Tag Archives: Psychsaur

Down With A Sickness 6

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Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?

We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.

Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.

Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.

It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.

Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.

There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.

Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.

“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.

“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.

Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”

“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.

I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.

Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.

“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.

“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”

Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”

There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.

I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.

“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”

“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.

“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.

“I said I got it,” I told her.

She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”

I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”

She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”

I cringed back a little. “Why?”

“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”

I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.

She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”

“This is something you have to do?”

I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”

I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.

The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.

That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”

Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”

“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”

“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”

Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.

“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”

“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.

“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”

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Down With A Sickness 5

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The trail had fits of stopping and starting, but never for long. Never long enough for the guy who took Psychsaur and Max to sleep. They’d zipped over to India from the portal, but didn’t stop there. They managed to get from there into Pakistan in amazingly little time. When I showed it to Titan, shortly after he and Venus joined me on Ricca, he informed me Cape Diem didn’t have a base there. “They stole our portals. Maybe they built something to hack into our network. Either way, this is unacceptable.”

We’d set up at the residence. It wasn’t considered neutral ground the same way the Cape Diem compound was, but it was a hell of a lot more private and better protected, even with that new hole in the wall of the living room. Everything had mostly turned out ok from that event. Our assailant, the blonde multiplier, hadn’t gone after Qiang at all, and neither did she charge him with a knife or anything. I think I’m raising a girl smarter than I am, but it doesn’t make anyone feel any better about a home being partially blown up.

It was easier for us to coordinate and control information Each of our organizations’ are looking into the attack in their own way, chasing leads, studying bodies and wreckage. Well, the bodies are on my end. It’s a bit inefficient, but cross-organizational cooperation’s going to have to wait.

“They didn’t take anyone for you?” I asked Titan for confirmation.

He shook his head. “No. He killed someone. Hurt others.”

“He took knowledge from you, but he took our friends,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Venus said. “You said Max made a cure?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s just not enough, and it can’t be replicated.”

Venus paced around the office, looking at the monitors of our setup. “Psychsaur found him. Her powers let her do that. He avoided her until he was ready to do this.”

I looked between them. “I thought Psychsaur was supposed to cover Cape Diem first?”

Titan nodded to Venus, “She convinced me otherwise. It’s a good thing, too.”

“How’s that?” Venus asked.

Titan scratched his chin. “If she was at Cape Diem when this happened, the mole at Master Academy wouldn’t have been exposed.”

“Do we know who he is?” I asked. “Because on my end, he was just Funhouse the Clown, aka Ricardo Milhouse.”

Venus said, “He told us he found out his little brother had superpowers and was fighting crime at night. He was concerned and wanted him trained. He told us his name was Rick Houser. He brought a kid in. God, we had to lock up a teen to find out how deep he’s into this.”

“Richard Milford Holmes,” said Titan, tapping away at the computer and bringing up some of the Cape Diem files. “Twenty-eight. No powers, but a lot of enthusiasm to join us. He’s shown an eagerness to do the shit work even when offered duties more in line with what we expect. A lot of people join up to do something grand to help the world. It’s a good attitude, there’s a lot of more ugly work to it than people want. Except him. He was staying under the radar the entire time. Ten months.” He glared down at the table. Venus patted his arm.

“He hasn’t stopped at all until now,” I pointed out, bringing up the map where they’d finally been stopped. “So maybe he’s where he needs to go, or it’s a trap. A trap would be a bad idea for them.”

“Unless they take our powers with that collar,” Titan reminded us.

That was when Venus walked over to stand beside me. “What powers? This is all training and equipment.”

Venus and I had to take a moment to suit up, each of us in bulky armor. Hers was her current generation of power armor with the face taken up mostly by a golden chrome visor. Mine was based on the suit I’d stolen from her future version, but with additional armor plating and strength-enhancing pseudomuscles added to resemble my heavy armor. I was just as agile as ever, in armor far more durable. After all, nobody said the added armor plates couldn’t be the same material as the less-bulky version.

Titan remained his giant blue and orange self, with a pair of wings sticking out the back of his Cape Diem uniform.

On our way out, I gave Qiang a hug, smiled at Silver Shark checking on a burn along her arm, and politely squeezed by Sam and Holly trying to bar our way. “’Scuse me, gotta go save Mix N’Max, just the three of us, no additional help involved.” I picked up Sam with both sets of arms and set her to the side. I turned to find Holly taking her place, so I skipped around her.

“We’re coming!” Sam called after me as I pushed through the doors. Titan and Venus followed, with Max’s assistants coming after.

“You two aren’t villains,” I called back as we walked to a Psycho Flyer parked in front of the palace.

“You don’t know what he means to us!” called Holly.

“Do you trust them?” Titan asked me.

“They’re loyal to Max above all else. They’d never see him harmed or kidnapped in any way,” I answered. “But I doubt they have anything to bring to the table on this other than potential hostages if things go wrong.” I stopped to look at the assistants. “Leave this to us.”

“We are not useless,” Sam said. She pulled out a glass bottle with a simple oval label and “The Cure” written in Max’s handwriting. “Take us or we destroy it.”

I looked up the ramp of the flyer where Titan and Venus had stopped. They looked to me, eyebrows raised. Well, I assume Venus’s were raised under the helmet. I pointed to Sam and Holly. “Nothing about them threatening the cure?”

“It’s your aircraft,” Titan pointed out.

“I’m not saving your asses if you get in trouble,” I said, turning and walking up the ramp. I heard them clatter along after me.

They probably would have regretted it if they knew the flight was so long. I had the flyer loaded up for it, though. Toilets, toiletries, an in-flight meal, and a selection of movies to watch.

“Air Force One, Airplane!, Sully… what are you trying to tell us here, Gecko?” asked Holly as she stepped up into the cockpit.

I created a pair of holographic sunglasses in my lower right arm. “I think my meaning should be quite…” I lifted the hologram into place where my eyes would be through my helmet. “…plane to see.”

“Oh god, I’m going to be sick,” Holly called out from the back of the flyer.

“It wasn’t that bad!” I called back.

Sam winced and looked back. “I better get to her. Flying can be iffy for her.”

I shrugged as she left. “It was y ‘all’s decision to come.”

When we got to where we were going, the nanites indicated that Max and Psychsaur were still there. And where we were going turned out to be a small, decrepit Buddhist temple on top of a hill. I invited Venus and Titan into the cockpit to look down on it. “That’s a pretty cunning way to hide a lair,” I told them. “Anyone who breaks in looks like their sacrilegious. On the plus side, we have plenty of room if there are any religious artifacts left. Gold, sufficiently old stonework, even bones will do.”

“We’re here for your friends, not bones,” rumbled Titan. “I guess you better get in there since you’re the quietest somehow.”

“Okily dokily.” I stood up from the controls and the flyer dropped for like half a second. In the back, Holly vomited. I hope paper bags were involved.

“You fucking psycho!”

“Asshole!”

“Prick!”

“BLUURRRGH!”

The reactions I get. I held up my hands. “It’s fine. I got it remotely anyway. Just decided that if y’all are going to ask the guy flying the thing to get off it, shit might happen.”

“You could land,” Venus growled.

“I’d rather not risk being stranded in Pakistan. Nobody should.”

I landed harder than is preferred for stealth, but at least I was invisible. When I got to the door to the place, I found was in better shape than its appearance would lead people to believe. A quick scan through multiple spectrums didn’t reveal anything. No lasers, no wires, any of that.

I called down a quartet of drones from the trapdoor of the Psycho Flyer. They assembled on their way down, forming a platform big and strong enough to hold me in the heavier armor. I hopped on top as it passed through the doorway. I wasn’t going to get caught by pressure plates this time.

I had a line open to the Flyer cockpit, Venus, and Titan, so it wasn’t long before I heard Venus ask, “Found anything yet?”

“Lots of wood and tiles. Not even any valuables. Not one piece of art, either, except this little thing.” I spotted this decoration built into the base of the altar. Three rabbits, two running one way in a circle, the third another. But that was because the third one was broken, flipped around. There weren’t even any other doors anywhere. No way down to a hidden basement. So I flipped the third rabbit around and clicked it into place.

Behind me, tiles slid out of place along the floor, revealing a circular stairwell down that had to be hell to get hostages down. It also had no room for flying. “I got a way down. Go ahead and get down here. I don’t see anything up top. Y’all should be able to hop or fly to the stairs.”

I headed down and found my way through a rusty metal door, and from there to a circular room with a floor made up of rounded stones. There, I saw a quartet of dead Funhouse. No sign of Max or Psychsaur. But there were two other corridors from there. It was easier to figure out where to go when I heard retching. It’s been a vomit kind of day. “Funhouse was dead when I got here. I think I hear someone. Going to see if I find our peeps.”

I snuck my way on down the corridor when I heard Titan and Venus behind me, coughing. “What’s that smell?” Titan asked.

“They’re discolored,” Venus said from back there, too.

I found Max and Psychsaur locked in a pair of old time cells. Stone walls, a barred door, and a whole lot of hacking going on. I dropped the hologram. “Hey guys. Here I come to save the day.”

“Gas,” Max hacked up. “They killed him.”

Psychsaur added, “It got here.”

I pulled out a couple of syringes. “Venus, got a couple patients here. Some sort of poisoning. If y’all are still alive, I’m guessing it’s dispersed and stuff.” Metal bars and all, it wasn’t even a matter of hacking. I tore the lock off Max’s cell. The alarm started up then.

“I got activity down this corridor!” Titan called out. Then, the world blew the fuck up. But we didn’t go with it. There was a booming roar that tried to kill my eardrums. It got hot as fuck. Wasn’t as bright as I expected. After everything settled to mere shaking, I popped open Psychsaur’s cell, too, and grabbed them up. It’s a lot easier carrying people with extra arms.

I found Venus in the middle chamber, where a pedestal now stood in the center. Titan barred access to the other corridor almost completely. He stepped away slowly, grimacing “Any bomb you can walk away from is a good bomb.”

“You good?” I asked.

He nodded. “I’ve taken bigger.”

I nodded toward Venus. “That’s what she said.”

“She is busy downloading files off this computer while it self-deletes,” Venus said, a USB from her suit plugged into something on the pedestal.

All in all, a successful rescue. We got our friends. We got the collars off without damaging them overly much. And we got some files to sift through about what we’re dealing with, starting with the final message left in the system from a voice that sounded like dozens overlaid on one another.

“We had greater plans for you. You were to observe and report only. You are one piece of a vast apparatus. Our plan could never be stopped by one man with a cure. Ricca was the first, followed by Moscow, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Empyreal City. All within the first week. Thank you for listening obediently while the gas circulates. Your obedience is no longer required. You are no longer a piece in our apparatus.”

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Down With A Sickness 3

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“…and the dastardly do-gooder who captured him and recovered the stolen Viking relics is said to have remarked, ‘There’s Norway you’re pulling this one off, Man-Opener!’ Folks, your old pal Outlaw X is going to break from the program to tell you about one of our latest sponsors. I’m sure you’re all aware of that crazy cat named Psycho Gecko, Emperor of Ricca after the Claw’s unfortunate demise. Inter-villain squabbles can be a real bummer, so that’s why I carry the new RA32 pulse blaster. The latest handcannon from Riccan Arms uses photons and gluons and more -ons than you can shake a stick at. I don’t know how it works, I just know it can light up your enemies like the Fourth of July and fold into the shape of a large flashlight so the missus won’t find out where you go at night. Riccan Arms is the innovation you desire in a package your enemies fear. Pick one up today…”

The labs set up a forward outpost of a sort in order to easily access the outside. The Claw had the place set up the old way for information security. At this point, I’d be grateful if random people on the street downloaded enough of the work on the infection to give us a hand with it. It also let me listen in on Outlaw X, the premiere radio station for villains. I never kept up with it as much as I cared. Even they hadn’t quite gotten wind yet of the Riccan lockdown, courtesy of stockpiles we had off the island and a comprehensive decon protocol the guys came up with on a hunch.

The bacteria spreads quickly, so my guys decided to see what the transmission tells us. A few days outside a human body and they die. They collected a few to see what the dead ones could teach us. Vulnerabilities, but also a chance at a vaccine. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone uninfected except the Deep Ones. Not all Deep Ones, though. It took some probing questions, but it turns out the purebred ones just don’t get infected. The bacteria just don’t recognize their brains as targets. It’s the ones with some human in their ancestry that end up infected. Deep Ones, eh? Close enough to mate with humans, like homo machina, but far enough away that they can’t be infected by this, unlike homo machina.

I figured out this was a handy thing, though, so I made inquiries through the Drone Division to see if elders and other Deep Ones community leaders could find me some able-bodied seapeople. I also sent along money and high-end moisturizing cream as incentives. A couple Deep Ones insisted on holding out for more. Specifically, they wanted to make sure their people’s work on behalf of mine wouldn’t be forgotten. They’d seen the way Americans were throwing away the lives of Puerto Ricans and concentrating immigrants in camps. They’d even begun a process of investigating citizens to decide if they should end up in the camps as “citizenship cheaters”. I told the guys working for me to inform those holdouts that I remain committed to seeing to the welfare of all Riccans, humans, Deep Ones, and homo machina alike, and would gladly honor those who help to save my people in their hour of need.

Lofty language, sure, but a lot more inspiring than sending them an answer of, “Fuck, man, sure, whatever.”

Luckily, the Chinese were making another shipment to the U.S. The Deep Ones were more than capable of capturing the ship. A science team donned hazmat suits and went onboard to find the people being sent over to the States. They went deep into debt to afford the chance at a better life, probably without realizing how bad the U.S. has gotten. Or things are just shitty enough in rural China that they’ll risk moving to a country where Nazis are still a major demographic.

The Deep Ones had to tackle one dumbass scientist who thought it’d be a good time to attempt taking his hood off. He got chewed out so many times up the ladder before I heard about it, Dr. Creeper told me he had to turn down the man’s request for seppuku. Which is an especially odd request for a Filipino, but Ricca’s something of a melting pot. Just the other day, people celebrated some holiday and I never got around to figuring out why they had dog balloons fighting with bird balloons.

In the end, they maintained quarantine and kept the people clean enough for experimentation. Because, as some upper-class white guy once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. You can tell, because you don’t hear too many poor people, or oppressed folks arguing that some people need to get the shaft for the greater good. So as a white guy, I had no problem ordering captured Chinese people to be used for experiments to save my people. Well, a white guy in the body of an Asian woman.

Once the exterior’s open to being changed like clothes, racism and sexism make about as much sense as being a fashion snob. Plus, a supervillain should always be on the lookout for downtrodden people. Think about it; police hostility to oppressed people means a lack of trust and gang organization. So you go in, you have people who area already disinclined to inform on you to the cops, and you can recruit in groups. Plus, you can buy a lot of loyalty sending them to school for subjects like mechanical engineering. They learn a trade, you get someone to help maintain the robot army. You know why you don’t see shadowy cabal of Jews taking over the world? Because nobody gave them a chance, dammit.

Enough, brain! Get on point, or I will poke you with things!

Work on a vaccine stalled when it came to using dead cells. They didn’t suddenly spring to life and create a full infection, which is great, but they also didn’t elicit an immune response. So while that’s a setback for vaccinations, it means we can safely ship weapons and equipment with no trouble. It has helped keep things under wraps.

With the science guys hard at work, I had a call to make. And since I had Psychsaur talking to Venus for me, that means it was Titan’s blue and orange mug that appeared on my giant screen at home. “Titan.”

“Psycho Gecko,” he acknowledged. “Any luck on a cure so far?”

I shook my head. “No. We had an idea for a vaccine, but it didn’t pan out. On the plus side, materials are safe to spread around after a few days. Maybe not anything from a refrigerator. We’ll see on that part.We’ll get you nanites for detection purposes, though.”

He rubbed his chin. “Is that safe? You said the bacteria eats nanites.”

I waved it off. “It’s fine. They tested to make sure, but it only seems to attack nanites that attack it and derive all their nutrition from hosts. The solution the nanites are in is more about preserving them from moisture and air, and the bacteria die off just as easily.”

“Thank god for the little things,” he said, pun probably not intended from his complete lack of reaction. “How are your people holding up?”

“It seems to be limited to the hundreds. If this were any other population, with less general health, I suspect we’d see more. What about your folks?”

“We’ve had four with the adverse reaction that we know about. Six other attempted to break quarantine. I have someone investigating.”

“Thank you,” I told him. “I peg the heroes, personally.”

“Not your own?” he asked. I mean, technically yes and no, that time my wife made herself look like Venus…

“Anyone infected could have spread it from the airport or docks as soon as they arrived, or from anywhere else. It’d have gotten everyone anyway. That’s what they made it for.”

Titan shook his head. “That assumes Patient Zero knows anything about it. He or she could have been ordered to let it out at a social function or in your vicinity. You could be collateral damage to a different target.”

“I think we can assume the target was me. It’s able to bond to homo machina and resist my nanites and it first appeared on my island as far as anyone knows. Not like the symptoms are unique, though. We’ll stick a pin in that for later.”

“With the CDC,” he interjected.

“Right. Those guys, if they even still exist these days. I just don’t think they’d risk someone getting caught ahead of time with this when all they have to do is release it anywhere on the island, so I think this person’s first opportunity was the party. That means someone who came in, either with the Master Academy group or with your people. But I will have recent arrivals looked into by my pervasive peace force. I might loosen the restrictions on brutality.”

“I emphasize efficiency of brutality,” Titan said, glowing eyes giving off just the faintest hint of disapproval.

I cocked my head to the side. “You wouldn’t believe the level of pissed I’m on. I think you’d better hope the perpetrator is found by someone other than me.”

“You are allowing the heroes to investigate their own,” he pointed out.

“I don’t trust Venus to investigate. I need you to get Psychsaur over there for me.” I’d hinted that Qiang might want to play with the reptilian superhuman quite a bit. Get her real sympathetic to what I’m fighting for. I don’t have to trust Venus to find out of if the heroes are behind this. I just have to trust a mindreader who likes my daughter.

“See if she’ll help me first and you have a deal.”

I nodded. “That is, of course, up to her. I’ll see if I can make it happen. Heroes, villains, and neutrals all aligned. Someone clearly wasn’t satisfied with the small size of their asshole.”

“Some things just aren’t done,” he said. “Standards don’t make you weak. Maintaining them shows a strength that means more than most understand. There are things you simply don’t do to people or children. Even your nanite scheme was a bluff in the end. The better for you that it was.”

Ehh, maybe I won’t tell him I was prevented from killing a huge chunk of the world with nanites that time.

I’m not telling lots of people lots of things. Like how I haven’t told even those in my science team that Mix N’Max has set up a little lab right in my own home to come up with his own concoction to cure this thing. It’d be about useless if it takes too long or if he somehow has to do one at a time. And then, once we’ve got a usable cure, it somehow slips out that he’s got lab space elsewhere and is working on this very thing. Sure would be interesting to see if anyone tries to break in and sabotage efforts.

Then, I play Whack-A-Mole.

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Down With A Sickness 2

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While the doctors worked on figuring out this thing, I stayed with my family, waiting. I know I got a call forwarded to me through the Directory. The first time, it turned out to be Venus. When I heard her voice, a laugh forced itself from my mouth. Just a short one, then I hung up. I’d originally intended some sort of crafty lie, but why fucking bother? I didn’t even pick up the next times. Should have just told the Directors not to even bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. So I just hung out in the palace. I think Qiang and Max realized something was wrong. Qiang asked a couple of times. All I told her was “Nothing, honey,” and set her on my lap.

I didn’t get much sleep, and what I did, I got in Qiang’s bed. That first night in particular, I stayed awake thinking of vengeance. A Dimension Bomb on a dead man’s trigger. An eternally replicating grey goo swarm. Nuclear attacks on the ice caps to drown the world in a nuclear flood. Or even just disperse all the infected around the globe to make sure this disease took out everyone else. I thought of setting the world ablaze to serve as the funeral pyre for myself and my loved ones. Like I’d tried to do before.

In the dark there, I remembered those times I’d read about during the Cold War. There were a couple of times when the Russians believed the Americans had launched on them and they almost launched in retaliation for what turned out to be false reports. I’d wondered on occasion about that situation. Knowing the nukes are coming, unstoppable, and will wipe me out and my people. What do you do, eh? Do you launch, and kill everyone else on Earth for the sake of people who are about to be ashes?

I could. It’d be so easy. Really, anyone capable of turning a key, pushing a button, or giving an order could. Capability of destroying the world is easy. The question on my mind as I nuzzled my daughter’s head and tried to keep her hair off my lips, is would I?

I paid Psychsaur a visit in the middle of the night. As I’d suspected, the Claw really was the sort of enterprising but paranoid evil overlord that he’d construct testing rooms capable of negating whatever invisible whammy makes telekinesis and telepathy happen. I found Psychsaur laying on a floor made up of overlapping squares of thing wire strands. I didn’t go in, but instead stood at the observation area, the cameras giving me a view inside, and looked down at a red button. “Oooh, what does this button do?” I asked no one, pressing it.

The floor crackled and sparks flew underneath Psychsaur, jolting her awake and into a jump. She scrabbled at the smooth, reinforced walls, unable to find purchase to escape the shock from the floor. I hummed a short tune before looking down at my finger still pressing that darn button. “Oh dear, look at that. Totally forgot about that.” I let up and instead pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello Psychsaur.”

“Hello Gecko. Please let me out. I need to find out-”

“I’d have left you to the chief interrogator, who is excellent at his job, but we’re having something of a labor shortage now. Lots of people out sick. Lots of people helping to move the bodies. That’s why you have the pleasure of my personal attention.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Look at that, someone turned down the temperature in the room. “I don’t know what’s going on. Let me help you! Let us help you!”

“Is that what this is? Another gambit to make me dependent and controllable? You’d be happy to help so long as I surrender myself to your custody and give up my powers? You’d have a much better chance of that if you sick bastards hadn’t gotten my daughter infected.”

Her jaw gaped open and her knees collapsed under her. She sobbed to herself. “I’m sorry about your girl. Just, please… please, please, please, how is Venus?”

“Venus? How should she be?” I asked, figuring now we’d gotten to the good stuff.

“He said it started at the party. She’s probably infected too. Oh God, and if they’re infected, it must be all over Empyreal City by now.”

I looked at her, crying there. “I’m sorry about Qiang,” she said, her voice croaking. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me see my Venus again before she…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. I let a breath out and moved my and over to push a button.

The door opened.

She looked up as I stepped into the doorway, my armor on except for hood. It hung off the back above my cape. “Come on. I had to be sure because of what’s at stake.”

She got to her feet shakily, snorting at a nose stopped with mucus. “I’m free to go.”

I shrugged. “You can be. I’d rather you stay and help me, but you’re not the enemy. You’re just as infected as everyone else, though.”

“When is it going to get me?” she asked, moving toward the door. I stood back to give her room to leave, figuring she’d rather not get too close. Instead, she grabbed my arm and leaned on me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “For all that in there. But I don’t know. Qiang’s not affected so far. Hardly anyone is.”

“What?!”

I hardly believed it either, but I escorted her to the bio lab team for a better idea of what we were facing. They’d managed to get a secure line out that let them continue monitoring the island and North Korea, both of which had maintained a quarantine. I sent off for food and drink while we were on the way, and they met us there to help Psychsaur regain her strength. While she sat in the lab chowing down on a bowl of rice and chicken, I gestured to Dr. Smith, who had been caught scratching his prominent, beaklike nose. “Explain to our guest here, whose motives I believe to be honest, what seems to be going on.”

His smile was awkward and apologetic. “The vast majority of those infected are having no adverse response that we can detect. There is the odd reaction similar to the officer in the other room, and we have collected those for further study. If you don’t mind, miss, we’d very much like to do a more in-depth scan of your brain.”

“Why?” asked Psychsaur from behind a cup of coffee.

Smith looked to me, but I gestured again. He continued, “The infection as we’ve seen it appears to be spread out across the brain. We’re still learning, and every data point we obtain helps us determine why some are having this adverse reaction, and how common it is. Is it inevitable, or a fluke?”

I butted in here. “That may be her choice, but I insist she have time to see to herself first.” I turned to Psychsaur. “I believe you wanted to check in on Venus? Maybe get a shower or some proper rest in a proper bed, right?”

She practically sprinted out of the room before she had to stop and ask how to get back out of there. I pointed to the same person who brought the rice and coffee. “Show her out and call a car to take her to my palace. Thank you,” I nodded to the man, then to Psychsaur, who smiled at me. The one I returned wasn’t quite so enthusiastic, but then I’m a pessimist.

I sent her off for rest and to make her call.

Smith came over, talking quietly around everyone. “You trust her, Empress?”

I nodded. “She was worried about her girlfriend even over her concern for a child she believed might be dying. It’s selfish. If you’re pretending to not be involved, it’s the last thing you want to do. If you aren’t involved, it’s a reasonable reaction. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

“Now that she’s gone, I should inform you we have determined more about the nature of the illness.” He tapped a tablet in his hands and a hologram projected out to show an image of the human brain with red dots around it, most concentrated at the base. “Red indicates the full extent of the infection.”

“Multiple places? Does that alter our idea of who has it?”

He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Instead, watch what happens when nanites are directed to engage them.”

A see-through holographic body appeared around the brain. The view zoomed in close to the red at the base of the skull. A cloud of blue dots appeared, one detecting the red and pulling the rest to it. Zooming in even further, I could see blue-highlighted nanites land on red growths. That was about all they had time to do before the red opened up and wrapped around the nanites, capturing the nanites and breaking them down.

Smith spoke. “We’ve taken samples the conventional way. It’s bacterial, and engineered specifically to fight off your nanites.”

I nodded. “Not a parasite?”

He shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t manage this rate of airborne infection even if it was. Our tests have shown something else of interest. The bacteria causes acute, temporary strain on the body as it reproduces enough to spread to anyone nearby. This all started at a party, so it’s likely that’s why no one noticed at first. From what we see, it spends little time reproducing before going dormant. The infection in your officer didn’t. I must stress my assessment will become more accurate with more data points across a greater range of infectees, because I currently believe going dormant is how it is meant to function. The officer’s reaction is atypical.”

“If someone’s engineered this stupid thing, I wonder what the point of the typical reaction is,” I said. “It’s good work, and I thank you for it. I know I’ve placed a lot of importance on this, but now we know it isn’t trying to kill us all, remember to take a break. Catch a nap of your own, and something better to eat than stale coffee and sandwiches, ok?”

He nodded and said, “Thank you,” then looked back to his team. “I have something I want to finish up before I can take a moment, but thank you.”

I nodded and headed out. Creeper caught me on my way out though, moving with the assistance of a crude exoskeleton covered in the brown patina of case-hardened steel. “Psycho! You have heard the news, ja? The disease is not meant to do to us what it did to the unfortunate man they carried in here?”

I nodded and reached up to rub my eyes. “Yeah. Great news, so far. I’ve told the team in there to ease up a bit. Don’t want them too tired or hungry to think up a cure.”

He nodded. “Of course. But I have another idea. Do you know the status of the infection outside of our borders?”

I shook my head. “We ever figure that out?”

“Nein, but it would be child’s play to sample the bacteria and modify a strain. It would be a poetic weapon to unleash as payback against the world for our fates. If we are to die slow, horrible, agonizing deaths at the hands of this epidemic, that is.”

I patted him on the shoulder. “Creeper, I want any samples we take now to be used for finding us a cure. That’s the only thing I want us doing with this disease.”

“But what if we die?” he asked.

I closed my eyes as I answered. “Then we die wronged and we die containing it from the rest of the world. Take care of yourself and your people, Doc. I’m going to go catch a nap and make some calls. We’ve got a disease to kill, then we can focus on whoever did this to us. We wouldn’t want to be too tired to have our fun with them, now would we?”

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Down With A Sickness 1

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Wonderful times on Ricca. We’ve had someone get sick on the island by something that didn’t clear up on its own. I’ve got nanites in the water keeping people healthy. This is the only place where if you cut a body part off, it might grow back on its own. Somehow, a guy who drank plenty of water got sick. Making it worse, any quarantine was fucked from the beginning, since he’d been at my daughter’s birthday party. The end of that saw a fuckload of people leaving before I even knew anything was wrong with this guy.

We had a failed quarantine from the start. But a few people did end up staying the night, including my daughter’s best friend, her parents, and the inebriated superhero girlfriend of my nemesis. Once Psychsaur had awoken and recovered from her hangover, I had to pull her aside and tell her why it was potentially risky to let her leave. “There’s a chance you and every single other person was exposed yesterday.”

“What did you put in the punch and how much do you want for the videos?” she asked, feathers still looking flat in places from how she slept on them.

“Not that kind of exposed, and $10,000,” I told her. I filled her in on the presence of he disease and the fact that our nanites were unable to heal it. “We have our guys looking into it. Full body scan, figure out what’s affected, what the cause is, disease or virus. Nothing in the guy’s medical file about a genetic disorder. Can’t do anything at all about the people we let leave. If we’re lucky, this thing doesn’t pass to others very easily. But until we know more, the island’s on lockdown. No one in or out. Which means I’ve already had to send Titan a message telling him he can’t sent out through the portals anymore.”

“You’re serious,” is all she said, looking me over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you more serious. This worries you.”

“It’s an illness unaffected by the things I rely on to stay alive and I’m trapped on the only island where it’s proven to exist. This shit is whack, yo. Worse, I’m put in the position of holding onto the girlfriend of Venus, and a kid, and her parents. It looks bad and we have to contain how many people know about this.”

“Crap, you’re right. Can you show me the guy? Prove what’s going on to me and I’ll talk to Venus. She can contain the situation out there, but she’s going to want to know this isn’t a plot. If you’re serious, I think you need to share the medical data here.”

I screwed up my face. “Yeah, because she’s a doctor? She won’t understand it. Knowing her, she’ll even use it to screw with my people. Your school there is handling education for kids and teens.”

“We have doctors on staff and as alumni, genius,” Psychsaur said, bopping me on the head.

I reached up to make sure my headdress was still ok. “Don’t fuck with my hair. My hair’s on point. I will tear a motherfucker up.”

She burst into laughter. “Oh my god, you’re so girly!”

“Don’t let the dress fool you, I’m the same Gecko I’ve ever been. Now let’s go play doctor.”

As usual, I got to feel the irritating silence of the digital blackout that came with entering the Institute of Science. We have hospitals and doctors there, but the Institute was deemed the best place for the guard’s quarantine, care, and study. It also didn’t have people all around with compromised immune systems, more careful procedures, and a lot of flamethrowers laying around in case things got bad. Then again, I bet strategic flamethrower placement could solve a lot of issues as far as doctors forgetting to wash their hands in hospitals. Hmm…

That aside, we were shown to the biological wing of the labs. We checked in with the doctor on staff who assured us the results ought to be back soon. Dr. Smith, he called himself.

“Smith, eh?” I asked, looking at the holographic interface floating in the antechamber to the isolation unit. It depicted a rough outline of a human brain that slowly, piece by piece, was refining itself. “Good job, Smith.”

“You couldn’t have told the nanites to do this?” Psychsaur asked.

I shrugged. “I have a certain amount of medical knowledge and can program them easily enough, but these were originally built for healing. Most of their code came with them. I just made certain changes, like having them only work on myself. And, well, that whole thing with taking over the world and using them to control and kill people. I actually made a pretty stupid mistake with them early on. These guys know tests I don’t and are intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of the brain. Intimately, do you hear me? That’s why this guy pretends his last name is Smith.”

“There are concerns we could be branded as criminals,” Dr. Smith said.

I waved his objection away. “Tell them you were just following orders. People accept that all the time, even when they think they’re too good for it.”

“I would rather not test that,” he said. “Once we’ve found the infection, testing others will be much quicker. If anyone else is infected, even as an asymptomatic carrier, the nanite network can reveal it to us. A full map of it, virus, bacteria, parasite, or agent, will help our understanding and attempts to cure it. Then we can update the nanites to counter whatever new disease we’re dealing with.”

I raised a hand. “If you’ve seen the sort of programming in these nanites, you should know they’re pretty good at figuring out what’s unusual for the humanoid body and eliminating it. I’ve literally bet my life on this technology many times over. If this is capable of evading them, I think we’re guaranteed a major problem on our hands.”

“Holy crap, you have a third arm!” Psychsaur said. She grabbed that hand. “It’s real.”

“Had to do something with my third arm after I grew the boobs.” I’d held up a lower hand without thinking. I slipped the other of that pair out to wiggle its fingers at her.

“Why do you have two more arms?!”She took my hands and kept looking them over, prompting Dr. Smith to look away and scratch at his temple. “Did you take these from someone?”

“I built them myself, with lots of meat, calcium, and nanites. We’re talking with a doctor here.” I turned back to him, though she kept feeling around on my hands. “I’m going to need a redacted copy of his chart in digital form for her law-abiding friends back in the United States. So see to those details accordingly. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

He shook his head. “We have the resources. All we need is time to work.”

As we left, I had to pull my hands away from Psychsaur. “Won’t your girlfriend be jealous you’re holding my hands?”

“We’ve worked through worse, like her Catholicism,” she told me. “You made yourself a second pair of arms. I guess I didn’t think about what you could do with them.”

“Your girlfriend knows better than most how good I am at growing arms. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you might fail to mention this to her.”

“Yeah, no, that’s not happening. Sorry. I’m surprised you’d do all that. You said you mess up sometimes.”

I raised a finger. She examined the nails on that hand. “I messed up early on, when I first made some work for only my DNA.”

“You want to tell me how?” she asked. “Come on, stop being so paranoid about your secrets. It’s probably not something anyone can even use against you, like the arm thing.”

Now, I could come up with ways Venus could use information about me having extra arms to her advantage in a fight with me. I also knew I wasn’t going to give that kind of idea to her girlfriend. That said, that earlier screw-up wasn’t something they could really use against me, no.

“So a lot of people have a very limited understanding of sex and sexuality, especially in places where that kind of thing is considered a bit rude and risque to talk about. Even on my planet, knowledge of exactly how it all works doesn’t necessarily filter from the experts to the regular folk. So, I messed up and had it handle the chromosome issue in the stereotypical way most people would think it goes.”

She looked at me for a moment. “And? What chromosome issue?”

“When I told the nanites to work on only my DNA, that included a mapping of it. They were to make sure all of me was up to code, save for anything replaced with cybernetics. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that the body is not uniform in sex cells, nor that the sex of individual cells can affect the body so greatly.”

“Parts of me are male?”

I looked her over, from her scaly skin to her feathers in place of hair. “Parts of you are prehistoric. But possibly. The problem with the most conservative estimates on how common it is are naturally incomplete. How many people have the DNA of every cell in their body tested? Look at how diagnosis of autism increased once your doctors learned enough about it to detect it better. Long story short, these nanites could quite possibly allow anyone on Earth to change sex at the drop of a hat just by reading the DNA off cells of the opposite sex and working their magic on the organs that matter for all that. Except me, because I am one-hundred percent male.” I posed, showing off how the dress hung from my feminine frame topped by a gold headdress in my flowing hair.

We walked along in seconds, coming to the lobby of the Institute. “So that’s it?” she asked.

I scoffed. “I said it was a stupid mistake. I didn’t say it was a big one. Besides, there’s already a process involving genetic grafting and my nanites that would let me do that if I wanted to. Just think, a pregnant Gecko.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re thinking of becoming a mother?”

I rolled my eyes. “See, this is the harm in telling you heroes things. You start psychoanalyzing and projecting. Next thing you know, y’all will be trying to impregnate me to try and keep me docile. Joke’s on you though, if you have any idea how pissed-off a pregnant woman can be and add that to my natural pleasant demeanor.” I smiled at her, and not the nice one. This was the smile I like to give people before rearranging their organs with a knife. “I’ma eat ya, bitch.”

We were just getting into the Imperial confiscated convertible when one of the research assistants sprinted out of the building. He came to a stop right next to me. I think he might have bowed, but he was so busy trying not to puke and sucking wind that I couldn’t tell. “Easy there,” I told him. “Catch your breath. Unless you’re a member of the bomb squad, then tell me that first.”

He shook his head and took a minute to get his breathing under control. “Empress, we found it and they are writing a program to patch into the nanites. If it pleases you to wait, we will have it shortly and you can see the results firsthand.”

I looked to Psychsaur. She shrugged. “I’m fine.”

Whoever they had working on the nanite programming, they worked fast, or maybe they’d already been building an app while the rest of the team was hunting this thing down. So we waited in the lobby and a half-hour later, Smith brought us a laptop personally. He set it down, eyeing Psychsaur, then switched it from hologram to augmented mode. The he activated the app.

An outline of the island appeared that filled in with buildings and rough patches to signify the forest and temple ruins off on the other part of the island. Then, pinging off each other, little dots began to appear. The regenerative nanites were meant to coordinate together in order to better repair the body and fight disease. I’ve used that coordination for tricks before, like triggering the grey goo protocol when an enemy needed to be disassembled, or to hold the world hostage during my brief tenure in control of the entire world. This time, it went through and kept jumping through the population of my island, even down into a couple of the sewer crocs by the looks of things. Soon, what looked to be most of the island filled out. More red dots kept appearing rapidly, in ones or twos, sometimes with larger groups.

I looked up to Smith, who looked pale. “Is that just the people it’s scanned, or is that the people infected?”

He swallowed. “Infected.”

Then the view expanded, showing North Korea and Mu as well, who had copied our waterworks and where people were just generally exposed to the nanites for medical care. Our colonies on the formerly-sunken continent appeared to be clean, but the infection was spreading from Pyongyang about as fast as it did here on the island.

“Empress, based on my rough estimate of the rate of infection, I believe it likely the infection first appeared on the day of your daughter’s birthday.”

I threw my head back and laughed, which made Smith jump. Once I had a moment to quiet down, I heard Psychsaur punching buttons on her phone. I turned and slapped it out of her hand, then grabbed her throat and lifted her off the ground. “You’re not warning anybody. Which one of your little friends was it?”

“I don’t know!” She kicked at me, then grabbed my wrist. Her telekinesis squeezed my fingers and forced them open. She dropped to the ground, and I suddenly felt a tingle in my head like she was up to something. I heard Smith fall, the tablet clattering with him. “I didn’t have anything to do with this. I don’t know what’s going on, I promise. But you know you can trust me. You can trust Venus.”

I thought back to my encounter with Future Venus. Willing to give me up to pay some aliens back for helping stop a threat. Willing to kidnap my daughter and do what she thought was best, keep her as a hostage of Master Academy. I could feel Psychsaur buzzing in my head, trying to get in. Ah, the benefits to having a brain that interfaces better with computers than psychics.

I threw a punch. She caught it with her mind. Another with a free hand. Again, she caught it. The same happened with the third and the fourth. I smiled, then went for a headbutt. Now, her catching that surprised me. I think she’s been practicing.

“I don’t want to fight you. I want to help you, please,” she said.

I also thought back to the red dots here in the lobby. The doctor, the assistant who tripped over himself running away from the fight, me, and Psychsaur. And while it pissed me off to no end to see myself represented there, that wasn’t the only thing to take away from it. “You’re in my world now, not your world. And I got friends on the inside.”

She collapsed into unconsciousness as the nanites in blocked the blood flow to her brain just long enough to knock her out. The invisible pressure on my limbs ceased and I grabbed her by the leg. I turned to see Dr. Smith standing up, looking woozy. He had a little bit of yellow vomit dripping from his mouth. “Glad you’re up, Doc. Get Creeper. I’m going to need our best anti-psychic testing chamber prepped for a guest. And forget the chart for her friends. Someone just gave the whole island a disease and didn’t even have the common fucking courtesy to kiss us on the mouth first.”

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Party On 6

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Woot! What comes before Part B? Part A!

The whole damn island’s having itself a good time to celebrate the birthday of my little baby girl, complete with an impromptu parade from the palace to the Cape Diem compound. When the first fireworks went off, Max took cover and I grabbed the nearest object, a painting off the wall, and prepared to beat wholesale ass with it.

“Watch it, Cinderella,” said Sam said from over by the living room windows. “It’s just fireworks.”

Citra moved up to take my arm and squeeze my hand in both of hers. “Yeah, it better be,” I said, before tossing the painting to the side and checking to make sure I hadn’t ruined anything on the new dress. Qiang said princess party and the tailor did his best to accommodate her wishes for a special dress to wear. It was a Western dress, very much in keeping with the Disney movies that I’ve been known to throw at her, but not any specific one. I told the tailor to make her Moana, Mulan, any of them she asked for. Disney’s not as anal about what constitutes a princess as I am, but my daughter can damn well dress as whoever she pleases.

Instead, she went with a darker pink with lots of frills up and down the front, and her own tiara. With my approval, the tailor went easy on the tiara. Most people don’t realize it, but wearing a lump of gold and gemstones on your head is hard work. Royals build up to that over like weeks or days leading up to official events. So Qiang’s tiara is better than a flimsy gold tiara. It’s durable, light, and gilded.

My own number resembled hers, except I went with a vibrant green that probably looks more at home in Rio during Carnivale, and had a little more space to hide my second pair of arms. If it hadn’t been for all these outsiders, I’d let them out. But I always gotta keep something in reserve when my nemesis is around.

While I was picking at it and making sure Qiang had hers all together, Citra took one look out the window and suggested, “Why do we not make a small parade?” I really should look into what the transit system’s like on this island. Damn delegation. Regardless, I know plenty of things fall off the back of a container ship around here, so I called up my guys in our local police force. They helped a car dealer clear a little space for more merchandise. It’s good for ’em, helps them rotate the inventory.

So my family had a parade of sorts. Nothing all that special to it, only Max was throwing treats at the crowd, and I didn’t really feel the need for security. Anybody who fucked up my dress was going to get a high heel up the urethra. And if they messed something up for Qiant? Oh, even a cyanide pill wouldn’t save them. I’d bring them back to life, and then I’d really fuck ’em up.

While I was keeping an eye out, Citra actually hopped out of our slow procession and carried Qiang down with her. I hopped out after them as they greeted some of the visitors. “What are you doing?” I asked her.

“A princess should meet her subjects, and I think it is good for us,” she said.

I narrowed my eyes at her briefly before stopping myself. We were approaching another group who were getting all respectful and bowing. I stepped back and watched as Citra asked after them, how they were doing, other such platitudes. Empty stuff. Might as well ask how the weather is for all we can do about it. But they liked it. And not just them.

“You want to walk some, Qiang?” I asked the birthday girl.

“Yeah, Baba. I can ride in the car again when I’m tired. I get to be a princess!” She was hopping up and down and running along, eager to follow Citra’s example. As for me, I suppose I can’t fault her for having a will of her own. She is still another separate person, if one thrust into position and events far beyond what her life intended. Chaos can certainly be a ladder, or a pit. So while they were all smiles and spreading good Imperial cheer among my people, I kept a close eye out in case someone decided they wanted to hurt the Empress Regnant on our way to the Cape Diem compound.

Now, even though I was fully prepared to let visitors to my world come in peace, even provide an escort to me, the leader, it turns out the Master Academy people worked something out with Cape Diem. I didn’t see anything change hands, but Cape Diem’s whole portal deal with the UN isn’t something they’d risk losing. I wonder what the cost is for using the world’s only portal network to bring a bunch of kids to a birthday party on an island run by a supervillain. I suppose there are benefits for neutrality. But it’s neutrality that goes both ways.

My minions helped prepare everything, payment being they get to enjoy the party too. As my prior discussion of the cake ratio shows, I put a lot of thought into bribing people with food, fun, and bouncy houses. That even includes the guard detail who escorted the various princesses from the pink castle they temporarily called home. All of them formed a receiving line for my daughter on her way to the cake.

The cake itself loomed over the party like a small castle all its own. It was too big for the compound itself. It’s bad hat to kick your guests out of their own home by bringing in such a giant cake. People mostly contained themselves until we got there, at which point Qiang lost her shit with high-pitched squeals of delight and ran off into a throng of her friends who were being held back by their chaperones from Master Academy. We managed to separate them and, before everything devolved into the inevitable entropic pack of playing people, I let Qiang see all the various princesses. She was excited to meet them, and luckily they’d all calmed down a great deal. Something about being in public, with superheroes around, knowing they were going to be set free, and that this was all about my daughter’s birthday party.

Finally, barely able to contain her excitement and glee, it was time for my daughter to stand in front of her cake. And like all great cakes, it required men with flamethrowers hanging from flyers in order to light the candles. Ok, so required isn’t so accurate a term for lighting five candles. Let me think… fun? Awesome? Nevertheless, she stood there in front of a lower part ready to be cut and served to people. Then I unleashed the real humiliation. “Ok, time to sing Happy Birthday!”

Once I’d finished completely embarrassing her with the help of her friends and a huge crowd of strangers, she finally got a piece of cake, and then servants made sure everyone got cake who wanted it, including themselves. And from there, people mingled, people ate, people played games. I even caught this minotaur-looking super from Master Academy snorting in frustration as he kept missing at the clown dunk. The clown itself had a white face, a big forehead, and red hair. He’d also do this little dance in between throws, glaring right at the minotaur.

And it seemed to go ok. It was more like a big fair for a pretty good amount of time. Heroes and villains and me and my family all mingling. It was almost normal. It felt weird, like I should pick a fight just to have something to do. Fucking ball just wouldn’t hit the target and dunk the clown. I swear, that big-shoed bastard did something to the balls. While missing yet again, and ducking a cream pie thrown in retaliation, I noticed Venus.

It struck me as odd that we’d avoided each other so far. Unless she was avoiding me, which is a crazy thing to think. No, unless she was PLOTTING against me. That’s a sane thing to think. So I went over to where she was looking after some of the kids. “So, what horrifying thing are you going to do now in the name of being a good person?” I asked.

“Watching kids play on a happy day. How are you planning to be an asshole and justify it because other people in the world do bad things?” she asked right back, giving me a forced, closed smile.

“I dunno, figured I’d send missionaries to teach starving kids in Africa the joys of cannibalism.” My smile was more genuine, as was my amusement.

Venus wasn’t so amused. Doesn’t mean she was offended, she just didn’t like me. She turned her head suddenly, checking on a kid that had fallen. One of the Master Academy kids she brought all the way here to my daughter’s party even though she hates me. I looked at her and held a hand out. “I should be a better host. Thanks for bringing everyone. This means a lot to her.”

She shook my hand, and this time the little smile tugging at her lips also tightened up her eyes. “You’re welcome. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s worked magic on you.” After letting go of my hand, she turned to keep an eye on everything, smiling at everyone just walking around, having fun and playing games.

I shrugged. “She’s not so different from me. Orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, and trained to be more object than person. But she’s mine.” I saw a Buzzkill giving piggyback rides to refugee children. “That’s a screwed-up life she doesn’t deserve. No one does. It corrupts you, makes you want to cling to it. Makes you af- it feels more secure that way. Because once you know that’s your life, there isn’t anything that can scare you. I can do that for her, and I can destroy anyone who would hurt her.”

I turned to look at her then. Nothing like a good threat to round it out. Instead, she smiled at me. “That’s very heroic of you.”

I flinched. Couldn’t help it. “And here I thought we were playing nice.”

“You’ve become a better person,” she said. “You jumped in front of that rocket. See, I think staying with us helped you.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh yeah, y’all putting in a telepathic block to stop me from swearing or killing, that’s what I really needed in my life. Y’all didn’t help that much. Well, aside from saving my life. And… ya know, it’s been awhile since I got the shakes from not killin’ someone.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

She held up her hands. “We thought it would help your recovery. We weren’t going to leave you in the middle of psychological withdrawals while we kept you from murdering anyone.”

I held up a finger in front of her face. “There anything else y’all did to my brain I don’t know about? Any more secret brainwashing to make be ‘better’?”

“No, I swear.” She’d tensed up, her eyes darting past me. Well, if we were drawing attention from her friends, they’d just get to violate Cape Diem’s neutrality and the sovereignty of my nation first.

I folded my arms in front of me.”I get so many mixed messages from you, Boopsie.” Then I just left her there. I wanted to hurt her or at least yell at her. But, and this is an important thing to remember in this instance, this was about my daughter. Besides, an Empress doesn’t get mad. She gets cake. I just have to hope any feelings for her weren’t somehow the result of telepathic manipulation.

And speaking of good feelings, there were Rhonda and Leland, the parents of my daughter’s best friend from Master Academy, just waiting for me to come say hello again and remind them about that threesome they had with a murderous serial killer and Empress.

Qiang could barely able to stay awake long enough to see guests departing by the end of the party. We didn’t have too many who weren’t already here decide to stay the night. Kayla and her parents for sure, but it’s not like all those kidnapped princesses, including all the Marias and Maries from Belgium, wanted to stick around. Even Venus had decided she’d head back instead of take me up on my offer to stay and ease her tired muscles with a refreshing dip in my jacuzzi.

Once almost everyone had departed, though, I heard a shout. I looked to Citra, carrying my exhausted five year old in her arms. Seeing them clearly both ok, I shot the similarly-burdened parents of her best friend a wink and headed off in the direction of whatever commotion we had going on. I found a pair of Security officers holding up one of their own between them. “Something up, guys?” I asked.

The one on the man’s left shook his head. “Apologies for not bowing, Empress.”

I waved off his concerns, “Bow later, talk now.”

“Very well. He got disoriented and collapsed.” I looked him over. Sweaty, even in the lighter gear he had on, but he had a half-full canteen bottle on his belt.

“Get him to our medical tent outside the fence and tell them to contact Dr. Creeper,” I said quietly. Louder, to a nearby family carrying a kid with a balloon tied around his wrist, I said, “Just a bit of dehydration. Make sure to keep drinking water, folks.”

It was when Creeper got there, along with some of the more medically-minded staff of the Institute, that I briefed him with a simple. “We have a problem.”

The man was still disoriented, still out of it. Babbling and feverish. I continued explaining in case nobody got it, “This isn’t heat stroke. We don’t know what it is. Worse, whatever’s going on isn’t being stopped by the nanites in the water or in the dermal patches they’ve applied. We need to find out what this is.”

“We need a quarantine, especially on outsiders,” Creeper said.

Fuck. “That’s not doable. Most of the ones who were here aren’t anymore.” And the ones who are here, like a little superpowered girl and her parents, won’t look so good. “Well, let’s get to it. The sooner we figure out what’s going on, the sooner we fix it.”

I knew arriving back at the palace that this whole situation would take tact. And probably sex. Just make it seem like Rhonda and Leland are having a nice vacation here while their daughter plays with mine. That’s what I was ready for when I opened the door to the palace residence and entered, only to have to hold back a lot of cuss words.

Psychsaur, scaled and feathered psychic hero of Master Academy (and Venus’s girlfriend), was seated at the bar in the kitchen, swaying, talking with Sam and Holly. She smiled a loose, too-friendly smile and her wave to me almost dropped her from the stool. Plus, I could smell the alcohol from where I stood when she opened her mouth to say “Hey Gecko! I’m not driving home tonight, so can I sleep here?”

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Frozen Over 9

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“You made explosive devices and hid them on the Christmas tree!” Minotaur yelled.

I sat in the middle of Victor Mender’s office, and in the middle of a small inquest into what the fuck actually happened. Raising a finger to interject, I said, “I fail to see how y’all didn’t expect that from me.”

“There were children there. Children!” said Venus.

“They could only be armed biometrically,” I lied. No they fucking couldn’t. I didn’t even have to take my gloves off.

“I do not understand the nature of the device you say you used to destabilize the portal,” Victor Mender’s computer said for him.

I leaned forward, “Ok, so it shares some moving parts with the Dimension Bomb, but it’s more of an audio-vibratory-physio-molecular transport device. Basically, its primary purpose was to generally disrupt what you might call a wormhole or a portal. The source was magic, but I am familiar with the effects and have some knowledge on how to disrupt them.”

“What was your game?” asked Psychsaur. It was an astute question, coming from the only one of them to spend any time in my head, thinking my thoughts. “You always have some plan hidden behind everything.”

I held my hands out to my side like “What are you going to do?” I didn’t say that, however. Instead, I said, “I wanted to protect my daughter. What else could make me come here, ask y’all for help, prostate myself before you, and submit to patrolling as a hero?”

Minotaur came in again. “You crawled through a burning building to save a couple gerbils. I think you’d do whatever you needed to accomplish your goal.You don’t trust us so you probably didn’t tell us what you were doing.”

I leaned forward. “Look at it this way… I told y’all these things were real. They turned out to be real. I told y’all they wanted to take my daughter and I wanted to stop them. I fought them, my daughter is still here, and they are stopped. Nobody died. They didn’t snatch up anyone else. So even if I did have some other plan, it didn’t happen. I used up my explosives, and the little anti-portal device. I didn’t even get to fight Frostzilla because your stupid kids were running around without enough clothes on. They were having too much fun. How many more times are we going to go over this?”

“Why is this meeting kept from us?” asked a person with what could be mistaken for a Southern accent. I sat back in the chair and reached out with my mind to see what I had available to get me out of this situation. I’d come to this little inquest without armor on. So long as the Dimensional Rangers didn’t morph and the heroes didn’t join in, I could handle this.

“This is no concern of yours,” said Mender’s voice.

I heard the team shuffle in. Five rangers. There’s almost always a sixth, but I’d already killed that one. I saw the one with a red top step between myself and Victor Mender’s desk. He took a long look at me. “We find ourselves in odd circumstance. Your allies hide you well.”

“We are not her allies,” Venus said.

I nodded at that. “Merely enemies on good terms with one another.”

“Psycho Gecko is here under truce,” said Victor Mender.

The Red ranger looked to Mender. “You people must want to die. This man honors no truces and lives only for death and destruction.”

“Baba is in here?” asked Qiang from outside. The door creaked as she pushed her way in. I raised my hand to wave at her and she ran around to me for a hug. “Baba!”

“Hey there smooshylumpikins. I just had to answer a bunch of boring questions about all that stuff on Christmas Eve.”

“Who is this? Baba?” asked Red as he looked at Qiang.

She pressed closer to me to get away from him, her hand moving toward where she kept her knife on her. “Hello. My name is Qiang. This is my daddy.”

“Your daddy?” Red asked.

“Yep,” I said. “Bet you didn’t see that coming?”

“You’ve changed,” Red said.

“He has?” asked Venus.

Psychsaur interjected here. “Regardless, I believe we’re done with Gecko for now. She’s going to leave this room and we’re not going to fight about this, right?”

“You better hope not,” said Red. “Our people don’t want this relationship to sour, but hiding Psycho Gecko is a sure way to cause problems. We still want him.”

Venus crossed her arms. “We have our rules and we stick to them. Even Gecko doesn’t violate our truces.”

I nodded, and so did Qiang. “Ya know, I believe I was dismissed. Let me get right on that.” Red didn’t do anything, but neither he nor the rest of his color-coded costumed crimefighters tried to stop me.

Still, it was time to move on out. No interaction with those Rangers was going end well, and I had shit to do now that the Winter boogeymen had been put in their place. The break’s over, and I got a couple of important details to work out.

I ran into a problem. Qiang didn’t want to go. She hugged onto my leg and cried her little head off. “Daddy, I like it here!”

“I know you do, sweet, but we can’t stay. They don’t like me, and those people you saw in there will try to hurt me. I can’t stay here.”

Her crying didn’t stop, and reasoning with her just didn’t work. So I picked her up, threw her over my shoulder, and went about dividing up the things to take, things to leave, and things to burn in a fire to erase evidence. Excess panties went into the third pile. I’ve caught adolescent supers staring. On the plus side, interest in the library jumped way up. The way I’ve walked around here, lots of things jumped way up. I’m not a big believer in pants.

I stuffed Qiang into a suitcase with her head sticking out the top and slipped into my armor, getting ready to make a run for it.

Nobody made a big deal about the bonfire, surprisingly. A librarian burning a lot of stuff should be cause for concern, especially indoors. It’d have made a good Yule log if I ever cared to watch one of those.

I’d lost track of time, because Psychsaur interrupted me watching those beautiful flames. “You’re running again?”

I turned toward her swiftly, so as to make it look dramatic with my cape. “I ain’t looking to get deported back to that place and end up put on trial for war crimes. And y’all will. Cozying up to them like that. There’s always going to be friction between these two universes so long as I’m a refugee in one. It’s only a matter of time before I get handed over. And maybe y’all don’t shove me through a portal yourselves, but you stand by and let it happen.”

“What are you talking about, Baba?” asked Qiang.

I patted her on the head. “Sorry, just something about those people with the same uniform in different colors.” I stepped closer to Psychsaur.

“You don’t trust us,” she said.

I pointed a finger at her. “Stop that. That goes both ways. This isn’t trust. This is guilt. Fucking guilt. You talked a big game about trusting me so I’d trust y’all, but I needed you and the others. That’s why I came here: I needed you. Guess what, y’all didn’t help. I might as well have not been here. I had to trick y’all just to get some help, and I could have done that anywhere. Instead, I get people saying I need to reform. Go to jail or the loony bin. So this isn’t really about trust. This is about tolerating me until you can guilt me into going to jail without giving me any help I actually need.”

“We saved your life,” she started.

“THEY saved my life,” I pointed off into the air. “They being those idiots with all the jingle bells who came after Qiang. They saved my life without asking me first and decided I owed them a job. If I didn’t do it, they got Qiang.”

“You could have told-”

I put my hand over her mouth. “Master Academy saved my life without asking me first and decided I owed them a job dealing with The Claw. Now that’s done, but y’all think I should change the way y’all want. And I’m sure y’all will be more than happy to take in Qiang when I’m sent off to the funny farm where life is wonderful all the time.”

“You want Baba to go to prison?” asked Qiang, struggling to try and look at us. She squirmed until the suitcase fell over with her on her back. She hit her head a little, but didn’t cry. You know why? Because she’s a Gecko. And Geckos don’t cry over a little thing like traumatic brain injuries. Geckos don’t actually have a lot of defined things we do, since there’s only the two of us. But still, I respect her ability to get hurt without whining about it. Instead, she cried about all these people she thought were friends trying to put her female father in prison. And she’s got a very different idea of what prison is. She used to live under a dictatorship.

I unzipped the luggage to let little Qiang out. Meanwhile, Psychsaur tried to salvage things. “It’s not about prison. We just want him to go to a place full of people who will keep him away from people and give him drugs so he can get better.”

“My daddy’s already awesome!” she said. She picked up a book and threw it at Psychsaur. Now, I know what people are thinking: was the book ok? Good news, it was hardcover, so it didn’t take any damage. Bad news, it was young adult, so it didn’t hurt Psychsaur very much.

So I took my daughter and walked out to the front lawn. The Rangers all stood in front of the gate, unmorphed, as if challenging me to try and pass through. It was a dumb gesture. I could jump over, or go to the side.

They looked really stupid when a helicopter lowered down to the lawn for Qiang and I to get onboard.

“Where to, sir?” asked the pilot.

“We need to pick someone up while they’re in town. I’ve been meaning to stock up on scientists.”

After that, it’s time to finally use my position as emperor and supreme dictator of Ricca to make a change for the positive. Not everything the heroes said was nonsense, and seeing the Master Academy as this hub of heroes has given me an idea. I think it’s time the supervillains got organized.

But first, let’s go kidnap a geneticist!

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Frozen Over 8

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As Christmas Eve counted down, I stood guard in my armor. That Whirlygig business was then, and this was now, even though now is later for me. Everyone had themselves an exciting night of feasting and fun, and it was winding down. Guests stumbled back to their rooms or were helped by some of the more responsible faculty when they weren’t carrying kids back to rooms. Eschaton ran off to immediately try out this new VR headset somebody left in front of his door that promised it came with several pre-loaded porn videos. I waved off someone who would have helped me with Qiang, who had passed out in the refectory.

I let them empty the place out and I watched over her, alone. Psychsaur and Venus lingered at different times, looking at me. I ignored them until they left. I was still pissed at them. I can’t really be disappointed. Of course their trust was only skin deep and dependent on me “getting help” whatever that means. No, I know what that means. That means prison and a psych ward where somebody tries to rewire my head until my thinking’s roughly in agreement with the kinds of psychos I see walking around every day. It’s a little hard for me to accept that I need to be more like people who are quieter about it.

I’ve seen what people are. I’ve done their dirty work for them. I can’t fight to defend that status quo. Turns out I can’t force a better world on them, either. Those options didn’t matter anyway, though. Inconsequential. The fight in front of me isn’t some grand, epic battle for a greater cause. This is about me and my daughter.

Midnight ticked on down and then… time stood still. It stopped passing. My internal clock even stopped counting along, though I could still move. I heard bells jingle and whistling sounds. A hole opened in reality, letting in chilling air. The giant satyr-like Krampus swung his chains back and forth as he stepped through, snow clinging to his fur and to the hair-clad Belsnickel who waved at me with a switch. Pere Fouettard, or Father Whipper in English, rolled his whip back up as he walked through. Knecht Ruprecht, the old man in the brown robe with the staff, followed after.

“It’s time to give the devil his due,” I told the Companions of Kringle.

Krampus grinned toothily and stepped up close to me. He sniffed at me, then stepped around, eyeing Qiang asleep on the table behind me. Then he jumped right over here and toward the doorway, stalking off with what should be an ominous clip-clop. Ruprecht nodded at me. I turned to look straight on at Krampus as he ran down the hall and spoke. “Eschaton, you might want to take off those VR glasses now.”

“What’s going on? That’s that Krampus guy from the movie!” he said from down the hallway.

“Yeah, it was a bit of a bait and switch on the porn there, bucko. But if it’s any consolation, maybe help a brother out when he needs it. Or she, in this case. Eh, you’ll probably be fine.” I cut the feed. I’m not known for my conscience, but I think it’d sit just fine with that one.

I heard a howl of pain from where the Krampus ran. I also caught the delightful scent of singed fur. “Tougher nut to roast over an open fire than you expected?” I asked Ruprecht.

Fouettard disappeared into snowflakes. I heard whipping noises, followed by a whoosh and a cry of pain. “Say,” I said to the two remaining Companions, “Y’all don’t seem to know a whole lot about technology, do y’all?”

“We mostly give out candy and sweets,” said Belsnickel, scratching at his hairy clothes. “The big guy gets to do all that.”

I nodded. “I hear ya. Just curious about that. And, hey, I did what y’all asked. We’re all clear, right?” I walked over to the tree and all the presents. I plucked a rather large spherical decoration off, softball sized. “Right?” I turned to look at Ruprecht, since he seemed to be calling the shots here. A rogue fireball hit a hallway wall at an angle from further along. Wow. Good construction here, because that looked like wood to me.

Knecht Ruprecht set his staff on the ground. “Yes. You have made a believer of the hero Eschaton and fulfilled your part of the deal.”

“Regarding Qiang, that means…?” I pushed him along. I wanted him to say it for clarity’s sake. And because I know this game. I’m supposed to be the devil people make a deal with who turns the letter around on someone to screw them over.

“We hold no claim to your daughter anymore,” he finished. “We can touch neither of you now.”

I suspected as much of Qiang. I doubt there are very many kids these guys can truly go after. I mean, these beings were invented when normal childhood behavior involved drinking moonshine and mugging people at musket-point. It was that or kick around the ole kickin’ rope. Fun childhood game, the kickin’ rope. Kept plenty of kids entertained, until Daddy borrowed it when that Great Depression thing started. Was a lot harder to kick around after that until they got him down. What, as if they had money to buy a second kickin’ rope?

I popped the top off the decoration and pushed a button on the inside, thinking about how bad an idea it is to extort me. I chucked the thing at Ruprecht’s head. He brought his staff up to knock it away, but it exploded into a fine mist that chewed through the staff and most of his body. He disappeared, but without blood. Maybe he Obi Wan Kenobied, maybe he Nightcrawlered. I didn’t write him off automatically just because I dropped a DIME on him.

That’s Dense Inert Metal Explosive. I tossed another one at Belsnicknel before it could react. The bomb flew through the air and, when it reached its target, the explosive inside went off. The force of it pushed out microshrapnel consisting of heavy metal for all the rockers in the house. It also turned the casing into more microshrapnel. If Belsnickel was mortal, the results would have been quite nasty for it. Within effective range, it’s like getting explosively sandblasted with stuff that can give you cancer. A relatively short distance away, it did nothing to Qiang except make her cry. The first one woke her up already, so I guess I kinda ruined things that way.

“It’s ok, baby,” I said, rushing over to hug her. Most people don’t actually like being around explosions for some reason. I turned while holding her and saw the frosty hole in reality. Carrying Qiang, I headed over to one large square present and tore off the bow, pulling out a large pin. I gave it a push with my free arm and sent it on through the portal. Then I turned and put a little distance between myself and that bomb.

Behind me, it sparked and crackled with electricity and a humming sound ramped up. Just as the sound grew its loudest and wind began to blow through the refectory… the portal vanished with a weak “bloop”. Exactly as bloopin’ planned, with a minimum of disruption on this end of it.

Qiang and I were safe over by the windows. Even the presents were probably still ok. I’ll make sure Qiang isn’t the first to open hers, just in case something slipped in from elsewhere. “Look!” Qiang pointed outside where snowmen were picking themselves up out of all the snow and began dragging their round, legless bottoms toward the school.

It seemed like a good time to walk on over to the nearest fire alarm. I can only guess that the school is actually used to people setting stuff on fire with powers and that’s why Eschaton’s fight with the Companions hadn’t set it off already. Jolted out of sleep already thanks to explosions, Qiang didn’t care so much for the fire alarm either. I’m sure the rest of the school did, but it changed things. My HUD clock went all screwy as more people awoke.

I kept Qiang with me as I ran to go see what was up with Eschaton, Krampus, and Father Whipper. I think the name’s better in English. I actually caught up to them to see Eschaton flying circles around an nude Krampus. He’s a lot less impressive furless and burned. If I had a fork, I could stick it in him. Instead, I had a kid.

Then again, a simple knife may not do the trick. Maybe Eschaton was holding back this whole time due to being inside the school.

He got his chance to shine. Whipper appeared behind him in the foyer, clinging to the wall above the door. Whipper’s whip whipped out and wrapped around Eschaton’s throat. Eschaton had enough of that shit and rocketed out through the door, blowing it off its hinges and smashing several snowmen in the process. Out there, he burned brighter. The French bogeyman of folklore had flown out with him but was dropped back to the ground when Eschaton burned through the whip. Pretty sure it was no normal whip, either.

Krampus threw his chain at Eschaton, spinning around side to side like chain shot. Eschaton held his hands together and intercept it with his own personal cutting torch that sent two pieces careening into more hapless snowmen.

Closer to home, Qiang wiggled free of my grasp. Kids do that. You try to grab hold of them, but you can’t do it without hurting them. She scooped up a ball of snow and threw it right at the closest snowman. It knocked off the hand of one of its thin branch arms. These were not tough enemies.

I saw a pair of wood hands begin to reach out of the snow behind her. I stomped them into broken pieces, then down into the snow between them just in case the thing had a head of some sort.

The cavalry arrived behind us. Heroes and children dressed for sleep arrived en masse. It was really good coordination, so maybe they have plans worked up. I think there are signs posted around the library, but I haven’t bothered reading them. Too busy microfiching Playboy for the articles. As soft as they are, I wouldn’t do it for the porn.

“I don’t know what you did, but we’ll talk later. What’s going on?” Venus said, walking up to survey the situation, which involved Eschaton fighting a whip wielding old man in a robe while a giant satyr slowly regained its fur and unburnt appearance in the midst of the snow.

“I was a little mad about the lack of trust around here, showed Eschaton these guys when they arrived to kidnap Qiang, and they went after him for some reason. I dunno, maybe he’s been a bad boy this year.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she said. “Why do we have Frosties?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Happened around the time I blew up two others of these Christmas guys and the portal they used to come here. I suspect a link between them and our ambulatory precipitation here.”

“Alright, here’s what we’re gonn-” Venus started to say.

She only got that far because Ball Boy interrupted by yelling, “Snowball fight!”

If Venus thinks she was angry over someone stepping on her lines, just imagine how pissed I was that I couldn’t tell a group of concerned superheroes to stay frosty. Or maybe I’d have said “Slay Frosty, everyone.” The point is, I didn’t get a chance for either one. Thank you very much, stupid happy people.

The resulting battle was as vicious as it was fun. Just an absolute snowbath, because the snowmen didn’t have blood. Waterbath then? That’s just a bath. This metaphor’s a wash, but the fight was awesome. Just so much fun. Ball Boy himself had a great time throwing glowing balls around at all the snowmen. I’d say it was cheating, but nobody really cared.

Krampus and Father Whipper didn’t stick around much longer once reinforcements arrived. They disappeared in swirls of snow. That meant, goodness gracious, the snowmen stood no chance against Eschaton’s great balls of fire. I even joined in, but only after running back in to grab Qiang’s robe, slippers, and jacket. And mittens. A hat, too. This one shivering kid tried to grab the robe from me, but I kicked her cold ass away. Then I sighed, remembered I was supposed to help her, and just dumped all the clothes on Qiang. “Put these on, honey bunny. I’ll be back.”

I grabbed the freezing girl and hauled her inside to pile heavy blankets on her. Helping her is why I wasn’t out there when all the snow on the ground sucked itself up into a pile. The little snowmen disappeared as well, their snow contributing to the body of one far larger than the others, with arms of grand leafless maples trees. I don’t know where it got them from, but I knew a couple good stabs would give us all the syrup we’d ever need. It roared and swiped at heroes. I pulled out a grappling hook and fired it at Qiang to yank her away from where one giant maple hand smashed into the dead grass everyone stood on.

“Everyone back!” said Eschaton, being just the biggest damn buzzkill, even compared to the giant bee woman I’ve had sexy times with.

“But I wanna kill the giant thirty-foot-tall snowman!” I yelled, probably guessing its height wrong. There was no time to have my HUD add Subway foot longs for a more accurate measurement. It didn’t carry over the enormous gout of flame. Steam hissed, and warm water soon splashed onto the courtyard and came rushing toward the entrance as a wave. I grabbed Qiang, ripped my helmet off, and shoved it over her own head. Just as the wave reached us, I saw the digital numbers on my HUD clock roll over and over before settling on 12:01 and-

I sat bolt upright where I was somehow sleeping in the refectory. I looked over to the table Qiang had been on and she also sat up. The clock read 12:01 and the sound of fading jingly bells still floated on the air. I stood up and ran to the window where I thought I saw something flying through the night sky. I’d have sworn I heard the laugh, too. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Despite that, snow still coated the ground. There was no evidence of the fight, including scorch marks where Eschaton had been flaming up the place. It was while examining the absence of my explosive decorations that the rest of the school came in, similarly awakened from the dream. Qiang had been busy examining all the presents hidden on a different side of the tree.

“What the fudge was that?!” Venus wondered in a kid-friendly way. “Did you put something in the food?”

“Not this time,” I answered. “You think this was some kind of plan of mine? No. Face it, unless my only goal was to protect my daughter, I failed here. Everyone’s here and safe. I didn’t even get to enact Plan M.” I gestured toward her as if Venus knew Plan M was the one where she died.

“Here, presents!” said Qiang, holding up one for each of us.

“Who gave me a present?” I asked while Venus asked, “Who gave her a present?”

“Santa?” asked Venus after reading the tag. “It’s sweet you got all these, but I have questions. Questions that,” she glanced around as amped-up kids already tearing into all the new presents on what was technically now Christmas. “Can hold until later, pending a drug test.”

I popped open the crotch access. Venus pushed it back closed. “Later!”

It’s safe to say I hope everyone else out there had a Happy Psycho Christmas as well.

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Frozen Over 7

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With Christmas fast approaching, I dropped my bombshell on the heroes. I feel really stupid for even forgetting it. Maybe I’m catching the Mad Cow. Maybe I’m losing my edge. Maybe I need to replace my brain completely so that it’s all compact and electronic. Then, I can make it so my head splits open down the middle and can clamp down on the arms of anyone trying to punch me in the face. Regardless, I was stupidly distracted for one reason or another and I actually forgot I had video footage. When told to make someone believe in Christmas again, I didn’t think to immediately show him the video of a mythological Christmas creature saying that.

I could try and pretend it was nothing but a plan, like to add drama, but the best excuse I have is that the heroes likely wouldn’t believe it anyway. My memory’s been all over the place and so has my brain. I think it’s the company. They keep trying to fry my brain with Christmas songs and Nativity scenes.

Regardless, my excuse about trust appeared to be a good one when I walked in on the adult heroes sitting around and enjoying a movie. I had waited for Eschaton to get there because I could and I knew he’d do so. So I just walked in, ignoring John McClane crawling around an air vent, and grabbed the HDMI cable from the back of the DVD player. Regardless of the audience’s protests, I stepped to the side of the TV, faced them. “Ok, folks. It’s time I show y’all something.”

“This better not be porn,” said Triclops.

“Porn is an option?” Eschaton said.

Psychsaur gently thwacked him on the back of the head. “It’s not porn.”

“Correct. This is… ok, so time is getting short and it’s time to come clean. For those who don’t know… pretty much just Eschaton at this point… I’m Psycho Gecko. Yep, laying that on the table.”

Eschaton looked around at everyone else. “Is this a joke?”

Venus shook her head.

“Then why aren’t we beating him up? He’s a he, right?” Eschaton asked.

I shrugged. “Originally, but you never know when a pair of boobs will come in handy.”

“Gecko is behaving herself right now,” Psychsaur said. “She even goes out on patrol with us.”

“Can we not mention that part so loud?” I asked. “People will get ideas.”

“Doing what?!” Eschaton asked.

Triclops spoke up. “You should have seen her with that fire. Broke her arms rescuing people, then part of the building collapsed under her while she was rescuing hamsters.”

“That was crazy,” snorted Minotaur. “The good kind of crazy.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, roast Gecko for Christmas,” I said. “All this is… well, I’m sure Venus has told you it’s a ploy. A hard one to live with, y’all ruining my bad name like this. I’m not turning over a new leaf. This isn’t going to end with em donning the red undies to save people. I’m just worried because my daughter is threatened.”

“Gecko has a daughter?!” Eschaton asked.

“They’ll take her,” I said.

“Who will take her?” asked Eschaton, eliciting groans from everyone else.

“This story is nonsense,” said Triclops.

I jammed the cable into my ear. For added effect, I changed the setting on my eyes to show a “Please stand by” rainbow screen while I connected to the cable.

On playback, the footage was odd. Skipped around a bit, had errors in it that screwed with seeing anything. Everything that I perceived was there, don’t get me wrong. But I was missing time, and those errors added up. I had to fast forward through that stuff to get to the relevant bits. Let’s just say a few new problems came up with the audio talking about me getting Eschaton for them all, helped by my own narration of the tale.

Still, the first question after I’d out and out shown them all these beings was simple, “What was up with all that ‘magical anomaly’ stuff?” That one came from Ball Boy.

“Oh, that’s just part of my normal HUD here.” My eyes went back to normal and I showed them the normal view.

“Wait, you’re magical?” Triclops turned to Minotaur, then back to the TV screen. “I’m NOT? I thought I had magic in me somewhere!”

It was Eschaton who spotted the analysis software matching faces and body types to names. “You’ve been looking at everyone here and figured out our identities?”

“I’ve been messing with some of y’all for years, and I had access to every top secret file in the world for a little bit.” For good measure, I flashed the identity of D.B. Cooper for a second so they could see. “But at the same time, I haven’t acted on that stuff while I’ve been here, have I? And y’all saw why. Krampus, Ruprecht, those other assholes… Pete.”

“Who’s Pete?” Psychsaur just had to ask. I cued up distorted showing of my encounter with Pete the other night.

“When you start hiring actors in blackface, this has gone too far,” Venus said.

They booed me and threw popcorn. Minotaur got up to grab hold of me but I shook him off and tore the cable from my ear, pain be damned. I stormed out of there, but Psychsaur soon caught up to me as I headed down the hall.

“Hey! Wait, don’t do something stupid,” she called.

I turned on her. I would say I glared, but that implies anger. I wasn’t angry. “I already did something stupid. I came to y’all for help.”

“You always have an ulterior motive. We knew you weren’t serious about pretending to be a hero, but we didn’t throw you out. If you want to seek help, we’re happy to give it,” she said. “Sorry, that sounds cliché, but it’s not just a line. Whatever’s wrong with you, you don’t have to be alone. If you want help, it’s never too late.”

I turned on her and had her slammed against the wall in an instant. Little miss psychic couldn’t read that one happening in time. “I don’t need that kind of help. This isn’t some cry for attention about my mental or moral state. This is a real thing, with real beings, and my daughter really on the line.”

“I’m your friend. Get your hands off of me,” she said, looking me in the eyes. I think then she realized exactly how serious I was. Maybe she could sense how cold I’d gone inside. Not frozen blood or anything. Just cold. No anger or regret. “We’re here to help, but not if you’re just going to use us and not get help. If you do that, you’ll just end up alone or leave Qiang an orphan. You’re always going to need help and that’s why you let people like Moai and Carl close, then push them away to keep them safe because the way you live is too dangerous for love. It’s push them away or change. Now you have a kid.”

I let her go. It was that or kill her, and I just barely like her enough not to kil her. Heedless of a small crowd of concerned heroes looking at me from the TV room, I headed to the library and to get dressed.

Whirlygig, not Gecko. I went out on patrol. It took a lot to not slide into my armor instead of the costume. But it’s all part of the plan. I think we’re on Plan M at this point. There’s really a lot of improvisation in these, though. For example, there’s no way I could have planned around the Greens wrecking a bunch of fire hydrants in Empyreal City’s south side. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but the stuff they were on meant they could take a beating. Coincidentally, I wanted to give a beating.

They weren’t just flooding the streets. They roamed around, a lot of regular guys with a bit more hair than normal in lighter clothes than normal for this time of year. One skinny guy in dreadlocks ripped a hydrant right out of the ground with his bare hands.

They were led by a guy who didn’t get the memo about it being Casual Friday. He had grown, bulged even, but not in the conventional bodybuilder sense. He was barrelchested and -bellied with what looked like a pelt in that low light. All that was less noticeable than the humongous antlers on his head, wider than his shoulders and curved like a moose. “Look at the rack on that one,” I said to myself. Then I put on some music and sang along to the only lyrics in it, “Oh what fun it is to ride a pimped-out getaway!”

Antlers, dreadlocks, and another seven guys, all trying to spread water and then tossing stuff into it. I looked further down the street where they came from and saw plants growing already. As far back as I could see, there were vines and tall bushes.

I started off the fight landing on one guy who had been vaping, which is what made him such a priority target. He went down with my boots on his back, but groaned and started to stand up. I jumped up and backflipped, coming down again on it. Again, he started to stand, so I locked in a sleeper hold while he stood.

With a snort from the big guy, the closest three guys came over to put a stop to me. For an ordinary man, that’d be more than enough. If the boobs are any indication, I am no ordinary man.

Three opponents. Divide and conquer. I checked around for anything and found a turned-over plastic trash can. I set it upright and held onto it while I flipped over it toward the closest Green. Upon landing, I brought the can up and over, slamming it down onto that Green with his arms trapped at his side and a LOT of thin brown liquid flowing down around his body. I grabbed him and threw him at the next closest Green.

The last of the three was bald with a large flower tattooed on top of his head. I spun toward him and sent one of the recently-repaired mechanical arms whipping around to knock him in the face. I kept up the spin to give momentum to the other arm as it came around to catch the back of his calf and drop him to one knee. I followed through to turn around and backflipped, planting a boot on his head and sending him down to the sidewalk. He stayed down, so that was nice.

Behind me, the one in the trash can still rolled around, trying to wiggle his way out of the bottom. The friend who was supposed to be helping him instead came after me. A long-haired guy with half-moon shades, actually. He got in a punch as I tried to stand after my flippy kick, knocking a tooth loose. I spat it in his face along with some blood. He paused to wipe it away and gave me a moment to stand. “You want the tooth?” I asked. Then I dropped my fangs and pumped Sriracha from my venom sacks. “You can’t handle the tooth!” I spat a red mist of hot sauce into his eyes just when he thought it was safe to look around. He screamed and tried to wash his face out in the street.

The third one, meanwhile, was still wiggling. I flipped the can upright so he was balanced on his head and jammed it between a pair of cars that were perilously parallel parked.

The big guy must have paid attention, because I barely had a moment of rest before a redhead was on me. She clawed at my hair and even ripped a few purple stands out, then pushed me down and got on top. Her first punches weren’t that good, but she got better and I began to miss my helmet. Unfortunately for her, being on my back was a pretty good base to send the mechanical arms up under her armpits and fling her off me and into a nearby car whose alarm started to go off.

Again I got to my feet and again I had a superpowered gangbanger, this one in a hoodie, came at me swinging. I caught his arm between the mechanical ones and backed up, pulling him with me while he was off-balance. He caught his foot on the edge of the sidewalk and tipped forward onto his face, at which point I jammed my heel into the back of his kidney and bladder a half dozen times until he was too busy pissing blood to fight.

I barely dodged the broken hydrant Dreadlock threw at my head. He and the last remaining mook, a Green woman with a pair of dreamcatchers for earrings, had decided not to come at me one at a time.

I stepped behind a nearby SUV for cover and a little time to breathe, then dropped down to see how they were going to come at me. Dreadlock’s shoes and dreamcatcher’s sandals stepped up to the vehicle’s front. They pulled it out and away from me. I smiled to myself and ran around to the back. I popped the rear door and easily, then crawled it. I gathered as much speed as I could and brough the mech arms up as a shield and a ram. I smashed through the windshield and grabbed dreamcatcher by the head.

I swung around on her back for a moment, pulling us back from the SUV and dreadlocks. Setting myself back on my feet, I hauled her around to face me by her earring and used the mech arms to throw her into the air. I rolled back then and used all my arms to push off the ground with my boots in the air, catching the falling Green in the face. She rolled off to the side and didn’t move, but her chest kept moving.

Dreadlock almost put his boot in my face, though. Instead it just went through the street as I rolled. My body protested the constant moving that was my advantage over these guys like this and asked kindly if I had any more of that oxygen shit it loves.

I tried to hit this last one with my mech arms, but he caught them. It seemed like a good moment to bring in my hoverboard drones. They had separated and now flew past, shooting grappling hooks as they passed. The lines wrapped around Dreadlock’s legs. He had a moment to think about what was happening before he let go of me to try and grab onto anything to stop him from being hauled off. He almost got the car. The drones flew him up into the air a good bit, aimed, and then cut the line. He crashed down on the annoying car with the alarm going off, his impact abruptly silencing it.

That just left me with several aches, short on breath, and probably something broken, to face the big moose one on one. This would be something of a fair fight. I hate fair fights. They’re a desperation move, and I wasn’t desperate yet.

I called the drones over. They locked into hoverboard mode as they approached and I hopped on, speeding away. Maybe the big moose knuckle even though I was going for real. As soon as I got out of sight over the rooftops, I circled around to catch him from behind. The mech arms wrapped around his leg and I dragged him, racing down the street. I bounced him off the road and against cars parked along the side. I flew us higher and smacked him right into this giant boxing glove sign hanging over a gym. Then I flew us up a few more stories past that and let him go. I looped around so I was right in front of him at the apex and started wailing on him. I went for the gut to knock the air of out him, pummeling with fists mechanical and biological. He his swings were slow, and I could jump off my hoverboard and bring it right back under me whenever I needed to avoid them.

Together we descended, though I still had the ability to stop short before cratering the road like he did.

It was a testament to whatever the Greens were smoking that he’d live. I just had to hope he wouldn’t enjoy it that much with those sirens on the way. The cops were more than happy to bat cleanup at that point. I didn’t stay either. I had vented a lot of frustration, and realized I needed to see to a few other things before the adrenaline left me a quivering mass of person goo in the street.

At least I managed to get back to the school and drop off the presents I had under the tree before I passed out. Venus woke me up in the morning to make the walk of shame from the cafeteria to my quarters in the library. I refused to tell her what happened, but she said something about a report from her friends in the police about Whirlygig. I did my best to avoid her face, not wanting to see the expression there. Pride, I think.

Before she shut the door to the library behind me, she decided to tell me, “You better clean up all that nose blood, and Merry Christmas.”

I held it open long enough to stick my face back out and mutter a “Bah humbug,” before slamming it shut.

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Frozen Over 6

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Qiang is bonding so well with all these folks. They don’t seem to hate her at all for her connection to me. I’ve seen people’s reactions to being told she’s mine, and their biggest problem with her parentage is believing she’s mine. But they like her. No one’s trying to kidnap her or anything, not even the ones I figured were assholes.

I was walking along to find Qiang so we could head out to do some sledding, ya see. Figured we might go sledding. I know I have a way to convince people I’m telling the truth about Ruprecht, Krampus, and the rest, but this is about timing and precision. I really only need to convince one person, after all, and I’d rather do so close to Christmas Eve so he doesn’t have time to come up with reasonable explanations or strong drugs.

I made my way down the hall, sneaking almost. I came to a room with Venus and Psychsaur, for instance. Peeked in and found them standing there, holding each other under the mistletoe. It was nothing X-rated, or even me-13. Just girlfriends holding each other and whispering. Now, I suppose it would have been crude to eavesdrop in the hopes of overhearing anything juicy or even, ahem, wet.

“Everything looks beautiful. You should be proud. It’s like a movie around here,” Psychsaur said. Meanwhile, I was wondering if this was about to turn into the Jurassic Park porn parody. Just as a general rule, there’s ALWAYS a porn parody. Hell, there’s even a porn parody of this blog. I keep it locked up in another file. Venus would murder me if she saw it, for real.

Venus blushed. “Christmas has always been so special. It’s the time of year when I most feel I’ve made a family.”

Psychsaur nuzzled her girlfriend’s cheek with her own scaled one. “It feels like everything’s going to be alright.”

Venus smiled at that and hummed a sort of “uh huh” before she kissed Psychsaur. I noticed Psychsaur give a little wave of her hand on my side, like she was waving something along. I quietly slipped further along the hallway before I disrupted their Hallmark moment.

Another room I passed had that minotaur guy and Ball Boy in it, among others. This group had some of the same teens who gathered around to try and fool me out of information on my past that time. They thought they were so clever, too, getting me hurt from a burning building and then giving me drugs. As Mix N’Max once found out, it takes more than a little bit of drugs to get me to talk. It takes a lot of drugs. A shitload. Tony Montana snorting mountains of cocaine.

I’m kidding. It just takes ones with slightly different pathways. They don’t work quite the same way with my brain chemistry. It’s not a sociopath thing so much as a homo machina thing.

A bunch of them were all sitting around watching that one screaming kid convince some burglars to leave him alone by putting on a gangster movie and setting off firecrackers in a pan. Good movie. The kid rigs up his lair with a tarantula and a flamethrower, and hurls paint cans at people’s heads. He’s a regular budding supervillain, just without the minions. Minotaur looked up and saw me there, then snorted and raised his glass. It was either barf or eggnog, but I’m being redundant.

I narrowed my eyes, knowing he knew full well who I was and had some negative experiences with me in the past. I’m not cool with these folks. They act almost like I am, but I know it. They’re just waiting for a reason. I glared at him, pointed at my eyes with two fingers, then pointed to him with them. I got my eyes on him and the rest of his ilk. They wanna trick me, that’s what it is.

I recognized Qiang’s laughter coming from the cafeteria. There, I found Triclops and some others overseeing the efforts of some of the smaller kids to make their own cookies. They’d laid tarp down on the floor, which meant they had a pretty good idea what would happen. It was a bit of a mess, and I found Qiang chewing on hers before it even got cooked. When another kid tagged her arm, she set her cookie down and chased after him.

Look at her. Her first holiday season with me and she’s already chasing human guys in retaliation for daring to touch her. Of course, she didn’t do it because she’s a superior being to the low down humans she congregates with. I leaned against the doorway there, briefly wondering if I even could instill that in her. Her mother was human, after all, and she’ll assume I loved her. More than that, she’ll know she’s half human and that this might make her a disappointment in my eyes.

And I suppose humans may not be entirely inferior. Well, not bad at least. Ya know, when they’re not predisposed to oppress someone just for being a sub species. They’re still ugly, though, except for my daughter. They’re just a lot better here and now than where I come from. Yeah, I’ll definitely teach her she’s superior to those bastards. Screw them.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” said a male voice from behind me. I turned to see Eschaton there. He smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Michael.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Tia,” I held out my hand and shook. “Tia Mot.” If he found the name strange, he didn’t let on. It was almost disappointing, considering the play on words I came up with there.

“If you don’t mind me asking, is there something wrong?” he asked.

“What? Why?”

“You’re tense for someone watching the children. I don’t mean to pry.” He held up his hands. “I only mean to help, if it’s something I can help with. Wow, those eyes…” He leaned in to peer at them. I blinked and reopened them with the camouflage on so they appeared to be hazel human eyes.

“Yeah, my eyes.” I said, not so happy he leaned in close to me. He’s not bad looking, but I aim to fuck him over, not fuck him. “I was just thinking about where I came from and how different things are from here. My daughter is going to have a remarkably better upbringing than I did.”

He looked past me into the room. “That’s great. I know it must be weird. My dad wanted a better life for me too, but he sometimes seemed like he didn’t think I was as good as him because I didn’t grow up facing the same prejudice he did. He had to take those hard times he lived through and turn them into a kind of strength. I think there are many types of strength. If she’s going here, she’ll be just fine. They take people of different strengths and make them strong together.”

I turned back to the room. Something about that just bothered me. Teammates can die. I know, I’ve killed them. They can be subverted or given to doubts. I’ve done so. Hell, I’d cause a rift between this guy and the Master Academy capes just telling him my name. While this place seems good for Qiang, I just don’t know if I can have her grow up thinking she can rely on these other people. Even if the humans here are good for humans, a true credit to their species, they’re still people. They’re still inherently weak. They will disappoint her. They will make her hurt.

Qiang spotted me while chewing on her cookie, which hadn’t yet been baked. She waved and I caught myself smiling in spite of my mood. Why not just let her have cookie time?

I turned to step away from the door. “That was yours, huh?” asked Eschaton. He turned to follow me. “She was cute. Hey, if you think it’ll cheer you up, they’re watching movies down the hall.”

I shook my head. “Sorry there, Michael. Christmas just isn’t my time of year.”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” he said, following me on my way back to the library.

“Ugh, the songs are one thing I don’t like. I didn’t grow up with all this, so I don’t exactly get in the Christmas spirit,” I said I turned to look at him as I walked backward.

He shrugged. “Fair enough. I haven’t been into Christmas for some time. I didn’t even think they’d invite me here this year.”

“They don’t like you?” I asked.

He scratched at the back of his head through his long, dark hair. “We had differences of opinion this year. It means a lot to me that they looked past it.” He looked back as someone called his superhero name. He turned to me and grinned. “Sorry, I need to see to that. Hey, I’ll see you around?”

I shrugged now. “Maybe if you’re around the library.”

Oh, have I mentioned I’ve taken up wearing needless glasses? Between that, the knee-length skirt, and the button-down blouse, I’m getting to live that sexy librarian fantasy of mine. Ya know, just like anyone else would.

It was in that capacity that I learned of another complication. There I was, rearranging books. “Hmm. This should be under ‘H’ for toy…” Then door opened, as if the place was just available to everyone.

The Yellow Dimension Ranger walked in. Uniform and everything. I immediately took a stance, book in hand.

“Stop,” he said in accented English that would sound like some sort of Southern accent to anyone else. Lots of planets have a south though, and the South has lots of accents. His was the same sort of accent as mine. “You are the librarian here?”

I nodded and looked around for any more of the Rangers.

Yellow pushed buttons on something on his wrist and the costume disappeared in a flash of light. He stood there in a different sort of uniform that spoke to a more militant style of Ranger. Some of them are like that. One year they’re civilians, kids even. The next, they’re a private organization of adventurers or archaeologists or mercenaries. Then they’re a government-sponsored defense force. There’s not a lot of consistency in who ends up with those abilities.

Yellow held up his hands, more like someone under arrest. “I want to find books on the history.”

I set him up with that, then rushed off to go find Venus. Couldn’t find her in the TV room, the den, the living room, the sitting room, nor the foyer. She wasn’t in the cafeteria, or the vending machine room, or the bathrooms. I looked behind doors. I checked under tables. Finally, I pulled open the window to Venus’s room. Given it was a couple stories up, she should have thought harder before she and Psychsaur threw those pillows.

“Get out of here Gecko!” She yelled and came storming over, barely covering herself with the sheet.

“Wait!” I put my wrist out where the window couldn’t shut. I pulled it out, thinking it might be fractured. I put my other one in there instead. A slam of the window later and that one was definitely fractured. I flailed both my arms backward, but didn’t fall off the back of the building.

Venus stuck her head out and looked down at me. “How are you doing that?”

I tried to shoot her finger guns despite the pain. “Baby, you’d be amazed what some of my parts can do.”

She looked at me like she wanted to go ahead and push me off. “Speak. Now.”

“The Dimension Rangers are here!” I shouted.

She smiled. “They are? I didn’t think they’d come.”

“You invited them?!” I glared at her. Hell, pretty sure Psychsaur could see my point on that one. “They hate me. They want to kill me.”

“It’s Christmas. I’ll make sure they give you a chance here if you give them a chance,” she said. She actually reached out and caressed my face. “Here, get in and stay the hell out of my room.” She helped me in, which was nice given my poor wrists. She guided me over to the door. “Just relax and make up a name or something. Keep your head down. Don’t cause trouble. Get those arms looked at, while you’re at it.”

She actually seemed rushed to get me out of the room for some reason. Don’t know why. Maybe it had to do with overhearing her say, “At least we know he can’t do anything about what he saw in here until he heals,” as she closed the door.

Well, I’m glad they’re getting fucked. With the Dimensional Justice Rangers invited, that makes three of us.

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