I was once imprisoned in a complex underground prison called the Cube, like a Rubik’s Cube. Been thinking about that now that I’ve actually managed to put together the control for my own base. I need a name for the base itself but for now it goes everywhere. One little cube lets me connect to every seam in the place and change it up. A self-sufficient, transdimensional hideout with access to energy and resources beyond the reach of anyone else. I gave Sam a key that I can turn off from a distance, in case Technolutionary doublecrosses me.
I consider it more of a “when” instead of an “if” situation. My goals and his sometimes cross over enough for us to put aside past betrayals and work together, but it never lasts long. In this case, I don’t know how long he expected me to think we’d work together. There are so many of these Omega Pearls around. They’re just little bits and pieces of this overwhelmingly powerful being that had been trapped between all universes for a long time. He got into our world through a situation that involved possessing my body, and getting kicked out seemed to have left bits of his power around.
The situation’s ripe for shit going wrong. That’s why I have a base that transcends space and the universe, accessible from a control cube floating in the main cave. It was a wonder of technology that could revolutionize the world. I kept it to myself and used it to steal some computer parts real quick. I hefted the box, adjusted the exit to send me to the Skylab.
The Skylab, our cooperative lab, gets its name from the fact that it’s flying. Maintenance robots keep it functioning while, on the inside, we were working on a way to find out the enormity of our task and make it much easier.
We don’t know how much, but Technolutionary and I have come up with an idea. We’ve figured out enough about how people can access the pearls that we believe we can plug it into a computer with a mapping system. We’re going to use the power of satellite technology to try and track down the rest. Worst case scenario, instead of some inherent connection, we analyze its unique energy signature and try to find that around the world minus any hidden deep underground or in lead. Or in other dimensions, like in the Hell Dimensions.
With nothing but hard work, determination, old-fashioned grit, sayings people have heard a thousand times, and an army of robot minions, we assembled our new supercomputer. We threw the code in there, and Technolutionary slapped one of the pearls we had in the “Omega chamber” as he called coffeepot-sized container.
“I thought there’d be more electricity shooting out. You mad scientists love that,” Sam said, sipping on coffee.
Technolutionary cleared his throat, then pressed a button. The entire wall behind our supercomputer revealed itself to be a monitor that flashed lightning across it, thunder echoing throughout the lab. “Does that meet your approval?”
Sam gave him the thumbs-up.
“Good,” I said. “Let’s get this bad boy scanning.” I walked over to the side of the supercomputer tower, packed full of computing goodness, and flipped a switch. The computer’s fan started and the light turned on. A holographic projector in front of the tower turned on, showing a hologram of Earth. Overlaid on top of it was the word “Scanning…”
And it kept on floating there like that. After a couple of minutes, Technolutionary went over to open the tower and look into it. “It’s working, right?”
I brought up the holographic keyboard and the task menu. “Yep. Taking up the entire CPU, too. I think it’s just taking a long time to work.”
Five minutes after we activated the seeker program, a red blip appeared. “We got one!” Sam declared. “And at this rate, you guys can go collect one every time it pops up!”
Technolutionary grumbled to himself. “I’ll grab it if you want.”
I shrugged. “If you want. Looks like this is going to take awhile. I might duck out, go for some I know of in another dimension.”
“Might as well,” Technolutionary agreed.
“What about me?” Sam said, leaning on me.
“I’m going to Hell, and I don’t want to take you with me,” I said.
“Like, a sexy hell, or lake of fire hell?” Sam asked.
I waggled my hand. “I mean, I thought some of the demons were hot, but the place was a floating crag of rust and metal used for target practice, so…”
Sam nodded, took a sip of coffee, and pulled a chair out from the wall. “Looks like I’ll be watching the hologram. You have fun, babe. But if you find a sexy demon…”
I nodded. Just like with how I tried a couple dates with Medusa again, Sam and mine’s relationship is polyamorous. It’s kind of like being polygamous, but without the marriage or the pedophilia.
I barely even needed to get ready. I mean, the power of these portals was at my fingertips via a wireless electronic link. I could drown them in lava, or an ocean. I could drop a blue whale on my enemies, or cast them into the heart of a collapsing star.
Recognizing the signs of a power trip in myself, I decided to slap myself a few times and armor up. I’ve killed too many people who thought the exact same things. I hadn’t even set up a forcefield generator that could project one through a portal to cover me. I checked and rechecked the armor, and made sure all the equipment was doing ok. I even upgraded winrar from the demo to an actual purchase just to make sure something wouldn’t go wrong in the heat of battle. And I expected heat in Hell.
I reappeared, armor computer racing to analyze the situation and project a cloak of invisibility around me. I was back in the big egg-shaped building where I’d disappeared. The damaged globe was gone, as were the pearls around it. There were a few lights left on, but it all looked abandoned and dusty. I hopped outside for a better look, appearing on top of the egg.
A large number of vehicles were parked a ways away, around a set of clear cubes with metal along the edges and corners. Inside, I could see people. Outside, I saw demons. Some more of the ones with all the tendrils, and even a pack of the feral ones that looked humanoid with odd proportions and claws. There were also more conventional demons, with different skintones, spade tails, and a pair of horns up top. They wore suits and labcoats as one of them, a demon with a pair of welder’s goggles on, stepped forward to one of the cubes with a huge batch of Omega pearls.
They were all forced together, a basketball-sized bunch levitating out of reach of his hands. That they moved where he wanted suggested they were under his power in some way. He forced them through the clear portion of the cube somehow, and then they flew at the human. While they glowed red, he made a gesture that left an imprint of azure in the air in front of him, around the pearls, and on the prisoner’s chest. The pearls flew into the human.
So I guess they got impatient with whatever they had planned and tried another weaponization. It was the eyes of the person in the cell that were subsumed into crimson first, then their skin. The clothes they had on were rough with clawmarks, but they burned off as the floated… and then the cube was just gone, prisoner and all. An explosion off in the distance helped me track it again. I looked over there and zoomed in, finding nothing left but a floating mass of pearls and scraps of the cell the person had been in. A child-sized demon in a biohazard suit appeared, scooped them into a plastic container, and then teleported back to the demons at the cubes. I did the same, staying hidden so I could figure out what was going on.
The demon who had done the insertion was babbling to the others in a language that my translator program hadn’t yet figured out. I didn’t have a complete enough sample last time. Then, he approached the other cube and spoke English. “Greetings, mortal. Don’t be afraid. Soon, I will give you more power than you can possibly imagine. You can become a god unto yourself, in the service of elevating us. We are finetuning the spells we use for this, so we will be with you momentarily. And know that if you die, your death will not be in vain. You will have given us the greatest gift of all: knowledge.”
The prisoner in the cell stayed on his knees, praying, trying to drown out the demon. When the demon stopped talking, I could hear he was speaking Spanish. A demon walked up to the head scientist demon and said something to him, who sighed. “It worked in the movies, where all humans speak the same language. Fine. Are we ready? I’m not explaining it to any test subject twice.” He turned around to look at the imp carrying the container, which I was sneaking up on.
The demon scientist raised a finger, pointing one long nail at me. He spat something in his language, then moved his finger around in a circle, leaving yellow symbols in the air. I kicked the biohazard demon out of the way, who disappeared with the container. Its body reappeared nearby, in a crowd of more of the little ones in protective gear. Meanwhile, all the demons around me looked my way, noticing me at once.
“Who are you?” asked the scientist. “Get her!”
Two larger, bony-plated demons with no horns stood nearby in black suits. Flames engulfed their outfits and left them in spiky armor, holding swords. With a wave of my hand, I created a portal from the tips of the swords to the inside of their skulls. The demons guards fell. I turned and opened another portal, bringing me the container of pearls.
Suddenly, I noticed the blue glow on my chest and the container. The pearls flew into me.
Everything went red hot. My awareness exploded. Like instead of having your consciousness focused in your head, through your eyes, everything expanded outward. Past that land mass, past the other islands of the Blasted Place, out from the cluster of dimensional flotsam that is collectively called Hell. I’d been there before. When Omega possessed me, there was far more power than this safely ensconced in my body. I willed myself back to myself, finding myself naked with scarlet skin. I was also in one of the other islands. Doubtless, the demons expected an explosion.
And to think, I hesitated? I feared the power. It felt so good. Familiar. Like sliding back into a bodysuit of godmode. Just for fun, I decided to add a spade tail, pair of horns, and a couple tiny wings. Just a bit to mock them. I realized I could no longer feel my dimensional network, but that’s ok. I took a step from a barren floating island of rust and reappeared in the middle of the demons.
“What did you think the good result was going to be if you turned someone you hated into a god?” I asked. They understood. I had put understanding into the words, regardless of their language.
The head scientist’s lab coat fluttered like a cape as fire and electricity built up in his hands. I raised a hand and dissipated the energy. Then I spread his atoms out until he fell apart like ash.
All the demons lost their shit. I took a look at a few, wondering if I ought to grab one… no… no. That’s not who I am, not even with this power. And I don’t mean because there was a female guard demon and I was wondering how those bony plates work in mating.
I let them go. They couldn’t do anything to me, even use me as a suicide bomb. Instead, I turned to the cubes, and the people within. I thought to myself that I’d like to find out where they came from. Lines appeared in the air, probably only to me. I sent them all back home. I was going to go back myself, but then I got a fitting little idea. I flew far above the whole area. Yes, flew. It’s different even than with the antigravity. The control and the feeling of physics being my bitch… it’s my way of telling the world it doesn’t own me anymore.
A lot of the demons were still fleeing. I shrugged and sent them to other islands. Then I imploded the one they all had been on, smirking. The Blasted Place… I wasn’t done with it yet. I gathered up all the remaining demons. All the little imps were gone, leaving guards and scientists. I brought the entire crowd to me in a protective bubble and let them watch from above this pocket dimension. I intended to wipe out the rest of the land here.
Then I hesitated, thinking of Sam and Medusa and Qiang, and everyone else I care about. “Go home,” I told them. “Leave us alone.” I sent them away. Then I left the Blasted Place. I meant to go home, but something else drew me in. I’d seen it before, a red blemish in the divide between universes. I recognized it now as the remains of Mr. Omega from when he was drawn out of ours. There was another pocket dimension there, a vast expanse of land. I appeared there in front of Mr. Omega himself. No, my newfound awareness told me this wasn’t just a smaller Mr. Omega. This was a piece of him, in the same way the pearls were pieces of him.
“Hello sister,” the Lesser Omega said.
Teleportation is an amazing power with many forms. The version I have lets me walk through a door in my basement and step out into a cave with no entrance to the surface, deep beneath the Earth, with weird stalactites in part of it that look like snow hanging from the ceiling. A corridor from there leads to an old, abandoned military base on a Pacific island near the returned continent of Mu. I’m building more doors. There’s one that leads to the inside of an asteroid where busy automatons of mine chip away at heavy metals and bring them back to be used. Another takes me to the base hidden underneath my shop; it serves as a refuge for criminals and supervillains who need to lie low. Finally, there’s the door that I open to get to the Skylab I share with Technolutionary.
I don’t even need the doors. They make it easier recognize where one place ends and another begins. It’s incredibly powerful, even if it doesn’t sound like it. Sadly, it was used for something like saving people. I mean, it was technically what I was trying to do. It just interrupted me in the middle of stealing really valuable shit.
“Hey!” Sam said, coming up behind me. My girlfriend/minion wore some nice short black jeans with fishnets for me. Well, she wears them because she likes them and I just go along appreciating how they make her look. “What have you been doing?”
I stood at an arch, looking into a bunch of cubbies. I whirled around, holding bonds in one hand, a brick of cocaine in the other, and a pearl necklace of the nonsexual kind around my neck. “What?!”
“First, don’t what me. Second, I’ve been trying to reach you. Technolutionary has an alarm on a big monitor and he says he needs your help.”
I had to be the saddest woman anyone had ever seen in a pearl necklace with a brick of coke and a fistful of one million dollars in someone else’s money. I reset the arch to a more neutral destination: the inside of a space station my robot builders were putting together. The arch has five different sensors that will turn it off in case of hull breach, solar flair, or other dangers.
Sam and I took the door to the SkyLab where Technolutionary was adjusting the view on his Big Monitor. It was divided up, different camera angles focused on a fight going on. He wore his close-fitting power armor, the armor plates adjusting subtly to account for weight distribution. His face was far more recessed in the helmet he had, his faceplate still in his hands.
“What is it, where is it, and why do we care?” I asked.
“Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the where.”
“Now I don’t care,” Sam responded.
Technolutionary brought up one divided window and ran it back. “I was running tests on how to utilize the Pearls. I’ve made advancements, and so have others.” That window framed a still shot of someone in brassy armor with a softball-sized Omega pearl in a backpack firing crimson energy blasts at another super. That one had a trio of smaller pearls, one in a necklace and the other two on leather gloves he wore. He was dressed like some sort of wizard, flying through the air, hurtling fireballs and red lightning at the other one.
I got facial recognition on both, but Technolutionary had already run it and put it on screen. “Brash is the man in the armor. The wizard is Lord Shadeheart.”
Sam gave a golf clap. “Not bad.”
I glanced her way. She shrugged. “Better than your evil villain name being Gecko without a lizard gimmick.”
I squinted in an exaggerated look of hurt and betrayal. She stuck out her tongue at me.
“They’ve been in the local Tuscaloosa news for some time. Shadeheart is a nobody former archeologist who got arrested for stealing and selling minor magical artifacts before he appeared one day with his three magic stones and started hurling thunderbolts. No one had the context when he first appeared to realize what the stones were. Then there’s Brash, who was known for his engineering and exoskeletons in high school that he tried to turn into a superhero career. He managed to rig some good power sources in recent years thanks to recent advances, but then a few months ago he shows up with that red backpack, using it as a source of energy. He probably tapped the core and is lucky he found a way to contain it for now.”
“So one hero, one villain,” I noted.
“Both are walking time bombs,” Technolutionary said. “They’re fighting and this time they both have that Omega energy. Look what’s happening.”
He showed video real quick of Brash firing a beam that hit a squiggly red line of false lightning from Lord Shadeheart. It unleashed a hell of an explosion. The two seemed to be protected by the pearls they used, but cars were blown away and buildings, or what few Tuscaloosa has, shifted and fell. Shadeheart focused his magic on keeping one from smacking into him, while Brash tried to lower one down.
“I suppose we oughta steal those from them,” I said.
“This looks like a job for Supergirl!” Sam said, clapping me on the back. “One hero for the villain, one villain for the hero.”
“What hero?” I asked.
“She means Lady Guardian. Yes, I know it’s you,” Technolutionary said.
“I’m no hero,” I declared.
“Babe, you can be anything you want to be,” Sam whispered in my ear.
I blushed and decided it was still a good time to wear some armor. The Lady Guardian armor zipped over to me and encased by body, hiding any expressions from the world. “So I’ll take Shadeheart?”
Technolutionary sighed and pushed his faceplate into place. “I would prefer to face off against Shadeheart for the challenge and study, but this works better. Let’s get our channels tuned.”
“Same bat channel, same bat time?” I asked. It was really him making sure our encrypted communications were on the same wavelength.
“I’ll stay here and monitor the monitor,” Sam said. It was better than having her out there near falling buildings and massive energy blasts.
I turned to the doorway I used to walk in. “Time to… ugh… save Tuscaloosa.” The door shifted destinations I dove out first, coming out of the sky overhead. Technolutionary ran out and took flight, catching up to me briefly during my free fall before peeling off to find where Brash ended up.
The vaguely-angelic, semi-organic Lady Guardian armor’s shimmery wings were more nanomachines, but I had built in the same antigrav tech I’d stolen for use in the other armor. I adjusted course, aiming to come down right on top of Shadeheart’s head. He surveyed the mess around there and fired off a few scarlet magic bolts that tried to collapse more buildings on Brash. He didn’t notice the growing shade until just before I got there, turning his head to look up.
I crashed into him, feeling one of his shoulders make a snapping noise. We both spun out of control for a moment. He reached at me with one gloved hand that glowed carmine. My “wings” slipped underneath it and yanked the glove off. A burst of red pushed us apart, throwing us in different directions as he used his remaining glove to separate us.
I oriented myself upright and saw he’d encased himself in a maroon orb, naked hand now holding the shoulder of the arm that had a glove left. I unleashed a blinding flash with the suit’s holoprojectors and swooped down below, avoiding a burst of what looked like blaster fire from his glove and necklace.
I came up below, my wings forming tendrals that spread over his orb and guided him upward, rapidly. I opened another gateway just for us and passed through it, releasing the orb into space, the final frontier. Lord Shadeheart didn’t react well. Lots of people don’t under those circumstances. He looked at me, then began to fly toward Earth. He ended up slowing before that, the orb faltering. I caught up to him as soon as it went down, my nanomachines crawling over him to both see to his health and separate him from the sources of his power. We passed through the gate again, coming to rest in the woods near Tuscaloosa.
I’m not fond of what he used that power for, but I’ve done worse. “You’ll live. You’ll be sore for a bit, but you’ll live,” I told him. Gave him a little slap on the cheek. He groaned and stirred. “I’m keeping your gloves, though. Gonna find out how you’re tapping onto these things.”
I changed the destination of the gateway nearby and tossed the gloves and necklace through. “Ow!” Sam said over the radio.
“Sorry!” I called out. “Didn’t realize you were that close.”
Technolutionary broke in. “Watch out! There’s a chopper around, with guns. They’re taking shots at me.”
I took to the air and scanned the disaster area. There were a couple of helicopters, one black and one with the Tuscaloosa Police Department decal on the side, right next to the open door and the rifle barrel. The black copter had something similar going on, but the rifle looked to be much heavier caliber. I flew into the air above the whole chaos. The police sniper trained the rifle on me and let a shot go. The bullet bounced off my tit with an annoying pain, but better than it going into the middle of that. I opened another gateway, appearing immediately in front of that open door and grabbing the rifle from the deputy. I handed him back just the scope. “You can have the rest when you can prove you’ve grown up.”
Then I did the same quick two-step on over to the black chopper. I immediately had an OSR badge thrust into my face. “Lady Guardian, we’re not here for you!” yelled one of the agents inside. I had to read it more than hear it under the circumstances.
“There are better ways to handle the disaster down below than adding bullets to it!” I warned them, pointing down at stunned bystanders in dust and debris. Nearby, I noticed Technolutionary, straddling the back of Brash’s armor and carving off a support strut for the larger pearl. It fell off, Brash’s armor stumbling and jerking. Technolutionary encased it in more of that goop from the Skylab and stuck it under his arm. I opened a gateway behind him that he dove through back to safety. I dropped down below the helicopter, through another one that left me in the Skylab well. I closed up all those ways to get back to us.
Sam stood in front of us, oversized gloves and necklace on. “Mwahahaha! Now I shall be the mistress, foolish mortals!”
Behind her, the monitor declared “Bum bum bum!” and let out old time dramatic thunder.
“Actually, these things aren’t working for me,” Sam said, pulling the stuff off. “Don’t know why, but I’ll go put them in one of the new scrambled cells.” She walked off to go delivery them to safe holding in these small randomized caves all over the world that this one particular portal accesses randomly.
“You didn’t kill Shadeheart, did you?” Technolutionary asked, popping out his faceplate.
I shook my head. “Might be worth one of us visiting, finding out how he could make those work.”
The other villain nodded, then tossed me the ball of goop. “Yeah. This thing looks like it was drilled into. We might learn something from it, but it’s clear we’ve run out of time. That’s three small-timers who figured this out and ended up with the ability to level a city by accident. Imagine if it was someone else like us. Or someone who wanted to do more.”
I nodded, remembering the scale model of Earth in that one Hell dimension weapons testing area. “Yeah. We’ve got a lot more ass to kick on our hands.”
“You want to rethink your phrasing there?” Technolutionary asked.
“Why do you need to do this?” Sam asked me. She was helping me assemble this thing, a dimensional breach device like the island of Ricca uses to harvest infinite power from the stars. They’re doing some great research there, and I tap into all of it. I could go back if I wanted, but I respect the will of the people who deposed me in a coup. It’s not an election, but it was a pretty good indication that they did not want me in power anymore. I figure me stealing their research for my own nefarious ends is just a decent retirement package from the position of Empress.
As long as you have a big enough power source to open the initial gateway, you can then access the very core of a star and harvest the radiation for more power output without anything messy like radioactive waste material. And at that point, you can just open more portals as needed. I’ve already got an idea on how to use M.C. Escher and alien antigrav to design a demo room. That demo room is not the answer to Sam’s question.
“Everyone seems really complacent with this idea that someone else will fix the problem when it comes up. Mr. Omega’s powers are broken. I think everyone really underestimates not only these powers, but the ways they can be harvested. It’s a lot the same with the full grasp of portal technology and transdimensional technology. Power, as in energy and electricity, opens up so many things. People make too many assumptions about saving the world. The things I could do with this in its current form, if I was trying to really raise some hell…”
Just like with thoughts of bases and traps, my mind wandered to building perfection in armor. Infinite energy. A middle layer laced with portals that divert projectiles and such. Filling any space I’m in with whatever toxic gasses exist out there, or firing a solar corona.
Sam jiggled my hand. “Wake up.”
I blinked. “I’m awake.”
“The lights were on, but you were elsewhere. Busy? You had a thing, right?”
I shook my head. “I have a little while before I need to be in Lightning Crack. My consciousness was here, I was just daydreaming about things I could do with this if I was more inclined. Maybe I should, to be prepared. Same reason I’m doing all this.”
“Well I don’t think it’s complacency. It’s just knowing that one person can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. That’s not your problem. You have problems letting anything be someone else’s problem. The rest of us poor humans have to sit around and know that the fate of the world is being decided by gods like you.” She bumped my hips with hers. I bumped right back.
Sam decided to get under my skin by getting her hands all on top of my skin. There’s something nice about just being touched by someone sometimes. It’s not the same touching myself. She wasn’t doing that, dear readers. Not with Technolutionary doing his creepy thing where he pretends not to be focusing on us.
Technolutionary had just brought in one of the Omega Pearls in a transparent aluminum cube and set it into a device with a bunch of little arms. Sam was distracting enough, especially when she put her mouth close to my ear and blew. The pearl made things worse, drawing my attention. I felt the heat off it when it came in. The other villain tapped a few buttons on the side of the cradle he set the cube in and a set of four robot arms began to fire small lasers through the cube and over the surface of the pearl.
“If we can do nothing else with them, at least they make good heaters, right?” I asked.
“How would you do that?” Technolutionary asked.
“I can feel the heat this far away,” I said.
Sam stopped messing around with me as Technolutionary straightened up. Sam told me, “I can’t feel it and I’m here with you.”
“It’s giving off no heat,” Technotutionary said.
“Y’all kidding me right now?” I asked. “How does it look to y’all?”
“Red and glowing,” Technolutionary answered.
Sam patted me on the head. “Yeah. What do you see?”
“The same, but it’s hard to look away,” I said.
Technolutionary looked to her, then to me. “Sorry to interrupt, but we need to test this.” So I ended up sitting in the corner, letting them know every time I felt them approach with one of the pearls. This was then followed by Technolutionary having me pick out the pearls from a bunch of gimmicked minerals or crystals. I could pick. Every time, I was drawn to the pearls.
“So you have some special connection with these, and it’s not just your eyes, or your race,” Technolutionary concluded.
Sam folded her arms. “It’s probably because you were possessed by Mr. Omega.”
“Makes the most sense so far,” I said. “And one other way we can test it and get more insight into all this is something I need to run do.”
“Lightning Crack?” Sam asked. I nodded.
“Do you need my help?” Technolutionary offered.
I laughed it off but brought Sam along in my Flyer that my won personal maintenance bots checked and rechecked for sabotage first. Assistant robots and more recon bugs stayed behind to make sure Technolutionary didn’t get up to no good and start making trouble in the neighborhood.
Lightning Crack was a small town I visited not far from Radium. Through sheer happenstance, the night myself, my family, and the weredeer I turn into went bowling there was when some local villains decided to rob the bowling alley. One of them blasted things apart and was wearing a suit with the same coloring and properties as these pearls. I didn’t know what it was then, but now I do. And more importantly, it looks like someone figured out a way to do something with the pearls that gave him some access to their power.
We brought the Flyer high over the Lightning Crack Sheriff’s Department building. Dead pine needle brown, it had one story aboveground and maybe a basement. I’d find that out once I went in.
“You’re not going to turn this into a big massacre, are you?” Sam asked.
I shook my head. “Figured I’d cause some panic and mayhem, but not particularly try to kill anyone.”
“hat’s more you wanting fun. What about your new leaf? Come on, I’ll help you fake credentials.” She led me over to one of the storage lockers and pulled out some bags of clothes and wigs that I had not stashed there.
“Just make yourself at home,” I quipped.
“Thanks, I will.” She blew me a kiss. With the help of a wig, suit, and briefcase, she went from Sam Hain, amusingly-named minion and girlfriend, to Samantha Hainsworth, single female lawyer.
It wasn’t hard to whip up some official-looking law firm letter and use my armor to appear as her partner in law. We walked in there, Sam taking the lead and slamming the letter down. “This is ridiculous! I’ve been trying to see the evidence against my client for weeks!”
“Ma’am, calm down” the night desk officer said. “Who are you and who are you here to see?”
“Not who, what,” I said.
“What are you?” the officer asked this time.
“I’m pissed is what I am,” I said, exaggerating my accent to sound even more Southern. “It’s all there in black and white from the judge. If you don’t show us that evidence, the prosecutor’s case is getting thrown out onto its hind end!”
“Wait a moment, let me call the Sheriff,” the deputy said.
“You do that, and while he’s on the phone, we’ll walk right on out, call up the judge, and get this whole case thrown out,” Sam said. The officer looked at us, then at the phone, then sighed. “Fine, I’ll let you in.”
He led us into the back, near the evidence lock-up. “What, exactly, are you here for?” he had the letter with him, which didn’t specify anything.
“A red suit, from the incident at the bowling alley,” I responded.
“That thing, yeah. I heard… nevermind. We still have it.” He stopped off at the door to the evidence room. “Stay here, alright?”
I nodded and he left Sam and I there while he went in. Sam stole a kiss from my helmet real quick. And I whined. “I can do this stuff on my own, you know.”
“Yeah, but this way I got to go with you.” She winked at me. She separated from me before long, making sure the officer wouldn’t catch us canoodling. Not that it would affect things, but we want him paying as little attention as possible. In retrospect, both of us being pretty worked against that.
He re-emerged after a couple of minutes with a box. “This is that costume the fellow was wearing. Weird red suit. It’s in a protective, lead-lined cover we got from Department of Homeland Security, in case it might be radioactive. Anything else I can do for y’all?”
I took the box from him. “That’ll be it.” Sam smiled, shaking his hand. “Thank you, officer.”
“Oh, just sign for me please,” he said, grabbing a clipboard off a plastic shelf on the wall. Sam went ahead and put her Jane Hancock down.
Once we got out of there, I called the Flyer closer. “And that, my dear, is what we call Social Engineering. Because the most vulnerable aspect of any system is usually the people.”
“All you do is talk about work. You’re probably going to put your hot minion to work instead of having any fun once we get up into the air.” She pretended to pout, pulling off her wig.
“Darn right,” I told her. I grabbed her around the waist and hefted her over my shoulder, carrying the evidence box under my arm with the other. “I’m not going to let you rest until we explore what’s in this box together.”
“Promise?” she asked. Then she let out a nice, “Ooh hoo!” when I patted her ass. She screamed pretty good when I jumped up into the Flyer, too. My favorite screams of the night came after that.
I’ve got my base, hidden under my shop. Technolutionary has his own, hidden somewhere else. We agreed to compromise on a shared space, which we’re working on. He wants something flying. Too many bells and whistles, too many moving parts for me. But not the worst idea. And it helped me come up with an interesting idea myself that I’m going to work on. Why not modify the dimensional bomb technology to hold a breach open? Maybe meld multiple places together. Not the sort of thing you really need if you’re a small business owning retired villain mom.
My girlfriend’s not happy. I told Sam what I was doing, trying to be more open to a romantic partner. She told me straight up, “This is probably a bad idea. That guy’s creepy and he never has good intentions.”
So for now, I’ve got a body up in a flying lab of Technolutionary’s powered by a stolen alien generator. Seeing as I keep spares, of some of my tech, I’ve got a nanite pool, armor auto repair, and the auto-foundry. I’ve also got some computers back in my own personal base running on traps and other ways to apply various stolen sciences to keep what we take safe from Technolutionary and others.
But first, we had to get it. Technolutionary has a few locations mapped out. Some people who get these Omega Pearls aren’t shy about letting folks know they have them. But first, we have a time sensitive matter in the hell dimensions.
As I understand it, there isn’t a literal Biblical Hell. There are a lot of places people think up where they go when they die to be tortured, usually meant to be the worst places imaginable and inhabited by demonic beings that plague humanity. And the various beings lumped together under the label “demon” seem real enough, but being real doesn’t mean every story about them is real. I’ve read about a French cavalry officer who was so strong, others at the military academy claimed he could do a pull up and bring his horse with him. Doesn’t make him fake, but also doesn’t mean he could really do that pull-up. For one thing, he’d couldn’t skip leg day.
Anyway, I figure the hell dimensions might be one inhuman planet with a variety of biomes that gave humans different ideas of Hell. Otherwise, they might just be a bunch of different dimensions each matching a different Hell. No matter the interpretation, I had a bug telling me the box containing an Omega Pearl was somewhere. I armored up and activated the armor’s chameleon protocols, then made a dimensional breach to land about 200 feet away.
It was daytime, lit by an orange star. The ground was rocky, with veins of rust running through it. Near me lapped water, clear but brown. I took a good look around, noticing both a the large, dark blue egg of a structure, and a crowd where the bug’s signal came from. The crowd stared my way. They were humans, two of them being Captain Lightning and his apprentice, Captain Lightning II. Those two were looking at me despite my armor projecting a holographic cloak of invisibility over me. Miss Tycism stood nearby, wearing purple robes and hood. She looked my way, but not at me. The others, I couldn’t make out who they were.
Well, I think I was busted. Not nearly as busted as the bodies on the ground near the bunch. I dropped the cloak and took a long leap to land near them. “Hey there Captain, Captain,” I said, offering a hand out for Captain Lightning to shake. Despite the magic giving him a buff body, he looked like age was catching up to him. He showed a lot more wrinkles and grey hair than I remembered. Then again, the guy was old enough to have fought the Nazis in World War II. I think he’s tired.
He smiled a thin smile and clasped my forearm in that sort of shake. “Gecko.”
Lightning II didn’t offer one of his own. He and Miss Tycism both glared at me. The others in the bunch looked well out of their depth. There was a fellow in a trench coat, another done up like a stage magician, and a woman in a gothic Lolita-style dress and a half-dozen belts wrapped around her waist. The magician carried the case I’d been tracking, the one the Omega Pearl had been sent off inside.
“What are you doing here?” Miss Tycism asked.
I shrugged. “Was going to steal back that Omega Pearl from these folks.” I nodded toward the case that the magician was carrying. “I guess y’all got it first?” The magician opened the case to show it was empty.
Captain Lightning let go of my arm. “We’re all late to intercept it.”
The man in the trenchcoat held up his hand where he held a coin. He flipped it and opened his palm to catch it. It bounced once, then started spinning on its edge. It was slower at first, then sped up when he pointed it to the big dark egg-thing. It slowed as he moved it past the structure, then sped up again when he brought it back.
“So it’s in that big-ass thing?” I looked to the rest of the bunch. “Room for one- look out!”
I pointed up toward the egg thing and the large ball of fire coming at us from it.
The Apprentice Lightning and Miss Tycism acted before the rest of them. Miss Tycism raised a wall of ice that curved overhead, throwing off a little mist from its sudden appearance in a land that my suit said was at what y’all would call 93 Fahrenheit. The second Lightning added his own barrier to it, a half-sphere that crackled with electricity. The fireball hit the ice wall and flash boiled it, throwing steam into the air with a piercing hiss that my ears filtered out. The twin shields held. I even got to see one of the bodies left outside the shield, a pale, horned thing with out of proportion limbs and odd numbers of clawed digits, burn to a crisp. Curious, I glimpsed at some of them around inside the shield and sent my nanites down to do an examination.
“I had it,” Miss Tycism said.
“Extra doesn’t hurt,” Lightning II said.
Captain Lightning floated up off the ground six inches. “Speaking of which, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have someone along who can help distract them. Gecko?”
“Mind if I bring some of these along for study?” I asked. I raised a hand and a couple of the dead humanoids stood up. Looked like one was masculine and the other feminine, with mouths full of fangs and long, thin tongues.
“If you want to, I suppose. They’re dead, right?” he asked.
“Ew,” noted the woman with the belts.
“Their bodies have ceased life function. The nanites have restored enough to keep bioelectricity flowing and are piloting the bodies for me,” I explained via the one that might have been a female.
“That’s fucking creepy,” Apprentice Lightning said.
“Language,” Captain Lightning admonished. “Fine, bring them. Those are little more than half-feral guard dogs anyways.”
I threw down a holodisc. Yes, I have some of these again. Little portable hologram generators with a link to my armor. I’ve spent years of disposing of stuff almost as soon as I build it up, and I now have more of these. I plan on my vault for the Omega Pearl being a mindfuck, and that prompted me to order up my machines to produce a bunch of these. My armor cloaked us as Captain Lightning raised a clear, circular plane for us to stand on and zipped toward the Egg. The holodisc stayed behind and projected our group continuing out discussion. We were well clear when the next fireball was launched from the fortress ahead of us. Our doubles looked up, made whatever gestures I thought looked magical enough, and then disappeared while running in different directions.
Captain Lightning’s flying disc got us there in a hurry, before they could get a good lock on us again. And up close, the egg wasn’t as big as it looked from afar. I think it loomed because the landscape was so flat, mostly that rusty ground with little pools of water around. “What’s this hell called?” I asked.
“The Blasted Place,” Captain Lightning answered. “The races of demons like to test weapons here. It is the perfect spot to lay a trap, and the place to assemble a dangerous new weapon.” That would also explain the floating islands of jagged rock at various levels in the sky.
“No offense to your companions,” the Magician said.
“They’re dead puppet bodies,” the Belted Woman told him. “I think that one’s bleeding again. I don’t know how it’s standing.”
“I don’t know much about demon bodies, or whatever gets called a demon. Hoping to learn more about these by bringing them along. Believe it or not, I don’t do much business with the Hell Dimensions.”
“Neither do I, this is crazy. Now we’ve got a supervillain along?” the Magician freaked out a bit.
“Hey, here, look at me,” Trenchcoat said. These are just nicknames since I’m clueless who these people actually are, I hope y’all know. Magician turned to Trenchcoat, who put a hand on the side of the Magician’s face tenderly and stared into his eyes. “You’re going to be calm now, do you know why?”
“Why?” the Magician asked, voice shaky. Trenchcoat got a little reared back before slapping the Magician’s face with the open palm not holding a spinning coin in it.
“Or else I’ll have to slap you again,” said Trenchcoat. I like Trenchcoat.
“We need a way in,” Captain Lightning said. “Three, two…”
Miss Tycism held her hand up. Apprentice Lightning started chanting. The gothic lolita woman with all the belts pulled a couple of small glass vials out from her belts.
“One,” Captain Lightning finished. Miss Tycism unleashed a blue beam that she held on the side of the egg, slowly unfolding the material like it had been cut and was being tugged apart layer by layer. The Second Lightning shot electricity that I don’t think did anything before switching to gouts of intense flame that might have sped up the process of cracking this egg. The woman with the belt threw her bottles that exploded violently and unleashed a dark haze. Trenchcoat waved his hand and a wind pushed the smoke away, then pulled out a small wooden wand from his coat. It unleashed a spray of black bolts that flew into the widened gap until.
With their forces combined, the egg cracked. I am Captain Trans! What seems to be the problem, Transeteers?
But seriously, I and my humanoid demon puppets jumped the gap and landed in a nice little forge. Nearby was a what looked like a horned human without the twisted features, his skin a mess of scars. He turned to me and raised a forge hammer overhead. I impaled him with an arm and held his body up, letting my nanomachines crawl in. “Interesting.”
Behind us, the “feral dog” demons clawed and bit at another. I’m not the best at controlling three different bodies at once, but I was able to tear another of these demons apart. Then they were blasted into pieces by another one who held the Omega Pearl in tongs. The tool he used on them appeared to be an ornate hammer, the flat edge perpetually engulfed in flames. I threw the body I’d picked up at him; it held him down while he caught it alight. While he did that, I walked over and looked for the tongs. It was now holding a rubber ball with a star on it.
“Presto!” I heard over at the opening. The Magician held the Omega Pearl in his white-gloved hands, then palmed it.
“I’d really like to have that,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Captain Lightning apologized. “I’ll make sure you get out.”
A blue, shimmery portal appeared overhead and swooped down, encompassing the whole bunch before disappearing, and taking that Omega Pearl with it. Behind me, the forgemaster tossed his burning underling aside and stood up.
I disappeared. I could take him easily, but what’s the point now? Instead, I decided to head around, see if I could find a good place to cause some last minute destruction with my exit. I found out we were merely in the outer layer of the egg.
Deeper inside was the core. There floated an oblate sphereoid made of pewter or a metal very much like it, carved to a scale model of Earth. Around that floated dozens of these Omega Pearls, all held in a weave of flames that traced through the air between each one. There were many gaps; this grid was nowhere near complete. Even this one wouldn’t have done it. But the Hell Dimensions are planning something.
I programmed the second dimension bomb I was going to use to escape to have a wider area of effect on this end. It would bring more along with me, in case I wanted more of these lovely samples. I found a spot where two of these were close enough to let me nab them and wreck part of that model of Earth they wanted to do something with. Perhaps I could take some samples before that?
I looked around. There was some sort of being in a white robe speaking into an orb on a desk nearby. I couldn’t understand the language, but my translator program was working on it. I stepped closer, unseen, to get a better look. She was yellow-skinned, a couple of holes on the side of her head where ears would be. A half dozen thick, fleshy tendrils sprouted from her back, measuring maybe a foot each. In place of hair were much finer tendrils. She had five fingers, with nails that curved over the fingertips. I let my nanites swarm over her. She screamed while they found their way into her. I’d have knocked her out first, but I didn’t know just how close she was anatomically to human. Surprisingly close for the exterior details, it turned out. Everything was a little off inside, too, further so than that one I scanned in the forge.
Unlike that one, I left this one alive and withdrew my nanites once someone burst through the door. These were larger, more muscular, and biceps bulging with scales next to bulging breastplates.
They couldn’t see a thing, of course, and I decided to get out of there before they would. I checked the Earth model, finding it had rotated slightly in those minutes, and got myself lined up. Then bam!
I reappeared in the floating lab with a chunk of pewter depicting part of South America, and a couple of Omega Pearls.
They tried to reorient themselves, but whatever magic was at play went wonky. The two Pearls went flying off, smashing into things. Technolutionary, thinking quick, raised a gauntlet on his suit and emitting a pulse that stopped one in midair. The other crashed into a bunch of stuff before getting stopped by a wall. The thing was bending it like Jason Voorhees pushing a college girl’s face through the side of an RV.
As I got closer to grab it, I felt weird again. That intense heat. And ideas resurfaced. Going back and abducting exotic demons. Dissolving the other dimensions until there were none left. Making most of the world forget my existence. It bothered me. Yeah, I have the thoughts, but I still know when I’m doing something wrong. I’ve always known.
I opted to grab some breach sealant nearby. Technolutionary had sprayers all over the place in case we accidentally put a hole in the outside of the lab. I sprayed the Pearl down in a yellow goo that quickly solidified.
“Our first success!” Technolutionary exclaimed while we each set ours into the safe meant to be temporary housing.
“Yes, but also no,” I told him.
Despite that, my conscience’s problems with some of the ideas I was having, it felt good to be back. To taste mad creativity again. Only this time, I’m helping the world along with helping myself. Just not helping myself to everything I can think of.
Sam let me have it, too. When she heard what all happened, she decided she’s going to be a part of this and she wants to hide the Pearls. It’s not a bad idea, with what I’m feeling about them.
There we were, in the high school gym, just my ex, myself, and various improvised weapons. They had to use the gym to store some textbooks, chairs, and broken desks that were already wearing out or out of date. What had started as Medusa asking me to attack her while she ran an obstacle course turned into me breaking a small school desk on her back and her stabbing me through the gut with the metal leg. Worse, it simultaneously knocked the wind out of me and gave me a new hole to breathe through.
She paused long enough for me to rip the leg out, but kept going, jumping a final set of hurdles to reach the finish line before circling back around to me and asking, “You ok?”
I nodded. The nanomachines were already dissolving the metal in my hand and using it to temporarily patch up the hole in my belly. “You got stronger.”
Medusa, sweaty, nodded. She still looked sexy wet, even if I knew the smell wouldn’t be the best. And even if it was a little more mature of a look than when I first met her. Not like she’s super old, but I don’t have that hero worship I used to have where I got creepy obsessed with her. “We have our own upgrades.”
I stood up, all good to go except for a hole in my workout shirt. “I was worried I’d gotten too far ahead of you for you to catch up. Guess that isn’t true.”
“Neither of us are in armor,” she said, trying to soothe my ego.
I chuckled. “Yeah. Plus I have the extra bodies. And the extra powers.”
“Come on. We gotta get this place picked up,” she said. Our meeting there was an after-school thing. Just a personal favor for her, since she wants to keep herself sharp. “Unless you need to run off for anything?”
I shook my head. “Nah, dinner’s in the oven for awhile still.”
I could tell she wanted to say something. Just something about her body language was off. Luckily, we were saved by a threat to the world. Her highly-modified phone beeped with a shrill tone. “That’s my world threat alarm,” Medusa said. She pointed at the phone and it went to speakerphone. “Shoot!”
“Uh, yeah, there’s a message here from the President. He wanted to bring us in on a situation where he says an alien attorney showed up claiming to have a signed contract from someone on Earth to buy all of Earth’s oceans and transport them off-world.”
I shrugged. “Looks like you’ve got to go find an ace attorney or something.”
“Yeah. You want to be part of it or…?”
I shook my head. “I’m a lot better at TV law than intergalactic law. If I turn out to have any files on anything, I’ll send them over. And you can call on me if you need my particular set of skills.” I actually did have some documents still saved from one of the times I’d been abducted by aliens. And I imagine the cattle rustlers are going to be annoyed at losing their source of prime beef if these others succeed. I threw in what little I had on the alien peacekeepers and a few contact numbers that might play a part and dropped that off in an Exemplar digital document stash.
I ended up rushing through the cleanup once my ex had to go. Then it was back home, to the girlfriend and kid and the white picket fence. And the augmented reality ghost standing there near my front gate wearing the Technolutionary’s armor. “Hello Gecko.”
“Technolutionary,” I said. “You found this place?”
His armor was still pretty tight against his body, with a metal face over his own. Owing to the digital nature of our exchange, the helmet’s lips moved when he spoke. Or he’s really cyberizing himself. “They don’t hide it as well as you think. I don’t intend to retire, but I thought I would keep tabs on you.” He raised his hands. “Don’t worry. Your family’s safe. I can’t think of any situation where a threat against them actually aids me in the long term.” He finished that sentence quickly. “I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s another situation going on.”
“Aliens want to steal the oceans,” I said.
The Technolutionary nodded. He seemed to have mellowed out a bit since the last times I interacted with him. He’d always been a creepy fanboy of mine, obsessed with using my anatomy to help humanity progress into a new era of technological supremacy. “If it’s not that, it’s ecoterrorists, crossdimensional invaders, time travel; the bullshit never stops. We need to do better.”
“This is another scheme of yours,” I said.
“Yes, I admit it. I have a plan instead of waiting around for the next big threat to try and wipe us all out. My dream of humanity’s advancement ends if that happens. I’ve studied you. It was your dream, too, in your own unique way. “
See? Creepy stalker. Maybe a bit too ideological and incapable of recognizing my hypocrisy and selfishness.
“You can’t fix people,” I told him. “Not without a good knife and a sewing kit. But as silly, and ignorant, and frustrating as humanity is, you have to work with the fact that they’re individuals. And I guess with the fact that you can’t prevent the next big threat ahead of time.”
“What if you could?” Technolutionary asked.
I took a breath to help bite back my knee-jerk assumption. “This better not be about time travel, because the rules are just straight-up incoherent at this point.”
“No, oh no, god no,” Technolutionary insisted. “It’s not artificial intelligence either. I thought about it, but a computer capable of predicting the future with any true success is smart enough to try and take over itself.”
I didn’t point out that an AI trying to take over was way more likely if its entire way of thinking came from someone who himself wanted to rule the world. He may hide it behind all his talk of improving thing, but Technolutionary’s got that itch. I’ve seen the signs.
The digital ghost held up an grape-sized orb. “It’s this.”
“It’s one of those Omega Pearls. They’re pieces of Mr. Omega’s power, the power you once wielded, orphaned after he’s been banished again. People are realizing they’re out there. Before long, they’re going to figure out how to tap these powers.”
I thought back to the last time I turned into a were-reindeer. We went bowling and a guy showed up with a red suit that, now I think about it, reminds me a bit of the coloring that was such a big part of Mr. Omega. The being really loved red.
“That actually could be the next big thing, yes,” I admitted. “So you want to gather them all up, for safekeeping and allowing you to tap into that power.”
“Wha-? Really? Like I would do tha- yes, you got me. I was going to appeal to you by suggesting we gather them all and hide them, but you got me. The potential is enormous. But if it gets you to work with me again, I’m willing to let you do the hiding. We could stop someone worse, someone who wants to destroy everything, from getting them. And maybe, just maybe, we can use them to stop other threats. We work so good together. Remember what we did with the Homo Machina? This could be the next leap forward, a way to make everyone back off and leave Earth alone.”
Between his know-how and mine, we figured out a procedure to transform a human into a homo machina, my type of human. We’re the latest evolution in humanity on my Earth of origin, and greatly resented because of our abilities that allow us to physically connect to technology like computers and control them as extensions of our own bodies. But aside from that, he had a point. It makes sense that people would try and grab that power and tap into it. That alone sounds like the beginning of a crisis. And being able to use it… well, I don’t know if we can safely do that. Mr. Omega was partially in control, and the worst instincts it brought out of me was mindless destruction.
“Tell you what,” I told him. “You’ve tempted me. Let me think it over a few days.”
The next couple of days saw some super scrambling to handle the alien ocean crisis. Since I wasn’t a direct part of it, I only know so much of what went on. There are rumors that a glowing sphere was seen having something to do with it. And then they brought me in.
“How would you feel about working security?” Medusa offered. “Takes an assassin to stop an assassin kind of thing?”
That gave me a front row seat… well, more like a back alley seat… to the signing of a contract. Nothing major. They ended up setting down on the same island where I worked things out with the alien robots. Maybe it’s becoming a thing, but the tourist industry’s going to really pick up there over an island that’s been home to two intergalactic agreements.
I slunk around the trees, moving all over the place, tapping into NATO drones and directing a few of my own around to help me keep an eye on everything. I still took the time to record it as some demonic entity in a couture suit sat down and scribbled out a contract that left the alien’s encounter suit leaking a thin saline solution. All pretty standard stuff, and I didn’t get the go ahead until the shuttle craft was out of the atmosphere. I swung by where Medusa stood in her dress costume. “All clear?”
“Mostly,” she said. “Earth’s oceans are saved, except for all the pollution and dying species. Now, we just have to pay off the infernal forces of the hell dimensions. They asked for a really big retainer this time.” She nodded toward the demonic lawyer.
“I presume a really large crate of Dr. Scholl’s won’t do the trick?” I offered.
Medusa grinned. “No souls or soles this time, not exactly. This is supposed to be something pretty valuable.”
“Yeah it is, it’s got an effect,” I said, eyes drawn to the armored box brought out. It looked like a really secure pistol case, but the demon insisted on it being opened, showing a red orb the size of a baseball. It felt warm out of nowhere, but maybe that was the hell dimension thing. “What is it?”
“I think it’s an Omega Pearl,” she whispered back.
“Just giving that thing away to demons now?” I asked.
“It wasn’t my decision. Besides, if they try to use it, we’ll stop them. We always stop them,” she turned to wink at me, but her smile lacked sincerity. It’d be hypocrisy to not understand that, given I’m a whole ‘nother deal with the devil she made. So I’ll understand. But I sure as shit won’t trust where this is going. That’s why I tapped into the tracking beacon the UN left on the case. It’ll be found in no time, but at least it’ll give me a headstart.
I waited until I got back home and swept myself for bugs before posting to VillaiNet.
It’s been a little bit since my brother Davilo stopped by for a visit. The Justice Rangers of my home dimension can get busy. But he decided to stop in, timing his visit for right around the time things typically wrap up for me, which is also just before the full moon.
“Never want to visit me when it’s just me, eh?” I asked as we pulled back from our hugs. Yeah, he’s Justice Ranger, but he’s also the only surviving family I know of from back there. And he is Qiang’s uncle. I have to go by things I see and hear, mostly from entertainment, on how these familial relationships work. We’re figuring it out.
“This way, I get to see both my sisters. You’re twins of a kind,” Davilo said.
I rolled my eyes. Leah came up and gave me a hug, too. My former ward and protege is dating my half-brother. I’m sure that Freud guy would have some stuff to say about all that, but he’s busy being dead.
Qiang, meanwhile, was hopping up into an embrace with Davilo. “Little lizard!” he called her while hefting her up. “You’re getting so big!”
My daughter giggled. Leah looked over at them. I whispered to her, “Qiang’s got more than flesh and bone to her, too. It affects her weight a little.”
“Looks like your weight is affected, too,” Leah joked and poked me in the belly. I made a Pillsbury Doughboy sound and gently pushed her away.
“Careful, that’s my battle fat, for when I lose my arms and legs, and have to smack someone around with my gut,” I grabbed it and gave it a little wiggle. “Plus, they’ll never suspect I’m a superhuman because, supers are never gorgeous women who are down with a thiccness.”
“Hey-,” Leah started to say. She narrowed her eyes, pretending to take offense. “Thank you for the compliment.”
Sam came up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. I felt stress melt away that wasn’t even there. Maybe it was the smell of pineapple from her body lotion. “Hey, Leah, Davilo.”
“Do I know you?” my brother asked, looking at the girl with the mohawk from purple in the front, green in the middle, and dark red in the back.
She offered a hand. “I’m Sam. I’m Gecko’s girlfriend and minion right now.”
“You have a minion?” Leah asked.
I shrugged. Sam kissed the back of my hair, then answered. “I’ve offered, but she prefers to work on her own. Starting next week, I’m going to hog-tie one of her clone bodies and take over at the store. Isn’t that right?”
She had to scratch my head right there. I melted. “That’s a yes,” she said. “She doesn’t like to admit defeat. Or when she’s in love.”
“I’m not-” Sam put her finger over my lips.
“If I don’t talk about myself, she’ll try not to mention me,” Sam kept going.
So we had a pretty nice night catching up. Nothing wild happening in Radium, apart from the beginnings of special mayoral election ramping up along with talk of integrating the super and non-super schools.
“It’s so quiet,” Davilo mentioned at one point. “The cities feel different and aren’t as loud, you know? But out here especially, how do you keep up with everything?”
“I knooooow,” Sam said, leaning on me. I kissed her head where she had a little bit of fuzz growing back after her latest mohawk look.
“Quiet isn’t bad. Keeps me out of trouble, helps me curate stuff. Not so good for when Reindeer has to come out or I need to actually go to an important place. I think that’s part of why Medusa picked it. World-changing plots don’t generally happen in the middle of nowhere like this. Or if they do, a band of plucky young adults or angsty teenagers save the day before it draws in anyone too capable.”
“Gecko watches lots of TV,” Leah warned Davilo.
“It’s how I became an expert on this Earth,” I nodded, deadpan.
“Anything exciting planned for tonight?” Davilo asked.
I shrugged. “Everything’s ready if we have to do some throwing down. I guess it just depends on what Reindeer wants.” My internal alarm went off letting me know we were close to the change. “And I better go on down to the basement.”
This time, I swapped into a spare body, one that looked a lot like the semi-chubby look I’d gone for, but I threw on some fake glasses, a pink top, and some dark blue jeans. I focused on that until the screaming stopped, then turned around and held up a dress and a costume. “Work or play, which is the Reindeer doing today?”
The tall Reindeer woman snorted and picked the dress. She comes out every full moon after I ended up with a case of reindeer-thrope, or whatever you want to call it. I’m a were-Reindeer, only my alter ego is driven to stop crime. We share a body, so I keep her safe when she does all that. “I don’t lots of time to relax. Come on, let’s go bowling.”
“Bowling?!” I asked.
“Bowling?!” asked the crowd once we got upstairs and Reindeer told them the plan.
“Is that a form of ritualized combat?” My brother asked.
“Not really. It’s a game where the humans throw a heavy balls around,” I said.
“Pretend combat,” Davilo nodded. “Where do we find bowling?”
“I don’t think there’s even a bowling alley around Radium,” I mentioned. “Maybe someone ought to put one in.”
We ended up running across one at a nearby small city that I had never heard of. To be fair, I haven’t heard of most of Minnesota. I hear they do weird things to fish here. Lighting Crack, Minnesota seems like one of those towns, but it was the closest bowling alley to Radium.
“Welcome to Lightning Lanes,” said one of the workers who greeted our part as we walked in. He gaped at Reindeer, who wore a dress, then looked down at her hooves. “You may not be able to bowl, ma’am.”
“Relax, I brought my own,” she said, holding up these rubber booties I’d thrown together real quick at Reindeer’s request. She’d anticipated the problem. The rest of us had no problem renting shoes, though we had to explain the concept to Davilo.
“My Earth does not have your primitive bowling!” Davilo declared playfully.
“Did you have to do that?” Leah asked, swatting him gently on the arm.
“I wanted to take some of the attention away from the rest of the group,” Davilo declared. He wasn’t wrong. I think my cybernetic eyes were some of the least outlandish things to those folks. We grabbed our shoes, lane, and snacks, and set about having a fun time, interrupted at one point by a few kids wanting to say hi to Reindeer. Davilo, Reindeer, and I all got showed up by Sam, Leah, and even Qiang getting some strikes. These lightning bolts would light up above the lane, with an animation of a lightning strike on our monitor each time. Then I’d drag myself out of Sam’s comfy lap and her sweet humming to go make three of those ten pins sorry they ever met me.
I sometimes wonder if my life was curse, but this particular night, with Sam doing her absolute best to embarrass me in public, had a bright point. Because that night was when Lightning Crack’s local criminal element made a hilarious mistake.
In walked a man with a green metal helmet, holding a pair of hammers in his hands. I’d say he was in his twenties, as was the guy in the red suit who walked in alongside him in a red suit that pulsed. I could feel the power in the suit somehow, like a wave of heat getting closer, but not actually affecting the temperature of anything. The others who stormed in along with them looked to be a bunch of regular folks with store-bought Halloween masks over their faces, carrying things like chains, bats, and claw hammers.
“Give us your money!” shouted the hammer guy.
The guy in the suit waved his hand toward a laser light ball hanging from the ceiling. Crimson crevices spread across the device an instant before it blew apart. The shards ended up hurting some people in there.
A bunch of people screamed and hit the floor, or started emptying pockets. Our group didn’t. Reindeer cracked her knuckles. Davilo got his transforming device ready. Leah took a fighting stance I taught her. Sam aimed a plasma crossbow at the nearest chain-carrying mook. And behind me, the ball I’d loosed just before they walked in hit the pins and knocked some of them over.
“Who are you?” asked the red-suited guy. I grabbed a bowling ball and hurled it at his head. He exploded it just before it hit him, but one of the shards grazed his head and drew blood. The guy with the hammers screamed and ran at us. I think I saw his eyes go white just before he tripped over a raised platform.
“That’s what happens when you change the color of the eye’s lens,” Leah said. I am so glad I taught her creative uses for the super power of changing things’ colors.
Davilo morphed, with Reindeer and him meeting the charging minions to get to the guy in red who was using whatever powers that suit conveyed to close the wound on his head. Sam stuck by me while I knelt next to the ball return, pulling open an access panel and doing some creative rewiring. She raised the plasma crossbow and blasted a baseball bat into burning wood splinters.
The berserker guy with the hammers rose and swung wildly around. By then, Leah had closed. She kicked him in the shin, the balls, and stomach. When he doubled over, she pulled the green helmet off his head and watched him get pulled to the floors by his hammers. Leah figured out there was thunderbolt iron at play, that weird alloy from a destroyed meteor that has telepathic and telekinetic properties. When the hammer guy tried one last time to let go of the hammers and do something, Leah grabbed a pair of bowling shoes nearby and smacked him upside his bearded face.
The guy’s minions weren’t doing well, but most of them were at least doing a good job getting in the way of Davilo and Reindeer for long enough. Red turned, the wound on his face now a raw scar, and raised his hands. Davilo and Reindeer were lifted into the air, then screamed when the villain began to squeeze his hands into fists.
My ball made its way up the ball return with me kicking the mouth of the return over to the side. The supercharged machine emitted a burst of sparks and caught fire. The ball shot out of there with the speed of a professional baseball pitching machine. Redsuit guy had time to widen his eyes and try to bring his hands together. It knocked Davilo and Reindeer into each other, but the ball had already passed by them and gave the guy in the red suit a splitting headache. A seven-ten split, I’d say.
“I guess you’d call that a hole-in-one,” I said.
“My girlfriend, the Earth expert,” Sam said. “Hey, who’s a lady gotta kill to get some cheese sticks around here?”
But seriously, the whole family event was kind of ruined with that. We didn’t get our cheese sticks. They didn’t let me strip that guy’s suit off so I could figure out what was going on there. “It’d sure be a lot easier to loot the corpses if y’all listened to me and we came in the Flyer,” I said, pouting, while the cops held us off to the side for some questioning.
“Who won, anyway?” Sam asked.
“I did,” I whispered to her. “Gave myself a score of 69. A perfect bowling score.”
Colin, the bullied teen I’d helped out a little by giving some enhancements and advice to, is on the lam. It would be more fun if he’d orchestrated a daring petting zoo breakout, but that’s a lamb. His big nemesis got taken down and is in custody. It should be a happy time. Let the ewoks dance. Except Colin beat up a girl in school and ran off. It’s high time I strip him of those enhancements.
I don’t know what they’ll do to the kid out here. I don’t feel like they’ve done just by my victims with this rehabilitative justice idea, but that’s not my call to make. The only justice I’m really prepared to mete out is killing him, and I’ve let worse people live. Same for that Daryl kid who bullied him. But what I can do is take back the ability to harm people that I gave him. There truly is nothing to the kid without that.
This wasn’t something that took a lot of work to figure out. It just got a little tense around town with some issues coming up. The Radium townsfolk who have been here the longest are starting to get a bit mad. They have some signs up about it, at least. Some militia twerps are walking around, too. They tried to look intimidating outside my windows. They don’t like that a bunch of people moved in and decided what was best for a community they’ve barely been a part of, including taking in supervillains and getting rid of most of the police force.
So I searched quietly, with a bunch of recon robots that flew stealthily over the town and ran everyone through facial recognition looking for Colin. Most of them worked their way out, while a few stayed around to run some patrols and identify spots for charging stations. It’s kind of 50/50 if the townsfolk would have liked me doing this, given this is the kind of things cops are doing elsewhere. I don’t know. I don’t have these answers. I’m just looking for peace and doing a shit job finding it.
Had a session with my therapist in the meantime. We’ve been trying this thing where I just cry the whole time. There was some talk in there from the therapist about not skipping my meds and not just assuming that all my problems have been fixed because I’ve had a shitload of supers rattle around in my head and declare the problem solved.
And that was followed up by reports coming in from the next town over. A teenager matching Colin’s description tore an ATM off the wall of a country store and smashed it open. There’s a manhunt in the woods of the town of Moose Whiskey, Minnesota. I dried my eyes and ran along toward the store. At the store, I activated my armor, including its new antigrav capabilities. I jumped up and kicked off the wall of a store to meet my armor in midair. Some people in “Radium is for Rockers!” tourist t-shirts took photos before I zipped off.
This came through as an official report, and while the Radium Sheriff’s Department only has a few people now, they’re still the most heavily-armed law enforcement around. The Exemplars tried to set them up to be able to handle if some of the supers in town got too big for their britches. That meant I had to get there if I wanted to solve this my way and hide that I’d helped make a teen boy capable of picking up an ATM. It’s going to be super hard to explain that away.
I landed near a bunch of Moose Whiskey Sheriff’s cruisers, throwing on a hologram of the Lady Guardian armor so they’d think they were talking to a hero.
“Hey, who are you?” asked a deputy who jumped out of the car he was in, nearly spilling his coffee.
“Lady Guardian. I was visiting Radium when I heard about your situation on the radio. Anything I can do considering I can fly?”
“Uh, hold on,” he went to get the radio. “Sheriff Topper, there’s a superhero here from Radium. She flew over, was wondering what she can do to help.”
The response was pretty rough, but the deputy relayed it to me. “He said to take a radio and a flare, uh then get in the air. If you spot the kid, signal everyone. They said watch out, the kid’s supposedly wearing some armor.”
Armor? That’s new. The deputy handed me a flare and a radio, and I took to the air. Not really a lot of help there, but I swept over the forest, switching vision modes to pick out thermal signatures. The forest teemed with life, big and small. I passed a herd of deer at one point, saw some rabbits and birds. Before long, the radio crackled. “Lady Guardian?” it sounded bit like the Radium Sheriff. “Get back here. This isn’t any of your business.”
Whoops. The radio slipped through my fingers and landed in the woods. Funny how that happens. It was another six or seven minutes when I saw an unusual heat signature in the woods, moving slowly. It looked like a human, with a large heat spot on the back. I swapped the flare out with the canister of nanites. I lowered myself into the woods, dropping the Lady Guardian illusion. “Hello, Colin. Where’d you get those duds?”
He was pulling himself up an incline, one hand wrapped around a smaller tree branch. The exeoskeleton he wore over his body made him stronger and better able to carry the armor plates over his torso. It didn’t make him any better at climbing up a hill. Instead, the added weight negated some of the benefits it and my enhancements conveyed upon him. “You can fly now?”
I looked down in mock surprise. “Holy shit, I can fly?!” I dropped to the dirt and leaves. “This is going a bit far, isn’t it?”
“You don’t get it! You get away with things all the time because everyone’s afraid to mess with you, but they’re going to lock me up for a long time. My life is over!” He was bending the branch pretty far, but he pulled himself up to the tree it came from and braced himself against it, staring down at me. “It’s over, all because I got stupid.”
I held up my hands in what’s supposed to be a calming gesture. “You’re not the first person to let a little power get to your head. What happened?”
“I beat Daryl, so I thought things were different, but when I asked Leann out, she laughed at me. She treated me like the same loser I was when all this started. I wanted to show her. I only meant to lift her up, but she screamed and kicked and I ended up throwing her. This got out of control, and I…” He’d been building up anger through all this, but at that point, he began to cry, his voice cracking. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I know this is going to be a hard pill to swallow coming from me, but it’s times like this where you have to show people you’re deserving of a second chance by standing down. You’ve got to give up the exoskeleton there, and you’ve got to give up the powers I gave you.”
“Then what’ll I be, huh?” he bawled. “I’ll be some weak nerd again with a criminal record and nothing else.”
“Very few people’s lives are defined by how much power they held,” I tried to reassure him. “I mentioned the potential hypocrisy of me suggesting you turn yourself in because I’ve gone the other way. I’ve killed so many people trying to prove I had power, but it doesn’t get you too good of a community. Other villains hated and distrusted me. The women and men who were after me, and some of the ones who still are, are the type who get off on hooking up with a killer and that’s not the kind of person you’re going to have a happy relationship with. Trust me. I didn’t get the chance you have now for too long. Stand down.”
Colin’s hands dug into the tree. The bark cracked, then he wrenched the upper part of the tree free of the base. “No!”
“Kid, do you know what Vampire: The Masquerade’s one rule is for when any vampire tries to fight Cain?”
“I don’t care about some old game!” he said, throwing the tree at me. It bounced off some other trees along the way and fell harmlessly to the ground.
I formed the nanites out into a shiny, liquid metal spear. I tossed it right into Colin, the spear twisting in midair to correct for my bad aim. The nanites swarmed over him when they hit. They disconnected the exoskeleton first, then dug into him. Colin collapsed in pain while the nanomachines went through and replaced metals, alloys, and minerals with calcium, protein, amino acids, etc.
“The one rule of any vampire versus Cain: you lose. Sorry, kid. This is for my own good.” It was probably for his own good, too, but a lot of my motivation here had been to help myself. While he screamed, I pulled out the flare, aimed it at the sky, and fired it off. The red light went up and made it clear where they could find Colin. I walked over then and rolled him over, pulling out the battery so the exoskeleton would be nice and useless. Figured I’d just take that with myself.
I knew when the nanites were finished because they flooded out of him and toward me, joining the nanite cape on my armor. The yelling was replaced by moaning and crying. “Sorry, kiddo. I am. Maybe if I’d never got involved, or got involved more. Maybe if the adults at school hadn’t failed you. What happened to you reflects badly on a lot of people other than yourself. But I’ll give you a tip. I think you can leverage whoever gave you that exoskeleton in exchange for leniency, and a chance to start over somewhere else. I think they’ll be amenable to putting you in witness protection elsewhere, seeing what happened to Daryl.”
I stuck around until I heard the canines and deputies closing in, then I threw on my holographic projection and took to the air.
One thing that I absolutely got right is that there were some failures from the adults, the people who should know better but lapsed in their responsibilities. Something’s got to change around Radium. And if the Exemplars don’t agree, I’ll change it myself.
When we left things last time, Colin’s problems seem to be over. Daryl outnumbered him with a gang who made the mistake of following him to my store. I beat the crap out of them, gently. Just a light ass-whoopin. That bunch got hauled off by the sheriffs because the alternative was me doing something with them. Colin ran off before he could give his side of the story to a sheriff who might have been sympathetic given the situation. Instead, he decided to run off and surprise his nemesis Daryl. I went to go visit Daryl to be proactive and end all this crap. I found Colin there, getting beaten up by Daryl in an exoskeleton. Daryl got distracted and took a brick to the face, giving Colin the W and ending this thing with the Sheriff showing up trying to look into why a teen boy had an exoskeleton.
While they were at it, I was looking into the exoskeleton. Sure, I gave Colin some enhancements. Nowhere near my level, and it didn’t do him a lot of good because I had to teach punching 101 to him. I’ll have to take it away soon. But first, I’d like to find out where this high tech toy of Daryl’s came from.
I didn’t get much from examining it. There was no company branding, so it wasn’t some stolen piece from commercial exoskeleton makers. They always keep it somewhere. This was custom made, as plenty of them have been through the years.
The Sheriff lead Daryl into the interrogation room. The kid was handcuffed and they sat him down at the table on the other side of me. Between us lay the exoskeleton. “So, this is something interesting,” I told him.
“You’re that supervillain bitch,” Daryl noted.
I ignored him. “These aren’t just repurposed pieces from the hardware store. The frame, the hydraulics, the connector, and the fist armor are all custom made. But with some really high end equipment. See this? Look at where the punch plate connects to the forearm frame. Like it’s one piece. Some high school dipshit in his garage couldn’t pull that off,” I said. I rose up to lift up the part in question and let him take a look.
Some high school dipshit actually could, but most of those would be easily wound up into admitting their intelligence. That kind of intelligence in a kid tends to breed insecurity and a desire to prove themselves the intellectual better of the people who have authority over them. The adult mad scientists often work that way as well. A chip on their shoulder, a chip-powered death ray in their hands.
“I’m not saying anything,” Daryl said, saying something.
“That’s what I thought,” I set the exoskeleton down. I focused on the area the power source had fit into. “Interesting battery, too. So you didn’t make it. Where the hell would you get this? I didn’t sell it to you.”
“Maybe you’ll find out,” he told me.
I nodded. “Just be careful if they find out this crossed state lines. Then you’ll get ATF up your ass with a fine-tooth comb. You want something gentler in there, like latex or gel or even some really strong slime.”
“I’m not gay!” he yelled. Weird outburst there. Guy might have some issues.
“Nothing’s would be wrong with it if you are, but that’s not what I’m getting at. You’re already old enough that a lot of places could make an argument for charging you as an adult, especially when you throw in the history of bullying, the ambush at Colin’s house, pulling in your friends to do it, and now acquiring some hardware to use against him. And ironically, the right to bear arms is not generally applied to weapons that actually fit over your arms like this.”
“Don’t you ever shut up?”
“Just the mystery of its origins will probably be enough to get them in here. Sure, it’s not treated as badly by the Feds as pot, but once they go looking, who knows what they’ll find?”
“I got it in town!” Daryl yelled at me. “You’re not the only one who can sell shit to people, and Colin already went to you.”
I nodded and reached across to pat him on the head. “Thank you. See?” The robo-bug, as in a listening device in the shape of a small bug, dropped off my hand and into his hair. I got up and took the exoskeleton with me.
The Sheriff met me outside to ask, “You get anything else off him with your weird powers?”
“I’m not psychic,” I said.
Talking with her hands as well, the Sheriff was like, “I know, but somehow things fall into your lap. Good job annoying him into giving us something.”
“What’s this ‘we’ business?” I was in this for myself. The interest of these cops and my own just happens to line up in this instance, like with me leaving them a report on the exoskeleton because the miniscule department here doesn’t have nearly the kind of expertise needed to evaluate that equipment.
Rather than go into a whole paranoid recon drone extravaganza, I did the usual. They let Daryl out with an ankle monitor, but those things can be disabled by someone able to build the kind of thing Daryl got his hands on. Further proof that wasn’t the kid himself is he kept the monitor on. They put him back in the house, up until Daryl’s family made a big stink with their insurance company and got a put in a motel. They went around telling everyone who would listen. The mother would raise it with a friend of hers working at the grocery store. The dad yelled at the Sheriff about it. Then they got it, and everybody knew where to find them.
That’s how they were able to find Daryl. He got his own separate room, and that’s where he got a knock on the door late at night. Daryl got up to open the door. “You got something new for me?”
“First, tell me what you said to them,” a man’s voice asked.
“I didn’t say anything. They asked me a lot of stuff but I didn’t say anything. Then this annoying woman came in talking about the exoskeleton and the feds.”
“Was she a cop?”
“No, she’s that old retired supervillain who owns the electronics store.” Old? Someone should kill that tater-brained sewer licker.
“What did you say to her?” the man repeated.
“Nothing. I guess they got me to admit I got it from someone here in Radium. I never said who. That’s it, I swear.”
There was a wet stabbing sound, followed by a half-second later by a thud and the closing of a door. I reluctantly sent off an alert to the paramedics and Sheriff. Didn’t matter as far as Daryl was concerned. He died pretty quickly. I sent a recon robot to check out the scene for me. As much as I didn’t think I’d find anything, I figured I’d be thorough. I had a feeling this was all about to become my problem, too.
Indeed, I got a call from the Sheriff a couple hours into the mess at the motel. “Hey Gecko.”
“Hey Sheriff. This town still big enough for the both of us?”
“Yeah, yeah.” She’d heard that plenty. “I need what you have of this encounter.”
“Already tossed the file into your inbox. Probably go ahead and have a deputy have a listen.”
“All my people are here trying to secure and investigate a murder. The whole defunding thing was controversial here and was based on the premise that crime would stay pretty low and mundane with so many superheroes around to volunteer. Well I don’t see a lot of superheroes volunteering to stand outside on a September night and keep onlookers out of the tape.”
I took some pity on him and gave him the rundown, which ended with her sounding even more tired. “Fantastic. I really need you to leave this alone then. The parents could make the case that you talking to that kid got him killed. I got bullies with power armor, people on my ass about supers using the town and making it all about themselves. Please, I know you’re a contrarian, but I’ll owe you big time if you just sit this one out. I have enough to do.”
“Fine, I’ll leave that mess alone. Besides, I have some other business to tend to related to all this that should help keep things from blowing up any further.”
The Sheriff let out a big sigh of relief. “Thank you. I’ve got to go now, bye.”
That other business was Colin. I doubt the guy who killed Daryl was concerned with the kid. This was about the fact that Colin beat his bully down and no longer needed the enhancements I made to his body. I had a big canister of nanites made specially to bring him back down to the human standard. He’d still end up stronger than when he began this mess, but in ways that didn’t involve so much alloy being integrated into his skeleton.
I waited until the next day, figured I’d catch him as he was leaving school and he wasn’t there. So then it was off to his place, a trailer. Knock knock knock.
I heard someone rush to the door. A woman opened it. “Who are you?”
“Who is it?!” a guy called from inside the trailer.
“I’m looking for Colin, your son?”
“What for? What’s he done?” she asked.
“Nothing. I run the electronics store in town and he’s been helping out with a few odd jobs for some extra money. He hasn’t shown up the past couple of days, and I realized I don’t have his phone number, so I stopped by to check on him.”
A hairy, shirtless, short-haired man stepped up to the door. “What else has he done?”
“Nothing, like I was explaining.”
The mom answered, “When the school called… sorry.”
The dad pushed her out of the way. “That boy, if you can even call him that, started causing problems at the school today. Beat up a girl. Hell, they want equality, so why not? But he’s in trouble and I’m going to show him what a beating looks like the next time I get my hands on him. Whenever that is. No one’s seen a lick of him since he ran out of there. I hear the school don’t even have a cop to wrestle the bastards when they get out of line.”
“Thank you for your time,” I told them. I’d rather get out of there before I make an example of the dad Vlad the Dragon style. He whistled watching me go.
So now Colin’s getting into trouble with the power I gave him to defend himself while a murderous supervillain is running around town. This is fine.
The last person on Earth that anyone should go to for meaningful mentorship is probably me. Now for me to gently lead us into things so y’all can understand why I said all this.
I was just working in my regular ol’ life as a private citizen with a certain number of my crimes forgiven. Not all of them, because the pardon was only for the United States, but enough. I mean, it’s not like Sweden’s really going to send assassins after me. Not a second time.
Some shrimpy little teen came in with a black eye, holding his arm. He walked up through some of the shelves and approached the desk. “Excuse me, I need some help.”
I put down the robotic limb I was working on. “Just fixing yourself up or upgrading?” I lifted up part of the counter to let him through into the back. We weren’t crowded that time of day.
“I don’t have any money to upgrade, but I can’t go to the doctor, because he’ll tell my parents and my parents will complain to the school and nothing will get done,” he explained. I led him into the back and allowed a robot to shopkeeper hologram to appear in my place
“Fighting? Bullies? Love triangles?” I asked. I motioned to a nice padded chair for him to sit in. He hopped in and a set of these small saucers flew around him, scanning him. He held his arm out for them to get a better look. “One periorbital hematoma, one sprained radius.”
“Is that bad?” the boy asked.
I shook my head. “It’s not serious, but at the same time it’s not humerus. For, forty dollars, don’t have to pay all at once because I know you’re a local.”
“Jesus, no way I can afford an upgrade.”
The diagnosis bots projected a few things in midair so I could at least tempt him. “Varying layers of armor plating: outside, inside, and under the skin. Enhanced muscles, bones, and ligaments. Extra limbs and other body parts like fangs, tails, and webbed feet.”
“I thought webbed feet was something you get from incest,” the boy said.
“In Biology, they call that Artificial Selection. Same reason corn has so many kernals. My way’s cleaner. And for some of those, we can go artificial, organic, or a combination of the two.”
“Just fix my arm. That would cause too much trouble. I can’t beat Daryl in a fair fight without a lot of help,” he said.
A couple of the diagnostic bots loaded up on regenerative nanomachines and nutrient goo so they could repair the boy’s body. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Colin,” he answered.
“Nice to meet you, Colin,” I held my hand out. He reached out with this good arm to shake it. I held onto it while the two bots floated over and injected him in the hurt arm and on the face.
“Ow, hey!” Colin tried to twist away but the chair’s hidden clamps locked around his ankles and waist.
“Buckle up for safety,” I told him.
“I don’t know if I want to do this anymore!” he yelled. It was over pretty quickly, one of the diagnostic bots holding up a mirror for him to look into.
“Ta da!” I announced. I let go and so did the chair. He jumped up but felt at his arm with the other one, then at his eye.
“Thanks, but do you have to be so scary?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I was scary because you were scared. I won’t pretend everything’s attitude, but a lot of things are. And I don’t know what your bullying situation is like, but it’s just a petty period of bullshit.” I walked him outside.
“Yeah, but it sucks now,” he said.
“Yep. Sometimes you have to wade on through it. But if you need more fixing up without your parents finding out, my shop’s always available. Even late at night. Which, by the way, is the best time to handle a bully. A fair fight should always be your last resort. A baseball bat to the knee is a good opener instead. Available pretty much anywhere sporting goods are sold.”
This leads right in the alarms at my store telling me someone was approaching and then knocking on the door. I woke up a spare body in the basement there to go fetch this Colin kid, who was… shit, that kid got beat the fuck up. He had blood dribbling down his chin while he held onto his upper body, whining every time he took a breath and crying.
I opened the door and carried him in. “…base… bat… Daryl,” he said.
“Quiet. Remember, pain is just your body warning your brain you’ve taken bodily damage,” I rushed him back to the chair with the diagnostic bots ready for the emergency treatment, except to leave the anesthetic alone that I also injected him with. Cracked and broken ribs, internal bleeding, and a minor concussion. I went ahead and had them just plain knock him out so he could heal in piece. It can be pretty unpleasant having your body taken apart and reassembled by tiny robots.
I let him sleep it off an extra ten minutes before having the nanites wake him up and head to the bladder. I may not be lacing the water with helpful robots, but I have my own addition to the local water reclamation systems to salvage what’s out there. Prior to the vaccine coming out, they were a pretty good way to keep people alive around the world, if people can get over the fear of the cure.
“Wakey wakey,” I said, poking the kid in his now-fixed ribs.
Colin shifted in the chair, unsecured and realizing that he wasn’t in screaming, moaning, wheezing pain. “I’m better!” He lifted his bloody shirt up and looked at himself. “I have abs.”
I shrugged. “They had a lot to fix. Was just easier to smooth out some rough spots in the process.” Not really a lie. It would have been more effort to reprogram the nanites to leave him shrimpy, and I have the extra nutrients. “You’re not superhuman, but you might find you’re in better shape than you thought.” I reached out for a diagnostic bot and had it create a holographic chart. “Looks like we also fixed a Vitamin D deficiency, some asthma, and we topped off your brake fluid.”
“Brake fluid?” he wondered, poking himself in his six pack and running his hands over the grooves along his abdomen. “What’s this?”
“They call it either the Adonis belt or the Apollo’s belt. Don’t worry about it, except it means you could stand to develop more fat in your diet. You start eating some steaks, we could really build you up,” I said.
“I mostly get by on Ramen,” he told me. There’s a story there, but it’s also not my business. How much none of this was my business became apparent when I realized my ideas of bugging Colin or his high school with recon drones would be… yeah. Instead, I stuck a few on the outer edges to see what I could see and decided to bribe a few people for some records.
I was up there getting the records when they brought him and this other kid into the office. Colin had a bloody nose and his hair was all ruffled up, but I he didn’t seem to have broken anything this time. Daryl, if that was the kid with him, was a head taller and generally thick without working out. My daughter could kick his ass, which isn’t an insult. My daughter can kick ass. Not so much Colin.
“Try it outside school again, I’ll make sure you don’t get better,” I overheard Daryl whisper to Colin. He wasn’t trying too hard, but the teacher with them was doing a pretty good job ignoring things. The receptionist, too.
I looked between them and the adults in the room. “Really? That’s just going to be ignored?”
The teacher turned to me, “Are you one of ’em’s parent? No. Then it’s not your business how we deal with this now we don’t have a school resource officer.”
Goes to show that not everyone in town knows me by sight. I considered my options: I formally take this to the principal and police, who wonder how I know the extent of the physical trauma to the one kid because of my illegal back-alley medical practice. Or I bring it up to Medusa who throws her weight around all over a single student instead of setting up her own illegal clinics in Texas while playing bodyguard to doctors down there. Or I pretend to be a high school student and that’s right out. I have better things to do than play at high school, especially if the numerous TV shows on the subject are in any way close to believable about the amount of useless bullshit drama involved.
No, I would have to handle this the old-fashioned way and whip a kid into shape. I sent Colin a text to go ahead and meet at the store when possible. He showed up later that night, knocking on the rear workyard gate.
“Surprised they let you out this early,” I mentioned. It was only nine.
“Dad was so angry it took him longer to get drunk,” Colin said.
I let him in and inspected him in the moonlight. “Come on, let’s get that nose looked at, then we program you with every martial arts known to man.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Nah, can’t do that. And if I taught you, we’d be here all month without much to show for it, so I’m going to help you out with some shortcuts,” I informed him.
“You’re going to kick his ass for me?” the teenage boy said about his teenage bully.
It was tempting, not gonna lie. I’m just wary of giving anyone a reason to ask why Psycho Gecko, who a lot of folks have gone out of their way to put aside judgments about, is running around beating up kids
“Nah, kid. Different sort of shortcuts.” Back to the chair again, this time not having as much to mend. The nose was mostly fine. Nothing was broken or strained, but I went ahead and secured Colin to the chair anyway.
“Uh, what’s this? What are you doing to me?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“Nothing much. Don’t worry. First shot should put you out.” The diagnosis bots went to work, injecting the objecting teen with some anesthetic and nanites. Then came the nutrients, minerals, and metals. When he awoke, he jumped out of the chair before he was really ready, his weight shifting all over the place as he stood.
“I feel weird. What did you do to me?”
“No fangs yet, kiddo, but your knuckles are custom now. Knees, elbows, and skull, as well. Going to be harder to break bones on you in general. You’re nowhere near my level even if you knew how to fight, but this is only temporary because you fragile teenage body is still growing. Same reason dulling of your nerves is temporary.”
“I’m almost grown!” he insisted.
“You are a child that is growing larger and reaching sexual maturity that marks functional adulthood for the human species. That includes your brain, which is already pretty sus in the supposedly adult humans as well,” said me in all seriousness knowing this kid didn’t have access to about eight years worth of crazy and silly shit I’ve done. Case in point: “Anyway, go beat the bully up a few times next time he pulls something. He’ll learn to stop.”
“He’s still got my dad’s bat.”
“Good, then you know one of the first things you can get back from him.”
Don’t worry. My little date with Agent Clark was purely about damage control. She wasn’t happy with what I did, but she decided to make it her business as well when I told her about the whole shebang. She was skeptical of me, of course, but that disappeared when she met the Hawkins from another dimension. It helped that all the meetings took place over meals that she had me pay for.
Agent Clark had a background in law enforcement. I have a background in lawbreaking. Between the two of us, we didn’t think Hawkins was proving his double from our dimension was innocent any time soon. I was faking it, but Agent Clark let him down gently. She finished a sip of her water, set it down, looked him in the eye, and said, “Your guy is fucked.”
“What?” Hawkins asked.
Nita, because I don’t want to keep being too wordy, shook her head. “Hawkins is guilty, love. This is as cut and dried as possible. The only way I think he could be innocent was if…” she paused here to glance to me, because we had discussed the possibility that a doppelganger of Hawkins could have done it if he’d somehow managed to put the same wounds on our Earth’s Hawkins. Nita finished up by saying, “…if he was possessed. But if it’s like that doctor in the hotel, there may not be anything left to save.”
Hawkins’s expression fell.
“I want to talk to this guy,” Nita said.
“That’s my line,” I mentioned.
“I’m the federal agent here. You’ve done a lot, but this is my investigation and my credentials. You owe me after lying to talk to that detective.”
“How about I go with you? All invisible, in case something goes wrong,” I offered.
“What could go wrong?” She was starting to get annoyed.
I waved it off. Something was going to go wrong and I’d just stick close. Besides, my manicotti was getting cold. I kept in on that while Nita Clark crushed our Hawkins’s hopes and dreams by walking him through her contribution to our investigation.
“He didn’t put up much of a defense. He had some money, but there wasn’t much to do. The lawyer insisted the neighbor didn’t hear anything and that this was a badly-timed break-in while this Hawkins was taking the money for some other reason, but no one bought it or the reasoning that the blood and skin under the fingernails was from sex. That”s not even how you choke someone in sex.”
Noted. She’s right, too.
Hawkins slumped. “I’m so stupid. This whole thing was one big, stupid, stupid, stupid waste.”
“Not that stupid,” I said through a mouthful of manicotti. “Thanks to you, we know about this other hole to another dimension where a forgotten god has wiped out the people and has set his sights on us.”
Nita nodded. “I’m going to look into that company building and find out why they neglected to mention this before now.”
“Good, you do that, I’ll handle the prison interview,” I said.
She gave me a tired look, the sympathetic smile she had toward Hawkins fleeing from her face momentarily before she plastered it back on to sympathize with him. I shrugged.
Agent Clark and I both left for the prison where they kept the Hawkins Mace of this Earth. It’s not like he was Supermax, or even in a prison specializing in supers. If anything, Fourtrees Correctional Institute was a place without even one tree on the property, and I guarantee no one was getting corrected in there.
“I let you come along,” Nita told me, “But you’re sitting outside. If I need you, I’ll tell you, and I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll keep the line open when I’m in there. In return, you know what you have to do for me.”
I nodded. “Don’t worry about me, I keep plenty of them ready. You want Japanese schoolgirl, or Catholic? Oh, look at that. Is that a smile?”
“Shut up,” she told me around her smile. She stepped out and I unmuted the connection to her earpiece. It’s a neat piece of tech, those earpieces. It’s a new standard issue for various government people-in-black. Difficult to detect, picks up relevant context sound pretty well, and they think it’s so secure.
They checked her over a bit, made sure she was who she said she was and wasn’t bringing Hawkins a cake with anything inside. After awhile, she was waiting for him in the visitor room. And then came Hawkins. His voice sounded gruffer than the one I’d been working with. “Who are you, lady?”
“Agent Clark, Office of Superhuman Resources, Paranormal/Superhuman Crimes Division,” she introduced herself, reminding everyone why I shorten it.
“First of her name, hero of the Imperium, etceterca?” Hawkins wondered. “You’re some sort of cop?”
“Federal, yes. We’re new, created to investigate crimes involving magic, superhumans, and other circumstances that exceed the conventional.”
“What makes you think I’m one of those cases?” Hawkins asked.
Nita shifted. “A consultant brought it to our attention. She looked into your case as a side project and found a lot of concerning information.” Hawkins scoffed, until Nita brought up the possessed elephant in the room. That’s a metaphor, by the way. These days, it’s important to keep track of when there is and isn’t an actual possessed elephant in the room. “She found Ahmety.”
“No. There was an incident in Memphis at the same time, involving a statuette from Ahmety.”
“Christ, you guys are in for it.”
“Someone was possessed by what we’re calling a Forgotten God. It was defeated when the statue was destroyed. The girlfriend you killed was from Ahmety and some of the information we’ve recovered says her absence was connected to what destroyed the place.”
“That’s a lot more than I thought anyone would figure out when I made that geocache. Is there something you wanted to know about me?”
“We have questions about the other world, the Forgotten God, and Hu Mabel,” Nita told him.
“I thought someone might.” He sounded like he was smiling to me. Like a positive, happy vibe to the voice. I don’t know if there’s actual science or just phony pop telemarketer science to it, but people can hear a difference. “If you want my cooperation, you’ll need to help me out. First, I need the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger around with a side of cheese fries, a large chocolate shake, and enough time to enjoy it.”
Nita said, “That’s not much of a list of demands.”
Hawkins guffawed. “That’s what you give me before I give you my list of demands.”
Just as voice alone can convey a smile, I heard Nita seethe. “I’ll be right back.” She enunciated each word more than usual. I imagined her baring her teeth at him through that sentence. After a couple minutes, she whispered, “I’m in the restroom. What do you think?”
“I think you have two main options. If you play ball, he’ll want a lot, including probably freedom. Ethically-speaking, option number B is less nice. We convince him to drop his price and make him focused on finding someone to protect him from something or someone he fears.”
“Like you.” She got pretty close.
“Or like that Forgotten God thing. Remember, I’m a master of disguise. I can be many people,” I reminded her.
“Only a master of evil, Darth,” she told me. “You go get what he asked for. I’m going to have a chat with the warden.”
Whatever. Nita had the keys with her, but I got her car going regardless and got her her food. She put her earpiece in private mode at one point so we could handle our business without a lot of crosstalk. When part two of the visit started up again, we were both ready. Nita, because she gets to lean on the power of the state as her stick in negotiations, had Hawkins tossed into solitary for her to go meet him with the burger. I should once again note that solitary confinement is psychologically damaging, but I guess it loses some of the bite when we remember I intended to threaten his life in prison to get something from him. As much as I might consider my deception more honest, the main difference is that I’m a well-known outlaw and she is the law. I’m supposed to be what society sees as unacceptable, and she’s supposed to be the one that stops me.
Anyway, enough brooding. She had him tossed in solitary and held a cheeseburger up. “You start talking, and I’ll decide if I like your story enough to give you half of my burger.”
“You can’t throw me into solitary confinement,” he said.
“I can do whatever I want just like you could tell me whatever lying bullshit you want,” she responded. She started to open the burger’s wrapper when Hawkins sighed.
“I started looking for Ahmety as this place where your dreams can come true because I heard about it on a forum after my girlfriend left me. I went there to some scary, frightening town and city where some thing made of shadows was right outside waiting to be let in. I met Hu there. She was the answer to my prayers. It’s like she was made for me. Some of her friends tried to scare me off, but I brought her over to the other side, where she could live somewhere safe, with plenty of food. I heard when Ahmety got destroyed and kept it from her. She would have gotten mad. Then she wanted to go back there and I couldn’t stop her, so I had to tell her. She was mad at me for a few days, but I thought we were good. Then she tried to leave me and I lost it. She wasn’t supposed to leave me. She didn’t even have anywhere to go back to. I- we argued. Things happened. I thought if I could get back to Ahmety, maybe I could fix things.”
Nita tossed the bag to him. Her voice was stern, controlled. “My card’s in there. If you can think of anything important about Ahmety and the thing that destroyed it, call my office. Maybe you’ll eat better.
Alternate Dimension Hawkins was devastated that we had the conversation. Right from the horse’s mouth. The horse that looks like him, that he couldn’t have contacted the police or prison officials about. Now, I’m not the best at comforting people, so it ended up being Nita who did most of the work there. She sat next to him on the hotel bed and patted him on the upper arm. “I know you’re feeling disappointed, betrayed by your double being that kind of person. You probably think if he would do that, you might to. But you’re wrong. You risked your life to find out the truth. Look who you turned to for help, the woods, finding Ahmety, the close call in Memphis. He was so focused on his own wants, he doomed those people. He doesn’t care. Do you understand?”
“I was the same way about my podcast and proving he was innocent,” Hawkins sniffled.
I told him, “You’re going to have that ‘what if?’ in your head going forward. The fact that you know you could have been him is what will keep you from ever being him. And if not, you know there’s people like me and Agent Clark here.”
Nita and I left him in his room, me wishing the end of all this involved a climactic fight instead of some reveal. I guess that’s why I’m not a detective. “All in a day’s work, Agent Do-goo-”
She grabbed me by my ass, now out of armor and in some nice jeans, and pushed me against the wall. She also pushed her body up close to mine. She was going to kiss me, but I grabbed her face, rolled around so she was against the wall, and kissed her instead. Then I let her go and let her get a good look at my ass as I walked away.