Row, row, row your boat… oh, hello there. It’s me, Psycho Gecko, better known as the Great Empress Ice Pop. With that name, maybe I could get a cameo on She-Ra. I’d fit right in, except for all the cussing, murder, and torture.
I probably seem fairly calm, considering my situation. Being frozen in one spot wasn’t too fun, I’ll admit. Neither is the hunger, or peeing myself. The armor’s helpful like that. I designed it with some similarities to a biological body, including a circulatory system full of nanites. It’s a pretty handy tool that helps me be sure I can break out whenever I want.
That’s a big part of why I’m so calm. I have a lot of options for getting out of here. Here has changed, by the way. With the aid of their captive cryomancer, they managed to cut out a smaller ice block to keep me in and moved us. I think this whole production moves, but they sent myself and the kid to Kingscrow. Been awhile since I’ve been back there. I only have hijackable cameras to go off, but it’s still somehow as gloomy as ever, even in May. There were plenty of automated cars driving around whose systems were easily exploited if I wanted to use them to escape.
At the same time, I’ve been directing Dudebots to follow us. I put them into position around my new resting place: underneath the Museum of Natural And Unnatural History. I’m currently sharing a freezer with what looks like a Neanderthal and a giant clown head on a worm-like body, all of us in our own block. It makes sense to stick us here, since they already have the freezers for this sort of thing. Plus, I looked it up and found Meecer helped endow the place. There’s much less I can do with the security here, as it’s mostly passive defenses and manual security grates. I don’t know if they realized that was a hindrance for me, or if this is just a location they use for their Dark Bazaar business.
Whoever has to deal with this mess is going to have a lot of work on their hands.
Meecer flew in to join me on Friday evening. About time. Didn’t he know I had places to be? I got people back home complaining about some court case, and my guys are still in the middle of working out a mining deal with the people of that Uranus in another universe. Meecer’s kept me from drilling Uranus.
When he came, he came with guards. I should be flattered. The private detective I’ve been dealing with led the way, wearing his pokerface. His Lady Gaga impression contrasted with Colburn’s shark grin. The big guy pulled the teen who froze me along with him. The boy kept his face down, hair covering acne-ridden skin. They at least put him in more clothes this time. Then came a pair of big men in suits. One had a chrome ray gun, the other had a green hand. Only his hand was jade-colored. The dude must be awesome at growing plants.
Finally, after all that fanfare, Erin Meecer joined us. About time. He seemed like a pretty mediocre-looking white guy. Rounded jaw, but not fat. A strong nose like a triangle, but without being over-sized. Blue eyes like a tropical ocean. Short black hair that looked a little wet from the gel used on it. Unlike all but the captive boy, he had left his jacket behind. “Is she alive?” he asked his people.
Colburn nodded. “Thermal scans show she’s putting off a lot of heat.” He licked his lips afterward. Ugh. At least the guy didn’t use words like “moist” and “succulent” to describe me. Then he spoke again. “Mmm, a succulent breeder.”
Ew. Spoke too soon.
“Jeffrey, shut the hell up,” Meecer said. He turned to one of his guards, who handed him something bundled in white cloth. I could feel that something, actually. It was the bobblehead of me. How nice. The one with the signal jammer inside.
I poke up through is phone. “How nice. You brought me a gift.”
He pulled it off his belt and looked at it. “You’re awake?”
“Alive, awake, and a-waiting to get out. Won’t be long now, will it?”
He raised an eyebrow, looking at the chunk of ice I was stuck in. “I intended to take you out of there. You are a special piece to me. Now, I’ll admire you from afar until you’re… ripe.”
“Necrophilia? I hear ya. That way I can’t complain about what a terrible fuck you are.” I responded, then laughed through his phone.
He gritted his jaw. “I meant you would weaken.”
“Good luck,” I said, laughing again, this time through all the phones any of them had.
His face went red and he raised his voice as he addressed me this time, “Stupid whore. You will stay in there. If you’re lucky, I’ll let you out while you’re still strong enough to open your legs for your betters.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr. Meecer. I meant good luck escaping.” I set the laughter on repeat. My gauntlets began to glow. The energy began to melt the water, and turn some to steam. On the ground level of the museum, Dudebots grabbed a guard standing at the main entrance and tore his head off. Three headed inside. A fourth sat at the door and blocked it, which meant I didn’t have to walk that one around. It’s not easy controlling that many bodies directly.
Colburn grabbed the shoulder of the teen cryomancer, fingers digging into the boy. “Freeze her!”
I stopped laughing long enough to give him some advice. “Hey kid. Guess what it means that I can control the signal in their cell phones from here? Guess why the alarms aren’t going off in this museum now?”
The kid looked between me and Colburn, then reached up to his neck. Then he smiled. He grabbed Colburn’s hand and covered it in ice. He pulled away and ran for the door. The closest bodyguard reached for him with his green hand. The boy raised his arms and created a shield of ice in front of them, smacking through the man’s arms. The man put a hand up to stop the boy from pulling the door completely open.
I activated my helmet’s laser. Everyone out there, including the boy and the guard at the door, turned at the crackling. The detective reacted first, diving to the ground. The guard at the door raised his hand. It began to glow. Whatever he was trying to do didn’t stop the beam of coherent light that burned a hole through the ice and the door. He looked at the whole I left, so close to his chest, and realized the teenager was using the opportunity to slip away.
“Forget him, let’s go!” Meecer called. He ducked and headed for the door. His guard there opened it up and fell back on top of Meecer from a punch by a Dudebot. That one stepped in, firing its eye lasers lower down on the block of ice I was in.
The guard with the chrome ray gun raised it and fired. A glowing dart shot out of the end and shot a hole through the chest of the Dudebot. He fired again and again, the Dudebot advancing slowly. He wasn’t hitting anything serious, though he was penetrating the armor. It forced him to back up, ended up against my ice block. Then the man with the green hand raised it and shot some energy blast at the back of the Dudebot’s hips that sheared it in half. It toppled to the ground.
They might have felt safe for a second, until the other two Dudebots stepped in. One raised its boot and brought it down on the chest of the guard with the hand. He moaned as something cracked. Another stomp cracked even more, but he didn’t moan any longer.
The guard with the ray gun took careful aim, but that’s when I shattered the ice bock enough to pull him back against me. I popped the Nasty Surprise and a mini-chainsaw shot out from under one of my arms and through the man’s chest, throwing hot blood all over the place. I tossed the body aside and hopped out of the ice block. I turned to Colburn, as did the remaining two Dudebots. He raised his hands, going completely black. He disappeared into himself, is the best way I can describe it. It’s like he folded up into himself, leaving me alone with Meecer, who was finishing a yell with “…leave me! You’re finished, Black Hole! I’ll make sure of it!”
I and my robot doppelgangers turned to Meecer, who was still pinned underneath a dead bodyguard. Nearby, the private detective crawled behind the neanderthal for safety. I ignored him for the moment, as he seemed smart enough to leave me to my scheme. “You won’t be doing much of anything from now on, Meecer.”
He laughed and held up his hands. “Go ahead and arrest me. The evil Psycho Gecko is nothing but a law dog, isn’t she? Trying to go hero?”
I retracted the Nasty Surprise and walked over. Reaching down, I pulled him to his feet, then got a better grip on his collar and lifted him off the ground. “I’m no hero.”
I grabbed his arms with my spare ones, his legs with one of my Dudebots, and the last Dudebot wrapped its arms around his belly. “What are you doing? Don’t you know who I am?!” Meecer called, trying to kick and flail his way free.
“Yeah,” I said with no small amount of pleasure. “A dead man.” I pulled his arms off. The Dudebot yanked down and tore his legs off. Then the one hugging him pulled down while I still held him by the throat. His head more or less popped off and rolled away, mouth still moving and eyes rolling back.
As one, myself and the robots turned to the detective. He wet himself. “Please,” he whined. “I tried not to have anything to do with it. I didn’t touch the kids.”
The three of us cocked our heads to the side, staring at him silently. Up at the door, the Dudebot on guard held its arms out at the boy who escaped helping the girl he fought before along, a crowd of other children with them. That drone projected an image of the detective. “This man. Did he hurt you?”
The boy just stared, but the girl shook her head. “You could tell he never liked being there, an’ he never did anything with me.”
“Me neither,” said another kid. There was a general murmur of agreement. The Dudebot stepped aside and held the door open.
“Congratulations,” I told him. “The kids put in a good word for you. You’d better make sure they don’t disappear.”
The detective nodded his head enough I thought he might lose the thing. “Yeah, yes, sure. I won’t let you down.”
“I know. You’d let yourself down. About six feet!” I cackled at that one. He crossed himself and ran out of the room past my Dudebots.
I called out to the nearest cell of my agents. We had a couple of guys in Kingscrow. “Empress?”
“I’m going to need a place to lay low for a few days. Things got hot here. Hot, wet, and sticky.” I stepped over the corpses I left as I followed by Dudebots out, the drones each grabbing a half of the downed Dudebot to drag after. By the time we got to the first level, most of the kids had left, but not the girl or the boy.
“Can we come with you?” asked the girl.
I stopped. “Why?”
The boy looked at her. “Because our parents sold us. Some of the other ones, they got here the same way, but we don’t want to go back.”
“There’s a system for kids whose parents did that…” Yeah, and I bet some of those kids were sold by people in that system, too. Child Protective Services isn’t an area where I bribed any officials. “But if you want to come to Ricca while you figure out what to do next in your life, I will let you.”
We picked up an even smaller boy outside who had been waiting around. He ran up to the kids following me as I was calling my local agents back up. “Make that myself and a few children. We have extraction coming.”
I was antsy up until Psychsaur and Qiang arrived. My daughter rushed into my arms for as tight a hug as her armor could let her give. “Don’t do that!” she admonished me.
“What, get caught?” I asked.
She nodded. “I couldn’t hardly sleep!”
I chuckled and patted her on the helmet. “Don’t worry about it. I try to get caught as little as possible. Let’s go home, pumpkin.”
She looked past me to the superpowered kids lounging around. “Did you get me brothers and sisters?”
Psychsaur snorted. I laughed. “No, dear. I have plenty of my own already. I saved them. They wanted to come with us.”
“Kidnapping children?” Psychsaur asked, but the smile showed she didn’t think much of the illegality. Knowing what was going on, she knew I wouldn’t be as bad as them.
I spread my hands. “Hey, all’s fair in love and villainy.”
Psychsaur came along with me to Seattle. I wasn’t going to bring her as there wasn’t any real reason to and she has her own life to live, but she asked about what I’m doing. “Just infiltrating some rich douchecanoe’s party scene of trafficked girls and boys to confirm he’s doing what I think he’s doing, then killing him. No different than your average Catholic Church service.”
What, did Pope Francis think I forgot? A lot of priests should consider themselves lucky I wasn’t Pope long enough to make some decrees.
Psychsaur ignored the jab at the Catholics. “You’re going to take your daughter with you into that situation?”
I thought about it. “I guess I can leave her in the room.”
“Around a bunch of criminals known for trafficking girls, who you’re going to piss off when you kill someone and stuff starts blowing up?” she asked, raising a decent point.
“Right, I need explosives…” My hands went to my waist, where my more integrated design left me without a belt to hang rubber chicken grenades from.
Psychsaur crossed her arms over her chest. “You know what I mean.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine, you have a point. I probably should arrange for a safe house for her.”
“I know people. I’ll go with you,” the heroine said.
I thought it over. Having a known superhero with me has the potential to alert Meecer’s people, but I did just give Psychsaur a hell of a makeover. She didn’t look anything like she used to. As long as she doesn’t throw on a costume, they shouldn’t realize who she is. “As long as you don’t go acting or looking like a hero, we’ll be fine.”
She shrugged. “Deal. I’m getting out anyway.”
“Really?” I asked. “Wow. Just so we’re clear, you’re going to stop being a hero?”
She nodded. “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting and risking my life. There’s a lot of pressure to make that your calling when you have powers, especially if you don’t look human. I just want a chance to live my own life.”
I smiled. “Good for you. In that case, thanks for helping me with my super business before you hang up the cape and tights for good.”
She smiled. The bathroom door opened as Qiang finished and stepped out. “Ok, I’m ready to go!”
I threw a fist in the air. “Ok, kiddo. Tonight, Seattle. Tomorrow… the world!”
“Really?” Qiang asked.
I motioned her on over toward the door and the car. “Of course not. You’re too young for a whole world. Start with a fish and we’ll see how you do from there.”
Getting to Seattle wasn’t the problem. I just walked into a private airstrip like I owned the place and stole a doctor killer. That’s the nickname of private planes with a tendency to crash when flown by amateur pilots with more money than know-how. Lucky for us, I’m no doctor. If I was, I probably could have diagnosed why Psychsaur was so quick to get out of the plane when we landed and rush to the bathroom.
“Huh. I wonder what her problem is,” I said, looking to Qiang.
My daughter had put her helmet on at some point during the flight. As she unbuckled her seatbelt, she said, “Maybe she doesn’t like flying upside down.”
“Could be,” I said as I slid out of the plane.
Meecer’s people found us that night to invite me to the evil kidnapping rape ring, but in a classy way. You know, with an understated white envelope slid under the door and a beautifully calligraphied invitation with embossing. I held it up for Psychsaur to see. “I have a location.” And an instruction to dress casual.
It turned out to be a movie theater. I looked like anybody else on the street with my armor altering how I appeared to others. Some of those others were just people going to see a movie. I was missing a prime chance to catch the new John Wick alongside these folks. Well, most of these folks. The women with the super-expensive earrings and the guy whose watch I stole weren’t the usual types to go to this theater. I saw them head down a separate wing after an older ticket taker directed them there.
He approached me. “You are a new face. Do you have a ticket?”
“This is something of a premiere for me,” I responded, holding up the invitation. He looked at it brifly, then stepped aside and motioned for me to head down that wing of the theater. It led to a short stairwell down, then a doorway. And from there, a lavish scene of chandeliers, red carpeting, and a waiter stepping up.
“Drink, ma’am?” he asked.
“Not this moment. Perhaps later,” I said.
Two men approached. One was the same private dick from the house, whose name I never caught. The other was a larger man, wider, fatter, but not obese. He had a devious, hungry smile without a matching gleam in his eyes. “There you are… our newest guest.” The private investigator broke off to speak privately to the waiter while the big guy reached a hand out for one of mine. He settled on upper right. “Colburn. Jeffrey Colburn. I will be your host tonight.”
I looked to the investigator, who kept turned away to look at other attendees. I turned back to Colburn. “I thought our ultimate host was Meecer. I thought I’d be meeting him.”
Colburn laughed, like if Santa Claus wanted to take a butcher’s knife to some kids. “He limits his attendance at the Dark Bazaar. He doesn’t like connections. Here, let me show you our attractions.”
It’s disappointing Meecer himself isn’t here for the sake of convenience, but on with the show. The tour started with a particularly noisy area, where a cage surrounded by a clear container held two people. On one side, teen boy in a cage stood in a pair of shorts. He was a skinny one, no real muscle to him, with long, black hair. Facing him was a chunky girl who could have been in middle school, in shorts and a shirt. Both had collars around their necks.
Something yellow flowed out of the girl’s eyes, like little motes that drifted in the air. She began to hover off the floor, then moved her hands toward the boy. The motes shot at him. The boy raised his arms to shield himself and ice blossomed outward from him. Spines stuck into the ice or bounced off it, flowers beginning to bloom off what had come from the girl’s eyes. The girl directed those seeds or pollen or whatever they were down to the floor where they began to grow together into a quartet of thick vines with snapping flower mouths on the ends. They rose above the lip of the boy’s ice wall. He created small shields in the air to stop their bites, then held his hands out. Ice formed in the air in front of him and kept spreading over the rest of the enclosed area, trapping the vines. It almost reached the girl when a light flashed above the arena and the ice stopped moving and the girl fell to the floor. Both combatants appeared fine, but it seemed the boy was much stronger.
“Disappointing fight, but he’s so powerful that it’s hardly fair,” Colburn said. “We normally fight even after they bleed, but he can freeze anyone. I’d like to break him of the habit with a death match, but he’s premium breeding stock.”
“And the girl?” I asked, watching as both combatants were dragged out by guards in riot gear with batons and tasers.
“She’s too young for breeding, but pleasure is another matter. I advise giving her room to grow,” the ringleader of the night’s events informed me.
“I don’t think this was all made clear to me,” I said. “What’s all this about breeding?”
The man led me away, putting his hand over my shoulder in an overly-familiar way. He looked puzzled for a moment as he touched the armor, then continued his imitation of a shark’s grin. “An impressive villain like yourself must know the value of superpowers. Magic, cybernetics, random mutation, natural training, unnatural physiology, mad science; the ways to obtain such power are legion and unreliable. Prominent families agree that the best way to insure superpowers in your legacy is the result of proper breeding.” He led me to a hallway next to a bar area.
I looked around but I couldn’t see that investigator anymore. Maybe he’d ducked out, if he was smart enough, if he had me figured out. I doubt it, which meant he probably thought I was like all of these things.
Colburn jostled my shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts? You’re more quiet than I was led to expect.”
I motioned to the whole place. “Oh, just wondering how I could possibly have gotten so far without having heard of this place.”
Colburn’s fingers came together, tip to tip in an apologetic gesture. “One does not obtain an invitation by threatening to blow up the world. As I said, this is about the importance of good breeding in families of leisure.”
“Do you have much of a selection?” I asked, wondering how I was going to shut all this down. Destroying it was one thing; rescuing kids was another.
“We have hundreds of fit stock for you to peruse,” he said, snapping his fingers in the direction of a waiter. The waiter brought over what appeared to be a menu at first. Instead of a wine selection, there were lists of features: sex, ethnicity, skin color, hair type, body type, powers.
I turned and went to put a fist through his chest and pull out his lungs. Colburn, suit and all, turned black with white specks dotting him. My fist bang into him, but couldn’t penetrate. “Attacking us, Empress Gecko? Our hospitality is not to be violated.”
I pulled my hand back, but it caught in midair and began to pull toward him, along with my body. The room seemed like it sped up, and my arm stretched unnaturally long before I fell into Colburn. I fell out in a bedroom with a selection of fetish gear laying around. Standing in front of me was the teen boy from the fight. A voice came out of nowhere. “Boy, freeze her.”
“I’m here to get you out,” I told him.
He shook his head and pointed to the collar around his neck. “There’s no getting out with this bomb strapped to my neck.” He held up his hands toward me.
I turned invisible by instinct and began to charge my gauntlets. The ice advanced on all sides, even freezing my feet and closing off the ceiling from me. I lashed out at the ice, but it was replaced faster than I could break it. It closed over me, thick, restricting, until I couldn’t move.
I reached out with my mind, looking for something to help me out of this situation. I ended up connecting to a call being made. “Mr. Meecer, she disappointed us. Yes, just as small-minded as to be expected of new blood. Mmm, but isn’t it delicious to know we have such fine new breeding stock? One of the most famous villains in the world, and an Empress.”
“A rare treat,” came the response. “No one touches her before I arrive,” said the man I’d been looking for to kill.
Well, looks like I may have found my target after all, just as soon as I get out of this ice. If anyone expects me to warm up to the idea of sex slavery, guess again. If there’s anything I am at the moment, it’s a major frigid bitch.
A thankful one as well. Psychsaur texted me an update an hour later. “Police raided your hotel room. We’re safe at a friend’s.”
“Good. Keep her safe. Am captured, will deal with target. Side note: good thing I no longer have testes to freeze.”
Now that I’ve got a couple days to think, time to run through possible bomb collar frequencies. Then, when Meecer shows, I either set things off or disable them before busting out. All according to my mysterious plan that totally involved me getting caught. Yep. That’s how it’ll look when the story gets out on this end, at least.
A hero asked me a favor. Psychsaur arrived here on the island, direct from Los Angeles. The reptilian, feathered hero is one of the few I’m happy to see, and the feeling is mutual. She gets me a bit better than most, thanks to the telepathy and the mind reading. I worry sometimes that my positive outlook toward her may be the result of even more tampering she’s done to my mind. She’s messed around in there in the past. I don’t exactly like that she did it without asking, especially in regards to some problems I hadn’t been ready to address at the time, but it’s done. And she was one of the first heroes to really get me.
She walked into the tent that served as my temporary throne room while everything was being rebuilt. Two capital buildings and throne rooms since I’ve been Empress isn’t a good track record. I don’t like buying new furniture every year. I wouldn’t have even bothered with concept of a throne room just yet, but I need a way for things to come to me officially without letting everyone into the residence.
I was playing with my daughter, because she’s still not leaving me alone too much since I got back from the other dimension. Today’s lesson: chainsaw juggling. Just kidding. That’s one of the things I’m gonna get a tutor to handle. No lesson today, just videogames. The dastardly duo of PsychoGecko and Noobmaster69. I don’t know where she got the 69 part. I teach my daughter to use only the most refined language.
I sat there, my brain plugged in for voice chat. “I don’t care who the fuck you are, you’re talkin’ to mama bear now. You’re sore? Fly your ass on over here, we’ll see how sore you’ll be. I don’t care, I got an extra pair, and the only ass they’re going up is yours before I pull your tonsils out through your sphincter. Go cry to your mommy, you alcoholic asswipe.”
Next to me, Qiang giggled and kept shooting at someone.
“That’s one way to greet a guest,” I heard a feminine voice call out. Psychsaur walked in from the shadows on the outside of the room. Gotta get better lighting in here.
“Psychsaur!” I dropped my controller and hopped up. Qiang was too busy at the time with the game and pause buttons are incompatible with multiplayer.
The hero smiled as she approached. “You’re camping in style now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just a temporary matter until we rebuild everything and then they spend half the time gilding it all. I’ve got ideas on where to take the gold from, actually, but that’s a whole other thing. What are you doing here? You know, so soon after we were all on the same flying ship together.”
“I had to stop elsewhere first. I’m here for a favor, but I brought money,” she checked around and found some place better to sit than the cushions my kid and I were using. We both took a seat at a nearby table brought in for formal business.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Before I say this, I want you to know I thought about this a lot. I see it as a way of improving myself and fixing a defect that impedes me and prevents me from doing what I want to do in life. There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding body issues and disabilities, and I see this as the latter. It doesn’t indicate I see my condition as a sign of immorality or that it makes me less of a person. But it doesn’t let me be the person I want to be.” She fixed me with a look. I got the feeling this preamble came from experience.
I could sympathize. I have an extra pair of arms and boobs I wasn’t born with. “You, like most people, were born with an unfortunate defect: you’re not me. It severely hampers how awesome you can be.”
She made a drawn out “Heh” sound and looked to the side. “I want you to make me look like a regular human.” She fixed her eyes on my face, watching.
My reaction was more like, “Kind of a shame. You’re so pretty.” The scales, the feathers, they work. Not in a sexual way, not since she really went and mind melded with me, but they’re pretty features. The fact that they aren’t human ones isn’t that big an issue for me. It obviously is for her. “Sure. Got any particular person you want to look like?”
She brightened up and smiled. “Sure!” We talked it over for a bit, before she confessed, “I didn’t know how you were going to react. Thank you for not giving me shit.”
“Who am I to tell you you can’t do what you think improves yourself?” I reached up and ran one of my lower pair of arms through my hair.
And so the three of us set out for my workshop. I’d gone ahead and taken part of the basement level under the old Palace Grounds for personal maker space. That way, I didn’t have more giant vats of nanites laying on the floor of the living room. There was a small armory as well, with remaining pieces of past armors, as well as a copy of my current iteration. On one wall was the armor closet, assembling an upgrade. It was partially visible.
“Is that a shell?” Psychsaur asked as we made our way to a nearby nanite submersion tank.
I nodded. “Of a sorts. It’s a bit of a departure from some of how I’ve done armor before now. Instead of modular armor or a bunch of layers, I’m building it all in. I’m aiming to create a fully integrated and sustainable suit of power armor. No nanoweave with armor plates on top of it or embedded in it, with nanite quilt or exoskeletal muscle layers below. For starters, having an exoskeleton underneath stuff is just bad grammar. But I think there’s reason to believe I can make armor that provides superior protection with no loss of dexterity. Aside from the damn rockets. Haven’t figured out a way to incorporate them.”
Sad, that. I like having elbow rockets. There’s nothing like opening up an intercontinental ballistic can of whoopass on someone’s face.
I directed her to a square tub on the floor with a hand scanner attached. I touched my hand to it and a hologram appeared overhead, showing what we were aiming for with her looks. She looked past it, to a much larger block taking up most of the back of the space. “Make the hair a little darker. Hey, what’s that?”
“Oh. Working on something bigger, with a very different philosophy than the other armor. I prefer the integrated version, but you never know when you’re going to need some power behind your punches.”
“Hulkbuster, got it. That’s good… do you think it’ll work?” she wondered, setting a hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged. “I’ll do my very best to make sure it does. If it doesn’t, we can always change it later.”
Feels nice to do something for a friend, and it gave me time to metaphorically pick her brain. She could hear me from inside the tank, unless she turned on the TV or sound system. “So… do you know anything about a man named Erin Meecer?”
“Who?” she asked. Qiang snuck up and nearly hit me with a hammer.
“What’s this do?” My adorable daughter asked.
“Anybody you hit with it is disintegrated into a pile of ash and never comes back,” I told her. I pulled the hammer away.
“Really?” she asked, unsure of herself and looking from the hammer to where she almost smacked me.
I tossed the hammer aside, “Nope. But you shouldn’t mess with whatever’s laying around in here. You keep doing it, you won’t go with me to America.”
She hopped up and down. “Yay, am I going back to the Academy?”
I looked to where Psychsaur was being changed. “What’s going on out there?”
“I’m trying to find out what you know before my daughter and I visit the U.S. To impart a little karma on someone.”
Sadly, she didn’t know anything about the guy. Erin Meecer. Rich. Part owner of various companies, including a car company. Probably done all the same bad things anybody does who gets paid thousands of times more than their employees do for less work. Not really the sort of thing to disgust Medusa when she was Venus. Nope, this one has to do with private parties with kidnapped people, boys and girls both, helping to entertain guests.
“Mommy, do you hate rich people?” Qiang asked me as we flew into the country.
Psychsaur, seated nearby, smiled. We were kinda on my, uh, private plane. And Psychsaur didn’t look too bad. Not quite as unique without the scales and feathers. She reached up and rubbed her nose, getting used to it still.
I stuck out my tongue at the heroine before I answered. “When someone poor or powerless gets into trouble, they have more than enough people ready to make them pay. Not always, but since they don’t usually do it just once, there’s always a chance. But sometimes bad people do bad things and people don’t stop them because they have a lot of money or are important. I’m one of those people, too.”
“No you’re not!” she squealed as she hugged me.
“D’aww… you wanna help me break into a place?”
But Gecko, why would you take your daughter to go break into the house of a sex trafficking pimp bastard? He was out of town. I figured we wouldn’t find anything here. A guy like that has a lot of properties I could waste time looking through, but I thought I’d go about this the direct way. That’s why I busted through the door of a mansion in rural California on a hill overlooking the vineyard. The alarm sounded and tried to put out a call. I stuck a Psycho Gecko bobblehead on a table by the door. They’re cute. A bobbing head, then a pair of arms in my older, more iconic armor holding bobbing, decapitated heads. I built in a signal jammer in the base to make sure nobody radioed or used that pesky internet to get a signal out. I even showed Qiang how to cut the phone lines.
“Doggies!” Qiang said when a pair of Dobermans came checking the door.
“Honeybun, is your armor on tight?” I asked.
She ran forward and squealed with delight as one of the dogs tried to bite her arm. She tugged her arm free easily and tried to pet it. “Yes, mommy!”
“Don’t let them hurt you, dear,” I told her. I started in, but paused to see how she handled the dogs. They went for her arms and tried to drag her down. The couldn’t get the best grip on her armor, which was designed to handle worse than dog bites, and it had the strength to help her get up. Plus, it had the same tight seal to allow it to survive a chemical attack as my own. The dogs can’t get through unless she lets them through.
So with the alarm being nothing but loud noises and the guard dogs thoroughly distracted, I headed in. I kicked in a few doors, grabbed a few small, valuable trinkets. I wasn’t here for major theft, or even burning it down like I would prefer. Qiang loves the flamethrower, but this was about sending a different sort of message. It required a slow burn, some might say. Like me. I’m saying it. I didn’t get to use a damn flamenwerffer. Instead, I tried to find anything that might have particular personal value. A trophy or plaque of some meaning, perhaps.
In his living room, I found an eleven foot by six foot painting of Meecer wearing a lion’s skin and wrestling with a dragon.
I was taking it down when a man in a suit arrived, swaggering around the corner. He wore a pair of glowing red glasses and knuckle dusters. “So you’re the asshole waking me up?” He clapped his hands and the light came on.
Where before my armor looked like power armor, this guard got a look at armor that looked like dark grey skin, with no gaps. On the chest, four tendrils, like two uppercase omega symbols, one inside the other, stretched downward, colored a dark orange against the grey, one not meant to show up as garish in the shadows. The same orange colored my fists, knees, and spine. The helmet featured a grinning maw of fangs underneath a triangle of eyes that contained lasers. The helmet had its own “hair” in the form of a pair of horns that cling to the helmet as one piece and curl downward along either side of the face, ending in a pair of spheres: my take on a jester’s cap. This armor lacked the cape of my prior version. But instead of metal plates or nanoweave, it appeared more like a thick skin or soft shell.
“Who the hell ARE you?” asked the man who stumbled up on me.
I let the helmet do the grinning and raised my lower pair of hands. Glowing orange nails extended from the fingertips. “I’m Psycho Gecko. Tell your boss I want to talk.”
He raised his fists in a boxer’s stance for a second. I took a step toward him and he lowered them. “What am I doing… you don’t look like that guy, but I don’t make enough. Take what you want… just make it look like I put up a fight?”
I nodded and walked over. His shirt ended up shredded and I tossed him through a wall, but I didn’t hit a stud on the way through. He’d survive, probably end up with a nice scar that, if leveraged well, could really help his reputation. He’d be one of the few to survive a fight with Psycho Gecko. I’d say he should pray I don’t find out he was a part of Meecer’s side business, but he wouldn’t want to bring gods into this. They’s so squishy.
I carried out a big ol’ painting past Qiang, who had picked up one of the dogs overhead and was spinning it around in a circle. The other one was hopping around, trying to reach for the spinning dog. “That thing’s gonna spew,” I warned as I stepped outside and out of the blast radius.
Her giggles turned to a gasp, then crying. “Momma! He puked on me!”
“Looks like we learned something tonight. Come on, kiddo, let’s get back to the hotel and get you cleaned up.” I giggled a little bit, with the sound turned off, as she walked out of the house covered in a disgusting tax mixture. Aww. “At least you don’t have to smell it or wear it.”
Now then, I just have to wait until I get a call from Meecer or one of his associates. Sure, a hero might have trouble infiltrating whatever he’s doing and getting some proof of what’s going on, but I’m no hero. He has absolutely no reason to fear me going to the police or the FBI with what I find. He just has to fear going to the grave.
I’ve talked a bit about interrogations before. About how the preferred way to get information is through building a rapport with someone instead of beating it out of them or tearing stuff apart. Unfortunately, every time I try to personally demonstrate this, clueless people keep giving me accurate information during the torture part. There I am, trying to interrogate properly and save people the terrors of torture, and they fuck it up.
I thought of all this while I was taped to a chair while people took turns punching me in the face. It was a group of heavyset men and women working me over, members of a crime family called the Kah. I heard the name whispered in certain shadows, and by a bartender into a hidden microphone. They had escorted me to a back room for a talk, which I thought me useful even when they broke out the tape and the chair.
There were five of them, which seemed a bit excessive. We’d managed to get a lot of organizing done, and gotten a pretty good chunk of defectors. Most of the military guys didn’t stick with us, but they were pretty week from the cold and the lack of fresh air, so they didn’t put up much of a fight when we took their gear and left them in some little town next to the mag lev lines. I thought it was a highway of some sort, but they appear to be the main form of long distance ground transportation.
After that, we sat down and found out about the existence of groups who were, shall we say, enthusiastic about altering their government. I believe it has to do with the vote belonging only to people who own a certain amount of property and money.
Don’t worry about the ship. I left Gorilla Awesome at the controls. Unlike Venus and Warman, he didn’t head off to go find members of a resistance or rebel group while seemingly forgetting I even exist.
I’m not disappointed and bitter.
I found my way to the surface as well, because I have a bunch of daughters who are flying bee people. I had some of them drop me off and I decided to go looking for explosives. A day of wandering around the icy white and grey streets of the nearest urban stack of shit, I found a bar where the right word could get you a meeting with folks who know how to get stuff.
I don’t need explosives. There are still some on the ship, and stuff to make even more. The reason I went looking for bombs or bomb parts is because that would lead me to someone who sells them to people on this planet, in this dimension. There’s a fairly limited market for that sort of thing, involving religious fundamentalists, anti-government terrorists, and revolutionaries. Sometimes, there’s even a difference.
That brings me back to the little room in the back of a bar where four guys and a woman were taking turns hurting their fists on my face. “Who sent you? What agency are you with?” asked this one big guy with a receding hairline. He wound up and slugged me in the chin, then shook his hand. “Fuck’s sake, she’s a hard one.”
“Most be part of her powers,” said the woman with a ponytail of brown hair. She reached over and grabbed something that looked nearly like a wood baseball bat. It was shorter, with a more consistent thickness along its length. She spun it around to show me where straight razors were embedded in the wood, facing out. “Or she’s got a head full of metal instead of a brain. Did you think we were amateurs? Get her throat.”
Someone behind me put his hands around my throat and started squeezing. I kicked my legs against the tape holding me and arched my back, groaning and coughing. The woman hefted the razorbat, then noticed my mouth doing funny things. She stopped and nodded to the guy behind me, who let me go. “You have something to tell us?”
I nodded, coughed, then informed them. “Yeah. Oh yeah. I’m there.”
“There?” asked the guy behind me.
“It means I’m not coming anymore,” I said. He leaned forward to look between my legs. I snapped the tape the rest of the way through and grabbed his head, biting his ear and pulling him over me into my lap. That was in case the woman swung that bat, and she did. Her partner took the blow instead of me. What a nice guy!
When she swung again, I grabbed at the bat and ended up pinning it against him. Flexing, I managed to pull my legs free of their tape. I hadn’t been able to weaken it with really sharp nails like I had the ones on my arms, but legs are stronger. The bat got loose as I did.
I stood up and closed my eyes as a chain smacked me in the face. I flinched back, into a punch that got some fight bite from me. The chains came for me again and I raised a hand to cushion the blow. Another hand went downtown to grab his blowjob cushion. I picked that one up and threw him against the wall. He hit with a thunk and skidded down.
The asshole who punched me pulled out a knife and swiped at my face. I caught it in my teeth and raised my eyebrows toward him. I twisted his wrist to force him to let go of it, but the bat caught me in the back before I could do anything else. I spat the knife at him, where it grazed his cheek. Groaning, I did a split. The groan had more to do with taking a hard piece of wood from behind. I’m not opposed to that sort of thing with warning. I chose to show my displeasure by bending back and throwing a punch forward and back, catching a pair of differently-equipped crotches in each hand. I swept my leg around to trip the guy in front of me and spun to grab the woman by the clam and the arm. I tossed her over head, where she landed next to the chair and the guy who had slumped off it onto the ground.
That left one guy still standing and holding something in hand. It crackled with electricity as he stabbed it at me. I jumped back and kept jumping until I fell against someone. Looking back, I saw the dazed guy I’d tossed at a wall. He grabbed at me, but I pulled free and sidestepped, leaving him to get cattle prodded by his buddy. The guy with the prod turned around to look for me and got poked in both eyes like a cartoon. I grabbed the prod and gave him a little shock to each of his nipples in turn. Then I wound up and smacked him in the back of the head with the handle.
That left him, two more guys, and the woman all down in a close group near the chair. I got a pleasant little idea. I dropped the prod and instead grabbed the chair, jumped, and came down with all my weight on it. It cracked as it landed on them, but I just wasn’t massive enough to make it pop on four of them at once. I slid off and grabbed the chair, then smashed it to bits on their heads. All the Ikeas weren’t putting those four back together again.
Then I turned to the last one, and looked around. I found the cattle prod and checked to make sure it could still shock. Crackle crackle. Then I smiled at the guy leaning against the wall and informed him that, “You and I are gonna have a little chat about hospitality. Because I don’t really care if my questions get answered now, and this prod fits right here the sun doesn’t shine.”
“The Geetoh Valley?” he asked.
“Sure, buddy. Let me send it there through your wormhole.”
Proving me right, he did not provide any useful information.
I stepped out of the backroom, covered with blood, and made my way toward the bar. The bartender had signalled some people when I came in and started asking for things that go boom in the night. He seemed surprised to see me again. I pulled up a stool, because they even have stools on Uranus, and immediately sighed as a hand landed on my shoulder. “Everybody wants to get kicked in the Geetoh Valley ton- Boopsie!”
I’d spun around to find Venus there in heavy clothing like the local wore. Warman was with her, also out of costume, and they had some friends with them, one of whom had a barcode tattoo on his face.
“What have you been up to?” Venus asked.
I shrugged. “Just enjoying a Bloody Mary, but it spilled on me a bit.”
Warman turned to the barcode guy. “That’s who I meant.”
I stood up and held out my hand for a shake, but barcode guy spritzed me in the face with something. I grabbed for his arm, but felt myself falling forward…
…and off a sofa in a room somewhere, two hours later, drooling all over the place. I shook my head, but my face was numb. Standing up wasn’t so easy, either. The floor kept moving.
“Oh, you’re up!” I heard. Psychsaur’s scaled hands helped me stabilize myself. I hugged her, and she hugged back. “Been awhile.”
“You too,” I managed without biting through my tongue. “They tranqued me?”
“Tranquilizer spray,” Psychsaur said. She reached up to scratch the feathers she had in place of hair. “They did it to Venus and Warman when they found them. They call themselves The New Serviles. Bunch of assholes.”
I laughed at that, then almost fell over. She eased me down onto the sofa and sat down next to me. I slapped my face a few times, then looked to her. “Hey, sorry about you and Venus. You ok?”
She smiled without showing any fang. “We’re good. It was wonderful, but we had our reasons.” When she saw me trying to stand again, she put a hand on my arm. “Hey, rest a minute. They don’t want you out there anyway.”
I sighed. “Yeah, they’re leaving me out of stuff. Realized that one already. Who goes off to do shady clandestine stuff and leaves me out of it?”
“Did you find any resistance to the guys who attacked us?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Beat up some organized crime members. Members of the Kah.”
“You beat up some criminals, they found these guys. It worked out without you.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll level with you: they don’t want either of us out there while the Serviles are around. Their government takes every super they find and presses them into service or uses them for power clone material. They don’t trust supers, especially not supers who look super.” She motioned to me with my four arms and herself with her reptilian features.
I rested my chin on my hands, and my elbows on my knees. “Fine… but I still don’t like being left out just because the heroes don’t like me and Venus is ashamed of me.”
Psychsaur laughed. “I knew it! You two are together?”
I waved a hand. “It’s complicated, I think. I don’t know what we are, especially if she’s insecure enough to dump me in side rooms and leave me behind.”
“Well, I’m used to that,” the telepathic hero said. “I was never as good at fisticuffs as she was, so I’ve been left behind before. They don’t need you right now.”
“They never think they need me. They didn’t think they needed me when we first got on this ship, for instance,” I want to stand up, but Psychsaur stopped me again.
She looked up at me. “They need you to stay out of the way. Just for now. Take a minute to rest… get a shower.”
I looked down, at my outfit, the underlayer of my armor. I’d been wearing it all this time, having been used to it. Unfortunately, I no longer have the environmental seals that keep others from smelling me. And we were in some sort of small suite.
Psychsaur, clever girl, took my costume off to be laundered. I had nothing but a towel to wear out. Which turned out to not be so bad when Venus walked in with a smile and a dinner for two.
What happens in Uranus, stays in Uranus.
“What exactly am I looking at here?” I asked, because it looked… let’s go with interesting.
“What does it look like to you?” asked the scientist, Dr. Gralz. He stood next to a holographic display that showed what seemed to be a powered exoskeleton in the shape of a spider’s body but headless. It had a human next to it for scale and if the person was scrunched up in a ball, they wouldn’t entirely fit inside the front section of the spider. However, the rear section was smaller than that. In theory, it could scrunch into most places that could accommodate tall people.
“Is it a drone or some form of automaton?” I asked. I leaned back on my throne and accepted a Bloody Maria. Think Bloody Mary, but with tequila and peppers.
Gralz reached up and dragged the human model on top of the mechanical spider. The holographic human’s legs came up like he sat in a chair, then slid into a space on the top, fitting close into it. “We have many areas of research we are looking into. This grew out of an idea. We wanted to find and harness the abilities of magically-sensitive individuals. Why not give them extra spells, extra hands, extra equipment to traverse the world in ways baseline humans can’t? Unfortunately, the size of the unit requires the controller have your homo machina abilities and that precludes magical abilities.”
“So damn glad people actually read the stuff I put in the databases,” I said.
“I won’t push homo sapiens beyond their limits by refusing to do the reading,” Dr. Gralz said.
“That looks a bit tight,” I said, nodding to the person fitting into the top of the exoskeleton.
The doctor pushed a button on his wristband and the image of the human appeared separate again. The display zoomed in on the human and textboxes appeared discussing amputation of limbs at the elbows and knees. “I have an idea on that.”
It wasn’t a bad one in this age of medical miracles and cybernetic excitement. “Is it just a variation on power armor?”
Dr. Gralz shook his head. “I believe that a significant alteration of form will open arachnoid soldiers to radically new tactics and strategies. Function follows form. Evolution often provides structures that the organism finds new uses for beyond what other animals could conceive on their own. We can imagine.” He pounded his fist into one hand. “Arachnoid soldiers swarming from every direction. Pulling enemies into trapdoors. Fighting multiple enemies with the aid of extra eyes and arms. This isn’t power armor that reinforces the human form and tactics. This is power armor to expand humanity’s fighting capability beyond two arms, two legs, and two eyes.”
He certainly has ambition. Whether he’s good for any more than that is something to be determined. “Ok. Proceed, but volunteers only. It’s better for morale and for your lives if you don’t hand the experimental new power armor exoskeleton over to someone unwilling to be hurt like this. In fact, check with the hospitals. See if anyone’s had injuries to aid the process but hasn’t yet been healed. If this is a clear advantage, I’d also like to see if we get more than just the one version. Ricca has enough one-off, animal-themed supers.”
He smiled and nodded until I then asked if they’d considered purely biological alterations like more limbs of flesh. He grimaced. “Nobody involved in the project liked the idea of human-arachnid hybrids. The projections were… hideous. We have prospective volunteers already and that is a nonstarter.”
I shrugged. “I guess. Plus, a bit easier to make cybernetic limbs look lifelike than hide a second pair of arms.” I folded my lower pair across my belly, then smiled at a notification on my HUD. My infiltrator had been dropped off in Empyreal City. “I’ll give you a call about it later. I like where this is headed, but I’m afraid I have an important call I have to take.”
I really was interested in it. I don’t like the spider design, but it’s a step in the direction I hope to accomplish. I had posters made for government buildings and everything. One half has a stereotypical figure in a ski mask and striped shirt holding a lollipop next to a baby carriage with the words “Why be evil…” overhead. The other half has the same masked person turned giant and attacking an orphanage using a giant lollipop to bash the roof in. It asks, “…When you can be really fucking evil?”
I like to think it’s a statement on society’s complacency and lack of creativity. In the context of society, I feel it highlights absurdism over nihilism. Where nihilism may embrace wasting away and going through the motion, the absurdist outlook is that the meaninglessness of life provides you an opportunity to make your own meaning and destroy an orphanage if need be.
I used my imagination as well and had built a new model of Dudebot specifically for infiltration of the Master Academy. Customs agents looked the other way and I got it shipped no problem to one of the fronts used to keep an eye on Master Academy. I didn’t even wait for the agents inside to open the box. I activated the newer, smaller Dudebot and punched my way out.
“It’s a kid!” one of the agents yelled.
“That’s Empress kid,” I said through the Dudebot’s face. I’d taken a good look before I ever sent it off. I tried to make this kid look as generic and plain as possible. It was a robot in the form of a 9 year old boy.
“Do you need help getting in, Empress?” asked one of the agents.
I shook the Little Dudester’s head. “I think I’ll be fine blending in. Do you have those clothes I requested?”
The agents bowed and handed me a bag.
“And the extraction team?” I asked.
“Ready,” answered the more senior agent. “May fortune favor you.”
If this went well enough to stay quiet, I’d walk right out of there with Medusa. If we had to make a hot exit, I have a Psycho Flyer deployed with a few soldiers ready to lay down cover fire and haul me out of there.
At least as far as infiltration, fortune did favor me, giving me no problems walking onto campus as the sky turned to dusk. I skidded on an icy walkway toward a scorched main door, but nobody seemed to recognize me as a stranger. Probably more on the lookout for adult strangers instead. I guess they had a fight here recently. The vague smokey smell in the foyer backed that up.
Man, I really need to stop coming here. Of all the places in the world I could be committing crimes, I keep going here. Is it sad yet? It feels sad.
From personal experience, I knew exactly how to find my way to the door to the prison hidden under Master Academy’s warm wooden furnishings. The extend-o-matic legs on the Lil Dudester lifted me up high enough to check the panel on the wall. Handprint recognition, retinal scan, and a microphone. I raised the pointer finger of the Lil Dudester. The eyes on the Duderino Jr. went cross-eyed as I targeted opposite sides of the panel and walked eye lasers along until I’d opened it up. The 360-degree cameras didn’t show anybody the wiser, and the little bit of smoke didn’t trigger any fire alarms.
I began playing around and popped out a cable from my robotic infiltrator’s wrist to plug into a circuit board and begin a little persuasion. It was the best I could do without the abilities of my real body, but I managed to fool it into resetting. The door next to me unlocked with a click and I opened up the sneaky tin can’s mouth to spit a bit of glue onto it. I thought it’d be a good surprise if I was caught and cornered, just hock an adhesive loogie into their face. But the setback of the microphone forced me to improvise. If they were smart enough to set up voice recognition, they should have been smart enough to add personalized passcodes. Mimicking handprints, fingerprints, eyeprints, and voiceprints are much easier than trying to recall some special word or phrase for a person. But all security can be broken or bypassed in some way, which is why security is more of a continuous process.
It wouldn’t take much to give away the tampering with the panel, which screws up some of what I wanted to do. I rushed down, checking out some of the other changes they’d made. It had been much more Spartan in my time down here, but they’d added milquetoast paintings on the wall like a doctor’s office. There was one next to each doorway, in fact. Curious, I stepped up beside one examined it. Ah, a digital display. I tapped on it and the painting was replaced by a screen showing the interior of the cell on one side and touch screen buttons on the other like “open/close,” “lights,” “intercom,” “temperature,” “humidity,” “fire,” “medical,” and ‘sedation.”
That cell held one of the others from the cards, a lowly four of clubs wrapped in black gauze like a ninja-mummy. Neat idea, might have to use that as an alias. King Hotep Hazashi. Tutankamehameha. Wait, that second one’s Polynesian.
Moving on, I kept checking, even running across some domestic villains being held in this unaccountable prison. They had the power collars on. Great. Master Academy went from helping me hunt down the people responsible for infecting everyone with a way to shut off our powers, to using the collars that make it happen.
I really oughta come back here and give them a break sometime, but this trip had a specific goal in mind. Finally, I found her. Medusa didn’t have a collar to get in the way of the push-ups she was in the middle of when I hit the intercom button. “Hey there. Ready to get out of this joint?”
“Stop messing with me, fascist,” she responded.
I snorted. “That’s offensive. I’ll have you know I run a representative democracy. As the Empress, I get the sole deciding vote. It’s a really efficient system. The trains run on time.”
And the elevated tracks serve as beautiful hanging gardens. Some people who live near near them even use them to grow supplemental food somehow. They’re doing amazing things with hydroponics these days.
“Who are you?” she asked, looking at the door.
“I am the terror that wedgies people in the night. I am Gecko. I run a country that doesn’t hand over criminals and if you want out of here, we’d better get going now.”
I went ahead and opened the door for her. When she poked her head out, all she saw was a kid standing alone in a corridor with a smile on his face. I held out the Lil Dude’s hand “Come play with me.”
“Fuck that shit!” she said and ran out, punching me it in the face. She pulled her hand back, cussing. “What the hell?”
“I’m working through a robotic body, dear Medusa. If you’re quite done wasting time, I have a change of clothes here.”
She wasn’t so shy about tossing the simple uniform they’d given her and getting redressed right in front of me, showing off a body not quite as fit as Venus’s but close enough to fool people. Hopefully they won’t think much of the highlights in her hair.
“These are a perfect fit,” she said. “What are you, Good Medusa’s stalker?”
“She’s called Venus here.” Medusa laughed at that. I shrugged the robot’s shoulders. “I know, marketin decision or something. Come have the new Venus action figure with karate chop action and ridable dinosaur.”
“Does she have a dinosaur?” Medusa asked.
She looked like she was fully dressed, so I started moving back along the corridor we came from. “Not really hers, but there’s Thesaurus and Veloci-raptor. And Veloci-raptor’s evil cybernetic nemesis, VelocityRaptor, but he’s not a dinsoaur. And even if he beats Veloci-raptor, he’ll never quite be free of him, carrying his rivalry forever in his name.”
He’s in the middle of another attempt on Veloci-raptor’s life, too. He got permission to run off and do his own thing with some big game poachers in Africa, trying to lure out some deadlier game. Even if he loses, it means some poachers end up dead or in jail. That’s the good thing about using scumbags for henchmen.
“Nice blurb, but I’m not reading the novel,” Medusa said.
We exited onto the ground floor unnoticed and I took her hand like a normal kid might. Unlike Venus, Medusa hadn’t been given the treatment to turn her into a homo machina like myself. “Just act natural,” I said.
“Where I’m from, natural in a place like this means being willing to gut stab another orphan at the first sign of weakness,” she said.
I hummed along as I lead her to the door.
Then someone called out “Venus?” Off in the distance, Psychsaur, of all fucking people, approached just as we were turning into the foyer. I pulled Medusa along into it pushed her toward the door while I stood right around the corner and signaled the extraction team. When Psychsaur rounded the corner, she got a splash of adhesive across the eyes. The glue set quickly, blinding her until its removal. Medusa grabbed a chair and went to swing it overhead at the psychic, reptilian humanoid, but staggered and dropped it. She clutched at her head for a moment, then gasped.
“Christ that hurt. She screamed in my head!” Medusa leaned on the chair for stability.
I grabbed her hand again. “We need to go, now.”
“That didn’t hurt you?” she asked.
I pointed to the Dudebot’s head. “No brain, no pain.”
We burst out the door and skidded over the walkway’s ice. I did my best to keep Medusa upright but the Lil Dude’s legs flew out from underneath and I took a pratfall. Medusa laughed, then wobbled and fall to her side in a pile of snow.
I sat up and ran my eye lasers over the walkway to thaw it out. It’d be wet and would soon refreeze in this weather, but it’d be wet enough. Medusa got to her own damn feet and helped pull me up, too. “I hope you have a hovercar nearby.”
“Hovercar? Where we’re going, Medusa, we don’t need hovercars.” I told her. A gust of wind and a dull roar heralded the arrival of the Psycho Flyer. It wasn’t easy to make out against the night sky, but a cable dropped with a vest attached. “Strap in,” I ordered her.
A laser beam severed the cable. A gleam from the doorway reverted the newborn night to dusk. While we were fixated on that, a giant snow arm emerged from the powder covering the lawn and grabbed Medusa. Before I could do anything about that, a teen boy with golden skin and red hair flew right at us. I stopped him cold with a punch stronger than he likely expected, but he smirked and grabbed for me. I got a hold of his wrists and it turned into an evenly-matched arm wrestling contest. But I didn’t come to wrestle with teen boys. I came to spank them.
Ugh. This is why I don’t try to go after teen heroes.
I headbutted the golden boy, then rotated the Lil Dude’s head around in a way that’s fatal for people. A man in white and blue tops and a black top hat with holly on the band emerged from the snow near Medusa without leaving a hole. I severed the snow arm with my eye lasers. She dropped to the ground and turned, catching her opponent in the gut and following it up with an uppercut that dropped him into a snowbank. He left a hole that time.
While I was distracted, golden boy bent my arms closer to each other, then crossed over and pulled my arms fully across my drone’s chest. I brought the head back around and fired the eyes. He ducked, then his eyes glowed read as he looked right into the Dudebot’s eyes. The Dudebot’s eyes showed complete structural failure. More specifically, they were slag from a laser directed at the sensitive inner workings that don’t work so well when coherent light gives them a full-on caress. Golden boy dropped to his knee though and wiped at his eyes, giving me a opening. I didn’t make this thing’s vision dependent on eyes.
Checking the Flyer, I found it had lowered itself and more of the cable through the bottom entry hole. I turned and grabbed Medusa, then tossed her up. She didn’t quite make it it to the hole, but she made it to the cable hanging out of the hole. The soldiers hauled her up as I ordered them. “Get her out of here and to the escape point.”
A punch from Golden boy leveled me while I was distracted. He had his arm up, covering his left eye with his forearm and peeking out with his right eye through the fingers of his hand. I spat glue at his feet. It might as well have been water.
He looked up at the Flyer, though, then around until he saw the hole where his snow-manipulating friend was taking a nap.
“Damn,” he said, then began to rise into the air toward the Flyer that began to streak off.
I don’t know if he could have caught it, but I knew I wasn’t going to let him try. I grabbed his leg with one hand. The fingers of the other opened up to the sound of whirring drills that I jammed into his crotch.
You ever seen one of those gags about an opera singer hitting a loud, shrill note at just the right frequency to shatter glass? This was like that, with the guy singing a high soprano.
He was done holding back, though. He caved in the Dudebot’s head and tore off its arm. I sent a laugh through what remained of the sound system. It came out warped and distorted just before a bright flash and intense heat emanated from the Dudebot as it melted down and disposed of its secrets. Not that they’d have any trouble figuring out who was behind this anyway, but a bright light couldn’t have been that good for the guy with the hurt eyes.
I lost the feed from the Dudebot and instead checked the satellites, where Golden Boy took a good thirty seconds to recover. And as many a teen would discover, it takes more than thirty seconds to keep up with me. And I’m right back to being glad I don’t have some big rivalry going on with teenagers.
Others from Master Academy ran out to check on Golden Boy and to wave some smelling salts under Snow Man’s nose.
Venus called within the hour, by which time Medusa was already on a flight out of the country.
I took it in my room, laying on the bed and kicking my feet all excitedly. “Heya Boopsie.”
“Don’t ‘hey Boopsie’ me,” she said.
“You sound angry.”
“I don’t like jailbreaks,” she said. “What’s your angle?”
“You’ll just have to find out,” I said. “I’d love to hear how you somehow have evil versions of superheroes locked up at Master Academy. It sounds like fun, but it couldn’t have been. If it was a fun time, I know you’d have invited me.”
“What we do isn’t about fun. You’re not entitled to an invitation or to invade our home.” She took a moment, then added. “You didn’t like people wrecking it when it was your home.”
“Going for the nonexistent testicles on that one,” I told her. “If you really want to know what’s going on, I’d be more than happy to tell you over dinner in my country. You, me, no witnesses or pesky backup…”
“You and I aren’t happening! I can’t let you keep an evil version of me,” she informed me.
“Well, you know what you need to do if you want to talk or negotiate about it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep an eye on the news for when everybody sees how happy you are in your new relationship with me…”
She hung up. Mmm. As much as I do have some interesting feelings toward her, some of the teasing is specifically to get under her skin. Just a joke, ya know? But she did inconvenience me some. Now that my move is known to them, it’ll be much harder to replace Venus with her otherworldly double and ship Venus off in Medusa’s place to another dimension. Why settle for having assets inside the government when I can have a criminal version of Venus working for me inside the world of the heroes?
Why be merely evil, when I can be really fucking evil?
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.”
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!”
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.”
“…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.
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.”
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?”
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.”