shuffled in to hear what had to be said.
Murko asked, “What the fuck? New Mexico’s fixed, but I’ve been waiting on you with my thumb up my ass while you go and leave so many messes around Houston they probably know what you had for breakfast this morning!”
I walked up and patted him on the shoulder. “There, there. Need a lollipop?”
He pushed me away. “My job is to protect you by making sure once you leave a site, nobody finds you again. I can’t do this if you go so far off-plan again.”
“Guys… really just Dr. Monroe and Gecko, Murko means well,” Sgt. Slam said. “Nobody covers an ass better. We’re operating independently of Exemplar HQ right now. That means he is part of our team if we want it to work well. Our adventure in Houston means we need to ditch the RV and find new transport. Gates, find us something that can hold all of us in a pinch. I have some more ideas for what we might need, but we’ll get together after Monroe tells us what we’re here for. Doctor, you ready?”
“A projector would be better, but it is what it is,” Monroe said as he got up and moved to sit on the bed in front of us. He held up a paper from the stack he had. “I’ll pass this around so you can see it better. Our goal here is to stop someone I once thought a colleague, like Dr. Pepperidge. The impetus for my list originally was uncovering evidence they were doing illegal human testing using ICE inmates. The documents retrieved in New Mexico confirmed it. I tried to take it to a friend of mine, Leonard Pepperidge, to find out about some of the group here. He used to work with some and I thought he wouldn’t approve of what they’re doing. I was wrong.”
He signed and looked down for a moment, then remembered to start passing around pages showing us a couple of buildings in a complex, and some of the people we’d be going after. “There is a private research group of scientists who work with the Centers for Disease Control. They are distinct from the CDC and while the CDC shares data with them, they do not share data back. They are the Directorate for Investigation and Experimentation, or DIE. I found out they have been keeping samples of Covid and other diseases to weaponize and hybridize. The outbreak didn’t start with them, but they want to modify Covid for use as a biological weapon. Leonard Pepperidge was former DIE, I thought from before they became about this. I was wrong, and now we know they’re working with ICE to obtain test subjects.”
“What. The. Fuck?” asked Gates. That seemed to be the general consensus of the room. He looked down at one sheet of paper. “It’s not just diseases is it. This reads like they try to take every innovation they can find and use it to hurt people.”
Monroe looked tired now. “They sell it to you as investigating the potential harm of emerging technologies so they can protect against it or turn it toward something good, like converting military drones to search and rescue operations. The newbies don’t know what they’re getting into until they’ve already got blood on their hands. DIE needs stopping. Destroying their offices at the CDC cripples them, if not mortally wounds the organization.”
Monroe gathered back up all the personnel files he had, laying them out on the bed in an organizational chart.
We all scattered after that, except for Newburgh who was set to break CDC, ICE, and DIE communications from the motel. They didn’t want my help with that, though Newburgh wrote a few items on the shopping list for Slam. The Sergeant, Murko, and Gates all went off to handle the shopping: cars, guns, ammo, material for explosives, and computer equipment. I was sent off to spy on the CDC. Not to go in alone and half-ass it. Slam must be out of his mind if he thinks I’ve been giving this half an ass. Twenty percent, maybe a quarter-ass at most. The entire CDC would be a smoking crater before I ever got to a hundred percent ass.
I slunk around the outside. DIE’s section of the compound stood out because their offices made efforts to control accessibility. Theirs was the section with way more walls, cameras, and an awful lot of landscapers and janitors with odd bulges in their clothing. I scanned the area, creating a digital 3D and augmented reality map with guard patrol patterns highlighted.
A call came in for me from Newburgh. “Gecko? I need your help.”
“I can speak,” I said, my armor silencing the conversation unless I want it to project.
“CDC emails are complaining about one of DIE’s subdirectors, Harold Gortz, taking a sudden holiday. I haven’t broken into DIE yet to find out more, but they’re talking about having to rush to the airport before he flies off in a personal aircraft this afternoon. Monroe says we should try to take him out, but I think we’re cutting it close. Can you get to the Atlanta airport?”
“Yeah,” I said, jumping small buildings in a single bound with my armor and hitting the ground running. “Find me more specifics, like the hangar or which strip he’s lining up for.”
“Gecko, this is Monroe. See if you can kill him quietly and take his credentials. That kills two birds with one stone, no pun intended. Even if you kill him, he deserves it.”
“Holy hell, Gecko,” Newburgh cut in. “I think whoever designed the Atlanta airport was trying to summon something. This thing’s a mess. The staffer sent out by the CDC was told to try and catch him at Hangar 37A-2C-48A.”
“Is that a hangar or someone’s measurements?” I asked.
“That’s what I said. Might be for the best you take him out before the CDC guy gets there.”
I had to make strategic use of speeding cars and trucks to help myself along, combined with the fact I can take shortcuts they can’t from time to time. Even worse was, upon calling up Atlanta’s infamous airport, trying to figure out where the hangar was. Newburgh was nice enough to send me an image with the hangar in question highlighted, so I guess there’s something to be said for having someone in a mission control capacity who can handle the computer work while I’m busy. He even sent me the registration for Gortz’s plane. And a photo of Gortz, who appeared to be a poofy-haired construct designed by aliens to mimic a human man but they never figured out how smiling works.
I spotted the hangar in question with a man walking away with soft leather briefcase in hand. His route took him back to… yep, Gortz’s plane. The man himself was still in the process of getting it ready, tossing luggage into the back of the small prop plane. I laughed to myself about the plane in question. They call that type a doctor killer. How appropriate.
I couldn’t let it do its job this time, though. Gortz dies in a fiery plane crash, his colleagues would know to revoke his clearances. I scurried down, mindful of the noise level and taking advantage of the roar of the occasional plane to hide any scrabbling sounds from my armor. Having it be so heavy with so many extra armor plates has disadvantages. I got there with time to spare but I had a small wait on my hands because he was on the phone. “I don’t care if they need to appoint someone new,” he said. “I’m going to go relax. Let them handle the hard work. Hey, once they find out what actually happened to Len, leave a report on my desk. I don’t want to hear about any of it until I get back. Uh huh. Bye now.”
He hung up and turned to get into the plane but found his foot stuck. He looked down to see a pile of translucent, metallic goo. I wrapped my glove around his mouth before he could scream. “Newburgh, cancel our friend’s flight plans.” I appeared as a woman in a skimpy flight attendant’s outfit. “In the case of an emergency, your ass can be used as a punching bag.” I reared back with a wild smile appearing on the face of the attendant.
A few bloody minutes later, I ended up leaping out of there with two pieces of luggage. Bags, whatever. One held Gortz’s laptop, phone, tablet, wallet, hands, eyes, voicebox… I wasn’t sure what we needed to get into the place. I’d hate to find out its retinal scans the entire way through and have to go hunting for the other piece of luggage. That contained the rest of Harold Gortz. They’d need a DNA test to piece that puzzle together.
“I got good news and I got bad news,” I said as I hunted for a suitable spot to dump the luggage with Harold in it. “Good news is, Harold’s dead and nobody is any wiser about it. I’m dumping the body now and even if they find it, it’ll take some time before they link it to him. I also have everything we could possibly need to get in that he had on him.”
“What if there are retinal scanners?” Slam asked.
“Everything,” I said.
“Thumbprint? Handprint?” Slam must have been trying to trip me up.
“Everything,” I repeated again.
“I’ll make sure to pick up a freezer,” Gates butted in.
“What’s the bad news, Gecko?” Monroe asked, finally moving onto the important businesses
I played the sound clip I’d recorded from the end of that phone conversation.
“What’s this mean for us?” Slam questioned.
Monroe answered him, “It means they’ll find out what happened to Leonard. If their chief of security is competent, and we should assume he is, they’ll step up their defensive measures and protocols to be on the safe side.”
A whistle came over the line, followed by Murko’s voice, “Fucking told you.”
Indeed. He fucking told us.
Houston, Texas. Site of our stopped crusade against ICE. It’s stopped because ICE captured Dr. Monroe, the guy who is technically in charge of our thing. And the site of pretty big airport. Newburgh, the medic, has an almost supernatural ability to figure out where on the airwaves these clowns are chatting. ICE has a headquarters somewhere in the city and he’s slowly figuring out where it is based on what their people are saying. We really spurred them into action with our bar brawl.
But they weren’t going anywhere. No matter how much Newburgh looked, they weren’t organizing flights or caravans out of the city. That struck Slam and I as weird. As much as Sgt. Slam hated it, we had too few people and he wanted someone in the hospital with him, watching his back. I tried to tell him he could take Newburgh. “As good as he is, I’m sure I can find them just as easily.”
“Why are you objecting?” Slam asked me.
I rolled my eyes. “You clearly don’t want to take me in there. Offering you an alternative that makes sense. You have the medic doing something I’d be better at.”
“I can’t have his back the way he needs,” Newburgh said.
Sgt. Slam held up a hand to silence the team’s medic. “I don’t like you and I won’t want to rely on you. You and Monroe are the only ones in this bunch I haven’t worked with before and know I can rely on. We’ve all worked together before, all devoted ourselves to the Exemplars. It goes down, we go down with it. You, I know I can’t rely on. You’re here for money and because your ex has a soft spot for you. If I take you in there, you might not have my back when the trouble starts. You might make the trouble.”
“Ok, Slam. Slam, ok. I’ll go in with you. Wish me luck.”
“Kind of wish you didn’t now, but let’s go,” he responded. He grabbed a paper with a name written on it and circled. There was a simple note underneath from Monroe, “Must discuss with Dr. Pepperidge.” At least Monroe told us what hospital he was going to.
We headed in to a fairly busy hospital, facemask on for Slam’s protection while I pretended to have one on to blend in. “You going to be fine riding the elevator?” the Sergeant asked about my armor.
“Hospital elevators can handle the weight,” I said.
“I mean width and bumping into people other ways,” he clarified.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. That’s part of the reason the hologram depicted me as a pregnant woman, too. Keep people out of my way in case I extend the nanomachine tail out or turn it into additional limbs. I’m tired of not having my armor around when I need it. The bar brawl wasn’t one of those times. I could have brought the armor into it if I’d wanted to, but it was just a little bar fight. I had it handled. Just like I had it handled when we worked our way up through the offices in the hospital toward where this Dr. Pepperidge was working. Pepperidge himself was out.
Sgt. Slam looked around, then at me. “Can you get us in without making it obvious we broke in?”
The nanites were good for that sort of thing, too. It’s barely even lockpicking at that point. We were in as if the door hadn’t been locked before.
“Either there was a struggle here, or Dr. Pepperidge is messy as all hell,” Slam said, pointing to piles of paperwork on the desk.
“Messy,” I said. “A struggle would leave a lot of those papers on the floor or mashed down.” I checked them over a little. “This is a lot of different stuff here. I wonder why he needed all the physical documentation of these.” Without waiting on Slam to say if I should or shouldn’t, I used the armor’s tail to connect directly to his networked computer and the systems it stayed logged into. Inter-office emails about this or that. “He doesn’t have any appointments right now, but he’s officially busy with something outside the office for a couple of hours.
“This isn’t good,” Slam said. I looked over and he had divided up the papers into a couple stacks. He held the file from Monroe in one hand while comparing it to another.
“Wow, you’ve got the same touch as Newburgh at finding stuff,” I said.
“I took a speedreading course to help me process faster,” he said. “These are the same files. This was Dr. Pepperidge’s patient.” He held the page up for me. Using the information, I tried looking him up in the system.
“Not according to this hospital. They don’t have records of that person.” Slam held up a few more for me, to similar results. With a specific angle to work, I checked back through emails. “Weird though, this guy’s not an OB/GYN. No reason he should be doing a hysterectomy.” I didn’t see anything from ICE in his emails at first until I found something tucked away in his spam filter, probably because instead of being from someone specific in there, it was sent from an official organization email account. I projected it out using my armor for Sgt. Slam to read along. “Networking meeting with other ‘patriotic’ doctors assisting ICE’s Purification Initiative. There’s a name that stinks of genocide.”
“Does anything say when he’ll be back?” Slam asked.
I shook my head. “Nopers.”
Slam thought for a few seconds, then started setting files back. “He didn’t leave all this out just to have it out. Close whatever you opened there and let’s get out of here. I want to watch this place. We see him, we follow him and these files wherever he takes them.”
Seemed reasonable, so I closed it up, made sure I hadn’t caused any sort of alterations. I’d have just waited there myself and caught the guy for some friendly interrogation, but Slam was doing things differently. The way to prove him wrong this time wasn’t to cause a big fuss that would inevitably get us noticed and ruin the whole thing.
Besides, Dr. Pepperidge came back that night, well after a dinnertime consisting of tacos from the nearest taqueria we could find, with me occasionally asking if we needed a better vehicle for surveillance than an RV.
“Gates has a plan for that,” Slam answered.
“I added special lights and panels. We’ll look smaller,” Gates explained from up in the passenger seat, taco in hand. “We’re cool.”
“I got him,” Newburgh said while peeking out the side window. “Dr. Pepperidge has entered the building.”
Slam checked his watch. “Late night for him.” He looked to me for a moment. “Follow him, quietly. Don’t let him see or hear you. Let em know if there’s anything hidden in the hospital.”
“Good call,” I said, slipping out of the RV and into stealth.
I’ll cut to the chase. By the time I caught up to Pepperidge at his office, he was walking out with a full suitcase and a clean desk. If there was a secret torture site under the hospital, he didn’t go there, just headed back out to his car. Then he went to the secret torture site. I followed along inside the RV in one of the most boring chases ever. This is… well, I’m showing I can be a team player. And for most mortals, my adventures would be less “exciting” and more “certain doom”. So I sat there all pretty like and didn’t headbang on the roof while listening to Dethklok.
Before long, though, the doctor pulled into a mechanics shop. It was 8 PM, and the roller door closed behind him. So when Slam told me to hop out and scout around the place real quick while they found a place to park, I did. Slithered on up the wall and over the roof, quiet as a slasher villain. Nothing stood out. No traps, booby or otherwise. Those big roller doors are loud, so checked the outside for entrances and popped into a side door that took me to the main car area. The doctor and his car were both absent, but one of the car lifts was missing and the floor underneath it had a hole big enough for most automobiles. I slipped down, claws digging quietly into the concrete as I spied down there. The car was down there, along with a guy in coveralls sitting in a chair. He was casually guarding the place with a pistol that looked a lot like the unconventional sidearm that ICE guy had in the bar. More of those blaster weapons.
Slam and I had worked out communications by now, so when he dropped me a text saying he was outside, I could direct him to the door I’d taken and that it was empty inside except for a guard down underneath where they work. I even asked him if he wanted the guard killed before doing so. “Yes, quietly,” came the answer.
I slipped down and behind the guard, putting one hand over his mouth and the other on his neck. If you’re strong enough, you don’t even have to twist and snap. “Death comes, quiet as a mouse. It’s done.”
“Do you have to be that way?” Slam asked in a text. After a second, I saw his legs start to stick down as he let himself hang from the edge and drop down.
“Points for good spelling and grammar,” I told him. “Anyone else coming?”
He shook his head, then pointed to the door. “What’s through there?”
“This is as far as I’ve gotten,” I said.
“Alright, you first. Stay quiet,” he said. So I took vanguard, pulling open the door. It swung open effortlessly, which speaks to newer construction that undermines whatever they’re doing. One of the benefits of a used base is that the doors might squeak, quite loudly in fact. That’s its own special warning system.
There wasn’t much hiding to be done inside there. The room had cages on either side of the doorway, far enough they couldn’t just reach out and grab a person passing through, and a few doors on the far wall. Hanging from the ceiling was a sign that read, “Welcome to Olympus” with a pair of lightning bolts on either side. There were a few people there, including one beat-up Dr. Monroe. In the middle of the room were a pair of gurneys with a table bolted down between them. They’d found a use for those car tools, too.
Dr. Pepperidge was just finishing strapping down someone down with the help of two men in black and purple, ICE-issue uniforms. The guys in the uniforms were looking at us, meaning looking at the open door and Sgt. Slam standing there. I kicked Slam back and pushed the metal door closed. The guards advanced, more of those fancy guns in hand. These looked more like SMGs. I slid past them on my knees, which drew their attention.
“There’s one in here!” Pepperidge shouted. I grabbed the tire iron on the table next to him and, when I used the tool to change one of their faces quite forcefully. He spun and fell. The other shot, sweeping from left to right where I was. Normally, I’d duck, but this armor’s capabilities let me cling to the ceiling and slash at the long fluorescent bulbs to either side of me, plunging us into darkness.
I dropped, my armor going into a combination low-light and thermal mode, and grabbed the cables from a car battery sitting right there. “Clear!” I shouted. The guard in front of me raised his blaster SMG. Then I hooked the batteries to his nuts. He squeezed off some shots before I got the gun away from him.
The room was then lit by a glorious angelic visage letting off white light. Yeah, that was me. The image floated over to where Pepperidge was huddled up to the side, feeling around for something to defend himself with. “Dr. Leonard Pepperidge. Your angel of death awaits.”
“Not yet, Gecko!” Sgt. Slam called out from over by the door.
“Aww… fine. But at least we got a good puddle out of him,” I said. I kept an eye on him, but instead went over to break the lock on the cage Monroe was in.
“Easy, we got you, doctor,” Slam said.
“Thank you, but you have to get the rest out,” Monroe said. He pointed to the other cage and to a series of doors on the opposite wall. Slam went over to open those while I got the other cage and Monroe unstrapped the man on the gurney and pulled a gag out of that guy’s mouth.
Then Monroe grabbed container of oil and a needle. “Lenny… how fucking dare you. The… the fucking audacity! These are people!” He plunged the needle into the top of the oil bottle and pulled the plunger until it filled up with viscous black fluid. “First, you’re going to talk. Then, we hold you… accountable.”
I get up. Send my daughter off to school. Sell or repair things at my store. Maybe Check out some of the new businesses in town. I help my kid with homework and we have dinner. It’s routine and boring and I think I’m actually at the point in my life where I can accept this. I should probably see someone about my mental health, but I’m starting to appreciate boredom. At this rate, there won’t be too much of a reason for anyone to read this. I bet some unaware people like a gang could come to town and try to take over if we were part of a major city, but not out here where we are. You come to Radium because you need something from Radium.
There are some ignorant hooligans, with there being something of a divide between powered and unpowered. Plus, some of the teens know my history and occasionally try to come after me. Like at the bookstore, some of them thought they’d try to bully me. I overheard some snickering teenagers saying something about “Evil old bitch” and “tranny serial killer” while sneaking glances at me. They quieted down as I got closer to check out a history book. I know what everyone thinks of my temper, but I handled this the easy way. “Now what scares y’all more? That I’ve almost certainly recorded what you said and what you look like and could go to your parents? Or what I could get away with that doesn’t involve them?”
I smiled at them. They bravely shot me the finger while scurrying out. “Eager to get out,” I heard Medusa say. I looked over to see my ex-nemesis and ex-girlfriend walking in out of uniform.
“If they’d like to stay and keep being little shits, they’re entitled to that. And I’d be entitled to a little bit of revenge. Don’t worry, just a little bit.” I raised a hand to cut off her objections. “What brings you here?”
“This is where they said I’d probably find you this time of day. You want to get a coffee and let’s talk? This is about business, I mean, but we can address personal stuff if you’d like.” Maybe it’s the time spent apart or my own shifting views of her, but she looked older. Not old, and you wouldn’t confuse her for someone in their 40s, but there was more maturity there than my mental image of her had for so long.
I set the book aside for now. I can learn about The Medieval Ass another time. Medusa was impressed by the state of the town, though she probably knew it better than I did. We both stay gone for whatever messes we get into, but she gets regular reports back about it. I just end up kidnapped by redneck aliens. “Radium’s looking nice. Like one of those idyllic hipster Hallmark towns.”
“Yeah, but there’s some dark looks around,” I mentioned, leaning over my cappuccino. “The townies who’ve been here aren’t too fond of any of us, not just me. Kinda wonder what gentrifying superheroes moving in and starting coffee shops and building new homes are doing to their taxes and rents, ya know?”
Medusa thought it over through a drink of her coffee, then said, “Thanks. I’ll check on that and help them out if I can. We don’t want to drive everyone else out, which is ironic because I’m here to talk to you about getting rid of some bad people.”
“Starting with those shits back at the book store?” I asked hopefully. I’ll hurt ’em if I want to, but it’s more fun with official approval.
“No,” she slid a USB drive over to me. I grabbed it and started connecting. “A whistleblower is about to leak that the concentration camps are performing mass sterilizations. It’s the final straw I needed to give the go-ahead to Dr. Monroe. No fancy codename because he isn’t a super. He came to me with a list of targets for what he calls Project Accountability. We mostly try to help through direct action instead of assassinate, and I didn’t want to assume your cooperation.”
“Thank you for that,” I said, scrolling through. Some real winners in this bunch of guys to be held “accountable.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. The team she’s listed so far as helping isn’t too bad. Some Sgt. Slam guy to help coordinate with her Exemplar resources for anything that doesn’t strictly require me as a killer. Two-for-one deals in some of these: take out some asshole target while rescuing someone, or stripping resources, or stealing information.
“I understand if you don’t want to do it. You don’t have to explain if you have your reasons. But I’d have to be a fool not to come to you about this and I know you’ll get the job done.”
“Not a whole Psycho Flyer for payment?” I asked. They couldn’t offer me much money as far as operating expenses, but I’d have the right to steal valuables I run across that weren’t mission-sensitive and I’d get some spare Psycho Flyer spare parts for reassembling my own.
“You’d have to kill Godzilla to get a whole one of those,” Medusa said. “They’re still making them, but Ricca’s not prioritizing arms sales as much now that you’re gone. North Korea’s doing a few though. Part of them finding new sources of income to help modernize.”
“Good for them. So, Project Accountability… sounds like a noble goal. You know how I like consequences for one’s actions,” I said. “Not your usual style.”
Medusa sighed. “I don’t like it, but we can’t trust the justice system. We couldn’t about so many things, but now it’s not even doing the bare minimum. I’m not going to create a secret prison like Master Academy. Everything’s breaking down. I don’t need you because these guys are powerful. I want you because you’re the best. The better you are, the less risk on my guys.”
“I wasn’t objecting when I said it wasn’t your usual,” I sighed. “We both know something’s gone wrong when you need my help. I’m in. When’s the first go?”
The Exemplars had another ICE raid coming. Too many elements in position to call it off now without a real good reason, so they’d have to hurry up Project Accountability. First on the list is a doctor who gets moved around every time the Exemplars have hit a camp, and Monroe was the one who linked him to the whistleblower. This guy is one of them sterilizing refugee and immigrant women. That makes him of interest both for the files he’ll have referencing victims and other locations, and because Project Accountability wants to stop him from causing any more harm. I can pull off good work with little time, so I’m perfect here.
I met Monroe at the Exemplar base when they gave he and I a ride to Rio Rancho. That was a little area meant to be a staging ground for us to go after this first target. Rather than take up space on a Psycho Flyer and risk something going wrong if one’s shot down, our group was going to be placed ahead of time and head out by land.
Dr. Monroe was a middle-aged medical doctor. His skin’s dark enough he might get rounded up by ICE squads. He seemed nervous to meet me when we all stood around in the base, preparing to head out. He couldn’t even see my armor, wrapped as it was in an illusion of myself in normal clothes. “Hello.”
“Ease up, doc. We got this.” He didn’t ease much. First time murder jitters, I guess.
The Flyer barely let us off behind a gas station before it zoomed out of there. A stern-faced white soldier with tats and a buzzcut approached, eyeing me especially. He wasn’t in the usual Exemplar gear based on the power armor I had Ricca sell under my leadership, but he was a soldier. I could tell just as easily as I could tell he didn’t like me. That’d be Sgt. Slam. He didn’t wear a name patch, but after a moment, he pointed to himself. “I’m Sgt. Slam.”
“Hero name, or your last name really Slam?” I asked.
“Fuck you, that’s what,” he answered. Probably his surname then.
“Hey, I’m willing to play nice if you are. We’re all here for the same thing: killing some motherfuckers who aren’t getting what’s coming to them any other way.”
“I have guys who can do this,” Slam said.
I shrugged. “I can do it better.”
“I’m Doctor Isaac Monroe,” my companion introduced himself. Slam was a little friendlier toward him.
“Come along. I got us transport.” He led us to a plain little car and had me slip into the back, definitely noticing when the suspension had to compensate more than it should have for my size. He didn’t talk anymore about what was going on until we got in and on the way to whatever safehouse he’s temporarily rented. “We have your Neo-Mengele and his office under surveillance. He’s met with some ICE people the past few days but it seems pretty routine. Comes to work- hold up.”
He reached down for his phone. “My guys know not to call unless important.” He picked up. “Hello?” After a couple seconds. “When? Home and office? Where is the doctor himself? Slam out.” He turned to us, pulling over. “ICE showed up in a hurry. They’re moving him early. He’s at his house with ICE soldiers on guard while he grabs clothes. ICE is cleaning out his office, too. Gecko, you’re our assassin. You flatline the doctor. Monroe, you and I are going to meet my squad at the office.”
I hopped out as an answer and leaped into the air, cloaking myself in invisibility. My armor couldn’t fly properly, but with the malleable “tail” section forming into wings with jet turbines, it could glide with some style. I took the time along the way to shoot a private message to Medusa letting her know what was up. Seems a bit weird they knew to move him before the raid on the camp was going down.
Motherfucker had a lawn here in New Mexico. Nice lawn, bushes, armed black-armored guards and walkers marching around tearing it up, with a couple armored vans with gun turrets up top. The guns looked a bit different. I snuck in closer because violence may be the answer, but assassination’s the goal.
This fucking doctor walked out in a dark purple labcoat and black gloves like this was some Cobra shit. Behind him came several ICE soldiers in death’s head masks, one of them with an exoskeleton to help him carry this safe they were bringing along.
“I don’t care what the President says, we have every right to defend the fatherland from these atrocious attacks by the degenerate peoples,” the doctor in question said, just to make it clear to me I should kill him.
He stopped as a hole appeared in his chest courtesy of a vicious metal point that hooked around his heart and yanked it out. “Oh lordy,” I muttered toward him. “That’s a degen move, ain’t it?”
Well, he coughed up blood instead of giving me a straight answer, and that’s when the bright lights started flying. I pulled my tail back, flicking the blood into the face of one of the soldiers, and hopped behind one of the vans. I was trying to get a look at what they were using. Didn’t quite look like plasma, but wasn’t a laser as far as being held. Damage reports show it causes thermal damage like either one would. Could be a laser with a cut off so that, to everyone else, it looks like a laser bolt while saving on the amount of energy used up.
Regardless, they shot up all over the place, starting fires in this nice lawn and bushes, even hitting some of the cars in the street. The guy in the exoskeleton hurried up, trying to run the safe into the safety of the van. The only other sight they got of me was when I appeared behind him, tail wrapping around the safe while my armored claw wrapped around his face. I disappeared, his neck snapping hard and the safe tugged out of his grasp. Someone tossed a grenade at him, which I kicked his corpse on top of before heading off. I hid it as well as I hurried it out of there, letting them blast every which way
I got a message back from Medusa. “thot ther mite B a mole. Slam said u ran off. When u finish, meet at where we drop u off.”
I don’t miss Medusa’s texting grammar, though.
As happy as I was to get back from my little space adventure, it seemed like the various aliens involved were more happy to see me gone. I tried to ask for some extra time in space, but Tarkington, Fort, and Dreiser weren’t having any of it. They were under orders to bring me back before my absence caused any more problems. And to obtain an autograph from me. Someone in the Blank ranks recognized me from that space opera I helped with where me really fighting people was accidentally included in the recording.
At least I got to have one last goodbye to all my comrades in arms. We were going to distribute out from the Xlevon ship, using their transit records to help direct the delivery ships and Blank vessels. Since my Blanks really wanted me to leave fairly soon, I got to address most of the remaining prisoners. “In the words of two great Earth philosophers… be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.” Then I pressed my handprint into a tablet-like device that said it was applying the handprint to the corner of a holographic still. Ng
I think Tarkington liked it. Dreiser didn’t. “They’re going to have weird ideas about Earth if any of them make it there.”
“I hope it’s a long journey,” I said, taking a seat.
“Scared of your fellows?” Dreiser asked.
“Some of them were afraid of me, but no. I meant I hope it takes awhile to get back. It’s about time for the full moon back home, and I’d rather miss it if possible.”
“Why?” asked Fort.
“You ever heard of werewolves?” I asked.
He got excited. “You’re a werewolf?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“I don’t want a werewolf on the ship when the moon appears,” Tarkington said. “Sorry.”
“It’s more when I see the moon, not a specific time of the month. We could have had an issue before now if anyone had shown me a moon, I think.”
“A moon like this?” asked Dreiser. I cut my armor’s visual feed. I especially didn’t need to change while in my armor.
“I don’t want a werewolf on my ship, Dreiser,” Tarkington repeated. “You let our course drift.”
“Minneapolis isn’t that far from Radium,” Dreiser responded.
I stood up to try and find my way over for a swift kick.
“Whoops, emergency executive transport pod activated,” Dreiser said.
I fell, then landed in something. Restoring my visual feed showed I was on the inside of a padded sphere. I felt a dropping sensation for a second, until a hum surrounded me and it felt like normal, non-falling Earth gravity. I heard a voice from the top point of the sphere. “I apologize, Gecko. You will touch down in Minneapolis. I have to reprimand my pilot, and the moon is still out. The pod is programmed to avoid obstacles and slow your descent to the surface, but it appears your trajectory’s taking you near a lot of humans who might be respond to you falling out of the sky.”
I was unprepared for the pod deciding to let me see out all of a sudden. The voice announced, “Reconnaissance mode active,” and then there was the city and night sky. I got a full view of the moon and told my armor to release before I sent my consciousness back to the main homebody.
I did, of course, check in on my daughter in her room as soon as I got back. “Mom, you’re back!” she said, jumping up. I noticed she’d been snacking in here. And as I hugged her, I noticed a lot of snacking. All over the place. I had still been making meals and getting her off to school, but I’d been neglecting her while I was away and she used that time to smuggle snacks into her room and set them aside in places I couldn’t see from the doorway.
“Yeah, my body just landed in Minneapolis, but Reindeer’s got it now,” I explained. “It’ll be good to get a vacation from that vacation we took.”
“It’s good knowing the evil aliens didn’t get to keep you,” my daughter said.
“Yeah… sorry they ruined our vacation. You wouldn’t have liked the trip. The food on their ship tasted nasty. And the guys who abducted me, I think they expected all of us to fight and eat each other, because they didn’t leave food where they kept us. I accidentally ate something that made me super high. All of the other prisoners were from planets like ours that don’t go out into space much, and they were talking to each other thanks to a monster with lots of tentacles that can talk directly to people’s minds.”
“Did you rescue any alien princesses?” she asked.
“I consider myself the alien princess, sweetie,” I said. “And I sorta rescued myself there when I got another body and my power armor in there. They thought they killed me. Oh, but this one alien ended up dying while helping me. Don’t even know what its species was. It was a green blob.”
I told her about it while I gave that body something other than a nutrient IV drip for sustenance, but we were interrupted a couple minutes into it by a call from an unknown number. I don’t like to answer those generally, but I was expecting a call.
“It’s Reindeer,” my main body said now that it was transformed into a weredeer. “Can you come bring me clothes? Or you could even stop by if you want.”
“I’ll get the clothes to you, but after that bit last time, I don’t think I’m the partner you’re looking for on that stuff.”
“Fair enough,” said the heroic version of myself. “Throw in something for medical, if you can.”
This was a Firecat body, so I grabbed up Qiang and fetched Reindeer’s costume from the basement lair. Outside, I tossed her into the air, changed into big cat form, and jumped up to catch her on my back before racing off toward my store. I could remote active some things to get the rockets in the back ready for deployment. I kept first aid kits in stock nowadays, along with bottles of Riccan Bottled Nanite Water and a gas mask fit for a deer’s muzzle. Still had to manually load them. The time I lost in doing things myself was made up for by how fast the rocket blasted off into high atmosphere and homed in on where Reindeer’s call came from.
I loaded up a spare rocket with more medical supplies if they needed it and kept it on standby, but Qiang and I went home again. I wanted to actually relax in my own residence while watching what was going on. She wanted to watch, too, but I told her we’d have to wait until her bedroom was clean. We got a good bit of it, but she rushed like most kids, so I’m thinking I’ll ask the nanomachines to comb through everything when she’s off at school.
Reindeer was with a crowd of protesters. I hadn’t been keeping much track except to know there’d been violence and there were way more protests than the news was covering. I’m still pretty sure the protesters didn’t need to be seen with a supervillain watching their backs, but people liked Reindeer. The rocket slowed its approach as well and deployed a parachute so the stuff inside wouldn’t be ruined. Reindeer passed out a few of the medical kits and waters before someone shoved the costume in her face. A few protesters formed a ring around her to cover her up while she changed out of a borrowed hoodie and makeshift skirt into her costume.
“You with me?” she asked one of the cameras.
The phone of someone nearby played a brief clip of a character from a TV show saying, “That’s a Texas-sized 10-4, big shoots.”
“See if you can’t help us out with some of these cops,” she said. I expanded my mind, directing some of this feed to the TV so my daughter could watch. They had a pretty big force of police in front of them, with some white supremacist paramilitaries flanking the protesters. Cops were wrapping around, trying to surround the protest, but it was too large at the moment. They’d need to stop them. I broke into the channel they were using to coordinate the flankers to the north and indicated that they’d need to head further north with the protest having moved off in that direction.
I noticed an issue at the rear of the group. SUVs and vans were riding up and people were snatching isolated protesters into them. Sure would be a shame if something in the vehicles’ computers messed up and their engines died on them before they could get away, huh? And look at that, electronic locks. The guys holding them had weapons, but they were also vastly outnumbered by the protesters looking to de-arrest their fellows.
While I ran electronic interference, Reindeer was walking near the head of the group. They put here there, not as a figurehead but as a blocker. Didn’t make any difference to the cops who they gassed, apparently, but people who saw photos or watched footage would see a hero getting attacked by militarized, trigger-happy goons.
The paramilitaries didn’t hesitate either, and that was a lot more clear of a distinction. Hero versus people with Confederate Naval Jacks and Nazi Swastika patches beside the authoritarian “Back The Blue” flag. They were getting in people’s faces and I could tell Reindeer was having some of the same control issues I was. She really wanted to punch these assholes. I wanted to fuck with their cellphones and make them explode. Both of us knew if we did that, a situation that might become violent would become violent. I kept the idea in my pocket, but went ahead and planted some fun little worms in their phones to track and siphon off data. Might be a rash of mysterious deaths in the next few days.
The tension didn’t quite drain away, not even when someone ordered the cops to withdraw despite the orders from on high telling them to stay there. That left the way clear for the march, and it left the white supremacists all alone with a much larger crowd of protesters. The paramilitaries took one look at the numbers difference and the retreating cops, and decided they didn’t want any part of a crowd that beat a militarized, million-dollar force using cardboard shields and leafblowers. They ran scared, their silly Hawaiian shirts flapping away.
A cheer went up, and Reindeer spoke into one of the cameras. “You’re pretty good at this. Tell me you got names and addresses.” She turned and looked into a phone nearby where someone was filming everything that was interrupted out of nowhere by an arena full of people chanting along with a wrestler, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The surprise to me came the next day when I checked the news and found out Reindeer wasn’t the only superhero who stepped up and started blocking for protesters. There was even a big deal where one had stepped in and captured a would-be mass shooter in Wisconsin who murdered someone and tried to kill more. This weaksauce president we have currently after all the fighting and political maneuvering may be a traitorous son of a bitch, but he cared enough about which way the wind was blowing to pretend he did something. Then the protesters paraded his goons from the vans in front of news cameras and he announced he’d be withdrawing federal agents from protests.
Ah Earth. Those “civilized” aliens out there may look down on us, but I think I’ll take those assholes in the streets over the ones who never go further than expressing concern any day.
They’d barricaded the command center with what few supplies they had on hand. The prisoners and the voiding had cut off access to a lot of what they could use. A lot of their makeshift defenses appeared to be made up of delivery food boxes. We’d raided some of those stockpiles when the delivery ships sent them over, but they go the lion’s share for the same reason we didn’t just hitch a ride out of there: delivery ships aren’t cargo transports. Wait, no, it’s because most of them delivered to airlocks that were, at the time, controlled by the Xlevon. There’s a lot less of that now.
They’re deploying more gas. We’ve got one of the amphibious squad up here, an insectoid in shimmery blue and green clothes, whose got an idea. He was explaining it to us from where we stayed out of sight of the command center’s barricades.
“This is a vent,” he explained to us, pointing to a small ventilation fan on the side of the hallway. “They bring in fresh air and remove bad air. All in this corridor are only set to remove air. I would gamble that those outside the command center are all set to push air out. They are forcing the air toward us, forcing us back. We can disable these, but what I want to do is remove them and reuse them. We can detach them and use them to blow the air toward the command center.”
Lrkc looked around at everyone else, who didn’t have any objections, and told him, “Good. If anyone has technical skills, would you assist Callell?” A few were already looking to me.
“Tools would be of great help,” Callell the insectoid said.
The nanomachines shifted and set down some of the equipment I’d brought along. Not all of it was for working on my armor; I’d tried to bring enough of it along because I didn’t know if I’d be back on the Blank ship. I opened my armor and stepped out. Lrkc looked around. “Others?”
There was another who decided to help, a short, four-eyed, four armed, four legged guy whose legs were a pair of side-by-side slimy gastropod things. Like a snail person. “I am an engineer, specializing in siege machines. I have skill, and will to learn from my betters.”
It was Callell who reassured him. “Not better, just more knowledgeable. Knowledge can be passed on, shared.”
“Stolen, even,” I mentioned. “Ignorance does not need to be shameful as long as you’re willing to learn. Speaking of ignorance, none of you know that I have a pair of turbines with my armor that could aid us in this. It would speed this all up considerably.”
Callell had me jump back in the armor and show them to him. “They won’t need calibrating, but they are only two and can only push so much air. We will need more.” Bit of a letdown, but my armor wasn’t designed to blow as much as they need it to. Mine had the power, but it didn’t have as wide of coverage.
We set to work pulling the vents off. The power was the tricky bit. They were wired for power and redundant power, along with a smaller local power source. There were plenty of vent fans to test if anything went wrong. Callell took the first and led us to the section of the corridor with gas, then started increasing how fast the fan revolved until we got it to a speed that was reliably pushing the gas back. We noted that point, then tried to go faster. We wanted something that would give us a fast advance.
We found something that worked, up until the batteries died on us after one and a half seconds. That wasn’t going to cut it, not unless we tied it back into a power source. That meant scrounging up wiring to reattach these and give them enough length to get us most of the way down the corridor. And it was the third guy in our group, Cacrott, who first proposed we just hook more fans up to my armor. So we’re going to do that. The core can handle them just fine, and the ones on my armor will give us enough oomph to push through to the end of the corridor. It means I won’t be racing ahead and get to see how well my armor takes potshots from the Xlevon. As Cacrott’s people say, “With pain comes promise.”
I returned the favor later, when we were ready and lined up. I had to be on the front line. Callell and Cacrott insisted on being nearby, though most of the others up front were more battle-hardened. They’d scavenged Xlevon guard armor and were all getting ready. Cacrott looked up at me in my armor. “Any blessings you wish to call upon for us?”
“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” I said. “They were two strangers who were trapped on an island together, hostile to one another, until they discovered a worse beast lived on the island and wanted both dead. They fought together and won, leaving the island as friends.”
“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” Cacrott repeated. A few others overheard and repeated as well. Somewhere, an anthropologist is crying. It would have stood out if we’d had one, because, at Lrkc’s urging, we were trying to restrain ourselves as we worked our way up the corridor. The vent fans and turbines made most of the noise then. We got within about 25 feet before they realized something was up and one of the Xlevon called out “Fire!”
My nanomachines extended the wings/tail of my armor out into a shield, like a lattice of plates that didn’t block off what we were doing with the gas. It caught most of the plasma fire, though someone lost a fan and maybe a hand.
The shots stopped when the war cries went up. And the tunes: Moonlight, by Death From Above 1979. Morale is a hell of an advantage. Up until now, it’s mostly been prisoners fighting for their lives against an inconvenienced overclass that kidnapped us. Now, it’s the final stand. The Xlevon in that command center probably believe they’ll be killed no matter what, so it’s best to go down fighting. But it’s not like they were offering peace terms. Either way, the fire stopped while the war cries and music roared to life.
The plasma shots didn’t have a lot of mass and stopped when they hit the thin nanite shield, but nanomachines are particularly vulnerable to the thermal effects. Fancy way of saying the shots they blocked sizzled them right up. “Shields holding,” I announced. That earned another roar.
They didn’t pick up again as rapidly as when they started. Callell noted, “They’re enjoying their own gas now.” We reached the end of the power cables, though, so then the insectoid dropped his and took over holding one of the ones tied into my armor.
Lrkc reached up to tap my shoulder. “When I give the signal, remove the shield. Ready.”
I nodded. We were within sight of the barricades, and the last few Xlevon holding their ground there. A few without masks were downed. “Now!” Lrkc shouted. I pulled the nanomachines back to my armor, reforming them into a tail that stayed out of the way of the others. Lrkc then shouted, “Charge!” The others rushed past, their bellows deafening and drowning out my music. Callell and Cacrott stayed behind to start disconnecting the vents. No sense pushing more gas toward out own people.
“I got this,” I said, the nanites getting to work breaking down the cables and the vents. They dropped them, looked at each other, then followed as I jumped a pushed-over portion of the barricade. A few bodies, prisoners I recognized, were propping open the door. Inside, most of the fighting was hand to hand. It didn’t look like the command staff had as many axe-blasters as the rest. Several had more of those knives like the Captain. Lrkc had sought out a Xlevon with a prominent hat, smaller than the Captain’s had been, and was holding him up, saying something to him. A skinny little thing that looked about like one of the adolescents in the Residence section came for Lrkc from the side, trying to hit him with a chair. I jumped up and grabbed it out of his hands. The young guy smacked two empty palms into the side of Lrkc’s body. Lrkc glanced over, seeing the youth and myself, then turned to look back at the Second In Command, who had pulled another knife and was about to plunge it into Lrkc’s neck.
A tongue whipped out, from a bipedal frog in a jumpsuit. It knocked the knife out of the Xlevon’s hand, then had to jump back to avoid getting bisected by an axe-blaster. I tossed the youth in front of me at the frog’s assailant, then jumped up and took them both out by smashing the chair over them.
“Surrender!” I finally heard Lrkc call out above the melee, stopping most of it.
“Not while I hold command!” declared the Second in Command.
Callell raised a spindly, exoskeleton-clad hand. “Who is next in command after this one?”
A Xlevon nearby to me raised his hand. I quickly slid into place behind him, claws settling on his shoulders. “How do you feel about surrendering if you were to, hypothetically, end up in command of this vessel?” I asked.
This guy was tense. I gave him a little shoulder massage, but that didn’t seem to help him any. If anything, being massaged by a violent escaped alien prisoner in power armor made him even more tense.
“You’ve made your point,” the Xlevon said. “What are you going to do to us if we surrender?”
Lrkc eased him on down onto his feet, not letting him go. “Then the violence ends and we ask you to cooperate in returning all of us, survivors and dead alike. And never return to our planets.”
“Where do I open communications with the other ships?” I asked the guy I had a hold of. He pointed to a set of computers on the opposite side of the room. I handed him off to Mkala the bone-clad alien and walked over, using nanites from my tail to form a spike out of my hand that ended in wires worming around for something to connect to. I interfaced with their communications and began broadcasting to all ships of this little clusterfuck. “You want to repeat that Lrkc?”
“In exchange for the surrender of the acting Captain of the Xlevon ship, I ask for an end to this violence and the cooperation of the members of this ship in returning those they’ve taken to their home planet. Those who stole us away will never again return to the planets they victimized and will leave us in peace.”
I activated holographic displays of the response from the Xlevon fleet commander. “You are ridiculous. We would rather see our fellow Xlevon die than surrender to you primitives!”
“I’d rather not die,” mentioned one of the command crew.
I laughed, but I also mentioned, “Sounds a bit like what y’all did when you gassed the Residence section.”
“That was the Captain’s idea,” said the Second in Command.
“I would kindly ask you, our betters, in your infinitely more advanced wisdom, if you are ready to stop this fighting, return the people you kidnapped, and leave us in peace. Are you ready to do this?” Lrkc asked. I see alien species have the concept of “throwing shade”.
“I believe I heard the acting Captain order us to fire on their vessel,” the Xlevon fleet commander said.
“I did not! I accept the terms of surrender!” the Second called out.
The Blanks were all over this. “According to our Doctrines and the Xlevon Confederacy’s Signatory Agreement, this vessel is now outside the bounds of acceptable Xlevon authority and aggression. We have your measure. Fire now, and be annihilated.”
Wow, somebody finally shapeshifted a backbone. And it must have had some weight to it, because the Xlevon Commander answered back, “We will comply and withdraw. See to these primitives and their disgraced prisoners yourself.”
Whew. Lrkc breathed out and let go of the Second, then cheered. Some of the prisoners hugged each other, so I guess that’s a gesture a bunch of them have. Some even hugged the Xlevon. Another transmission got picked up. “You’re going home, Gecko.”
Oh, right, I better see what I can steal out of these databanks before they dump me off back on Earth. Might find the greatest invention since velcro.
The fight raged on. You can’t call something this disorganized a battle. I checked out some of it from the dwelling I’d stopped in. We’d evicted the previous owners after they tried to take in an injured guard. I nibbled on a big piece of Sbarro New York-style pepperoni and sausage pizza. Some of the others got a bit vengeful, but we mostly left the regular Xlevon alone. Mostly. Got a bit wild when the fighting first broke out, but now we’re established in a few dwellings, trying to gather who we can and coordinate with the others.
The underwater aliens got purged into the ship as well. I think some of them ended up in sewage; others flooded parts of the ship with their medium. They don’t have as much movement as the rest of us, but they’re cutting off access. The Xlevon can’t regroup to deal with us all. The tentacle that’s helping the rest of us keep track of each other has a lot of work on its, uh, pseudopods. It’s holding up admirably for a creature jammed into one of the vessel’s elevator tubes.
The residences seem to be the main area fighting’s taking place in. I heard a crashing sound and sighed, popping the rest of my slice into my mouth to hold and grabbed some sort of appliance. I’ve been trying to figure out what it does, but I haven’t been able to figure it out. No apparent change in light or heat. It was like a small microwave. Instead of a door, the front window swung inward. I yanked it out of the wall and carried it outside to where I heard the noise.
A line of Xlevon guards were pushing back a section of barricade, with fishsnake on the other side barely giving ground. I threw my hands up in disbelief, “Where’s Mkala go?”
Fishsnake, who I’d come to learn was named Lrkc B’Nanza, looked at me, then nodded toward the four guys pushing him steadily back. I jumped and slammed the appliance I was carrying into the head of one Xlevon, whose splotchy face had a number of walrus-like spines growing out of the cheeks. He fell to his knee and then dropped to the side. So that’s what that thing does.
One of the others broke off and swung his axe at me. I ducked under it and came back up to spit the slice of pizza in his face. While that distracted him, or her, or they, I grabbed the arm that held the axe-blaster and pulled it toward me and kicked it in the gut. Then I drove bent fingers and nails up under its chin, tearing its face off.
Behind that falling corpse, the other two had abandoned pushing the barricade and were trying to turn Lrkc into sushi. They got some good chops in on him before Mkala, the pale alien female with the bone armor, came running up, readjusting some bottom bone plate before jumping onto Lrkc and then off him to land on a Xlevon and jabbing a bony protrusion into his head again and again. The remaining Xlevon was easy pickings for Lrkc to wrap around and claw to death. He took a minute to cover the wounds, but a solid dozen scars in his scaled flank showed it would take a few more than that to put him down.
“Everyone ok?” I asked.
They both said, “Yes,” in their own languages, the Lrkc added, “They voided another section. We think it was the arsenal. Someone is saying Xlevon ships nearly fired on the food transports.”
I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, smaller Xlevon hugging one of the bodies. While I stared, the adolescent grabbed the arm of the corpse and trying to drag it toward a family of another full grown Xlevon and adolescent, who looked between us and the child. When the Xlevon saw Lrkc move for body, it called out. Lrkc lifted the body up and carried it over. He spoke quietly, then helped bring it into the dwelling. It didn’t seem to be a hostile encounter, so I decided to go check on the situation outside the ship.
As I’d gotten to see from the Blank ship, all the various food delivery orders arrived about the same time as Xlevon reinforcements. Since I’d already paid for the order, they went ahead and delivered to the ship. The residence section got plenty and we tried to move some along to the rest of us fighting to take over the ship. Shortly after that, a bunch of us got too close to the Xlevon command deck and the asshole in charge opened a bunch of doors to expose them to the void and blow them out. The delivery ships snatched them up, with the Blanks informing me there were customs about seeing to people in distress. The Xlevon might have fired on the delivery ships, but a small fleet from the star system we’re in showed up and my Blanks coordinated with their Blanks to keep the Xlevon ships from landing marines in this ship. After pretty much everyone else in the universe got here first, more Blank ships finally showed up in time to turn this into a full-blown diplomatic incident.
They’re all hashing it out via diplomacy, but nobody’s supposed to cross from any ship to the contested Xlevon ship until things are all settled. That means I can’t even get my power armor over here.
“This is useless,” I commented out of both mouths at once. “All these reinforcements showing up didn’t solve anything. I get it, I’ve been learning the value of talking things out and solving problems through nonviolence. There’s a time and place to restrain our worst impulses. But we’re here, needing help. Not in a paternal sense, where you get to decide how you want to save us and speak for us. We’re still fighting over there. Support us.”
“You scrambled?” asked Lrkc.
“Just making a plea for us,” I told him. Screeching alarms filled the ship.
“Grab something!” yelled Mkala. I ran for the dwelling and wrapped myself around its door frame equivalent. I reached back for Lrkc while since I had a hold. He took my arm and slithered into the place, bringing Mkala, the amoeba guy, and Owbreetoo. Turns out that was both their name and species. I never got the amoeba thing’s, but it may not have one. We got in, but we didn’t get sucked out. A cloud drifted down.
“Gas!” I called out. Those of us with noses tried to cover them up with fabrics in the dwelling. It didn’t kill us, but it made it tough to breathe and irritated my eyes. The others didn’t like it too much and… I might have spoken too soon. Lrkc collapsed. My own arms started to feel numb.
“Dreiser, bring us closer. Gecko, prepare your armor,” Tarkington ordered. It was tough to pull my attention to the Blank ship in the middle of being gassed. His blank head was turned in my direction. “We heard. Gas. We’ll bring you close. You will have to get in. If we fire, we won’t be the only ones.”
I nodded, my armor already around that body. Wish I could have just walked the armor by itself. Hmm. Ideas… but ideas for later.
On the Xlevon ship, I had collapsed with myself distracted. I stood up again when the doorway of the dwelling was blocked. Xlevon marched in, wearing armor that covered every inch of their skin. Like pouches and kevlar vests with pauldrons, but all of it a slick shiny metal. I tried to stand, but my legs didn’t want to work. I couldn’t feel them properly. A paralytic effect, or perhaps one causing neuropathy. Even the devices in my spine weren’t quite up to the task of whatever was doing this, so it must have functioned a different way. One guard stepped toward me. I got a good look at boots that looked like mercury formed into the shape of heavy footwear. I managed to roll over enough to look up at him. He had an axe-blaster, with larger blades that would be unwieldy for a human. Instead of just one barrel at the end of the handle, the midsection of the axe was surrounded with at least a dozen of the barrels. This one looked down at me with eyes hidden behind a metallic growling mask of a face.
The amoeba thing threw itself at that Xlevon, wrapping pseudopods around him and shoving him back against the wall by the doorway. Another Xlevon came in and fired all barrels at once, leaving a bunch of sizzling holes in the amoeba. A third stepped up and cut it in half through the middle. The amoeba splatted on the floor and didn’t move.
A fancier Xlevon looked in on us through the fog. This one was as armored the same as the rest, but he wore a hat over a different mask, one without eyes or mouth. “Captain!” called one of the others. “It is unsafe. These are not fully incapacitated.”
I got an arm under myself and was sliding up the wall. I don’t know which kind of Captain this was, as humans don’t tend to like more than one person having that rank on naval vessels. He stepped over to me, pulled out a knife, and knelt by me. I threw a hand, nails digging into the metal of the mask. One of his men pulled him away.
“Ready!” Tarkington’s voiced announced elsewhere.
The Xlevon pulled their leader back, one of them bringing his axe down on my arm, which suddenly wasn’t my arm anymore. It was a floppy thing on the floor. I tried to reach over with the other one, it slowly sliding there, but then an axe embedded in my chest and got in the way. Made it real damn inconvenient for breathing, too.
I was blown out the airlock of the Blank ship, sealed against the void, but close to the Xlevon ship and where my main body was bleeding out. The turbines in the nanite tail didn’t help, but in space, no one can hear you friction. I identified a vent on my way out, the kind of thing they might have used to dump the whole section out into space. Instead, I used my tail to latch onto the ship and scramble for the vent, carving through an outer seal. Some nanites transferred sharper metal bits to the gloves of my armor for claws that made it easier to hold on when I cut my way through the vent and into the residence section below.
Gravity tried to assert itself, but unyielding space had something to say about that. I saw from below and from where I crawled on the roof of the section when the gas was pulled upward to the vent with the rest of the atmosphere. The Xlevon Captain and his elites held on, but their boots seemed to adhere to the floor. Even the Captain’s hat stayed on his head.
The suckage ended quickly. A backup gate closed inside the vent I’d entered by, trapping some of the gas still in there with us, but those of us prisoners who hadn’t been wounded were stirring. Mkala launched herself at a Xlevon elite, catching him offguard with a bone spike to the collar before he could fully get on guard. Lrkc rose up and started grappling with another. I pulled the axe out of my chest and began to crawl my real body outside, the Xlevon Captain jumping over me to escape. He froze when he saw my power armor bounding toward him and raised his axe-blaster. He didn’t get to fire because one of his guards smacked into him from behind, courtesy of a pissed off fishsnake.
I rose to my feet and started running for the armor, which opened as it skidded to a halt in front of me. The nanomachines meant to keep me alive in that armor, and the ones that added to its destructive capabilities, flowed between us, pulling my main form to the armor. They salvaged what they could, but most of what they did was transfer my cybernetic upgrades and my brain into the new body.
“What, by the stars, are you?” asked the Xlevon Captain. I think Lrkc was shocked as well.
“The end,” I told him, armor closing over me and shifting to form a pair of wings. I lept into the air, blotting out the light over him. He pulled that knife of his, but my wings became a tail that swept down and cut off his hand. I landed on top of him, bearing him to the ground under me. The other Xlevon who’d been thrown against him tried to pull me off, but Lrkc got to him first and tossed him away. He’s fast for his size. Didn’t keep him from getting blood on him.
I stood up, brushing myself off, and reached up to adjust my fancy new Captain’s hat. The balance was off a bit since the helmet and head were still attached under it. “How do I look?” I asked Lrck.
“Savage,” he said. He used his body to scattered dust and dirt onto the Captain’s body. “No less than he deserves.” He waved off a small group who came running, telling them “It is the primate named Gecko,” then went off to see how the fighting was going and check on the others. I looked to the amoeba who I guess was dead. It didn’t have a heart, and I couldn’t guarantee that the masses floating within it corresponded to anything from Earth. Owbreetoo found me doing a DNA analsysis, which was confusing my computer.
“It is dead,” Owbreetoo said. “You did not feel it as you are mind blind, but it died.”
I stood up quietly, wishing I had a ritual of sorts to show some respect. Instead, I turned to Owbreetoo. “Are there Xlevon to avenge it upon?”
One of the “petals” on Owbreetoo’s body raised up and pointed. “Mkala found where they got in. They cleared a path to the command center. We are going to take the ship. Do what ceremony you will.”
Well. I knelt by the dead amoeba and placed my hands on either half, growling, then raised my face and loosed a bellow lasting seconds. Some of the other prisoners rushed over as I finished and stood up. I turned to them and explained, “It is a warning to the afterlife. Beware, a warrior is about to arrive.”
I stole it from the Klingons.
As I walked out, I had the nanomachines alter my body and adjusting my armor so that I could lope on all fours up beside Lrkc, who was headed toward a section of the wall. Mkala stood there, beside an open corridor. “It is a maintenance corridor!” she called.
“That was not there before. Hidden and sealed,” Lrkc said. “I tire of fighting. I want to bake again. And when I baked, I wanted adventure. The fates have a sense of humor. What did you do?”
I tried to think of a way to put it that would translate easily. “I was an assassin and warlord who settled down to raise a child in peace.”
I think the sound he made was laughter, but part of it got translated as, “Certainly, a sense of humor.” More were joining in behind or beside us, but I think most were put off by my hat. Or maybe my armor. Lrkc pretended not to notice, but spoke up for everyone else. “To command and to freedom!”
The baker got an enthusiastic answer of cries from those of us who could do so.
Food! I have it. I eat it. I ask for some ketchup to go with it. They aren’t aware of it, so I had to describe it as the acid-filled cousin to a deadly poison, made into a tasty condiment that goes well on many foods. For all my dislike of humanity, I’m giving them a hell of a reputation out among the stars. They had some of the preserved meat that could see me through, and some edible underwater fungus that probably won’t take over my mind and force me to murder people in service to the Fungal Lord.
There is no Fungal Lord. Forget I ever said anything about a Fungal Lord. But if there was one, he sounds like a fungi. I’ll show myself out.
Actually, they’ll show us all out. Some of the amphibians have managed to shimmy out. They’re getting pretty impatient with the Blanks and initiated a break-out without them around. My understanding is that the squad there has a fishlike-being capable of using fin spikes for combat, while another is an amphibian who was his planet’s equivalent of a boxer or kickboxer. They have an ambulatory slime mold with them said to be capable of wrapping around and digesting people, and some sort of insectoid scientist from an advanced civilization. A plucky gang of aliens who can survive on land or in water to various degrees. They oughta have their own theme music.
I’d rather have them than these faceless bozos. Their combat armor looks like a metal pill bottle. I watched them suit up into these things. Fifties sci fi writers would love these things. I was sucking on a nutrient bag they had. They had a gizmo that can synthesize a tasteless cocktail of the daily recommended nutrients of various species as a last-resort method of feeding someone. I took a break from chugging some thick nutri-goo to wave a finger all over at those things. “Are those worth a damn?”
“They are tougher than they look,” Fort said, still getting his on.
Tarkington, the leader, was checking over everything after having gotten his on. “There should be minimal defenses.” He turned to Fort as the other alien screwed his helmet on and patted it on top with one waldo. “Check me.”
They took turns checking each other, then Dreiser stopped with his calculations long enough to guide us in. I nodded to the screen he used, “That manual thing is really that inconvenient?”
“It opens bridges between predetermined points known to our computers. A blind bridge has apocalyptic possibilities. A person could carve a planet in half. In addition to manual calculations, I have work around the system failsafes designed to prevent this. The computer is communicating across multiple solar systems to make sure we don’t commit genocide. The key to a species surviving to join the galactic community is learning restraint and knowing to withhold power from the undeserving.”
After a bit of time piloting instead of lecturing me on restraint, he informed Tarkington, “Air lock in readiness.”
“Let’s go,” the Blank captain said. “You should see the work I have to do requesting intervention and reinforcements.”
“One more piece of saving a bunch of those darned primitive, unrestrained species from our galactic betters who kidnap us for sport,” I muttered loud enough to make sure Dreiser heard.
We all jumped from the airlock across a gap that took a solid minute to cross. Environmental seals, fuck yeah. Not the most pleasant experience, but the airlock on this little station cycled pretty quick.
We were greeted by a pair of quad-legged cannons. Fort panicked and raised the waldos on his suit. Crimson beams of light lances out and splashed off a large energy shield in the shape of interlocking pentagons.
I immediately jumped for the wall, then the ceiling, my armor digging into the metal and the nanite-tail stabbing off to the side for support. Tarkington pushed Fort out of the way of a retaliatory blast from the cannon. The defenses shot thick blue beam, electricity arcing off to shock their suits. The other cannon tried to track me, but I swung to the side and landed on the one Fort shot at instead. I started tearing into it, then stabbed my tail in, commanding the machines to eat. The other cannon turned toward both of us. I tore my tail out, trashing the one I was on as I jumped to the ceiling. The cannon fired on its partner, sparked and blew apart just slightly. Electricity still went upward, though, shocking me and scrambling me for just a second. My muscles all contracted at once from the shock and left me dangling helplessly for a follow-up shot. The cannon didn’t get the chance. Four crimson lances caught it, burned through its shield, and stabbed into the cannon. It shuddered and collapsed, spewing black smoke.
I dropped down and checked around. “Is there some sort of terminal for the defense grid or just the outpost in general in here?”
“There,” Tarkington pointed at a screen on the wall. I walked over, took a look, then stabbed my tail into the wall just below it. The nanomachines facilitated the connection while the two Blanks approached.
“No open alarms,” I said.
“How do you know?” Fort asked.
Tarkington gave one of the cannons a kick. “Incidental files on the Xlevon languages told her enough to help.”
“Xlevon-programmed, meant to be accessible for easy repair,” I mentioned to them.
They handled planting demolition charges. I looked after myself. Stole some parts and pieces, pulled as much data as possible, and ordered a shitload of delivery food to the location of the Xlevon ship. Even Sbarro, which has its own delivery ships this far out.
There wasn’t much of importance to take off there. Some improved heating and cooling, but they might only work in space. The system didn’t have much useful to it other than getting a firm handle on the Xlevon systems. I guess if I ever want to scam extraterrestrials by pretending to sell dick pills, I’m in good shape.
I didn’t even get to watch a big explosion. They don’t have observation windows. Something about explosive decompression, as Atilla the Hun once warned against. But at least Dreiser was ready to press a button and hurl us through a shortcut to a completely different solar system. I’ll see the Pale Blue Dot again soon. I was still there, actually. Cleaning up after Qiang in the bathroom.
Tarkington didn’t seem happy at our arrival. “This is a known system, but reinforcement still hasn’t arrived? I don’t have room for clanship’s prisoner contingent. Why does everything have to take so long?”
“Space is really big,” Dreiser offered.
“What’s the point of being part of an organized with a charter of protecting lesser species when we consistently fail to protect them?!” Tarkington said. Damn. When I first met the guy, I thought he’d be the most stuck up of all of them. Instead, he’s the most frustrated with his own bunch’s ineffectiveness.
On the Xlevon ship, we were all tense, waiting on the amphibious assault squad to scout it out. I got to find out what Xlevon alarms sounded like: rapid-fire screeches. I plugged back into the console they let me look into, but called back to Tarkington, “Any idea what Xlevon do if there’s a prison break?”
“They will eject all of you into the void,” Tarkington answered. “Gecko, we don’t have the capacity for the numbers you mentioned? We can’t transport aquatic lifeforms.”
On the Xlevon ship, I warned, “They’re going to dump us out into space. I can probably stop it if you get me out and to a computer system of some sort. Have they found something like that?”
“You cannot tell?” asked fishsnake, pointing to a thick tentacle rising out of the water.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” I asked.
“She is mind deaf,” said the bony female. “That is allowing us to communicate with the team. They disabled a Xlevon but another must have found it when they went on their way. They are at a computer.”
“Can you get me there?” I asked on one ship. I tried jumping into the water, but the tentacle pushed me back. Something screeched in my brain. The sky overhead went from a pleasant, hazy light to complete dark. The pond closed as we were all sucked up, me grabbing onto the nearest of my fellow prisoners. That was fishsnake and the plant-thing with all the petals. Then the darkness changed colors. We were still in the air but our fall was slowed through some gravitational tomfuckery. We were all pulled to the same point. Some of the prisoners bounced off the ceiling before flowing into the route we were directed into. Some collided with each other. Some slimy amoeba thing bounced off fishsnake and started to whirl wildly off to the side, but I reached for it and swung it back onto fishsnake’s body.
Then it was our turn to get flushed. Fishsnake had to take the brunt of the pipes we were directed through, which quickly got crowded. They had a bunch of offshoots, though, and people would zip off in some other direction. There didn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to it. Our bunch got so far that I saw black void and stars, but then we were shunted off to the side and tumbled out into a wide-open space with a bunch of small homes.
There were Xlevon peering out cautiously, at us and a few others who landed here. The aliens who kidnapped us had some variation in what they looked like. Skin colors were blue, pink, and straight white. Not pink-white like humans, just white. A bulky one near us wore layers of armor pads and held a double-sided ax whose bottom he turned to us. I noticed something was up down there, like a small tube or barrel sticking out.
Fishsnake groaned. The plant-looking alien,the owbreetoo, picked herself/itself up and, probably just for my benefit, announced, “They found a way to redirect us into the ship instead!”
I gave the Blanks a brief update. “The scouts got detected but found a way to redirect us. We’re scattered through the ship. I think my group’s in some kind of living area.”
“We detect the prisoner section has been vented, but no living beings were ejected,” Fort said.
“Dreiser, we need to dock. Gecko, what is your situation?” Tarkington inquired.
Fishsnake was hissing at the guard. Owbreetoo’s petals opened wide to make it look bigger. The amoeba thing even formed a few tentacles. We were all showing some major signs of “Back the fuck off.” Then another group of guards appeared, yelling, and started to charge. We rushed forward as well, my HUD giving me “In Maidjan” to accompany us primitives finally meeting this “advanced species”.
I couldn’t keep a grin off the body on the Blank ship, or the music from playing out of my body on the Xlevon ship, but Fort answered Tarkington first. “The Xlevon are sending distress signals. Escaped prisoners, widespread violence.”
Space… the final frontier. Insert uplifting orchestral music here.
It’s tough living in different bodies and it’s not any more fun when your only source of food for the main one involves eating strange alien species. Fishsnake and I were hanging out at this area between a few different biomes. The holding area of the ship had this weird setup where different biomes existed around each other. The green hill zone I was in didn’t seem so rough compared to the lava zone, the ice zone, and the desert area. I figured it was all done in broad strokes. I was also informed that the pond in the middle of where they all met itself led to different underwater biomes, with that body of water serving as a way to allow amphibious species to live.
“The majority of prisoners wish to escape. It is rare for one that is sentient to prefer murdering prisoners for food,” Fishsnake said. It handed me something that looked like a large berry. “The rest of us grow food from seeds brought with us by accident, or preserve the bodies of those who fall. Including the non-sentients. And those who cannot breathe this air. And murderers.”
Turnabout, I guess. Someone gets nabbed and decides they want to eat instead of cooperate, something’s got to be done with the resulting body. Most of the things around me seemed to focus on vegetables, though. Easier to get more of for the omnivores and herbivores. I’d never seen any of these species before.
I nodded and gave the berry a nibble. I’d say a mixture of sweet and umami instead of tangy. “I guess most of y’all are from species that aren’t much off your own planets, like mine?” The way my mouth went from wet to dry suddenly caught me offguard. I held up the big berry thing. “What’s this thing, anyway?” I asked.
“It is a Cradu berry from my planet. The seeds were in my system when I was abducted,” Fishsnake said. At least I’m not eating recycled poop this time. I just… whew, that berry hit me hard. I had trouble opening my eyes and shapes started changing. Over in the pursuing alien ship, the spare body I brought stopped prepping my armor and slumped over.
I was already on a journey, but that berry sent me on a fucking trip. My HUD clock was resetting once I came back to myself and I tried to remember what was going on. I know I was wrapped up in fishsnake’s coils. He appeared to be sleeping, so I helped myself out.
A female-presenting alien cooed reassuringly in bone armor helpied me stand up because it felt like I swapped my legs around or my head was on backwards. Knowing me, I checked. Everything seemed to be in its correct place. Before long, the translator kicked in for her. “Easy. The food did not treat you well.”
I know I said it sounding like cooing, but she treated me rough enough I felt the need to ask, “Did I kill anyone/”
“You touched a lot of people. It is believed you wanted to initiate mating. You did things to the vegetation,” she answered.
“Not the worst of possible results, but not the best,” I mentioned. I looked around and saw the various extraterrestrials looking my way. One that looked like a walking bundle of rosepetals turned my way and spread its petals out, which could have been either flirting or a threat. “When you say vegetation…?”
“You did not molest the Owbreetoo,” said the bony female helping me out. “Can you walk?”
“Of course,” I said. I took a step and tripped over a rock, then called out from the ground, “Doesn’t count. That was a practice step.”
I could walk, but it took a little bit of time, during which fishsnake woke up. Once I’d gotten into the right head space, we could actually talk more about what assets I bring to a potential escape. I told them about my ability to network directly or wirelessly with computers, though it would greatly speed things up to learn their computing language beforehand. I showed them the eyes and their ability to shoot lasers, and mentioned other enhancements. Then I told them about the other aliens, Tarkington, Fort, and Dreiser, and how we were all in pursuit in another spaceship with a spare body and power armor.
The whole bunch had whatever armor, weapons, or gadgets they’d had on them or been able to improvise since they’d been here. A representative from the underwater biomes even told us they’d been working their way into some filtration and ventilation systems and have a way out of the holding area, but the Xlevon are air-breathers. There were a couple of amphibians that could do it, but they wouldn’t be enough to handle many guards. Not that anyone there knew what sort of equipment, tactics, or traps the guards had.
“I’ll see what I can find out from the guys carrying my other body,” I said.
I jumped back over that body. “Hey, guys!” I sat up in… some place different than where I’d left my body. Looked like a medical room. I immediately checked by ass for probes. Just because I don’t believe most abduction stories doesn’t mean I’ll ignore them after I’ve actually been abducted by aliens.
I got up and tried the door. Fort was already there, having maintained his human disguise. “I was coming to check on you!”
“Why did y’all bring me here?” I asked.
“You were passed out and saying weird things. Also, I think you tried to have sex with the lavatory,” he said.
“Hope I didn’t make it to first base. That would be berry awkward,” I said. “Hey, I have some questions that need answered while myself and the other fish onboard try to plan an escape. What kind of weapons, armor, tactics, and all do the Xlevon use?”
“We have a console on the bridge you can use to look up information suitable for your species to know,” Fort said.
“Fuck suitable to know. What’s suitable for me to kill them when we try to escape their ship? As someone whose life is at stake, this is no time for the Prime Directive.” That body didn’t need all the help to get moving so I ran up to the bridge. Fort followed along, bringing my clothes.
The bridge itself, I should mention, is like a relatively small room. There’s no light but I guess it filters in through the wall, which is an organic, membrane-like mixture of amber and purple. The room is circular, with three consoles on the wall opposite the door, rounded off like some kitschy old kitchen counters. Each of those had a thin screen and a patch of some grey material. Where Dreiser was seated, that patch responded to his touch by forming a series of bumps he rubbed or pressed to do whatever it was he was doing. And Tarkington sat just off-center in the room where he could watch over all the consoles, a pair of those patches on the arms of his chair.
I basically acted as a conduit between the information my saviors permitted me to know, and the other group of people who held in the ship of an advanced alien species that catches less-advanced species for fun, as the database read, “For excrement and excitement.” Felt like it was the choice between two factions that wanted to control us, but only one was openly malevolent. I went ahead and linked up with the Blanks’ computers to grab a sample of their programming language for the cracking program.
Then things got really freaky. Tracking my main body got freaky all of a sudden. The Xlevon had been just past Pluto when the positioning messed up and suddenly showed me a shitload distance away. It didn’t affect the connection between the bodies, since that was rerouted through another dimension and physical distance doesn’t matter. The signal on me rubberbanded between some insanely huge distance and right outside, then into a line between the pair.
I tossed that up on the screen for the Blanks. “I think I’m stroking out here.”
Tarkington leaned forward in his chair, “They’ve opened a bridge.”
Dreiser spoke up, “Accelerating to drift.”
I updated the prisoners that we’d left my solar system with what sounds like a wormhole. Most of them seemed to have the concept. Bit of confusion from this one thing that could get good work in Hollywood horror movies. It occurred to me this is the first real outside knowledge to come to these others about the guys who kidnapped us all. Also, that I needed to find some non-hallucinogenic food.
After about ten minutes, Dreiser announced, “We’re closing in. Almost there.” Then the hologram he navigated off created a larger copy in the middle of the room with something blinking. Seems that’s the universal language of “look, something’s happening!”
“Gravity spike and friction generator,” Dreiser noted.
“They knew we were following them?” Fort asked.
Tarkington touched some options on the hologram. “Active sensors engaged. No, this is an outpost, a small one.”
It was a few lightminutes past Pluto, the shape of an oblate sphereoid but relatively small, marked on the hologram with an X.
Fort checked a console. “We’re receiving a signal from the station. Translation is as follows.”
A digitized voice spoke. “Greetings traveler. Xlevon trail outpost Shasimis welcomes you to enjoy our commissary stocked with fermented beverages, aquatic food wraps, and raw aquatic fauna meals. Waste disposal is available in the outstation.”
Fort said, “They didn’t know we were tracking them. The station stopped us to sell us beer and sushi.”
“We need to disable it,” Dreiser recommended. “I can’t… gods’ dicks! The bridge closed.”
Tarkington sounded like a bunch of rocks rolling against each other. “Can you use manual bridging using our friend’s tracking data?”
“I believe so,” Dreiser responded. “I would feel better if we disabled that outpost first. For morale reasons. It will take time for me to program our course.”
The signal from Outpost Shasimis continued, “Enjoy your rest. We will hold your vessel until you have rested and consumed quantities of mass. Act now, fornicators with ones own gender.”
Tarkington looked over to Fort. “Fort, prepare the expedition suits and demolition charges.” He paused, then looked to me. “If that is alright with you. It will take Dreiser time.”
The signal continued. “Query: are you capable of conceptualizing data of cultural important persons in an unclothed state? Initiate response here for more! Query: are your mating rituals failing due to biological failures? Outpost Shusis has optional medicine that can help you become reproductively active again.”
“Yeah, let’s fuck ’em up,” I answered.
Back on Earth, I walked one of my spare bodies up to the remnants of the lake. The aliens had blown the whole thing out. There were a lot of people around from government agencies still finding dead fish in trees. I came in pretending to be a civilian: no costume or visible powers. Even the distance I was at, I could spot where the scorchmarks ended and the regular dirt and grass began. Guess I’m lucky, or maybe I’m just that tough.
The cabins looked fine. Took a lot of self control to not rush the one we’d been staying in, but I didn’t know who I could trust and who I could take. One of the suits approached, a classic man in black sweating his ass off in the summer heat.
“Excuse me, miss?” he waved at me as he jogged closer. “We need you to stay away from the perimeter of the incident.”
“My niece was staying here. Tell me where she is before I get an itchy lawyer-calling finger,” I told the guy, raising my middle finger to show off that was the finger in question.
“You believe your niece was staying here?” he said, pointing over to the cabins. I noticed he still pointed toward the cabin we’d stayed in. Looked like it got sprayed with fish guts, but otherwise safe.
I pointed right at the cabin. “Yeah, same one you just pointed to. Where is she?”
He also pointed over there. “The girl from that cabin? She assaulted a federal agent and says her mom was abducted by aliens. She also didn’t call any aunt. She didn’t call anyone.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You worked so hard for all the power a stupid suit and badge would give you and now nobody’s scared of you. I don’t even have a leafblower and I’m not impressed. You and I both know you weren’t sent here for any real answers. Most suspected alien encounters on Earth don’t even get reported, let alone investigated. They only sent you because a weapon went off, but anything capable of doing this kind of shit after flying to the taint end of the universe could already be blasting monuments.” I leaned in and decided to use some of my outdated stolen top secret info from the government. The United States has had a few organizations meant to investigate or even fight extraterrestrials. They don’t last long for some reason. “I’ve been there, working Majestic duty. X-twelve-dash-zero-five-one. Come on, a favor for a friend here? I bet I’ll even figure out how to get the mom back and make you look good.”
“Shit,” he cussed under his breath, looking around. “This way, ma’am.”
I probably shouldn’t have laughed when I saw her, but she looked so cute all trussed up like Hannibal Lecter. The agent explained, “She tried to grab a gun.” Attagirl. They had her done up ina straightjacket and mask, strapped to a dolly.
I smiled and bent down to address her on her level and in Riccan. “Hello baby. Momma’s here, but I had to use a spare body.”
She immediately stopped cutting out of her jacket with the knife she had on her. I told the agent, “Let her go.” Just before she got free, I told her, “Don’t cut him.”
“What?” he asked. He stepped away real quick as Qiang tossed off the straightjacket and cut her way through the remaining straps on her. She tossed the knife blade-first into the grass as she ran into my arms for a hug.
The man put his hands on his waist. “What the fuck am I dealing with here?”
I stood up with Qiang in my arms. “Since you’ve played so nice so far, I’ll tell you I’m the one they abducted. I have some spare bodies I can put my mind into, like this one, but the one they nabbed is the real me.” Unless I’ve inadvertently found a way to distribute my memory across multiple bodies at the same time, but I’d rather not test that. If I didn’t have the ability to send signals across the multiverse, I’d be stuck without the benefit of terrestrial resources.
“So you are on an alien spaceship and can report back to us in real time what it’s like?” the man asked. He was getting excited now.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know how much help you can be, but I’m going to need some help. A teleporter would be best. If not, I suppose a spaceship would do…”
“A spaceship? Where even are you, up there I mean?” He pointed up at the sky. He’d raised his voice, so some of local law started to notice. There were a few more black suits there who also realized he’d let Qiang go and were starting to amble our way.
“You got a laptop? A holographic display would be better, and I don’t like all these cops around,” I said, eyeing the approaching crowd.
“Everyone but members of the Bureau, clear out!” the agent said, leading me over to a white van.
“Agent Fort, what is going on here?” asked an older black-suited man.
“Agent Tarkington, this woman has valuable information for us,” Agent Fort opened the back of the van and reached in to grab a tablet off a rack. He held it out for me. “Here, holographic display.”
I set Qiang down. She stared down the agents with a firm grip on her knife while my spare body, another homo machina, interfaced with the tablet. I guess some higher tech was starting to filter through the government. Soon, with a bit of satellite triangulation on my side, I had enough of a location and idea how they were moving to create a visual aid. Two points appeared, one small with the words “I am here,” over it, and a larger one marked, “You are here.” The two different points pulled apart as the hologram showed the relative distance. A line between the two showed us about 400 million miles apart. The distance decreased slightly, then increased slightly as the dot representing me moved in a few circles, then moved to a new position nearby to do more circles.
“Why are they doing that?” Agent Fort asked. He’d been explaining my out of body experience to the others and just the others. The cops had been shooed off by then so nobody had to explain anything to them.
Tarkington stepped up, keeping his sunglasses on. “They’re at Jupiter.” He shook his head in disbelief and turned to another one with them, a mustachioed short guy. “They’re doing donuts on Jupiter. That’s all the confirmation I need. They’re Xlevon.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking closer at Tarkington. “How’d you know that, though?”
“I’ve been at this a long time,” he said.
I shook my head. “No you haven’t. No agencies around here do this for a long time. The only one that’s lasted any appreciable length of time was back in the 60s, before you would have been born.”
“We’re with the United Nations,” Tarkington said.
“Pull the other one,” I told him. “Are you guys visitors, those guys with the Three Hares?”
Tarkington looked to Fort, who held up his hands and said,” I didn’t say anything about them.”
“If you guys don’t start being honest with me right now, this collaboration’s over with. I don’t have time to waste on whatever this is,” I told them.
Tarkington shook his head, then pointed into the van. “Get in there and we’ll show you.”
Qiang raised her knife. Attagirl. I nodded to her. “Hard no. Even my daughter knows not to get into a windowless van with strange men. I think we’ll be going now.”
“Wait,” Tarkington, said, moving in front of me. He very nearly took a knife to the junk before his head shook and became blank, faceless, and white for a moment. It shook again and he was back to looking like he did before. “We aren’t with any Earth government. We are a group of observers working for an organization that attempts to monitor and aid undeveloped planets at risk from malevolent extraplanetary species.”
“Didn’t stop the Hares,” I said.
“The Hares kept to themselves. We have assisted how we could with other invasions, but space is large. Most are resolved before we can do more than provide information. The Mobian and your superhumans are invaluable protectors, but your governments are unstable and don’t trust us. We want to help save you from the Xlevon, but we don’t have a lot of resources on hand for this little blue planet.”
I shrugged. Not the craziest thing I’ve heard and it seems to match up with what I know of the workings of the greater galactic community. But I also had a way to check. Back on the ship, I was hanging out with the fish snake alien guy. Well, hanging out on him. I sat on his back as he slithered along to a different prisoner biome to try and meet up with his allies. “Hey, you ever hear about some beings sent to planets that aren’t all that advanced to keep watch for aliens like the Xlevon and invaders?”
The fish gave his version of a laugh. “The one sent to my planet was a thing with no face who failed to turn into one of us. It died in the invasion that gave us the ships to travel space, but we are looked down on for achieving faster-than-light travel through such means. Many of these civilized species are too weak to defend we they mock. Perhaps not the one who travels in the light orb. He helps more than most.”
Sounds about right. Shapeshifting, featureless alien that claims to be helping but doesn’t ever contribute anything meaningful? Exactly what I seem to be dealing with here. It also convinced me Earth’s considered the space equivalent of the ass end of nowhere since I realized that the aliens who went “fishing” with some sort of explosive weapon were doing donuts in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“Assuming y’all are finally telling the truth here, do we have a spaceship?” I asked.
Tarkington nodded. “Dreiser’s bringing it around now.”
“That defeats the purpose of our cover here,” Agent Fort said.
Tarkington stared at him through sunglasses I remembered were part of the alien’s body. “You’re new, so I’ll excuse your excessive caution. I’ve spent tens of years wanting to be in a position to do something meaningful.”
Dreiser, the other one of the bunch, most have shared that sentiment. A black triangle appeared overhead right in the middle of the day, surrounding us in a bright light that pulled myself, Qiang, Tarkington, Fort, and the van up into it. We floated through the bottom of the craft and into a room with a lot of brown and amber colors and low lighting.
“Is there anything you need before we pursue the Xlevon?” Tarkington asked.
I looked down at my daughter, who was jumping up and down excitedly, then back to Tarkington. “I’m guessing there will be extensive risk of physical harm?”
“Yeah,” Tarkington said.
I walked another spare body, this one in wearing my power armor, out onto my front lawn along with a couple cases of supplies. The triangle ship appeared overhead and another flash of pulled it up and dropped the spare body the fake agents had been talking to off with my daughter. They figured out who I had to be once they saw that. And my daughter decided quite vocally that she should be allowed to go risk dying in space.
“You never let me do anything fun!” my daughter yelled.
“No, I never let you get blown up by aliens. You want to fight rednecks from space, you graduate college first. Besides, killing things in space isn’t as fun as you’d think. In space, you can’t hear anybody scream.”
Meanwhile, up in the ship, a blanked-out Tarkington tapped his fingers impatiently on the arm of the chair he’d just caught me sitting in. I looked up at him, then tapped my chest where a Starfleet communicator would go. “I need everything you can give the engines, Scotty. We’ll cut ’em off at the pass!” Then I reluctantly got up and let Tarkington take what I assumed to be his chair.
“This is why nobody likes immature species,” the blank alien said.
“I’ll go work on more genocidal weapons of mass destruction while you mature people try to catch up to the aliens doing donuts on Jupiter,” I said.
I sat up late last night staring at a loaded gun in front of me.
I don’t like guns. May come as a surprise because I put them on my VTOL design and on my drones. It even feels like a petty distinction to make between firearms and lasers. I’ve felt more open about using them lately, even though I said long ago that I find them unimaginative. That’s part of it.
Another is that when I think back to everything that’s happened to me, the symbol of what’s been done to me is that the gun in my face. Men with guns, giving orders. I was getting tired of dwelling on the past trauma. I guess that’s part of why I’m such a bad example for other trans people. I’m everything they don’t want to be seen as. Same for homo machina, or just anyone from my dimension.
I’m no hero. After the last time we teamed up, Reindeer talked about her disappointment with letting me kill the guy. He was too rich to be touched by the legal system, or they wouldn’t do anything to him. It’s not the same as making a mugger or villain back down with a show of force or a fight. Whatever goodness in me takes over when I weredeer out once a month is losing because the psycho killer version of me is the best suited to dealing with this shitheap planet.
So I stared at a gun and had thoughts. Before my daughter woke up, I spat contemptuously and put the gun up.
It’s a sad, silly little ritual, but I’ve been doing it a bit lately. Stay up or wake up early and think about doing the world a favor, get my daughter up and get her settled, then off to stand behind a counter at the shop I set up.
People stop in now that folks are more used to me. I’m kind of the local electronics store since so many others went out of business, and I carry stuff nobody has. There’s also been some interest in the cosmetic medical services I can offer. I can mod a body in a jiffy, while eating a gummy and sipping a slushy. I’m still trying to figure out what age is the cut-off. Parents often mind even when you can turn a skinny, acne-covered boy into a miniature Brad Pitt. Then there’s the possibility I’ll get folks wanting to swap genders, and I don’t know how I’m going to fuck that pig. I’m trying not to overstep bounds, but sometimes bigoted parents are made to be pissed-off.
These questions of mischief and ethics would usually occupy my mind, but I just wasn’t into it this time. I was feeling hollow. That’s why I didn’t really acknowledge the couple that came in beyond the standard greeting. They were the only other people besides myself in there. I used to have a ghost in the store, but he moved on. So it was just them and me.
They walked right up to the counter. Nice looking couple, I suppose. The woman had some curls in her auburn hair. The guy had a short, tasteful beard of the type I wouldn’t see as a turnoff, but I wasn’t thinking of the pair in terms of sex appeal. In act, when the guy nodded to me and said, “Penny for your thoughts,” he found out where my brain was at.
“Just wondering if… no… hold on…” I held up a finger, then waved the whole hand. “Nevermind, I got nothing.” I thought I had something, even something funny, but things slipped out. “Oh yeah, I got something. I know there’s a lot of alien civilizations out there, so why do we only get the worst of them visiting? I think we might be the space equivalent of the backwoods.”
The woman approached, and I noticed now she had a casserole dish with a bunch of chicken parmesan in it. “I felt you were having trouble and thought I would make this for you. And you deserve an apology for the misunderstanding some time back.”
“What?” Is all I asked. It had to do extra duty because this whole conversation was quickly getting cryptic and I was in no mood for some cloak and dagger back and forth.
“I can feel your distress,” the woman said. “And we contributed in some small way. We were part of the group that tried to get inside when you were meeting with the Torian.”
“Did everyone know who that guy was but me?” I asked.
The guy shrugged. “Some of us have tangled with him before. We didn’t know what he was doing here, but we thought it would end badly. We didn’t mean for it to seem like an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I appreciate food, so I just said, “Thanks.”
“We used to be heroes,” the woman said. “But it’s dangerous out there. There are villains, law enforcement if you go after someone important, and all the expectations. Hi, I’m Marianne and this is Adrian.” I took the chicken parm off her and then we shook hands. They had been heroes once upon a time. She was training to be an Olympian when her powers manifested and they decided her athletics must be a side effect of having powers. He ran into her one night when a friend of his met her on patrol. In the end, they decided they didn’t want to be heroes while raising a kid. They’d known Medusa from when they’d all had an encounter with someone too important to be messed with, and she offered them a place to have a family in peace.
“Guess I’m not making that easy,” I said.
Marianne smiled at me. “You’re the reason we don’t have to worry about the virus. My mom lives with us now because it’s safe here for her.”
I turned to Adrian. “Wow, I screwed you over.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Marianne enjoyed the joke as well. After it finished, he said, “It’s weird having you as a neighbor, but I trust me wife’s judgment. She said you needed help, so we thought we’d help.”
I shrugged. “It looks good, thank you.”
“Hey,” Adrian said. “I know everyone’s tired of isolation, but I thought I would offer. I have a friend who owns a cabin on a lake nearby. It’s a good place to go and figure yourself out. Maybe you and your kid can go fishing?”
I had nothing better to do, so I went home, fixed some spaghetti noodles to go with the chicken, cheese, and sauce, and told Qiang we were going to grab some worms. Should have waited until we were done munching on the spaghetti. Neither of us really give a damn about school, which no one should be in right now anyway. I got us a bunch of fishing equipment, set some traps, and off we went to a cabin near a nice-sized lake. Probably had a good 40,000 fathoms. About 7 Hectors around. A couple of leagues at least.
I don’t know much about measuring bodies of water and I wasn’t inclined to look it up over this particular lake. There were a few cabins around it, a dozen altogether, all up on stilts in case there was a parade or a flood.
I didn’t like it. The air conditioning and the wifi both sucked so much ass there should have been some censor bars and content warnings. If it was an appliance, it would have been an assuum cleaner. If it was an amphibious reptile, it would have been an assiater. If it was involved in sports, it would be Assistant Head Coach of the Boston Butt Munchers.
You know, at this point, it feels like I’m beating up on a kink. Ass eaters haven’t done anything to me, either. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I need to find myself a cute one to try out for awhile. Maybe it’s something great that’s often-maligned, like clowns and nuclear power.
If I sound more light-hearted, the place helped. Being away from the place I called home, in a relaxing way, helped. My problems felt far away. No wonder everyone else is going absolutely bonkers trapped in their houses. We had ourselves a day of fishing. Just us out there, hot and sweaty, getting slimy and smelling like fish. I hate fish. I’d rather eat ass before eating fish. I brought other stuff for us to cook, but I showed her how to clean a fish. She can have all the fish she wants if she wants.
“And that’s how you catch and cook a fish,” I told her as we both washed up. “There are easier ways, but most people don’t agree with tossing dynamite or other explosives into the water and taking the fish that float up dead.”
“It’s probably real easy, though. How does it work?”
I explained a little bit about the force of the explosion affecting their bodies, but didn’t go into too much detail about how that works. She can find that out later.
I sat on this dock that night. I’d brought the gun with me. Ridiculous thing. Not even strong enough to kill me. I spat a bullet out into the water, regretting it because of the taste at least. The gunpowder or lead has a better chance of killing me.
Then came the lights, filling the sky and making it look like day all of a sudden. A column of light poured down, pushing the water away. I jumped to my feet and got hit by a wave of water before the light enveloped me.
I awoke under a green sky. A fish face stared down at me, attached to a scaled chest and a pair of really skinny arms. Its mouth blubbed like it was trying to get air but my translation program sensed something about the pattern of noises it emitted and started translating.
I got something along the lines of “Fresh fish,” from it.
“Where am I?” I asked, kipping up. I barely made it. The gravity was funny, just like the sky was funny and the three suns were now blue. Fish guy didn’t understand, so I tried a few more times while looking around at the hilly area and at the elongated, snakelike body of the fish.
“You are caught. The Xlevon travel to remote areas of the galaxy to capture lifeforms for recreation. These are the unsporting ones who use a detonation device in the process. They think they are so superior.”
That got my attention. “Where are the others they brought in with me?”
Fish guy responded. “No others. Only you. No dead for food.”
Well, that’s a plus. They didn’t get Qiang, dead or alive. “Good. Now, how do we get out?”
Fish thing looked like he was hacking something up, which I figured out might be its species’ version of laughter. “I enjoy you. You will be useful. Yes, let us escape.”