Well, I finally had the talk with my daughter. Not the talk about sex, that has to wait. Probably until after the talk about nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. It’s important a girl has plenty of protection before she starts doing the dirty deed dirt cheap. Making the beast with a billion backs. Which reminds me, I need to learn how to take apart and clean an artillery cannon in time for her first date. I’ll just be there, sitting on the front porch, the Riccan air force and army surrounding me, cleaning a cannon in my lap. “Now you better have her back by 9, kiddo.”
No, I sat down Qiang because she’s almost certainly turned five, but either of us know for sure when her birthday is. “I’ve put this off long enough because I was stealing stuff and rescuing people, but it’s been a year since the Claw brought you into my life. So I think it’s time we had a party. It’s very important that we talk about if there’s anything you want.”
She kicked her feet back and forth, looking adorable in a dress someone made for her to match my own, her hair done up in a miniature version of the same headdress I had. “I wanna have a princess party!”
“A princess party? You’re already kind of a princess. Just a party for you and all your girl friends?”
“I don’t really have any friends,” she said. “I used to have some friends back when I lived at the bad place, but there aren’t any other kids I play with now. I guess I want a party where everyone can come!”
Huh. That’s not really a good sign. The lack of friends more so than the generosity, but the generosity’s something to keep an eye on. That’s simply no way to live. What kind of a world would it be if people were just nice to each other simple because they can be? Maybe that’s part of wishing a better life upon her, but it still irks me. Irks, I say!
“We’ll have to see about getting you enrolled in whatever schools they have for kids here now. Something to let you interact with more people. But that’s later. A princess party where everyone’s invited. You want a poofy princess dress?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I want lots of princesses!”
“Have they been showing you Disney movies?” I asked. Another nod. “Ok, so princesses. Got it. And a big cake, that’s a given. Anything else special?”
A water slide. Lots of presents, of course. I had several catalogs from toy stores around the world for her to circle anything she liked. I don’t know what would be a traditional birthday party for her or for Ricca, but I know the one I’m going to throw.
But just before I left her to figure out her presents, she looked up at me and gave me one last major request for this little shindig. “Oh, oh, Kayla and everyone else from the school in that city! Can they come? Can they, baba?”
Kayla and that school in the city. That’d be Master Academy’s Empyreal City campus. Really the wrong crowd to invite to this thing. Inviting a school full of heroes to a birthday party on an island that sells drugs, guns, and pirated rock n’ roll to all comers? That’s a recipe for trouble.
But I smiled. “Sure, baby. It’ll take me a little bit to get everything and everyone together, though.”
The sound she made caused me to activate diagnostics on my ears. I thought it had to be an internal high-pitched squeal from the volume and intensity. It ended up triggering my ears’ flashbang protocols before I patted her on the head, pried her off my leg, and left the room. I also began to regret my instincts that my daughter needed more friends her own age. It was like the universe decided to spank me with some karma. There are a lot of great things to be spanked by if you’re into that, folks. Karma is not one of them.
The island already buzzed with activity from our recent rescue of loads of special criminals. I say “special” because they weren’t all necessarily super in the sense of having superpowers. A superhero doesn’t necessarily have superpowers. For some, it’s just training or gadgets, even just something like a cop who wears a costume. And if they wear a costume like that, they’re super. Just like even if they have superpowers but don’t use them for this grand game of heroism and villainy that I participate in, they’re also still super. Some of them, like the members of Cape Diem, use their powers to do things humans can’t do, and even wear costumes, but are also considered neutral.
The island is now hosting a mix of all of those liberated from China, and that does include neutrals. Even some Cape Diem members. Even some heroes China had tossed in prison for investigating into areas inconvenient for the government. So even though what I’d done should count as grounds for war as an attack on another country, people were rather silent on the whole issue.
It also gave me a lot of villains to get registered on VillaiNet who were eager to make some money or just pay me back. I’d assembled a group of them in a conference room at a local branch of a big-name bank that doesn’t shy away from doing business with criminals. I shouldn’t even bother hiding who our corporate accomplice is anyway. What, are governments going to do anything about it? For fuck’s sake, they’ve been caught laundering money for terrorist groups and drug cartels before and got away with less than a slap on the wrist.
“Ok, folks, take a good look. These are our targets. Princesses, one and all,” I said, pointing to a holoboard. Think of it like a whiteboard or a chalkboard that works off holograms instead. Pagan, my new head of Intelligence, assured me these were all the current princesses, barring a divorcee that didn’t count anymore. “I call dibs on the two hot twenty-somethings from Japan.”
That brought groans from the group of assembled villains. “You would, wouldn’t you?” asked one of them, one of the ones who hadn’t been rescued.
“Shush,” I said, “If it’s that big a deal, we can swap. Maybe I’ll take the York one. Maybe the Belgian teen.”
One of the villains raised an arm that glistened with scaly patches. “Do you really need us to grab all of these? Some of those wrinkly cunts might break if we put a hand on them.”
That got some chuckles from the group, and a follow-up from the be-clawed, hairy villain who had also come from the First Court of Hell. He now wore a tiger-skin jacket and had died stripes into his hair. “Or they die of dehydration being touched by a real man for the first time in fifty years!”
“I guess you’re volunteering then, to make sure that won’t happen?” I asked him, prompting good-natured “Oohs” from the audience. A few of them patted the tiger guy on the back in response. He adopted a smug smile and waved away the suggestion, taking it in good fun at least.
I held up my hands to quiet down all the jokes and commentary. “I know, I know, everyone wants to kidnap a young, pretty princess in case they take a liking to y’all, but there are some things to consider. This isn’t about wetting your wiener. Kidnap them and deliver them unharmed to the island. No molesting, no groping, no fondling, and no rape. If you’re here to rape, you’re in the wrong room.”
That prompted one fellow in a grey suit jacket to stand up. Didn’t even look like a super. “Excuse me, pardon me, coming through,” he said as he worked his way down his row. He waved a polite goodbye with the newspaper in his hands and left the room.
“Okily dokily, now that he’s gone…” I sent out an alert to Security with the man’s face so they could keep an eye on him. “This isn’t supposed to be about any harm to them. Bring them here so they can attend my daughter’s birthday party. It’s money for y’all and a bit of reputation from the prestige involved. Also, the gratitude of the Empress of Ricca, a country which has proven itself capable of jailbreaking people from the middle of a worm-infested Gobi desert, among other such prisons. Trust me, y’all are getting the easier part of the party planning. And, since I’ll need a break from that, I will take one or two myself.”
In fact, I set out immediately to get ahead of all of them. That’s easier to do when you control the airports and have the odd remotely controlled robotic double hidden around the world. The robot doubles, the Dudebots, are built to resemble the armor I so recently used, but with only two arms. Most people haven’t realized I have extra arms now, and even fewer know I’ve updated the armor. At least I incorporated the light armor’s design with the heavy armor. That way, I can go back to playing a guessing game a little bit with anyone who encounters both myself and a Dudebot.
Now, I haven’t spent that much time in Belgium. I know they have a lot of mucus, so much so that many of them speak phlegmish. It was where the great World War II battle known as the Battle of the Belge took place. It’s located in Europe, just under the Nether Region. And it’s got nine fucking princesses, I learned when I picked one of them to go after. The fucking is meant as a cuss word, and shouldn’t be taken as a statement about what the 67 year old princess does in her spare time. She can fuck all she wants, as long as I don’t have to see it or picture it in any way. Some guys and gals like hairless cats, some like ’em grey.
I’m going to have to come up with one hell of a plan to kidnap all this Belgian royalty, from the oldest of the tiara wearers to the youngest Brussels sprout. And I think I know how, through a plan involving needless complexity, mandatory nudity, and necessary violence.
They stuck the First Court of Hell in the Gobi Desert. I remember looking down on it on the approach and telling one of the pilots, “I think I’ve passed this spot before… maybe back when it was more thataway.” I pointed off in the direction of New Yinpan.
The pilot glanced that way briefly before fixing his air filter more firmly to his face. “As you say, Empress.”
“Oh lighten up… not everyday you get to see me assault Chinese hell,” I swatted him lightly on the shoulder but neither he nor the co-pilot seemed to be in much of a joking mood. I don’t understand. I was having a great time. Fantastic. One of them, though, turned to look to our right.
“Trouble?” I asked.
He continued staring. “Unsure. I thought I saw something, but there’s clearly nothing there.”
“Keep your eyes out regardless. We don’t actually know what sort of defenses they’ve got. Locations, maybe, but our source was of the opinion that they varied defense countermeasures regularly. That’s why I brought a weapon few things can withstand.”
“Smells horrible, Empress,” that one noted.
“I like to think of that as an added bonus,” I told him. “Hurt ’em so bad, they’ll be smelling it for weeks. They practically beg you to break their nose for them.”
“This is it…?” said/asked the other pilot. Checking his view, it was easy to see why the statement became a question. This grand prison consisted of what looked like a single cube-shaped shack of steel, maybe iron. Nothing that, on its own, could hold to many people.
“Well, it is a hidden prison,” I reminded them. “There’s likely more under the surface. I’m going to go down and say hello real friendly-like. I’ll even tell them a joke.”
The pilots shared a look, the one who’d spotted something just saying, “Acknowledged, lowering the rear hatch.”
I jumped out the rear, avoiding our special payload, and left a small crater in the soft sands of the Gobi. Don’t worry, I saved room for desert. I didn’t see anything off about the one-room shack. Just a door with a sliding hatch at eye height and a camera encrusted with so much dirt you couldn’t see the lens. I did not anticipate it would be a problem, so I knocked on the door twice, my lower arms beginning to glow faintly.
“Who is it?” asked someone inside in Mandarin.
“Interrupting Gecko,” I answered back in Mandarin.
“Interrupting-” the person inside started to say before the door flew forward inward, off its hinges, and smashed against the opposite wall while squelching out either someone’s extra large dish of lasagna or what used to be a human being.
“Moo!” I said, stepping in. “Wait, wait, wrong sound. What’s a gecko sound like again?” I thought it over a moment before calling out, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Sadly, there was no one left around to hear a Gecko in a desert, which means I technically didn’t make a sound as I checked over the room. It had a small desk, a cot, a stack of novels falling apart, and a hatch in the floor. “I’m hatching a plan!” I said to no one, again making as much sound as a tree in the forest with nobody around, then unlocked the hatch door. I found a set of flimsy stairs leading down into the dark, so I activated light enhancement on my helmet as I headed down. And by headed down, I broke through the stairs and landed about ten feet down in a pile of broken metal.
“Dinner time!” someone called out in Cantonese. I hopped to my feet and went invisible, but nobody rushed around the corner in front of me. After a couple seconds of that, I went looking for the voice. I turned the corner and found myself in an open room, my access to it barred by, well, bars. Kind of basic, actually. The room had some old chairs, a few crates, some old pillows and moldy mattresses. Oh, and people. Quite a few of them. A couple dozen men were in there, most not bothering to move, though a couple waited by the bars.
“Come on!” one of them called closest to me. He had an overgrown mane of dirty blonde hair, which isn’t as expected in someone of East Asian ancestry. The hands he banged on the bars, I noted, had long, sharp fingernails. “Hurry up with these shitty ration cubes!”
I appeared in front of him, startling him back. “I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled programming to bring you… an escape attempt!” I grabbed the bars in front of me and began to bend them. Behind me, someone swung a gate right open and stepped inside.
“It’s nice that you think we’re escaping,” said another man whose skin glistened in places from multicolored scales. “But we’ll never survive outside.”
“I have food,” I turned and told him. “Water. Transport. Hiding places. A light itch in my crotch.”
“That may be, but unless you can fly,” here he looked over his shoulder at a skeleton in a bomber jacket and leather pilot’s helmet seated against the wall, “we won’t survive the journey .”
I pointed at his face. “Don’t play coy with me, whatever your name is.”
“King Koi,” he volunteered.
I pulled that finger back in. “Ah. Unfortunate turn of phrase then. But don’t play coy with me. Whatever’s keeping you here, let me know. I’ve got an aircraft outside.”
“I hope you didn’t land it,” he said, but I ignored that when the skeleton jumped to his feet and stomped forward with the smack of bone on stone.
“Aircraft, you say?” asked the skeleton in a Scottish accent. The visual and accent combined to get a hit on my identification program.
“The Dead Baron?” I asked.
“The very same, lassie,” he said, giving a quick Royal Air Force salute. “I been shot down and dumped in this pit for I dun know how long. Now you said you had a plane?”
“Not exactly a plane. Not a helicopter either, nor did it have to land,” I looked back over to King Koi at that, a smile flickering across his face briefly. “I’m here to rescue y’all, so let’s get the fuck out of this hellhole.”
A cheer went up throughout the prison. “Is this the only floor?” I asked of Dead Baron and King Koi, who at least waited while others began to file through and find themselves at the destroyed the stairs. It didn’t stop anyone for long, though.
“Aye,” Dead Baron asked. “One floor, one way in, one way out, and nought but hostile desert in all directions.”
“None of us have speed or flight, at least on land,” King Koi said before clarifying. “I am swift in the seas, but not in the desert.”
I made sure to get them all up, though the shack up top got crowded. For a bunch of prisoners, they were awfully wary of heading outside. “Y’all haven’t been institutionalized, I hope,” I said as I led them out the door. “Some people have to climb through a river of shit to see the outside like this. Some just do it because they’re into that sort of thing. No judgments.” I stopped and turned to seen none had really gone that far outside the shack. They were looking around, then jumped as sand was thrown up and a reddish thing poked out of the sand.
I stepped closer, at which point the thing zapped me. It might have actually done some damage if I hadn’t bothered hardening my armor against electrical attacks. Still pissed me off, so I went to stomp on it. Instead of smooshing it, my leg disappeared into a hole. When I pulled it loose, I had a red, three foot long, segmented worm thing clinging to it, chewing on the armor. I watched as flakes fell off, then grabbed the damn thing and squeezed until it popped.
I called up to the flyer hovering overhead. “Good news, it looks like we don’t need the big package. Bad news, we’ve got worms. I’m going to need some ropes tossed down. We are not landing in this.”
“Acknowledged, Empress,” said the pilot.
“Look at that!” said the other.
“What, is there some sign of the worms or something?” I asked.
“Empress, we have wormsign the likes of which even the gods have never seen!”
I saw it. It wasn’t hard. The thing threw up waves of dirt, a hint of its disgustingly bloated black and white body peeking through the loose sand. The prisoners began to push and stampede over themselves to hide back in their prison as the giant worm headed our way.
“Ok, flyer… now,” I signaled. A bus-sized worm broke out of the ground, its body striped black and white, black mouth open wide to swallow me, when a whale smashed into it from above. The worm and whale both exploded in a mass of gore that made me real fucking happy I cut off any smells from the exterior of my armor. I still got a wave of guts and fluids washing over me, but at least I couldn’t smell it.
The flyer lowered, anti-personnel guns lining up shots against more worms. It wasn’t so much of a climb for the prisoners, who were suddenly eager to get the hell out of their prison. Though the guy with the claws and the wild hair did complain that, “It smells like fucking fish in here!”
I jumped up and back down, helping them along faster so we could get the fuck out of here. It proved to be a good decision when the pilots called back. “Empress, we have incoming!”
As much as things were exploding today, this one involved fire that barely missed us to blow apart the shack with an actual detonation.
“That would be the artillery base,” said the Dead Baron, rushing toward the cockpit. “Let me through.”
I ran on after him, pushing the button to close the hatch. “Let’s get fuck out of dodge!”
“No, lassie, let’s dodge the fuck out of these,” said Dead Baron. He grabbed the controls and whipped the flyer hard to the side, further than I thought he should have until I heard the barrage of blasts that showed at least an attempt at leading us. There was even one that blew up in midair in front of us courtesy of the co-pilot continuing on as a gunner.
“You blokes shoot, I’ll fly!” said the Dead Baron.
The pilot whose controls the undead World War I pilot had stolen looked to me and I nodded. That one got up and let the Baron sit in his place while he maneuvered around to man gunnery controls without disturbing him.
Immediately, something changed. The Baron’s empty eye sockets lit up with green fire and it sounded like the metal of the flyer itself warped. I sent off a drone to check the external view and found the flyer shifting from smooth lines to something more resembling a flying armless skeletal torso and skull with bat wings. The shift appeared to be purely decorative, which is great. Kinda hard to flap our way out of an artillery bombardment. Shortly after the change stopped, Dead Baron accelerated us forward, leaving my drone to explode when it intercepted a shell that passed us by harmlessly.
The sudden change in velocity threw me and the standing pilot against the wall. From the sound of things in the transport section, we weren’t the only ones not properly buckled in. The Dead Baron flew through that storm of shells like a bat out of the First Court of Hell, dodging things that I’d swear I could see were heading right for us. We’re talking this shit was level with us and he navigated through it.
“You know we have a vertical control too, don’t you?” I asked.
The Dead Baron merely cackled and flew through the storm toward the direction of the assault. He passed overhead a fenced-in base whose giant guns struggled to turn in our direction. The Dead Baron punched the button for the missiles. Green rockets’ flares sped our ordinance along to a fiery end for our assailants, and I swear I could pick out a skull in each fiery cloud. Once he’d had his fun and revenge, he took us up further into the sky before calling back to me. “Where shall we drop this lot off, lassie?”
“To the island of Ricca,” I told him. “Do you know where that is?”
“The land of the Claw Emperor chap? I heard of it,” he said.
“My empire now, and something of a safe haven to those with nowhere else to go.”
By the time we arrived back on the island, I think most of us were ready to leave. Even trained pilots didn’t often pull off some of those moves, though I did have to take the flyer back. We only had so many of them, and so many pilots, and they were all heading out at once. Teams of soldiers, drone operators, and agents were moving out almost all at once to liberate the other prisoners now that we’d confirmed Mr. Feng’s intelligence on the First Court. We even brought in a few mercenaries and supervillains to help out.
The Dead Baron did object to not being a part of that when he realized the flyers were heading off to have more fun. I took one look at the people we’d brought back as they got off the flyer as quickly as possible, including that one clawed guy with the crazy hair nursing a broken nose and muttering, “At least I can’t smell the fucking whale anymore.” The flyer itself had reverted to its normal form once the Baron left the controls, so I doubted he had any supernatural connection to it anymore.
I patted The Dead Baron on the shoulder. “Thanks, but I think we got this.”
“See, it all comes back to the alien conspiracy.” I was having some fun with this radio thing. I was checking the radio soon after getting back and found we actually had a couple of stations. One of them styles itself the Voice of Patriotic Ricca going back to when that meant supporting a guy who wanted me dead. Ah, the winds of change.
I decided to invite myself on for a special segment. “The American government wants you to think aliens crash landed in Roswell, New Mexico. See, they were secretly working on all sorts of super secret planes and other freaky Cold War programs like MKUltra. So when shit started messing up, with weird PTSD from abduction victims and people seeing things flying in ways nothing before ever did, they staged a massive coverup in the form of pretending to cover up an alien conspiracy. Every time you sneak around, thinking you’re uncovering secret alien documentation from the 50s and 60s, you’re doing the Man’s job for him!”
I’ve been having a ball doing this. It’s great to just sit around and tell people shit they need to hear. Plus, I like to think it makes me more accessible to the public. That’s what folks love in a dictator. Especially assassins, but I ain’t afraid of them. “See, there really are aliens, but they just weren’t showing up then. The United States and Russia were doing their Cold War nuclear power BS, so the last thing they wanted was to hang around a place about to get blown up. Alien tourists don’t want to get blown up, they want to get blown. Hold on, I’m receiving a bulletin.” The station’s gofer stepped toward me with a sheet of paper. Always with the paper! Ricca’s not made of trees. I used a bomb to put a damn hole into the volcano it is made of.
I took the note and read it aloud on air. “Folks, urgent message. It appears this segment, ‘Hello Empress!’ is out of time. The station will return to its regularly scheduled programming momentarily. Huh. Sounds like gibberish to me. I’ll go have a word with station management. While I’m gone, let’s have some music from a little band of scrappy bastards out of some other country I don’t give a fuck about. This is Babymetal’s hit ‘Megitsune’.”
I left anyway. I had a few errands to run around the island. I stopped by a bar, a dimly-light, unnamed one where one guy at the bar quite loudly tried to drown his sorrows with the help of a couple friends, including one name Jack Daniels. I stayed well away from them and found myself aiming for a corner booth where Hu sat, staying on the ball with his tablet and wireless earbuds. “How are things on first?” I asked him as I got close.
“What?” he asked.
I waved it off. “I don’t know where I was going with that. How’s our prisoner coming along?”
He laid his tablet down and pressed a button. A hologram appeared over it, showing a seen. It was Feng, the former Chinese spy we figure has info on where the Chinese dump their superpowered prisoners. In the image, he waited in a room containing nothing but a table and a chair on either side of it. Suddenly, a crying man walked in. When Feng sat up, the man pulled him out of his seat and into a hug. “I can’t do this today. You’ll never believe this… it’s my wife!” The guy who came in, our chief interrogator, latched onto Feng and began sobbing his heart out.
The next five minutes was nothing but a mess of crying, nose-blowing, and Feng trying to figure out what the fuck was going on while the interrogator whined about his wife claiming he spent too much time caring about his job over her. “She told me she needed space. What does that mean? Do I move out? Does she move out? What about the kids?!” The crying interrogator forced another hug on Feng and held it for an uncomfortably long time while his sniffles died. Then he looked up into Feng’s face, “Come on, I need a drink.”
Feng didn’t put up much of an objection, though he still had handcuffs on. As a former spy, he could probably get through them. Seems like the sort of survival skill he’d have picked up in the lawless city of New Yinpan, too. That didn’t matter so much as all the surveillance. We had a couple trackers on him, and the Drone Division was keeping tabs on him under orders of Hu and the interrogator. The interrogator led Feng to a bar. “Recording complete,” flashed in the air above the tablet briefly before Hu took the device back up and pointed with his chin to the bar. “It is going well. I believe our man is about to force him to sing songs.”
“Please tell me the jukebox has country music on it,” I said. “Country is good music for being sad or trying to cheer people up or just for being sad. Garth Brooks has good songs for that. I like Reba McEntire too, but those have a little different perspective to them.”
Hu just looked at me. “The man knows what he’s doing. He has done this dozens of times with no issue. Feng is nothing special to a man who breaks people like toothpicks. I am more curious who you have finally chosen for my successor.”
I sighed. “Well, I thought about it a lot. I flipped a coin on it, too. Lost the coin when it rolled into a sewer. By the way, did you know we have giant alligators in our sewers? Damnedest thing, looking into that drain and seeing a clown staring back.”
Hu’s mouth dropped. “Alligators in the sewers? Impossible.”
I shook my head. “I saw the thing with my own two eyes. A big gator chewing on a bicycle before swimming away.”
“Empress, I assure you we have no alligators in the sewers-”
“I know what I saw, Hu,” I said.
Hu finished his prior sentence, “-because the giant crocodiles would have eaten them.”
“Ah, good. Glad the giant crocs have sewer security well in hand. Why are there giant crocs in the sewers again?” I asked.
Hu brought up a photo of several courtiers at the old Riccan Imperial Palace with little crocs on leashes. “A con man convinced several of the richest Riccans to buy his teacup crocodiles years back. He skipped town before they realized he sold them a croc.”
“D’awww, they’re so cute! It’s a shame, too, because I think big crocs on leashes would be awesome. At least we have a way to keep people from sneaking about the sewers. All legitimate crime should be done in the streets, as nature intended. Preferably at one of our black markets so we get a cut.”
Meanwhile, at the bar, our interrogator had put on some Japanese country song I didn’t recognize. He had his arm around Feng, swaying from side to side, singing tearfully. It was horrible and beautiful at once, like seeing someone getting torn apart by a bomb, or watching someone fire a flamethrower into the open top of an occupied tank. Hu put up a mighty struggle to avoid cringing.
I leaned over to him, “By the way, I say let’s put Pagan at the top of the agency, but you still report to me and give me an idea how it works out.”
“Doesn’t that undermine his position?” Hu asked.
“Think of it as providing accountability,” I whispered back over the crying and singing, a combination that normally means I’m at karaoke night having my usual effect on anyone listening.
“I would have thought you’d give Tiu more of a shot. You seem less inclined to dismiss loose cannons.”
I shrugged. “The ideas Pagan had as far as reserves are the reason his operation didn’t get all FUBAR. Besides, it’s spying. That’s THE thing where you want someone to be noticed as little as possible and go as smoothly as possible. So let’s go with him. Tiu’s not bad, though. Don’t get rid of him or kick him back down or anything. We just give him the ops where it’s in our best interest for someone to be seen, preferably so that others are doing the quiet work unnoticed.”
The interrogator stood up all of a sudden and dragged Feng along with him. Hu and I followed after surreptitiously, not that we had to be that careful. They left a trail of alcohol-smelling air in their wake. They got down the block before stumbling into the middle of a bunch of Deep Ones breakdancing on a corner with cardboard and a wireless speaker. The problem started when our interrogator stumbled against one of them and knocked the speaker over. It wasn’t damaged, but the Deep Ones started yelling at them.
“Fine, we settle this with dance!” said our interrogator, leading to a dance off with him and Feng on one side. Our guy had some decent moves, but was clearly no match for the Deep One pulling off a standing backflip into a headspin, which I’m pretty sure is fatal to humans. I sure as shit wasn’t expecting Feng to answer by diving at the cardboard and managing to somehow skid for a foot on his forehead before flipping onto his feet and dancing. He made it close for a bit before one of the Deep Ones hit him to throw off the contest and they ended up in a brawl that, miraculously, the drunk guys managed to win.
I noticed the Deep Ones managed to stop nursing their wounds after they got a little ways away. The reason soon became apparent when Feng and our interrogator, who were holding one another up, started hugging and laughing. “Anything you want, you got it. You’re the man,” Feng told him.
“No, you’re the man, man,” our guy said, pointing back at him. They started down the sidewalk again, this time laughing and singing a happy, victorious song.
The next afternoon, our chief interrogator brought Hu a list of locations, some with names of specific prisoners, none the worse for wear. At the bottom were ten specific areas, circled, with the name “Ten Courts of Hell” written on the edge of the circle. I was there going over some forms and projects, seeing what we could actually muster to get our guys out.
“Awesome work,” I told him. “Maybe I can promote you just in time for the next target to break and you can go out for a celebration with them. Should be better food that way, too.”
He grinned at me. “That’s the twenty… twenty-third time I’ve been getting cheated on and divorced since I’ve had my job, but if you want to pay me more to add to the realism, I won’t object.”
After wrecking a casino and killing a bunch of people, it’s amazing how word spreads about you. It probably had to do with the city have a few important centers, like the casino. The places that kept the lights on at night. It made them easy to find when the lights were out, which was a good thing for any looking to attract customers. It kinda worked against them when a hostile new power arrived. That’d be me!
The next place I stopped off at turned out to be the Pleasure Palace. That’s my name for it. At the ground level, it offered decent restaurants, booths in which to rest and shoot up, and cheap hookers. So cheap you don’t have to call them call girls while they’re still alive. Plus, equal opportunity as it was, they offered men, too.
I walked into that one, dragging a heavy gold axe along to scrape over the rugs they’d thrown down over cracked tile floor. This entrance attracted attention. “Ok, you sons of whores, I’m here to kill ya!”
That statement sent various men running for cover, but not all. There were even some youngsters who halted their pickpocketing in order to run.
“That’s not what I meant!” I yelled. “Whoever’s in charge here, I’m lookin’ for a man…”
I’d barely gotten the words out when a line of men jogged out wearing little more than loincloths. While surprisingly diverse in skin color and ethnicity, the oldest was probably in his late twenties. The youngest stoked my desire to murder and maim someone. Funny thing was, most people didn’t seem to give a crap about murderous intent so long as it wasn’t directed at them. My glare hidden under my helmet, I stepped over to the nearest employee and pulled her head off a fellow’s cock.
“’Scuse me, ladycakes, you look real busy here.” The man in question yelled at me in a language my translator hadn’t yet figured out until I kicked him through a wall. I sat down in his place, the woman moving to try and find a way into my pants. “I was just looking for someone important to talk toooOO… in a few minutes at least. Or however long. Take your time.”
Ok, I may have given her a hand getting in my pants.
After all that, she led me upstairs, past a fine dining restaurant, hotel, and to an elegant brothel. She led me past rooms that weren’t quite soundproof enough to an office in the rear, not even knocking before opening the door for me. “Madame Moth, the stranger is here.”
The woman behind the desk looked young except for her white hair. She rose with an enchanting and modest smile on her lips. Her modest gown covered a lot more than what her employees went about in below, save for a hint of neckline. “Take a seat,” she cooed between glossy pink plump lips. No, seriously. Normally, when something says a person cooed, I don’t understand it at all. Was it supposed to be done like baby talk? Well, kinda. Soft, gentle, and sweet. It wasn’t just the voice, though. Fatigue hit me like a ton of dildoes. Also like a ton of dildoes, my legs felt weak and I had trouble standing afterward. My eyes wanted to close, and everything relaxed on me. I damn near pissed myself, and I definitely dropped the golden axe.
I had to steady myself with all four arms on a chair in front of me. Madame Moth walked around and pulled out the chair next to it, then guided me down into it. She put her hands on my neck and stroked her fingertips lightly across my neck and shoulders. I kept blinking, trying to keep my eyes open while she lowered her face next to my head. “Good. Relax. Stop fighting, four-armed stranger.”
I rolled my head around a bit. “Mmm, won’t stop as much as you think.”
She kissed the side of my helmet and whispered to me, “You don’t want to hurt me.”
I shrugged. “Not at first, but I’m getting there. I just came here looking for a drug runner named Feng.”
She ran her nails along the back of my neck and helmet, really digging in them so I could feel anything at all through the material and my hair. “What do you want with him?”
“That’s really between the two of us. Depends on how willing he is to talk.” I stopped talking to yawn. “I’m really just here for information and have enough spare gold to carry around an axe of the stuff. Make of that what you will.”
“What is it worth to you to meet him?” she asked me.
“I have a golden axe,” I reiterated.
“Is it pure gold?” she asked.
I slumped down to grab it, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of bone left to help me do much. If I didn’t have the armor, there’s no way I’d have been able to plop it into my lap. “Feels like it to me.”
Madame Moth ran hand down my side and over my thighs to rest on the axe’s handle.
“You want it?” I asked. She moved to look me in my eyes through the helmet, grinning. “Just tell me where he is.”
“I can arrange a meeting for the two of you. But who will I say has called on him?” She kissed my forehead. She stayed with me while some of her men came and took the axe, thwarting my sudden but inevitable murder of her with the axe. It was going to be so perfect. At least she didn’t try anything more than that. Her relaxation superpower let me vulnerable, but I was sure I could overcome it in a pinch to start killing. And if I needed backup, I had my guys waiting for me just outside the city. Hu sent over a flyer to relive the pilots I’d had and ensuring I was better equipped for life in this city.
I called up the pilots without speaking on my end. “Hey dudes, they got a lady who makes people sleepy here, so I’m gonna start checking in like every five minutes. If I miss a check in, I need y’all to fly to my beacon and light it the fuck up.”
“Right on,” I signed off. Then, and only then, did I give her her answer. “Psycho Gecko of Ricca. How we doin’ this, princess?”
Madame Moth said something to the girl who was still with us. That one finally left to go do whatever she needed to do. Madame Moth instead decided to sit at her desk in front of me, looking me over. “We get someone making this claim from time to time, but the message I passed along indicates my belief you are telling the truth.”
“That’s convenient. Or you just want me to believe you believe it while you enact your nefarious plan.”
She sat her chin on the back of one hand while the other dangled in front of her, moving in a circular motion. “Those I have seen make the claim typically do so to avoid fighting a dozen men. They do not slaughter them effortlessly for entertainment.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, giving her a little wave.
She looked at me for a bit before pulling a laptop over and typing away on it. Tsk, tsk. Not as secure as she hoped, that one. But what she was doing looked to nonsense. Pretending to type while playing Minesweeper. Once again, I contacted my team. “Launch drones and bring the flyer up to support me, firing on targets I designate.”
I pushed myself up to my feet with titanic effort. Madame Moth swept her hand gently downward. “Please, sit.”
I almost passed out, which screwed up my alternative idea of using my implants to control my limbs directly. I just wanted to take a nap, and so I slid back into the chair. Even the point when Madame Moth’s fingers touched my helmet and found the trick to sliding it down my head only caused me to push weakly with my chin. “Our cameras can’t be controlled the way you control nanites and machines from afar. Let me help you out of your armor for the meeting. He will be down shortly.”
Damn prostitutes, always showing off how to get in my pants. I struggled to open one eye and saw Madame Moth looking me right in the face. She had pretty eyes. Shame she had to lose one. Helmet out of the way, I activated the laser hidden in my eye, stopping short of killing her. I’m technically not supposed to be killing supers now, or even maiming. And I did just put her eye out. Guess I’ll just have to kill her to cover up having maimed her.
I jumped to my feet as she collapsed in pain, crying curses. Both of us, I mean. She was cussing me out for her eye, I was fucking glad to shed my exhaustion and relaxation.
Before I could finish Moth off, though, the door was opened by a man in a white, Chinese-style jacket, tangzhuang. Past the man who opened it was a whole crowd of men dressed similarly, with Feng in the middle with a Mandarin Nehru-style suit to show he was no plebe. He looked a lot like his picture, except he’d decided to grow a mustache and longer sideburns. In the augmented reality view, he was designated as a priority one capture target. I designated the others as target practice. The one at the door’s head exploded like a melon when I gave him the laser full force right in the middle of his skull. The next one raised a gun to aim for my head, but I jumped and took the shot to the boob instead. If they wanted to keep me docile, that wasn’t the way to do it. The pain cut through the remaining tiredness and energized me.
I landed and grabbed the wood chair I’d been sitting in by the legs, pulling it apart. I pounced on him, knocking him down, and jammed pointy wood into his chest and face over and over. I looked up in time to see four shotguns leveled in my direction with Feng beating a hasty retreat down the hallway. “Don’t move. We have you!” shouted the closest. I pulled the guy I was on in front of me and tried to turn my unprotected head away. The roar of guns went off and didn’t stop for five seconds, after which I dropped the dead body to look at the shredded hallway. A pair of drones burst in front my right, the direction the Psycho Flyer fired from.
While I ran to catch him, the drones quickly caught up to our fleeing friend, Mr. Feng. One hovered around in front of him, my voice speaking through it. “Go ahead and try it.” Feng put his hands up and backed away from the drone in front of him before tripping over the drone I’d directed down to his knees.
I knelt down and smiled at him. “It was nice of you to offer me a meeting on your terms. Your Madame here made quite the impression. That’s why we’ll talk on my terms.” I grabbed him and hauled him up and over to the torn-up wall. A cry of rage alerted me to Madame Moth’s continued presence. I actually chuckled seeing her standing there in the doorway, hand over her eyes. The exhaustion hit me again and a drone hit her in the gut at ramming speed. I jumped for the open hatch of the Psycho Flyer in front of me with Mr. Feng snoring along, leaving her and her whores to tire out anyone else they want but me.
Unless she plans to come after me, drawn like a moth to the pain.
My next lead came right in the middle of attending an opera in Australia. Not the Sydney Opera House this time, though it’d have made a great venue. This one was a bit dead, despite the awesome singing from the cast I had tied up on stage. I sat atop a crashed chandelier, trying to make sense of it. Broaden my horizons. This was supposed to be fun, after all, but the show wasn’t as enjoyable as the appetizers strewn about the seats. Plenty of people got out, of course, but not all. Especially not the guys underneath the chandelier. Not too many people wear a mullet anymore. One less now. I aimed it right for him when I saw that stupid haircut.
Someone burst in the door from the outside. I heard their hasty steps approach and stood up on the chandelier. Organ music blasted out of the opera house’s sound system, the distinct opening of the “The Phantom Of The Opera”. The darn half-mask over the right side of my face tried to fall, though. I’d come dressed, but I don’t think the attendees had appreciated the effort I put into attendance. They just wanted to sing their Wagner. Wagner, ha! Pretty much killed ‘er.
Instead of some sort of attacker, the person who came running in for me was one of the pilots. “Empress, we were unable to raise you on the radio. We must go now. They have alerted their military.”
I sighed dramatically and turned back to the singers on stage. I bowed and flourished my cape before hopping down to join the pilot. “Fine, I shall bid these singers adieu. But next time,” I raised my voice to be better heard by the stage, “Box five should be kept free for me to watch the performance.”
I’d probably never be back, but they don’t know that. The thought of this little gag, and the whole night’s events, drove me to laughter. Perhaps a little too hard of laughter, as I didn’t step even when setting foot outside and finding the Psycho Flyer I’d arrived in gunning down helicopters that had approached close to try and figure out by proximity what they couldn’t with sensors. The flyer moved to hover over us, the bottom trap door open and dragging the same cable this pilot used to drop down for me. “After you?” I said. He started to say something until I slapped him across the face. “No arguing.”
I was in a giggly mood that night. Just felt good to be myself again, I guess. He climbed the rope up quickly. When he hit the button to retract the rope, I was only about halfway up, singing “I came in like a wrecking ball!”
The pilots were rather more eager to get out of there than I was, but I allowed them their fear. They hadn’t stared death in the balls a hundred times before and gave it a good dick punching. Plus, I’d gotten a message from Hu at some point both wondering about who I picked to replace him as the head of Intelligence, along with an attachment concerning my desire to figure out all the places China dumps it supers. I came to it after skipping over his attempts to be both exceedingly polite and urgent about a replacement. “I have discovered the identity of a former member of State Security who escaped the pull of Beijing’s secrecy and works for himself. I would have had him captured for you, but I thought I would wait to see if you wished to take a personal hand in it.”
He knows me so well. I can and probably should delegate more, but how can I pass up an opportunity to kidnap some big shot former spy? I immediately informed Hu of my intent to bring him in myself and have a bit of fun in the process. Was it some sort of corporate gig? I’m not averse to blowing up skyscrapers. Perhaps he was a politician and I could destroy yet another capital building? Hey, maybe he was an actor. It’d be awesome to interrupt him while shooting and get into a big melee with him and his stunt doubles.
Alas, that was not the case. When I got a reply from Hu again, he gave me the sad truth that this former spy was merely operating as a kingpin in New Yinpan. Heroin, mostly, with a hand in human trafficking. Had to look it up. Old Yinpan had been lost to desertification, so people set up a New Yinpan, only for the government to officially evacuate it and abandon it to the encroaching desert in the 90s. Not everyone could afford to leave. Others were just too obstinate or sick to pick up and move. They stayed, and a certain class of people showed up to take advantage of the lack of any government interference. Since then, it’s become a lawless land of drugs, prostitution, and gangs. Why haven’t I heard of this place before now?!
Further, because it’s relatively close to the borders of a few different nations, it’s part of land routes for trading arms, drugs, organs, and people. In other words, it’s a direct competitor in almost every market.
The guy I’m looking for is a Mr. Feng, and he’s surrounded by an entire city that would oppose government agents or superheroes moving in to fetch him. Despite the fact that I have saved this planet I live on from complete conquest or destruction, I am no superhero.
Luckily, I’d brought my suit with me. I tossed aside my Phantom guise and suited up as the one, the only, Friendly Neighborhood-Destroying Gecko Man. Well, I did add a little extra deodorant first. One of the perils of having twice as many arm pits.
New Yinpan stood out at the edge of a desert. No suburbs, just large buildings marking the edge of the city like a cube, one side of it standing out against the sand with traces of green at the opposite end where it sat near a lake. A city with absolutely no regulations anymore? Drinking the sand is probably healthier. The place was mostly dark, as well. Whoever ran the power racket didn’t make it cheap enough for everyone to afford, so there were only a few places lit up as bright as you’d expect for a city of that size.
There wasn’t really an airport to the place, either. My guys put out a call asking for anyone with space to land. They got a multitude of answers from people offering their little scrap of flat roof as options before I told the pilots not to worry. “Just drop me off and park outside the city. But keep an eye out. They’ll still your rims here.”
“We have rims?” asked one of the pilots.
I just shook my head as I hopped out of the trap door without a cable, landing with a roll on cracked streets. No traffic at all. No cars parked around even. Guess I wasn’t taking a taxi.
One problem with living in a place that had no actual government presence: no ownership documents. Not even a need for shell companies to hide things. I dropped in knowing he’s here and he moves drugs and people. Probably drugs in people. I needed someplace where I could find people who might have information. I launched myself up to a nearby balcony, then to the top of a building, trying to catch a glimpse of the nearest bright spot and follow that to the closest thing to civilization in this city.
I found myself staring at a building that practically screamed casino. So did the criers out front, trying to attact clients of the marketplace that set up in the street out front. People had parked carts and stands to take advantage of the light from the casino, probably having to pay a percentage of their earnings to the casino for the privilege. It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are they to deny it in here? Pardon the Sweeney Todd, but I passed by a stand selling questionable meat products and they smelled wonderful. I glanced around as I headed for the casino’s gate, checking out what they had. One older fellow caught me looking and smiled a nigh-toothless smile, holding up a crack pipe. I veered off to take a look at what he had.
“You want some puff puff? It is good shit,” he offered.
“If you’re selling it out here where anybody can take it, it must be crap,” I said.
He shook his head. “No, no, it’s good. Nobody would steal from me. Try it, first puff for free.” He held it out for me.
I pushed it back to him. “That’s not the side of the business I’m in. Talk to me when you’re selling kilograms of it.”
The casino had a lot of flashy lights. The better to blind people to the dirty walls and cracked floors. I was stopped before I could even set foot on to the dirty carpet of the casino floor properly. Some guy who looked more at home in a sumo wrestling match held his arm out. “You got money?”
I looked around and pointed to a ratty-looking woman in rags who was coming up behind me. “Does she?” Ratty woman walked right on past without a problem and headed for the cashier cage past bunches of machines like slots and pachinko.
“She comes here every week to lose her pay stub. You are new, and I don’t see pockets in that suit.”
I reached out to put a hand on his chest. “Relax, Genghis Kong…”
Fast for a big guy. He grabbed my throat and arm, trying to throw me on the ground. I stopped him when the top of my head was just barely touching the ground and both feet were still firmly planted on the ground. “What?” he asked. I began to power back up, but made sure to use my bottom right hand to grasp his nuts on my way up. It made it easier to slam him against the wall. A much smaller security came running extending some sort of baton that he thrust forward as he ran for my back. I stepped aside and let go of the big guy. Little guy jammed the baton into big guy, causing him to spasm from what I assume to be a taser.
I folded both sets of arms behind my back. “So do we talk this out, or do you die tonight?”
Little guy turned and ran at me, dipping low for a tackle. I turned and popped my knee up, which probably wouldn’t have halted the charge for most people. With my armor, it threw him up and back with a nose spewing blood.
“Guys,” I said, calling back to my pilots.
“We are here Empress,” answered one.
“Looks like I’m not getting comped a room, so it looks like we’ll be sleeping in the flyer’s cots tonight. Meet on my beacon in five…” I cocked my head to the side, watching the big guy stumble forward. He looked down at his wounded friend, then at me and pulled out a set of brass knuckle. “…better make it ten minutes.”
I shot Hu a message as well, authorizing him to pull some cash and gold out for me to use. I suppose I’m rich as fuck at this point, but I don’t deal much in liquid assets. Blood is the exception there. Like when the big guy came at me and I put a hand through his gut. I hugged his gasping, convulsing, shitting body close and reached up his back with that bloody arm. When I headbutted him, that hand caught his hair and kept pulling back while his neck cracked and the skin of his throat strained, ripped, spurting blood.
I turned around as a crowd of another dozen security guys showed up, man armed with guns, the rest with swords, clubs, and the like. Smiling under my helmet, I spread my arms. “Who’s first to bet their lives?”
When I walked out, dragging one of the still living security guys in a headlock under one arm, I pulled him along with me to the puff puff guy. I dug some Yuan out of the guys’ pockets and handed it over to the old dirty bastard. He looked between me and the guy and cautiously held out the pipe. I took it, thanked him, and smashed it into the guard’s eye before tossing him back. That one would live at least. Then I pointed at puff puff guy. “The house doesn’t always win.”
Grand language. “I have a dream.” I have a plan. Well, part of a plan. And bad dreams, too.
Not the usual ones, the stuff fighting on my home planet and being betrayed. They’ve been pretty strong here, with that time travel business. Mobian and Future Venus found a way to put me back there to put me off my game and I got the crap kicked out of me. My poor bowels. They had feelings, but then they were all empty inside.
I wonder if I’d be having the dream if I’d gotten that damn time machine repaired. Even if I didn’t fix my own life… well, if I didn’t fix my own life, none of this would have happened. But I could have brought it into the future. Instead, I took a coward’s way out. All that power in front of me, just like with that weird tree on the continent of Mu, and instead I turned it down. At least the tree would have destroyed me. The timeship… well I guess the timeship would have destroyed me as I am. Fucked up that I’d choose that knowing what I went through. The heroes and their weakness must be rubbing off on me, and not the way I imagine Venus does late at night with whatever toys she keeps in her room.
Note to self: bug Venus’s room.
I think I know already it was the wrong decision, letting complacency with the way things are defeat the way things ought to be. I’ve become just as bad as the heroes I deride. I get power, and instead of using it the right way, I maintain the status quo. Now that I figured that out, let me just say: the status is not quo. And to salt the wound, Future Venus did change her future. That damn hero beat me. Not physically, of course, I still won that. Obviously. But she changed the future when she didn’t kill me just before I beat her and won and did not at all lose. So I have to hand that to her and feel crappy that she took that leap, of all people. And I didn’t.
That stupid headology is what I worked on while Site Two was raided. Another success, without so much of a hero presence. Pagan went in at a time of night most were asleep, and they don’t tend to stick warehouses in areas where they call the police, especially if the people to be called on have a way to disincentivize the calling, say with weapons, or money. Pagan preferred the bribery route, which surprised me for a guy who used to kill for a living.
I kept an eye on the men, helping them get used to the armor. Without power, it was merely strong. With power, it made them strong. It’s easy to feel that raw strength and get cocky. I had to tutor some in the increased capabilities and knock a few down a peg with sparring sessions. Just Gecko a mano; I even took my armor off and let them keep theirs. I didn’t maim any of them, or make it vicious. These were my guys and gals.
I stayed behind at the military base as the flyers departed for Hyderabad, though I made sure to clap them on the back and so on. Letting them do their stuff without me is important. For me, not for them. They’re soldiers. They know their job and the risks. I’m the one who has gotten way overprotective of friends and my people. Working alone as an assassin, or as a supervillain? Not a dealbreaker then. A problem now. And not one I can solve with a visit to the puppy butcher’s. It’s something of a delicacy with people here, like veal.
So while my guys went about handling the last leg of Dr. Creeper’s and the Institute of Science’s shopping list, I decided to go hit up my personal shopping list. No, better than that, I needed a brand new shopping list all my own. Dr. Creeper’s handling the scientific development. Ricca already had a lot of data we recovered and some advances beyond the norm. Thanks to our notoriously free markets, we have routes for proliferation. What else could a guy possibly need?
I need people. I know, I’m real touchy-feely today. But this isn’t more of that existential crap like realizing I fucked up with a time machine or that I’m not overprotective. This isn’t the sort of situation that involves laying on a couch and talking it out. This is the sort of situation that involves Hu, my still-acting head of Intelligence. I was fixing lunch for this increasingly-large bunch living in my palace residence when I asked him. “Hey Hu, I understand China’s got a shitload of prisoners, but I don’t know anything about how they handle superhumans. Maybe I just never paid attention, maybe they hide it really well, but I’m hoping to figure out what they do with all of those types.”
“Your Imperial majesty, Beijing worked hard to suppress information on superhuman holding procedures, but information is a tricky prisoner. For many years, the Chinese government dispersed its superhuman prisoners in customized holding cells distributed through conventional prisons. It is said they altered this policy and created ten prisons for a small number of prisoners, known as the Ten Courts of Hell. Prisoners remain in both forms of imprisonment to this day.”
I took all this in before flipping the burgers on the grill. All the excess grease from the sausage meat mixed in caused a flare up, but I just pointed a finger and said, “Stop that.” The flames eased off, because fire knows not to play with me. If I wanted anything set on fire, I’d have fucking told it to light on fire. Fire is a tool, but sometimes it’s such a tool.
Once I was sure I wasn’t turning burgers into briquettes, I had another question for Hu. “Any idea where the Ten Courts of Hell are? Are those prison cells in every prison, or just in certain ones?”
“Ricca does not have this information.” I guess he put it that way to clarify it wasn’t just about what he personally knew. “I will look into this matter more closely if it is your will.”
I looked up and posed, spatula pointing into the sky, both speaking and typing my answer for Hu. “I so will it.”
“Will what?” asked Sam Hayne, walking over to check on the burgers. “Ugh, so greasy. I hate greasy burgers. It’s like you added fat to them instead.” She squinted and leaned in slightly to examine my meat.
I turned and pointed the spatula at her. “Sic ’em!” The fire flared up suddenly and Sam backed off.
“God, you almost burnt me eyebrows off!”
“What happened?” Mix N’Max said. My friend checked over Sam, then walked over.
I shrugged. “Eh, just some friendly fire. She got too close to the grill and it had a flare up.”
He looked at me. I raised an eyebrow. “Or do you think I can suddenly control fire now?”
Max shook his head and walked back to Sam, who had walked off to go get a drink or something. “Good fire,” I said, patting the grill with the spatula.
In the meantime, I got to watch the mission to Hyderabad unfold once my guys arrived, radar missing them. Right off the bat, it seemed to justify the superstitious crowd. Small arms fire greeted the flyers, until the pilots activated the side turrets. Twin machine guns, one on each side with a wide range of fire to suppress and eliminate personnel threats. I’d originally wanted machine shotguns but opted for something with better range. With some of them dropping and others taking cover behind walls getting chewed up by automatic fire, guards did the calculus and soon figured out how much their lives were worth in comparison to what they were getting paid. They ran for it, and the flyers let them go.
After that, my people had the run of the place. Locks were blown open and researchers hustled out, at least until Tiu made the call from his flyer to have them help carry stuff to make it go faster. I hardly think it was worth it. Indeed, it may have contributed to what occurred. One of the scientists must have been working on some good shit, because he snorted something and started attacking my guys. Threw one of the soldiers several feet.
Another one close in was at least able to deflect the wild blows and grabs of the man enough to get away, allowing the others nearby to unload on him. He kept coming, despite the blood spray and missing flesh, at least until someone hit his spine and he lost control of his legs. Once he was down, it was much easier for one of the men to step up and plant a couple bullets in his skull. Tiu, watching through their helmet cams from the flyer, ordered them to confiscate whatever powdery stuff he’d been carrying and carry everything themselves. The soldier who’d been thrown around turned out to be fine.
After that, the tension seemed gone. The unanticipated problem had been dealt with easily. It was just a matter of rounding up all the stuff we didn’t want to pay for. It all went well and fairly quickly, and they were just about to withdraw, when a reject from the Blue Man group jumped in from afar. Shoeless, shirtless, pants, and skin painted light blue. Guy started drumming on my soldiers with these maraca things, some sort of maces. Getting shot didn’t see to do anything to him, but one of my guys dropped a grenade at his feet, even with his comrades close by. The force of the explosion tossed him away where the flyer anti-personnel guns started firing on him. He got the fuck out of there after those put some holes into him.
The field medics loaded up the casualties. Not fatalities. The grenades hadn’t done anything to instnatly smear them over the ground, instead knocking air out and doing soft tissue damage. I oughta get shirts for them. “I got blown up by a concussion grenade and all I got was this shirt and a concussion.” And even that was quickly being worked on by the nanites already in their systems via Ricca’s water supply and by those administered by the medics. Helicopters scrambled, but the flyers just didn’t show up to them. Might as well have been invisible. They mostly were, from all sides. Even the satellites looking down couldn’t hardly see anything. On top of that, the flyers themselves screwed around with Indian sensors to screw them up. Some could tell something was there, but not well enough to get a lock.
It was a beautiful dance of advanced conventional warfare and cyber warfare. They were lucky to see us; lucky to hurt us.
It’s almost a shame I want to spread it around to more and more people. Going to be hugely disruptive, too. Revolutions, new wars started, new peace treaties written, borders redrawn. They’re only human, after all. If they want to stand a chance against an ancient god of death, they’re going to have to become something better.
In the end, we were able to settle on three spots to hit for everything my guys needed. The guys Hu had selected weren’t too bad at their research.
Bayani Tiu had been working in the field for some time. Hu’s research showed he had some authority issues, but those mainly cropped up when he thought the authorities in question were being dumbasses. That was in the file like that, but it also included an incident where he got a safehouse and a few other agents captured due to his recklessness. He had a tendency to drink and sleep around more than his superiors felt was important to his cover and missions, but he’d been in the game a long time, knew what he was doing, and he’d been promoted a few times despite himself. He’d disdained protocol and standard procedure just as much in those cases, leading to a great deal of success and angry superiors knocking him down the chain before reassigning him. Despite his penchant for property and vehicular damage, Tiu managed to blend in with his cover after The Claw’s death until Hu got a hold of him.
The other fellow went by Pagan. Just Pagan, no other names. No mention of his religion in the file, but Ricca’s not the sort of place where someone takes that as a name to be edgy. He hadn’t stood out as much as Tiu. He did his job and didn’t make waves. Whereas Tiu had actually been better at sabotage or stealing information, Pagan had distinguished himself in assassinations and observation. He had a black mark early on from a witness spotting him escaping. They almost saved the victim then, but a follow-up got the guy. Pagan had made up for his previous failure by bombing the guy’s hotel room. Ruined any chance of the death being seen as natural causes, unfortunately. After that, he’d devoted himself to trying to be as undetectable as possible, which caused a hiccup or two in cases when silence wasn’t an option. He moved up in part thanks to his friendly nature and his efficency. He turned out to be good at the schmoozing and was an efficient leader. Hu, ever the bureaucrat, didn’t seem to rate the politicking all that highly. He also noted that Pagan’s record managing a team wasn’t quite as good at pulling out impossible victories as Tiu’s.
Hu wouldn’t have sent me these guys as potential picks unless they were capable and I got to see it during the planning of our little raids. Tiu made a few catty comments but that was all the friction either of them showed. Tiu even had the good sense not to hit on me. They both agreed on not running all three raids at once, even.
“It’s not necessary and it creates more attention. Three raids on three facilities at the same time is the work of a major threat.” Pagan noted. “Better to space them out.”
“Agreed,” Tiu said. “I prefer having backup if something should go wrong and it decreases the likelihood that whoever is coordinating will make a mess of it should that happen.”
Despite being pretty sure that wouldn’t happen with me around, they made good points. I was going to defer to them anyway, give them enough rope to hang themselves however they want to run their stuff, so this works anyway.
The three targets we picked were chosen for each having an abundance of the equipment we needed, with some overlap. If someone didn’t do as well as expected, another team can try to pick up the slack. Site One was a college in Japan with a name translated as something like the Kyoto Emerging Technologies University. Not everything fits perfectly into English. If it wasn’t known to be a proper noun, Mephistopheles would keep popping up in English as “Not-light-loving”. Kyoto’s one of the major areas for academy in tech-related fields, complete with state of the art research labs. The Japanese aren’t only obsessed with robotics; they put a lot of work into studying geology, biotech, miniaturization, and so on.
Site Two is a warehouse belonging to the PangTong Group in Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen’s one of the top cities in China for electronics manufacturing, with PangTong working on equipment for all sorts of testing. There’s no guarantee it’ll be full or have everything they can produce in there, but it seems like a good place to nab a lot of it.
Finally, Site Three takes us all the way to Hyderabad, India. Yeah, three different countries may seem like we’re spreading this out too much, but they all dislike each other with their own reasons to avoid collaboration and information sharing. Hyderbad’s more useful for what we need to get in relation to chemistry, biology, and pharmacology. It’s the pharmaceutical capital of India, and this huge company called HealthCon has a campus there devoted to studying drugs and producing knock-offs.
None of the targets were all that heavily guarded. Probably some decent protection to keep most regular folks from just wandering in, but nothing on the level of mercenaries or military. Supers were always a possibility, but there’s only so much that can be done there. Or that’s what I could have said before VillaiNet.
The villain social media hadn’t been abandoned or imploded yet, so I did my part to keep the cogs turning. I hired a few local villains to pull off other heists in the area. They didn’t even need to be successful, though I told the guy I sent after a bank to go ahead and keep whatever he took from it. Thus it was that I was flying in with a raid team of Riccan soldiers in the back of a Psycho Flyer. The new uniforms and flyer weren’t known outside the country, probably. Even if they were, I had plans to sell somewhat inferior versions to criminals anyway. Inferior versions, of course.
The flyer cut through the bright night and came in fast, the pilot flying low as he navigated the Kyoto skyline. Emerging Technologies U spread open below us, the buildings to be hit glowing faintly in our augmented reality HUDs. They were across a short stretch of campus from each other, with a sculpture off to the side of a chicken-legged robot with a squat, oval body and three-fingered manipulators on the end of its arms.
I reached up to a cable against the wall and took hold of it with both my left hands. One push of the release later and a trapdoor opened, as opposed to the rear hatch coming down. I tugged the stubborn cable along with me and hopped through the rounded floor opening. The cable didn’t roll freely, so it slowed my descent enough not to fuck up my legs even if I had a normal human bone structure. As soon as I hit the ground and let go, I radioed back up with “Clear.”
The cable zipped back up and disappeared through the hole. The rest of the team just opened the rear hatch and came down that way with another couple of cables and these little zipline things they attached for controlled descent. Slightly less quick, but nice and easy. “Spread out and let’s get this done.”
I figured the university would be a good test run out of the three. That’s why I came along. That, and I really wanted to hit people. That’s why I grabbed some girl walking by, seemingly unaware of everything with her eyes glued to her phone and earbuds in, and knocked her the fuck out with a punch. She woke up after a minute and ran off crying, and a very stupid part of me hoped she’d somehow bring me a fight. Plus, I keep constantly hearing how college students are destroying the world, despite also being weak. You know, kinda like how the Jews supposedly run the world while being racially inferior, or how women are physically weaker and less intelligent but control everything. Odd how that theme keeps being used, especially when there’s someone like me around to be an even bigger threat to the world than any of them… well, when I’m not busy being a woman, that is. Kinda proving that one, I guess.
Back to the action, unnecessary fights aren’t something I should hope for, actually. Better chance that this would go wrong. Like, for instance, when alarms started going off once the men broke through some doors or something. I was hanging out in front near the sculpture when the sculpture stood up.
So let’s just go ahead reclassify that from sculpture to chicken-legged autonomous walker. It turned to me, it’s almost-egg body devoid of any identifiable facial structure- oh, there it was. A frowny face appeared in a yellow circle, then became a face with an inquisitive, raised eyebrow. It called out in Japanese. “There is a crime in progress. Identify yourself. You have twenty seconds to comply.”
I gave him four middle fingers. “Kiss my ass you piece of shit bastard afterbirth of a Circuit City-”
“You now have 15 seconds to comply.”
“-fuck your motherboard right up her universal serial ass, bend her over, and dump out another load of you. Then I’ll raise you to be the sort of moron who goes to religious colleges so you can learn how Xenu created a flat earth.”
“You have five seconds to comply. Four. Three. Two. One. I am now authorized to use physical force.” The walker’s manipulators flattened out along the sides of its arms and a pair of barrels extended. The face on its front shifted to a red-faced emoji with gritted teeth. The infamous constipation emoji. It stepped one leg over to take a more stable stance before firing at where I stood. Plumes of dirt exploded into the air as shot after shot killed the crap out of some grass. Didn’t do much to the hologram it’d been shooting at, though.
I jumped onto its oval body from its spheroid main body from behind, arms glowing. The two lower arms smashed holes in big enough for me to get a grip and hold on. The walker tried to turn and swing me off, but those chicken legs weren’t the most agile thing around. I came down hard with my upper right, cracking down into it. I punched further with the upper left. Amazingly, that didn’t put the walker out of the fight. So I popped the heads off a couple rubber chicken grenades and shoved them into the hole.
I flipped off it and landed on my feet. The walker turned and fired wildly, so maybe I hit something. “What’ll hit first?” I asked. “The chickens or the egg bot?”
It adjusted its aim and then exploded.
The roof of one of the buildings exploded as well, but that was for a different reason. After the men loaded up the smaller stuff, the flyer lifted off to hang over the opening. Some of the men dropped cables while those on the ground attached a bulkier thingamabob. That’s probably not the technical name. Only once they got it up and the rest of the men were onboard did I take a running jump to land on the flyer’s ramp. Just before I closed the door, I spotted something approaching in the air. Small, man-sized, leaving behind a rainbow streak in the air.
“Pilot, we have a flying super on approach. You able to outrun?”
“Close the hatch and I’ll leave them sucking my exhaust,” he responded.
I punched the button for the hatch to close as a Japanese man with cat ears and clawed gloves flew closer. As soon as it was closed, the flyer shot forward. Amazingly, the whatchamacallit down below didn’t tear off the cables. Even better, the pilot managed to swerve between a pair of skyscrapers without smacking our cargo into one of them. Hell, I think we had more problems inside with some of the stuff that was less secure trying to scoot around and smash us. The flyer steadily inched further and further away until we got out over the ocean. At that point, it zoomed on out of there. The hero didn’t have a chance. I don’t know how long before he turned back, because he had no shot of catching us at all by then.
And so the day wasn’t saved by Nyan Man, the Psycho Flyer proved itself, and I wrecked a grad student’s thesis project. I might have to recruit whoever built the thing, because I’m still thinking of the future, and of that Mot guy who’s going to show up and start eating supers. I’d rather stick a bomb on Nyan Man and let him get eat, then unload on Mot with an army of giant robots. And since I didn’t fight Nyan Man, I may still get that chance.
Ladies and gentlereaders, I have a dream.
“Too much has been looted or destroyed. The equipment takes too much time to build, and your coffers are not limitless. I have come to the conclusion ve must acquire the equipment by alternative means. On a side note, the labs housing such equipment vill also contain other supplies we need.” Dr. Creeper laid another stack of paper on my desk. One major downside to working with an old-timey mad scientist is his insistence on leaving a paper trail when digital documents and Augmented Reality notes would do.
The head of my Institute of Science had come up to me while I was lounging on my chair in the Directory Building. Yes, they’d actually put more work into building the thing and it looked much less like a circus now. I had my own seat to watch over proceedings and make myself available for discussion, but no one had bothered me today. I spent my time remotely overseeing developments over on the military base, like the distribution of new combat uniforms. I’d had some put together so my guys are a little less expendable than most people expect, even the Security guys.
I was also enjoying the training flights with the new VTOLs. Squat, but smoothly, beautifully curved, the exterior was black by default, with the ability to shift to other patterns and colors to hide itself, born of the ability to stick a paper-thin monitor, and holodiscs, on anything. Those same curves combined with the primary alloy to make it rather difficult to get a lock on with conventional radar, and I threw in a nice electronic warfare package that didn’t require too much fuss to get working. In place of wings, it was held aloft by two large, saucers that operated via the Coandă effect instead of like a conventional jet or rotor. Fluid, in this case air, is bent to provide lift and help move the thing. They could angle somewhat for maneuvering, but didn’t have the range of motion of the rear jet. That one could turn for more agile moves, and provided most of the directional thrust when in full-on flight mode.
The men, which also includes the women, had taken to calling them Psycho Flyers. It was either a tribute to me or a description of its flight properties. More likely, it’s the first as a way to cover for the first. I need to come up with a theme, though, as I don’t want everything associated with me called “Psycho”. Just think what they’d call American sympathizers of my regime? Or that chain of motels one of my citizens is starting with his mother? Or even the paths through forests and parks meant to help citizens exercise and enjoy nature?
But enough about American Psychos and Psycho Paths. Sadly, enough with the Psycho Flyers and the new combat armor. Dr. Creeper had come and explained to me that we had an issue with important scientific equipment you can’t buy down at Bobby’s Bunsen Burner Emporium. Not being one to shy away from theft and figuring it was a pretty nice cause, I glanced at his little shopping list and said, “Sure thing, Creeper. I’ll see what I can scare up.”
He nodded and threw in the customary bow. “Now eef I have your permission, ve have a new scientist arriving and I vould like to show her around.”
“What’s her doctorate in?” I asked.
He shook his head. “She has a masters. A masters in disasters.”
“I like it, but let’s make sure it’s not like that guy with the theoretical degree in physics. I heard his head just exploded from all the equations, that true?”
Dr. Creeper’s face looked like he’d eaten a pickled egg upon mention of that idiot. “Yes. Zat is what happened. He looked at ze whiteboard and ze next thing you know, boom, his head has gone kaboom all over the place. I really must go.”
“I completely understand, Creeper. Have a nice day,” I waved him off. He turned, patted the finned, thin-barreled death ray hanging on his hip, and walked out of there to go meet our newest contractor.
That was when a Directory servant, one of many hired to help the Directors find and wipe their asse while they were distracted with other things, walked up carrying a tray holding a wireless phone on it. Not a cell phone, but a home phone without a wire.
“Who’s calling for me?” I asked.
The servant bowed. “That is correct, Empress.”
I blinked a couple of times, then took the phone and addressed the head of my Intelligence Service. “Hey there, Hu.”
“Greetings, Empress. I need to discuss a matter of urgency with you, but I was forced to leave the island on an errand.” I heard gunshots in the background.
“Must be pretty important to call in the middle of a firefight. Mind if I ask where you are?”
“It would be better if you didn’t know. There are diplomatic concern at stake,” he said.
Somewhere in the background, I heard shouting in Spanish. “Protect the ambassador!”
“You’d be surprised how many countries speak Spanish,” I told Hu.
“I am certain I would be, Empress,” he responded. “I have come to the realization that field work is not my area of expertise. My leadership skills, too, are questionable.”
“Hey, don’t say that. You didn’t do too bad a job coordinating the evacuation and salvaging what was left so it wasn’t build completely from scratch.”
“Yes, Empress. You flatter me. I should say I am a bureaucrat to my soul. The Service needs an individual with true leadership potential.”
“What about you? It’s quite a thing to give up leading the bunch. How about you stay on as second in command? Help handle all the mundane stuff that looks less inspiring for the Head to do,” I looked up as another servant approached, bowed, and held out a manila envelope. “Is this your package I’m seeing?”
“I am going to assume you mean the envelope I asked to be delivered to you. Yes, that is from me. It contains files on three candidates I feel you could trust in. I would be more than happy to coordinate a test of their abilities and loyalty for you.”
I took the envelope and popped it open. “Truth is, I’m more disappointed that everyone’s relying on paper today.” I opened it up. “And typewriters. Wow. I’m not sure I actually came back to the present after that time travel trip. Tell me, Hu, how far back did I go? Are doctors recommending smoking as healthy way to lose weight and eliminate stress?”
“My most majestic eminence, computers can be hacked. Files may be intercepted. Paper burns. Those are the only copies in all under heaven.”
“Good man. You’re right, you’re right. Same way Russia’s been able to hide stuff from people for so long.” I really need a digital equivalent, but he’s right. Any code can be broken, even the otherworldly stuff I use. I could have every damn Riccan Intelligence Service computer using my home dimension’s coding, and I’d probably just end up with someone smuggling a key to another country.
Hmm. An idea comes to mind already. Paper-thin camo sheet like that on the exterior of the Pyscho Flyers. To everyone else, it appears to be a normal poster, or magazine page, or flyer. Then the right person touches a hidden DNA scanner while wearing augmented reality contacts and it to display the image just for them. It’s brilliant and perfect for fieldwork.
It’s also more expensive than just burning paper, too. I’d be stuck with paper while everyone’s running off doing cool shit with high tech spy gizmos. Speaking of gizmos, though…
“Actually, you don’t have have to worry about a test. I have something in mind I can take these guys on.. well, not this one, I already know that.” Hu had nominated the same agent I’d personally brought back from the United States, the one whose son had refused to stay with him in the business of aiding an overseas dictator in favor of helping a bunch of teenage superhero friends instead. The father’s loyalties were clearly torn on this point. “I’ll give these two a chance helping me out with something and we’ll see how things turn out. Thank you for your Service.”
He continued speaking at his normal volume despite the abundance of shredding guitars and cutesy Japanese being sung by young girls. “The Empress honors me. If you will it, I must end this call.”
“I will it and so it shall be,” I said, trying to sound all majestic and commanding. “Enjoy your concert.” I hunt up on him then and handed the phone back to the first servant, along with one of the pieces of paper. “Bring over a trash can, set those inside, and burn them all.”
The servant bowed and hurried off to do so. The other one stayed as well, awaiting my command. I checked over the files of the two candidates left. I tore off just the name portions and handed them to the man. “Find these two and have them meet me at the military base.” I looked down and activated the augmented reality overlay, then saved encrypted files attached to the paper. They each were to get a copy of Dr. Creeper’s shopping list and instructions to find locations with the equipment, prioritizing targets that can account for as much of the list as possible at once. “Give them each their scrap and tell them to take a close look. Off with you.”
He bowed and left.
I looked around the legislature hard at work on the minutia of running the civilian end of things and stretched. Then I stood and began taking out the golden comb and other weird doodads that Citra had elaborated weaved into my hair. Some of the Directors even noticed as my lower arms began to loosen the dress I wore, but they soon found themselves staring at my new armor instead of my bare body. Form-fitting, dark grey with orange lines between each of the flexible plates. I pulled the hood up and closed it entirely, leaving not even a mouth exposed for attack thanks to several add-ons I’d made for armor and utility. I flexed all four arms, showing off the orange Eastern dragon design that ended with the heads encompassing blue-accented gloves which concealed my power sheathe technology instead of any bulky gauntlets or pistons. I reached up to the midnight blue collar and tapped the central jewel, causing a shorter version of my black and blue cape to drop from the rear of the collar armor.
I looked out at the Directors, some of whom were definitely appreciating that the armor’s lack of padding and bulk. Those didn’t enjoy being under the gaze of my visor, which dipped in the middle enough to resemble something of a frown in combination with the fanged mouth armor concealing a filter and other equipment. “Don’t mind me, everyone. Just gotta get dressed to go out shopping.”
Section 8 Complete
Archive Begin Transmission
“When did you escape from this dimension?” Mobian asked.
I gave him the date of my D-Bomb detonation. “But you’ll need to be close. There was a force shield up around me to contain the blast.” He nodded once, thanking me, while I clung to my family. I hugged onto Qiang, probably harder than I should have. It felt like Mobian took forever to get out of there.
“Are you going to leave all your stuff in the ship?” Citra asked.
I nodded. “We need to go as soon as we can. The ship is wrecked, I think. I just need to go.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, reaching out to stroke my hair. Qiang looked up at me, too.
“A lot of very bad shit happened to me when I was a kid. I could stop it if I wanted, but I would never have met any of you. It feels like I’m responsible for everything I went through back then now. So I want to run out there and save myself.” My HUD offered a helpful music selection from a band called Stabbing Westward that I had to decline.
“She destroyed your armor,” Citra pointed out.
I gave my armor a quick glance. I’d lost my helmet and one of my gauntlets, and the chest plating was wrecked. Fallen off, or barely clinging to the underlayer. Upon closer inspection, I could see all sorts of less obvious damage arising from the fight. The holodisc had taken a hit at some point. Venus’s armor had been able to go toe to toe with a charged up version of mine, which was impressive. It also meant some likely problems with the pseudomuscles and exoskeleton when we were punching each other’s hands. Her’s hadn’t been nearly so bulky, either. I need to steal me some of that.
And as for how I felt about finally getting her… I wish the fight went differently. At the end of the day, she’s still dead and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t sit so well with me for some reason. Though, it didn’t sit well with Venus to kill me and look where that got her. This is why a professional killer shouldn’t make it personal. I can’t help but wonder if my own obsession with her may mirror her obsession with saving me, and to similar ends…
A flash of light signaled that we’d jumped forward in time while I was distracted. The wall displayed down below us, where my old girlfriend knocked me the fuck out and left me laying next to a D-bomb. We must have been hidden from view, because nobody so much as blinked as the ship swooped down to hover close over my semi-conscious body when the force shield was activated. This time, I could see the mixed relief and worry; triumph and defeat. As much as my followers at this point had hated the way they’d been treated, I was the only one who felt as strongly about it as destroying the planet. It probably didn’t get any easier after that, but hopefully some humans were smart enough to recognize that homo machina are people too. But probably not.
When the D-Bomb went off and we were all thrown through the Universe Divide, those thoughts cleared away for a moment. It really was an amazing sight, seeing the multiverse laid out like that. Then we were hovering over the scene where the me from this point in time had arrived on the Earth where I almost sorta fit in better. Lots of things destroyed, and another me down there. As strongly as I tend to feel about there being no doppelgangers, I dunno, I’m not in a hurry to drop down and kill myself. Maybe it’s the time aspect. Maybe warnings about fucking with something that big do resonate with me. Hell, maybe I simply can’t. Something might come up to stop me just to prevent the paradox of me from the future killing the past me, which would then prevent future me from existing to kill past me.
From my perspective, the effects of messing with time travel have been ambiguous enough.
“I would have shown you the future, of the year 2033, but that period is in temporal flux at the moment,” Mobian said. He shot me a look. I scratched my eyebrow with my middle finger. “I have archives of the great war with Mot.”
“What is Mot?” asked Citra.
“A god of death,” Mobian answered.
“That story’s real?” I asked. “I guess it’d make sense for Venus’s actions, but I’d kinda been going on that just being made up to get me in the trap.”
“Mot is very real.” The walls changed around us, showing a being walking along a grassy plains. He looked like a man. Just an everyday guy. Beard, hair grown out and back in a ponytail, a slight beard. But every footstep stripped the plants and left perfect footprints of dirt. He had followers, for some reason. I guess if a guy might just kill everyone, he attracts the occasional person willing to serve them if it makes the threat stop. The surprise is that this supposed God of Death didn’t just kill them too. Suddenly, a glowing green man in a costume the colors of the American flag flew in. This one looked a lot like a guy I’d seen before, a super with a tank strapped to his back that nuked a militia base. I guess this time he decided tanks, but no tanks.
He held his hands out, then a mushroom cloud erupted, centered on the weird rippling guy. It didn’t even clear before the rippling man was flying at the nuclear man, who tried to outrun him. His target reached an arm out, and kept on reaching well past normal human limb length to grab the nuclear guy.
The nuker beat at the arm, and his skin even flared up in a brighter green, so I think he was tryting to do something. I have to assume that’s the case, because none of it made Mot stop. He pulled himself right up toward him, then collided and smacked over him like he was liquid. One moment there were two people there, then just one. Mot started to fall, then stopped. He looked at his hands, then toward an approaching group of tanks. He wiped them out with a nuclear explosion of his own, just like the guy who had disappeared into him. Then he looked back over to his followers, who were ensconced in a glowing dome of metal that retreated into the ground. None had been hurt by the blast, though that’s unlikely to be true for long unless he’s clearing away fallout.
“So he eats people and takes their powers?” I asked. “I dunno, I expected something weirder. Like, I dunno, tentacles? There are always tentacles involved. And that it’d be giant, with no real face. This just looks like a man.”
“I believe he was an early powerful superhuman treated as a god. I think his original, or most important, power is what he did there. He absorbs people and takes on their powers. He eats every superhuman he encounters,” Mobian pressed something else on his console.
The view shifted to Mot leading his followers into a small town. Locals stop and stare at him. He halts and raises his hands. The crowd of dark-eyed people moves past him, running for any people or animals around. They fight like their lives depend on it, beating the resistance out of folks. It was like a horde of pimps seeking cash from a couple dozen hookers. Someone did manage to shoot one of the followers, and that guy went down. The ground underneath the shooter shook and dirt flooded upward around the guy’s legs, trapping him and pulling him back under as it retreated. The prisoners were brought before Mot, who put his hands on their heads. He ate most of them. A very few were released to join his flock, though at least a couple of those hung their heads in shame. The more worrisome types were the ones to hold their heads up proudly and smile.
“Mind control?” I ask.
Mobian shook his head. “Not that anyone is aware of. It is discovered just before he is defeated that he has limited telepathy. The one who discovers this said that it was as though Mot peered into his mind and could tell that he was more afraid of Mot than of anyone or anything else.”
“He’s like some sort of extortionist cult leader,” Arsehole said. I still hadn’t bothered asking the name of Mobian’s companion, but, more importantly, I just didn’t care.
“How’d he die?” I asked “Might help me do so more quickly on this go-round.”
The scene changed yet again. Now, Mot stood in a city I didn’t recognize offhand. His followers swarmed like ants, many armed and firing back at soldiers. I noticed a pocket of them shooting uselessly at a tank until one of them closed her eyes and ran for the tank, arms wide. She exploded upon reaching it, cracking open its armor and leaving it a smoking heap.
Then I saw the monsters arrive. A killer clown with a ridiculously exaggerated head sprayed bottles of liquid on followers of Mot that left them smoking, acid-eaten wretches. A hulked-out man with a metal skull for a head ignored gunshots and swung a hook on a chain at followers. A long-haired woman clung to the side of a building and pulled people up toward her with a tongue that wrapped around their throats. Their heads disappeared under her long hair, which hung down to hide her head. They shuddered, then fell, headless.
Spinetingler appeared, his armor black metal and bone, to wield a scythe against Mot. Meanwhile, several of Mot’s followers clutched their heads, then turned on their fellows. Spinetingler’s daughter walked among them a flowing black dress, playing with a pet white rat in her hands.
Mot and Spinetingler fought, briefly. Spinetingler tried to cut the God of Death into pieces, but Mot’s limbs regrew like liquid spurting back out. Before Spinetingler could truly comprehend what was going on, Mot spread out like a human sheet that wrapped around the horror villain. Tingler struggled. Just imagine a human hand pressing out of a big, pliable sheet of human flesh. Nice images. More things to scare my daughter to sleep.
The squirming mass pulled itself back into just Mot. Then some of his followers began to warp and shift into monstrous forms of their own. The day suddenly became night, which seemed like just Spinetingler’s powers until the view shifted to show the sky blotted out by a massive ship. It fired Mot, catching the thing in a blue beam. Mot raised a hand to stare tiny parts of him disintegrated away, slowly enough for him to watch. He started to pull himself back together in spite of it, until the beam pulsed. The view shifted to outside the city, showing the pulse work its way down the beam until a it sweeps out as a wave, fading away before it reaches whatever is recording. The entire city just… blows away. Buildings, people, streets, plants. What’s left is a smooth, circular depression, deep into the Earth.
“The People’s Republic filed only token objections about the destruction of Beijing. After Islamabad and New Delhi, humanity knew the city was already dead.” Mobian said.
Qiang clung to me, hiding her face against my chest. I rubbed her head and kissed the top of it. “There, there, I can stop it.” I looked up to Mobian and nodded toward the space ship. “And the aliens?”
Mobian pressed a button and the walls of his ship whited out again. “That is for me to know and you to find out.”
“Fine… just know that once I take out Mot, I want the title,” I pointed at him with one hand as the others began rubbing my daughter’s back.
“The title?” he asked.
“That’s right, once I find and kill that bastard, I want to be called the God of Death.”
“You see that and you want to find it?” asked Arsehole. She threw her hands up in the air. “He’s a bloody madman!”
“You saw how well waiting for it worked out for everyone,” I explained. I looked down at Qiang. “Now let’s go see your momma.” I looked up at Mobian. “The little girl you just scared would like that, I believe.”
When we landed at that time, Qiang rushed out of the timeship first. Citra and I followed, but I bounced off the opening and she went on through. I tried again, pushing at seemingly empty air. Citra turned to look at me, then reached out for my hand. She tried pulling me through but it just didn’t work. “Go, make sure she’s safe,” I told Citra. I whirled on Mobian, but he and Arsehole ducked through the door quickly. I tried to reach through and grab them, but I was stopped again.
Mobian raised his hands. “I will not give you the opportunity to screw things up further. That is all. This isn’t a trick or trap; neither ambuscade nor set-up. I promise on my life I would never allow your child to come to harm.”
I pointed to the corpse of Future Venus. “I somehow doubt that. I told it to show you what is happening so you will not be unaware. I will release you should anything go wrong.”
And with that, he walked away. Because he could. Just left me banging on a door. Muttering angry sounds to myself, I turned and looked around at the walls, wondering when they were going to show me anything. “Well?” I asked, raising my hands up.
The walls unwhited again, changing to show me Qiang and Citra holding hands, Qiang finding her way through a small town to a house. Mobian and Arsehole ran to catch up as well, but Qiang wasn’t focused on anything but finding her mom.
Nothing seemed to be happening so, having so recently used her as an argument, I snuck on over to help myself to a teeny tiny sample of Future Venus’s future armor. A gal’s gotta stay up to date.
“Mommy!” Qiang said, launching herself at a woman who was rather plain looking, with a scar on one eyebrow that caused a slight break in the hair there. A shame, though. If only I had Qiang’s birthday, I could have gone back about nine months beforehand and made sure she was mine. There wasn’t a man around there anyway. Also, note to self: find out Qiang’s birthday and throw her a party.
Qiang’s mother humored the little girl, having a young baby of her own now, especially once Citra explained to her quietly, “She lost her mother when she was young and you look like her. Please humor her.”
The woman smiled and agreed. Mobian patted Citra’s back but she shot him a look. I’m liking Citra more and more after this trip. I just hope she’s not in love with me or thinking this is more than it is. The group had a pleasant time there, it seemed. They sat and talked. The Citra, Arsehole, and Mobian all fawned over a baby I assumed was Qiang, while my present Qiang told her mother all about me saving her and being her dad and crazy adventures we went on. Yeah, a child’s recitation of my real life doesn’t make for a believable story.
Finally, it was time to drag her away. I knew they’d have to. If that mother was saved somehow, Qiang probably wouldn’t be mine. But knowing that doesn’t count for much when you see your daughter broke out into tears and start struggling to get free of a couple adults.
I launched myself at the command console with a growl, pressing my cheek to it as if that’d make everything merge together faster. Just as the nerves reached out and began to link to what passed for circuitry on the ship, a shock threw me on my back. The walls whited up again, not that I could watch anyway. I was shocked again every time I felt ok to stand or even roll over. It hurt like a brick up the ass.
A few minutes later, Mobian’s voice rang out. “There, go to your daddy if she’s quite done touching things she shouldn’t.”
“I swear, all I did was lick absolutely every surface on that console,” I said, chuckling to myself. I felt Qiang run over and hug me where I lay and I pulled her tight with all but my lower left arm. That one rested uncomfortably under my back. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
“I hate him. I hate stupid heroes,” she said through sniffles.
“I know. I hate them too,” I said, turning to shoot a hostile smile to Mobian.
He snorted and walked up to the platform on his ship. “What I do is necessary. For that matter, my life is if you want to go anywhere. I think it’s for the best if you have a lie down while I see to our travel arrangements.”
Without my helmet, I couldn’t keep as close an eye on everything. I had Citra and Qiang though. Citra to brush my hair and Qiang for me to brush her hair. And Mobian did finally let me up to leave.
I was happy to be rid of him, though. Happy to be back in Ricca, and only an hour after my last stop. Nothing really to clean up after all this, save for the bundle I had wrapped around my lower left arm. I kept it behind me and under my cape as I left Mobian’s ship, so he didn’t really notice. It really was amazing armor, what Future Venus wore. With one of my armor’s working holodiscs attached, Mobian may not even realize she’s missing it.
So I worked on it in the Institute of Science, keeping an eye on him as he began seeking out people with doctorates and more bills than morals to fill out our science team. They certainly would have loved studying what happened with my log. Time travel did odd things to its attempts to send off. I didn’t gain many new readers in the Cretaceous, but that’s for the best. As far as time travel trips go, mine was probably more of a bogus journey than an excellent adventure.
I lost so much I had to redo, too. I rebuilt the nanite mini-foundry, and the armor maintenance tube. And, finally, I finished my new armor. Gecko’s back from her little vacation. Well-rested. Re-armed. Ready to steal some shit and kill some people.
They say that in strange aeons, even death may die.
It’s time to bring the strange.
Dammit, I just realized I got roped into saving the world again. Because now Future Venus is dead, and I’m left alive to deal with a guy who eats supers or get eaten.
Venus is so damn annoying, she makes me want to kill her twice.
Archive Transmission Fragment 8 Complete
Section 7 Complete
Archive Begin Transmission
Whatever damage had happened to the ship, at least it let me leave. I’d made sure Citra and our hostage were alright enough, then headed out to go see what the fuck was going on. I almost tripped over what I’d thought had been part of the wall. A column had fallen down and cracked open, spreading more of those colorful alien uniforms everywhere.
In contrast to the Cretaceous and my brief stopover in the Enlightenment, this place was full of digital noise. I’d gotten used to a lower level of signal traffic, and it was something of an adjustment for me to be here again. The ship had crashed onto a hilltop across the river and outside of a city with architecture you wouldn’t see on the Earth I’d become accustomed to. I knew this city. Home.
The city where I’d been born. It was even snowy, just like my earliest memories. The ones starting just before men with guns busted in the door. I realized a building whose unbuilt top floors I’d once used as a sniper’s nest didn’t even stand out on the skyline. That’s when I checked the date.
Oooooh. Oh no. No no no. How the FUCK did they know that date? Was there time to save myself? Should I?
That explains what was going through my head and why I wasn’t paying so close attention when Venus called out from behind me. “You seem distracted!”
I turned, throwing a wild punch, only to end up with her grabbing my arm and using my own momentum to toss me onto my back. I checked her out while slowly getting to my fight. The armor plating was flush, looking like puzzle pieces, but flexible. The boots were wider and thicker, probably for the sake of leverage. Same went for the fists. Light grey, save for a little remaining pink on the chest, it had seen better days. I found those pockmarks I’d seen on it before, along with scorch marks and thin surface cuts. The armor came up and guarded her neck where it met a helmet. That greying hair was hidden behind a helmet of armored V-shaped plates that swept from the back of her neck down to cover her eyes with one-way mirrored glass. The only skin I could see on her was her mouth.
“Done looking me over?” she asked.
I brushed my thighs off, biding some time, trying to stop the loud hammering of a tell-tale heart that gave away my thoughts on being back here and now. “How’d you know to come back now, to this time?”
She smiled. “I thought you wanted to kill me?”
“Oh, I do. You fucking used me! Just throwing my life away, taking my daughter and running. And now you bring me here. What the fuck?!” Ok, so I was bit on tilt. For the folks who don’t enjoy poker, that means I wasn’t thinking all that clearly.
“What day is it?” she asked.
“You brought me back to it, how can you not know?” I looked around, then up to where Mobian’s ship floated. “How do you know, you time-traveling limey piece of shit?!”
“I cannot tell you that,” his voice sounded from the floating orb.
As pumped full of adrenaline and emotions as I’d become, I wasn’t in a mood to hear that. I looked between that ship, then back to Venus. She took a fighting stance in anticipation of my attack. As far as she knew, I took one of my own. That’s what the hologram did while I stepped to the side. I moved around to her left before trying to catch her around the neck with a grab. The plan was to grab her and squeeze that pretty throat until her head popped or he neck crunched.
She was good, though. She didn’t react to my presence at all until I’d lunged for her. She spun out of the way and hit me in the back with a kick that sent me stumbling. Only then did I let myself become visible again.
“I don’t want to fight you,” she said.
“You picked a hell of a time and place to prove it,” I said, holding my arms straight up and activating my elbow rockets to rise to my feet.
“What’s the matter, something distracted you?” she said. She took another stance in anticipation of my attack.
And I so wanted to attack, but she was right. I was distracted. I want to just jump on her and scoop her ribs out with metallic hands. I also really wanted to go and see myself. I didn’t even remember their faces. And she brought me here, knowing, somehow, when and where, knowing I’d want to go there and do something. I clenched my teeth under my helmet. “Gonna chase me if I run?”
She shook her head. “No, but I think it’s a bad idea.”
“Yeah, you would. Out there’s a little kid whose parents are about to be gunned down. He’ll be kidnapped and tossed into a secret government program that’ll abuse him almost to death because the guy in charge has a hard-on for power. What does protecting the timeline even mean? Just protecting the devil you know for no other reason than you know it?” I put my top hands on my helmet, wishing I could run them through my hair or something. I’d started pacing around in a circle, but I jumped at her, throwing my upper right fist for a punch. What she probably missed was my lower arms shooting straight forward and pulling me along with their rockets.
Venus didn’t react in time and I caught her in the head. She grabbed that wrist with one hand, then went to smack me in the helmet with the flat of her palm. I deflected it with one of my lower arms, then grabbed her wrist with my left. I held my arms out to the side, my lower arms taking it to her belly one after the other. She jumped and wrapped her legs around my lower right, trying to drag me to the ground. She let go of my upper right as well, trying to put that one arm in an armbar. I grabbed hold of it with the lower left arm and used my upper right to pull her leg free. I swung her overhead and brought her down on the grass, tearing up clumps of it as I smashed her on the ground.
I got a few good smacks in that way before she a burst of fire shot out of her back and pulled her forward. She slipped out of my grasp that way, but not before dragging me toward her into the same torn up grass. I set my upper hands into the dirt and rolled until, with my body above me, I launched myself up and onto my feet. I landed right in front of where she was hunched over in the middle of standing. She turned and that giant right shot off her fist like a pneumatic jackhammer, knocking me flat on my cape in what was starting to become more dirt than grass. I slid a little, trying to recover my breath.
Meanwhile, the fist that had come off her about another forearm’s distance slid back along a pair of rails until it locked back on where it served as a gauntlet. But before I could even begin to get up, she’d lunged and planted her knee in my throat. She stood up over me and stepped to the side, careful of my arms.
“You are both freakishly fast. I should know, I hang around enough freaks,” said Mobian’s voice from above.
Venus ignored him. “You’d be abandoning your friends and family. You go and change time, guess what happens to every one of them whose lives you saved? No more Qiang, no more Max. Instead, Spinetingler would have Empyreal City and Ricca’s plot would have gone off without a hitch, maybe. It depends how the alien invasion would go, if they didn’t kill that henchman of yours or the statue. So I care and I know you do, too. Do you want to lose your daughter forever?”
That’s just a fucking low blow. And given my crotch situation, the only one she can pull off that actually hurts.
“You done yet?” I asked, then finished with a few coughs. I sat up. “You’re the hero. You’re supposed to be the one running around saving kids.”
“Cheap shot,” she said.
I scrambled to my feet, prompting her to back off just a little. “So, you want me to condemn myself to every fucked-up thing that’s ever happened to me for the greater good of your world.”
“And your family,” she added. “You want me to save someone even though you know it will hurt your loved ones and the world.”
One good thing about a pair of extra arms? I can flip someone the bird without compromising combat readiness. “Making some things right is just more important than your consequences. Like not being complicit in the torture and abuse of all of us in the Psychopomp Program. I’m not me yet, see. I’m some kid out there, enjoying the solstice holidays with my parents. I even have a real name!”
“You have a real daughter up there,” she raised her chin to indicate Mobian’s ship floating overhead.
“What the fuck do you want from me you turgid gurgler?!” I asked, flailing for words. I was just yelling at her at that point, fighting be damned.
“I don’t want to kill you, but I think I have to,” she said.
“You’re starting to sound like me before you decided to run off with my kid,” I said.
“I was taking her to the Master Academy!” she yelled. “You never let me explain, because you wanted to assume the worst. You disappeared in 2018 and somebody dropped Qiang off at the Academy.”
I pondered. “So this entire trip is when I supposedly died…”
Her stance tightened up again as she grew expectant of an attack. “Then you survived the ambush by the aliens and actually came after us. I knew what that meant. The timeline says you don’t go back.”
“You and that gorram timeline,” I said. “Here I thought you might still want to save me. Nope. Just kill me and abduct my daughter.”
I lunged. She moved back to put some distance between us. This time, I didn’t project invisibility. I projected a whole lot of visibility. I lit up with a bright flash of light that blinded her enough for me to sidestep and punch her in the throat. She stumbled and covered up her throat, leaving her with just one arm to counter more punches. She used her legs instead. She even jumped up, hitting her little jetpack, and staggered me by kicking with both legs. It put some distance between us and she flipped around to land on her feet. Then it was her turn to come for me.
I tried to block her punches, but that piston thing was stronger than I expected. I felt something crack in my lower left forearm. She swept my legs, but I managed to jump back and avoid it. She cocked something back on her right fist, shooting a canister out of the right knuckle. I went to swat it away but it stuck and electricity began to course throughout the armor. It didn’t do much to the armor, aside from help charge it, but it got through enough to leave me grinding my teeth, my muscles involuntarily spasming.
It only lasted a second, but was long enough to leave me open to a flying spinning kick from Venus that whirled me around. I turned around quickly and punched at what I was sure would be a follow-up with my upper left. The glowing gauntlet unloaded its energy on her right gauntlet. And that’s it. They hit, her gauntlet unleashed a couple streams of steam, and neither moved. I tried with my right lower arm, but she intercepted it with her left fist, no give, just steam. Same for my right upper, but I sent the wounded lower lefty flying for her face, only to be stopped by her grabbing my arm, raising it up, squeezing it, unloading on me with a big, pistoned left to the chest.
I lost my breath again, and lower left did pretty cracking, but she didn’t let go. I tried to fly away from the hit but she yanked me back in for another hit, this time to the head. It had me seeing stars. That strong of a hit, I thought I might even see Ziggy Stardust in a minute. Then my helmet was gone. How’d that happen? Of course, that question had to wait for me to keep getting the shit pounded out of me. It’s hard to think while doing me best impersonation of an asshole on getting a train run on it.
When Venus let me go, my chestplates had been trashed. I didn’t have a helmet. My lower left arm was broken in all kinds of places and the gauntlet was missing. Oh, and I spat up a bloody mess of what used to be most of my teeth. Venus knelt over me, looking down, even as my hands twitched around, my lower right one hunting for my belt. She raised her fist, and it looked big. You don’t know how big. So big, I musta had a concussion, that’s how big.
“I don’t want to kill you. That’s the kind of hero I was taught to be. When Master Academy was founded, it wasn’t about heroes. It was Oligarch who created it. He wanted kids with powers loyal to him. He just made it seem like we were heroes. He didn’t torture us, but he wanted to make us weapons like your general out there. We were taught that we were supposed to be better than everyone else, elitist jerk. Mender found out and confronted him. That’s how he ended up crippled, but he exposed Oligarch to the rest of us and we drove him off. Since then, Master Academy is about improving ourselves. And we can be better than we were.”
Her voice had gained a backbone then. She lowered her fist, then stood up. “You can still change.”
I tried to laugh but it came out as a cough. Instead, I settled for telling her “Fuck you.”
“You can still change the future,” she continued.
“What are you doing?” asked Mobian.
“He’s right. Some things are worth changing,” she called up. Then she looked back down to me, but still spoke up loud enough for him to hear. “I don’t want to become a murderer just to protect your status quo!”
It was almost inspiring, coming from a woman who led me into an ambush, beat the shit out of me, and kidnapped my daughter. Plus, whatever this was, this whole thing where she brought me back to before I was kidnapped to get an edge on me. These were the thoughts racing through my punch-drunk skull at the time. And I remembered something else that didn’t seem right, which mildly amused me to note. It was a bit arrogant, actually.
I raised my right hand. I think it was the upper one, because things were fuzzy at that moment. “Wait, wait, wait… one sec, hold on… before you go into any more preaching… you said just I disappeared, only me…”
A spear came flying out of the night right toward the side of Venus’s head. She turned and actually caught the thing, causing even Citra’s jaw to drop from where she threw it. Venus stood up. “I didn’t know about-” then she looked down to where a headless rubber chicken squirmed against her in my grip. I amped up the power on my suit’s leg pseudomuscles and kicked Future Venus through the chicken, causing Venus to drop the spear and sending them both flying. The chicken detonated in mid air and helped Venus carve out her own divot in the grass.
I grabbed for the spear and helped myself up, then jumped high, arcing down toward her. I don’t know where Citra got that spear, what it was made of, or what Venus’s armor was made of. All I know is that I came down on top of it with all my weight right into her mouth. It didn’t penetrate the armor on the other side of her head from her mouth. Instead, it slid and dropped me while the blade sliced upward through her skull. The rest of the stumbling I did dealing trying to catch my balance wasn’t any better for her head. I could barely even stand, barely even register what was going on as her body twitched its final twitches.
Instead, I held a hand over my face while searching through my belt for anything helpful like, ooh, a syringe! I had no shortage of places I could inject it with my armor beat to crap.
Out of the corner of my eye, I realized the glowing orb above us had started to rise.
“Come back down here!” called Citra, and I saw she now had Arsehole, Mobian’s companion, by the elbow. Arsehole was still tied up, but her leg restraints had been loosened enough to let her stand and move on her own.
“Yeah, get your ass down here, Mobian. I don’t think I’ll kill you,” I slurred, then vomited up a tooth.
“Hey, don’t leave me!” called Arsehole, and that really got him in a hurry to land. The glowing orb descended and the dark outline of a doorway appeared.
The older, British-accented time traveler stepped out into the doorway. “She changed the timeline.”
“Have that sit on a big purple dragon dildo. I changed the timeline,” I said. Citra came over to help me stand even as microscopic machines coursed through my body to mend tissue and organs. “We changed the timeline,” I said in response to my wife’s aid.
Qiang pushed past Mobian and raced toward me. Citra and I both bent down to hug my beautiful baby, despite the rather poor state I was in. The doubts I had about maybe going and saving myself washed away. They didn’t leave, not completely.
Mobian gave us wide berth as he stepped around to untie Arsehole. “I could still leave you.”
“You wanna try that again, Monty Python?” I asked, raising a lower left fist that felt stronger already. “I could still screw things up for you. Save myself, maybe build more D-Bombs, come back over early. Or, and hear me out here, we all just go back to 2018.”
He locked eyes on Venus’s corpse for a long second. “Let me bring her. She deserves a proper funeral for all I’ve known her.”
I nodded, then turned my attention to kissing all over Qiang’s face. “You smell like blood!” she said, giggling. Aren’t we a pair? Or perhaps more than a pair, the way Citra clung to us both.
“Come on, let’s get inside the ship before he changes his mind,” I said, leaving Mobian and Arsehole to drag the body of Future Venus inside by themselves.
Mobian did indeed bring her in, finding us three sitting down and cuddling, me all bloody and snotty in torn-up armor. It wasn’t exactly Christmas Card material.
“Before you go back to 2018, I have something I want to show you,” Mobian said. He glared at us, which just goes to show how he took all this too seriously. Who could glare at my little Qiang? “Something to make her sacrifice worthwhile.”
In spite of her presence, I glared right back at him. “Good, because there’s someone my daughter needs to see as well.” For emphasis, I jammed a big ol’ syringe into my neck and pushed the plunger, injecting myself with more nanites. He looked away first.
Archive Transmission Fragment 7 Complete
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