I practiced Santa’s powers of stealth. The Jolly Old Elf is known for being able to land a sleigh on a house without causing much of a clatter, squeezing down a chimney, and dropping off a bunch of presents with no one home being the wiser. My methods differ a bit, relying more on illusion and deception, but allowances have to be made for the fact I’m not a personification of the collective unconscious ideas and beliefs around a season.
The Eidolon office was in Connecticut, which is a bit odd with so many people preferring flyover country or California’s Silicon Valley. Then again, the whole thing seemed to be an odd duck. The files I have on their past work had lots of expunged stuff. The people who made Agent Orange didn’t even want any files leftover of their involvement with these guys.
“Hi, Camilla Saturnium of Maximum News. Max News, the most truth, 24/7,” I introduced myself, doing my best to maintain a bit of crazy eyes. I’d gone blonde, blue-eyed, and mildly off-kilter in appearance. My cover was simple, reporter for a xenophobic, jingoistic news organization with no regards for the facts so long as the protection of white Americans was involved.
An older fellow with a poofy head of hair in a white button down and brown trousers, greeted me and accepted my offered handshake. “Ted Zackinski,” he introduced himself as. “VP in charge of communications.” I caught the legerdemain of him sneaking some hand sanitizer afterward, but I think I had him disarmed. Disarmed as far as my ability to think and understand, at least. In laughing off the plague, I showed him that I was the sort of person who will let people I’m happy with tell me anything I want.
“We wanted to highlight the tireless efforts of American corporations to keep us safe from the chi coms and other forces who would strike down our proud country,” I said, restraining myself from putting my hand over my heart. There’s convincing, and then there’s parody. One of the dangers of this cover is not being sure where the line is. And one of the reasons I maintain homicidal impulses is that I never end up going far enough. I decided to throw a little more in. I shook my head and gestured to the air. “So proud. One nation under God, amen.”
“I would be happy to tell you about our history as a company. Is there anything you wanted to focus on?” he asked.
“I wanted to know more about the great men behind it and the things they set out to do,” I said. “A source of mine said we’d be delighted to hear about the work of a Geoffrey Westmoreland.”
The man smiled. “You have good sources. Mr. Westmoreland was the founder of Eidolon Solutions.” He moved aside to show me a photo on the wall. Looked nothing like the faceless clone. This guy had eyes, a mouth, a nose, even a full head of hair into old age. “He created this company to build a legacy. Legacy is our watchword here, and even now the company remains his legacy even as he has passed on.”
“Passed on?” I asked. See, this is why I let on I was the sort of person to believe lies about the pandemic.
“Oh yes, Mr. Westmoreland was visionary, but he died earlier this year. He lived a long life, longer than most thanks to our research here, but it was his time,” he turned to glance at the portrait of the old man. “In some ways, it feels like he’s still watching over us.”
Ok, I know what kind of world I live in. I even checked for hidden eyes in that painting, or maybe the picture moving and stalking me across multiple room. Nothing yet. Yet.
Unfortunately, things were pretty vague after that. They didn’t go into more detail about what, if anything, these guys had to do, just that it had to do with biological research to keep soldiers alive in hostile situations. So I think this had something to do with super soldier research, and I guess that could have something to do with clones. But most of what I was doing here was trying to hunt down the guy whose DNA was used for the Miser’s flamethrower-wielding minion.
I even pursued the possibility of disgruntled employees near the end, as the neverending cavalcade of vagueness concluded. “So, I bet a company like yours has the occasional employee who tries to take you down.”
“This is an odd line of questioning,” the man said, adjusting his shirt cuffs.
I put on a show of looking around, then leaned in and whispered, “Just between you and me, our source in the Forestry Service said that something strange was found in the recent fires. This body without a face. They found an Eidolon logo. I’m here to get ahead of the story and help you. If you can help me find who might have made this faceless thing or leaked the info, I can help.”
While I revealed all this, I watched the man’s expression. His eyes glazed over lightly as he went elsewhere mentally, making connections. He got… twitchy. His movements gained a frantic edge to them. You know, it’s the little things that can clue you in to drug abuse. “I’m sorry. Thank you for bringing to this our attention. Can I have your card for later?”
I had some fake business cards thrown together because I go the extra mile. That’s what separates me from the amateur villains. Y’all think it’s easy to be a master criminal? The research alone… I’ve seen shit that would melt some faces. That’s one of my favorite things about chemistry, actually.
Ted, the guy who I’d been talking to, had me seen out by an associate with a bit more muscle on him. I got the feeling he was secret security in case I tried to show investigative instincts. I let them lead me out, made a show of leaving, and flew in a camouflage camera drone to keep an eye on the place. I’d have infiltrated the place, but I settled on a camera footage and wiretaps while I saw to my Santa-ly duties.
Miser’s important to deal with, but more than that, I have to keep up the masquerade. No one must ever realize Santa is on vacation with Martians.
And that’s why I stopped over in some other parts of the world, including handing out some presents in Norway. Usually, there’s Norway you’d get me that far away from a surveillance target, but I had some very special presents for them over there. I flew over the country, did my usual “ho ho ho”ing, and stopped off in Trondheim. A crowd of Norwegians soon appeared, and I started giving out gifts, starting with the batons.
“What is this?” asked one man after I handed him a baton.
“Baseball bats. Very special baseball bats,” I answered, before handing over some more, uh, sporting equipment. Sporting equipment borrowed from the L.A.P.D. They have more weapons and ammo than they know what to do with, so I figured I’d dispose of some of it and give people presents in one jolly occasion.
Even if that led to another Norwegian stopping and sniffing as he received his box of ammo, then asking with a smile, “What is in your pipe, Santa?” I brought one along to help sell the illusion, but I didn’t have anything in there. It might have been some odd Norwegian attempt at humor, or he could smell some of the other presents I brought. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg have been good this year.
They got more agreeable when I started passing out candy and cookies. Lots of edibles in the L.A.P.D. Evidence lock-up, and the Norwegians were hungry. They were having a good time that night. My night took a turn when I got an alert from the camera drone. The Eidolon building was under attack.
I glanced out through the cameras of the drone. It was after dark, and a bunch of the staff were leaving. A blue light struck, fast as lightning, and someone fell over, their body flash-freezing, skin breaking in places, before falling over and shattering. Much of the staff reacted with panic, scrambling for their lives. The blue flash struck again and again. I adjusted the camera angle to watch an armored humanoid in a jetpack hovering over the scene, using a handheld weapon that flashed blue to cause the freezing effect. Every time it did, it left a swirl of frost in the air near the icy assailant.
This Cold Miser landed, smashing down through the remains of one of the employees with heavy duty metal boots. Ted, my guide from earlier, approached, waving his hands. “This is unnecessary! We haven’t said a thing. I can personally vouch for the loyalty of every one of these men. Do you know how hard this is going to be to cover up? You even killed Rachel from HR. That means I have to interview replacements myself.”
Cold Miser didn’t say anything to him in response. Flash! Ted fell over, the arms frozen in mid-gesticulation cracking off when he hit the ground. Then Ice Miser aimed his freezing gadget at the building itself. It took 15 minutes of continuous freezing to turn the building into a crumpling icy mess.
I was too far away in Norway to have stopped it. I could have activated a spare body back at home, but I doubt I’d have reached Eidolon Solutions in time to even stop the building from being destroyed. But that misses an important part of the equation… I don’t give a damn what happens to Eidolon Solutions. Defense contractors are a dime a dozen, and this proved that Ted, who maybe was a bit more important than his VP title had implied, had something to do with the guy I was in this to stop. But stopping the Ice Miser wouldn’t stop Miser himself. Or themselves. I don’t entirely know what I’m dealing with, even now.
So I set that drone to “tailing” mode and arranged a high-atmosphere surveillance drone flight to keep a better eye on the Cold Miser. Once he finished freezing the building, he flew off. My electric eyes followed him to the coast of New Hampshire. It looked like a remote and rocky little island, but the top opened up and the Cold Miser descended under it.
While I oversaw a bunch of Norwegians pigging out on pot fruitcake, a quick check of the old files I have on Eidolon made mention of cryogenic fast-freezing research by them while attached to NASA. Freeze some astronauts, send them on a journey that takes a few hundred years, and thaw them out when they reach the destination. The freezing part worked very well. Not very safely, as the Eidolon staff found out, but efficiently. That would have been from just before Eidolon worked with the Coast Guard on a project whose name alone survived: Ward. Maybe I’ll learn more about it when my infiltrator robot crabs finish going over the wreckage of their building and plugging into any surviving computer systems.
Ted was a helpful guide after all.
And that’s probably where this would end, except Qiang snuggled up to me on the flight back. “Why are you doing this, mama?”
“The Santa stuff?” I asked. She nodded, so I responded, “Guess it needs to be done, to make sure Christmas and all these holiday things survive.”
“I like Christmas, too. You think it’ll go away if we don’t do this?” she sounded worried there.
“It’s ok if you don’t want to do it. It’s just nice, you know. Some people are jerks about it, but it seems like it’s one of the few times of year people mostly try to be good. Some people can really use that this time of year, too,” I mused to her.
“Yeah, like how you get before you go away and do stuff,” she said. “I liked my uncle, but then you said you had to do all this and he should stay away.”
“He may not agree with everything we’re up to,” I said. They’re a complication, and I’m busy.
There’s a line of thinking in Superhero Studies that every hero will create his own nemesis. They’ll fail to save a certain person or capture someone important to another. Maybe their powers trigger someone else gaining superpowers who takes a darker path. It’s not all that solid. For one thing, the only reason I chose Venus as my nemesis was because she could hold her own against me in a fight and probably some harmful psychological baggage.
Another big hole in the theory is that I’m not a superhero, but this Miser person is going out of his way to try and counter my holiday cheerfest. This year’s been so absolutely fucked, even the personification of joy in the middle of the cold and darkness doesn’t want to do his job. That’s where I come in: too stupid to know better, too stubborn to give up. And this time, I’m using my powers for goodness sake.
It started with Miser stealing the first shipment of vaccines for the pandemic. Then, someone started poisoning soup kitchens, and the Miser took public credit. I think that one didn’t work quite like he meant it to. So many people are in bad circumstances this year, there’s no getting rid of the demand for food. Between the need to replace soup kitchen food, pandemic shortages, and survivalist stockpiling, we were seeing an unbelievable soup shortage. I decided to do my part.
I caught an incoming soup flight. They were moving it by cargo plane, under guard. Never know when the survivalists would go for it, especially with how few of them know you can boil some neckbones for broth. I snuck up on the cargo plane, lights off. I waited until I got close to show off the improvements made to the sleigh. The deer now pretended to run through the sky, but it was the device at the head of them that I was most proud of. That deer had a skull-sized orb for a nose that housed a heat ray. Not a laser, nor an x-ray, but a heat ray. The difference is that the red-glowing nose didn’t cause as much of a lightshow when it superheated the metal of the mechanism at the base of the door. With a snap, the cargo door fell open, throwing someone out into the cold night sky.
There were a few armed guards standing around pallets of plastic-wrapped soup cans. Battle helmets, body armor, and repeating plasma rifles. Somebody paid a premium for protection. I hit the lights on the sleigh. The red, green, white, and blue bright lights were enough to throw off their night vision for the moment. I used the opening to drop the windshield long enough to jump up and run along the hood and deer. I jumped into the open door, hitting the remote to seal up the sleigh with my daughter inside. She can pout all she wants, but plasma rifles aren’t children’s toys. More reason these clowns shouldn’t have them.
I rushed up to one of the guards and grabbed his rifle, directing it upward. He fired hot plasma into the top of the fuselage while I swept the leg. Then, with the other foot, I swept the crotch. He slid a few feet but his gun stayed with me. I threw it at another guard, catching him in the face with the receiver. He aimed high while I slid low, headbutting his crotch and jingling his bells. I jumped to my feet, lifting that guy over head and throwing him overhead onto his back. The last guy caught me in the side, giving me the smell of roasted pork inside my armor. I projected holograms of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, future, and that Marley guy. He fired wildly and lost track of me coming at it him from the side and clocking him upside the jaw, putting him down like he was Glass Joe.
With them down, I could better hear the ruckus from forward in the plane. Folks were waking up to something going wrong. At least half the plane was blocked off, probably with more guards ready at a moment’s notice. I’d given them the moment, and they’d noticed. Send in the drones!
The windows of the sleigh opened again. From out of a large red bag in the backseat flew a half-dozen drones, pushing against the wind with the help of rocket thrusters, my daughter racing after all of them. The drones settled on top of the nearest pallets. I began strapping the nearest one to its drone. A curtain moved out of the way up ahead. I set a nutcracker down on one of them. The nutcracker raised its little toy rifle and fired at the nearest movement from that direction, causing the approaching guards to duck for cover briefly. That only held them off for a second before the nutcracker was blasted into flaming bits, but by then, I’d finished that pallet of soup.
I had other tricks up my ample sleeves. I flung a star tree topper off into the plane that caused a lightshow of fireworks inside the thing. That gave me time to secure another couple of pallets and move to help Qiang with the one she was working on. “Get back to the sleigh, dear. It’s almost time to get out of here.”
She nodded and ran back to where the sleigh was pulling up onto the ramp. She took the driver’s seat, of course. I remote-piloted it back out, leaving me with the pallets. “Ok,” I told her over the car radio. “Now hit the song!”
I began pushing some of the pallets, mindful of guards on approach. They’d figured out they had my back and that it was too much of a risk of hitting the soup they were guarding to fire. I sighed, though, when the BTS music hit instead of the song I actually told my daughter to play for this awesome music. That k-pop’s everywhere these days.
I turned and gave the guards a pair of middle fingers before activating the parachutes installed in the drones on the last two pallets. They fell out of the plane and I hopped out after them. My daughter interfered with that, too. Rather than a cool night sky dive, she caught me a few feet below the plane in the backseat of the Impala.
“You’re never getting your license if you keep this up!” I told her. She just giggled. See, this is why the real Santa never adopted an orphan then used superscience to alter her DNA so she was biologically related to him. Among other reasons, I’m sure.
The soup got where it needed to go. Some places had the time, money, and resources to rebuild their soup stocks, and stock stocks, from nothing. The Exemplars are running some soup kitchens and homeless shelters like that. Others needed a little help. We all do, sometimes. And this time, they got special deliveries from Santa Gecko.
But wait, there’s more. The Miser’s not just messing with people’s food. I awoke late one day after a night of flying around being awesome to find out California had another wildfire. At this point, I didn’t think the state had anything left that could catch on fire, but news choppers all spotted the word “Miser” spelled out in flames at the beginning of the mess.
This looked like a job for… Santa Woman.
Now, I didn’t know a whole lot about summoning water and snow from nowhere, but I know a guy who does. The supervillain Ouroboros doesn’t have the most impressive powers, but what he does have is a system that works. He gives his domain stability. Competence is a power all its own. One reason he has it so easy is the presence of weather control buoys he’s commissioned off the Gulf Coast. They’re able to keep hurricanes from wrecking Paradise City with its tourist industry and casinos.
I stole a couple. I was only going to take one, but then I remembered this was California, where “on fire” is part of the usual forecast most of the year. Hefted one up into the backseat of the sleigh and carried the other below, then set about reprogramming them on the way over to Cali.
I think news reporters were just fucking breaking down at this point. Militia shooters, murderous cops, pandemic, wildfires… and even more. Hell, an ICE agent interrupted the broadcast to ask her for her papers. I think it was just enough for her. She hit that wall where she couldn’t handle it emotionally.
“The dream’s over, Hernandez,” the ICE agent said. And then a pile of snow fell on top of the ICE agent and turned him into a snowman. She looked up to see my Chevy Impala lowrider sleigh zipping through the sky accompanied by the jingling of bells and the song “Feliz Navidad.”
Then she and her cameraman started running to escape the Icer.
I pulled up to better control the weather. These buoys worked better the closer to the epicenter of the weather they were meant to affect. That works perfectly fine in the waters of the Gulf, stopping hurricanes. Here, that meant pulling up way into the sky and watching as air cooled into hail and snowflakes. I swept in, bringing the cold with me. Which was plenty bad in its own way for California, but not as bad as yet another fucking wildfire. Most wildlife had already fled the fire, so they didn’t have to worry about getting caught in the snow that drifted down and buried the flames. I ended up creating a fog of sorts from where the cold precipitation hit the burnt-over ground and raging fires.
But, slowly and surely, the fires that were started so out of control were halted, until the only place left was a section of the woods in Northern California where a man roamed with a flamethrower, randomly setting things alight. I brought the sleigh down low and hopped out, my armor turning me invisible. He looked up at the sleigh and tried in vain to catch it with a gout of flame. The flame died when I snuck up behind him and pulled the gas lines out.
“That was easy. Time to catch some holiday spirit, Miser. Right upside your head.” I pulled the man’s helmet off and saw a faceless, pulsing, humanoid… thing. I bopped it over the head with the helmet just to be sure and knock it the fuck out. Thing was a little gross. A quick check with the medical nanites showed it was human… some half-formed clone with fucked-up telomeres that wouldn’t survive long anyway. This Heat Miser was just a minion that the real Miser didn’t care if it took the fall.
But it still gave me a clue. Not a lot of places in on this world can pull something like this off, and I got a match on the DNA. I still have plenty of outdated government files, like ones for contractor security clearance. These belonged to a fellow named Geoffrey Westmoreland, head of a little-known corporate subsidiary called Eidolon Solutions that gets passed around all the time. Some esoteric thing where people try to kill goats by staring at them and use sound to unlock wormholes. No wonder everyone regrets their investment and sells it.
Looks like they’re going on my naughty list, and its time to give them a lump.
The plan is simple. It’s like when I laid it all out for my daughter. “We have two main ways we can go about trying to maintain the holiday season.” I pointed to the topmost box of the briefing I had up on the wall of the living room. “Plan A, we do our best to be the jolliest assholes this side of the nuthouse. Fly around distributing presents, punishing grinches and humbugs, and listening to children tell us what they want.”
Qiang cheered. I pointed down to the second box. “Or, Plan B. That’s where we go around ruining everything and try to guilt Santa into coming back and doing things right. I don’t know how much we can shame the Spirit of the Season. Mrs. Claus was gone before I could say anything and I don’t know how to get to their North Pole.”
Then, I pointed to both options at once. “There is another plan, and this is probably the one we’ll fall into. That’s where we try Plan A and attempt to do good, but we mess it up anyway and it becomes Plan B by accident.”
“Where do we start?” asked my daughter.
I nodded. “First, we suit up.”
I went with my normal armor, but I’d made a special suit for my girl. I keep readjusting her power armor every now and then to keep up with her growth. This time, I’d completely redone it. It was a bit chunky from being a little mass of armor plates and padding underneath an elf costume. As she got into it, it defaulted to an image of her, but with rosier cheeks and pointy ears.
In contrast, I fixed a Santa hat to my armor and wore a fake beard.
“Second,” I told my kid once we were both suited up. “We get out there and we make sure everyone knows the Claus isn’t gone. To the flying machine!” I love saying that part dramtically. It goes with being a drama queen. But sometimes, the world needs a drama queen.
The Flying Machine turned out to be a bright red Chevy Impala with white trim, rocket afterburners, jets, wings, and a top I attached for protection from the elements. “This isn’t a sleigh,” my daughter commented.
“Correct… most sleighs don’t have enough room for what I need to do, and I had this laying around. If anyone asks, Old Mrs. Johnson’s car needs more work than expected. Your uncle volunteered to find me something to help, but… I don’t like Justice Ranger resources. Hop in!” I beckoned her toward the car. It had plenty of space in the back for a bag of toys, but we didn’t have one this time. Maybe Santa has magical things going on to make a list and check it twice, but I don’t have time to spy on everyone and figure out what they want for Christmas. That’s why I stole the NSA’s list. It only covers most of the United States, but it’s a start.
“Strap in,” I warned my girl. “I’m going to test out launching vertically.”
“Hey neighbor!” a voice called. I glanced over to see the family next door standing on their lawn in between decorations, looking at the odd sight.
I waved. “Hey Ted.”
“That a new car?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Just borrowing it for a bit. Oh, hey, I can’t help but notice the ol’ minivan’s slow to start. You need me to take a look at it sometime?”
Ted shook his head. “No, but that’s kind of you. I think we’re going to get a new one soon.”
His wife, Margo, chimed in. “Yeah, we’re thinking it’s time to get Jonah one of his own.”
Jonah, their teenage boy, didn’t contribute anything of his own. He was too busy gawking at me. I remember what it’s like to be that age, with a throbbing and uncontrollable erection.
“Can we watch takeoff?” Margo asked.
I shrugged. “Sure. Shouldn’t have a blast radius.” That may not have been all that comforting, but I like to leave open the possibilities of explosions in my life. It’s the same level of caution that leads me to keep at least one deadly projectile weapon next to the toilet. Currently, it’s a harpoon gun.
“On Dasher, on Dancer,” Ted suggested.
I shook my head and turned on the car’s stereo system. A voice growled out, “Oh what fun it is to ride a pimped-out getaway!”
And with that, I hit the Vertical Takeoff button. The car started bouncing as the hydraulics kicked in. All Old Mrs. Johnson’s friends know the lowrider, but none of them know just how high it can get now. After a few bouncing, the tires were completely off the ground. Jets and thrusters kicked in, raising it up before the front of the car angled upward and we shot up into the sky with a “Ho ho ho!” from me.
“Where are we going first, mama?” Qiang asked.
I doublechecked our heading and the radar. “I don’t have a real target…” I bet there’s somebody sending some cash by plane. The past few years have been a good time for mercenaries and other folks with lots of money they like to keep secret. “I figured we’d fly around a bit, make some appearances, try to get people in the mood.”
“We should have reindeer,” Qiang suggested.
“I think I’ll add those once we get back. This is just the beginning,” I said. We flew all over the midwest, a jolly power armor-clad Santa and elf in a red and white car. The first flight shook out pretty well. The second night we did this, I strapped on some deer from a yard decoration and we took to the skies again.
And that’s the one where, in the middle of flying over Chicago, the radio picked up a loud demand. “Yarr! Hand over the flying car and nobody gets hurt!” It was a dark and cloudy night. We had the top up to prevent oncoming wind from freezing our asses off. There were planes flying in and out of the city, so it took a moment to fine something on the radar that shouldn’t be there. It was nearly right beneath us.
Captain Flamebeard’s flying pirate ship rose out of the clouds like out of the fog, the light from the sails only flickering into view once it breached the mist nearby. We were close enough to see the large flag flying with a bearded skull and fuzzy red hat on top of crossbones wrapped in Christmas lights.
“They’re flying the Jolly Roger,” I told my daughter. She reached down to the emergency weapon kit she’d found underneath the rear seat and came back up with a pair of sabres.
“Want one?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No. Save those for if we’re boarded. I should be able to get us away, though, so check your safety line again.” Listen, you can’t be strapped in all the time. For those times when seatbelts are inconvenient, I have safety lines. Anyone falls out, these cables will keep a person from going too far. The paint on Old Mrs. Johnson’s Impala might get a bit scuffed, but it’s better than falling. I packed a parachute onto Quang’s armor just in case, but it’s better if she never has to use it.
I grabbed the radio and responded to the ultimatum from the sky pirates. “Ho ho ho… try to take my car and yule be sorry. Ho ho ho ho ho!”
I twisted the wheel, sending us into spin down toward the ground. Flamebeard’s ship was bigger and carries more cannons, but it’s also slower to maneuver. You can’t send it into the kinds of sudden drops as us.
I heard booming. A net whistled by overhead, close to catching us if we hadn’t gone into a dive. It nearly nabbed Qiang, who hung off by her safety line with a sword in each hand going, “Wheee!”
“I told you not to play around with the windows!” I called back to her.
I thought we’d be fine under the clouds. Turns out, Flamebeard had deployed boarding parties. A smaller boat floated along on twin rotors. A few sky pirates hopped onto rocket boards they had at the read and blasted off, heading for us. I spun to catch one of them with my daughter, who knocked into the pirate and bumped him off before she could even swing at him. His parachute activated once he fell below the same level as the boat.
I hit the recall button on for that safety line and a winch reeled my daughter into the car while I leveled us out. I saw a boarder rocketing toward me on the driver’s side, grappling hook in hand. Now, it’s never advised to unlock your car door in mid-flight for safety reasons. I did so and smashed the door into the body of the boarder, knocking him for a loop toward the ground. I guess this time, it was more of a safety issue for him.
Another boarder came shooting up from behind us, upside down and overhead, ax at the ready. Qiang jumped up on the center console and swung with her sabres, sending the boarder spinning around as he clutched his rocket board.
“Hey mama, I got a new ax!” my girl proudly declared.
“I see, that’s awesome! Close your eyes for me, ok?”
She nodded and I pulled out a pair of flashbangs and tossed them, one low and one high for maximum coverage. Blinding light burst from the twin devices, along with a deafening but harmless explosion. My helmet and ears adjusted while I watched as a one of the rocket boarders crashed into the side of their own boat. At least he wasn’t a little higher up or his comrades would have to play “Raining Blood” at the funeral service.
“Ok, you can open them,” I told my daughter as we flew close to another pirate who had slowed up some while he rubbed at his peepers. I grabbed a marker we had in the car and slowed us down long enough to draw on his face. Meanwhile, Qiang checked in the minifridge and came out with a snowball she threw right into the pirate’s balls. He ended up slipping and falling down crotch-first onto his rocket board, but at least he didn’t need a chute like the rest of his friends.
I checked and found no more rocket boarders around us. The boat could still fly, but it wasn’t as nimble as we were either. I put on the afterburners to gain some distance from them, then pulled up the radio. “To all a good night, except Captain Flamebird and his crew. Remember, children, I know where you live!”
The news carried the story of our little shindig. “Santa Versus The Sky Pirates!” the headline read. That’s some good PR.
As happy as I was to get back from my little space adventure, it seemed like the various aliens involved were more happy to see me gone. I tried to ask for some extra time in space, but Tarkington, Fort, and Dreiser weren’t having any of it. They were under orders to bring me back before my absence caused any more problems. And to obtain an autograph from me. Someone in the Blank ranks recognized me from that space opera I helped with where me really fighting people was accidentally included in the recording.
At least I got to have one last goodbye to all my comrades in arms. We were going to distribute out from the Xlevon ship, using their transit records to help direct the delivery ships and Blank vessels. Since my Blanks really wanted me to leave fairly soon, I got to address most of the remaining prisoners. “In the words of two great Earth philosophers… be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.” Then I pressed my handprint into a tablet-like device that said it was applying the handprint to the corner of a holographic still. Ng
I think Tarkington liked it. Dreiser didn’t. “They’re going to have weird ideas about Earth if any of them make it there.”
“I hope it’s a long journey,” I said, taking a seat.
“Scared of your fellows?” Dreiser asked.
“Some of them were afraid of me, but no. I meant I hope it takes awhile to get back. It’s about time for the full moon back home, and I’d rather miss it if possible.”
“Why?” asked Fort.
“You ever heard of werewolves?” I asked.
He got excited. “You’re a werewolf?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“I don’t want a werewolf on the ship when the moon appears,” Tarkington said. “Sorry.”
“It’s more when I see the moon, not a specific time of the month. We could have had an issue before now if anyone had shown me a moon, I think.”
“A moon like this?” asked Dreiser. I cut my armor’s visual feed. I especially didn’t need to change while in my armor.
“I don’t want a werewolf on my ship, Dreiser,” Tarkington repeated. “You let our course drift.”
“Minneapolis isn’t that far from Radium,” Dreiser responded.
I stood up to try and find my way over for a swift kick.
“Whoops, emergency executive transport pod activated,” Dreiser said.
I fell, then landed in something. Restoring my visual feed showed I was on the inside of a padded sphere. I felt a dropping sensation for a second, until a hum surrounded me and it felt like normal, non-falling Earth gravity. I heard a voice from the top point of the sphere. “I apologize, Gecko. You will touch down in Minneapolis. I have to reprimand my pilot, and the moon is still out. The pod is programmed to avoid obstacles and slow your descent to the surface, but it appears your trajectory’s taking you near a lot of humans who might be respond to you falling out of the sky.”
I was unprepared for the pod deciding to let me see out all of a sudden. The voice announced, “Reconnaissance mode active,” and then there was the city and night sky. I got a full view of the moon and told my armor to release before I sent my consciousness back to the main homebody.
I did, of course, check in on my daughter in her room as soon as I got back. “Mom, you’re back!” she said, jumping up. I noticed she’d been snacking in here. And as I hugged her, I noticed a lot of snacking. All over the place. I had still been making meals and getting her off to school, but I’d been neglecting her while I was away and she used that time to smuggle snacks into her room and set them aside in places I couldn’t see from the doorway.
“Yeah, my body just landed in Minneapolis, but Reindeer’s got it now,” I explained. “It’ll be good to get a vacation from that vacation we took.”
“It’s good knowing the evil aliens didn’t get to keep you,” my daughter said.
“Yeah… sorry they ruined our vacation. You wouldn’t have liked the trip. The food on their ship tasted nasty. And the guys who abducted me, I think they expected all of us to fight and eat each other, because they didn’t leave food where they kept us. I accidentally ate something that made me super high. All of the other prisoners were from planets like ours that don’t go out into space much, and they were talking to each other thanks to a monster with lots of tentacles that can talk directly to people’s minds.”
“Did you rescue any alien princesses?” she asked.
“I consider myself the alien princess, sweetie,” I said. “And I sorta rescued myself there when I got another body and my power armor in there. They thought they killed me. Oh, but this one alien ended up dying while helping me. Don’t even know what its species was. It was a green blob.”
I told her about it while I gave that body something other than a nutrient IV drip for sustenance, but we were interrupted a couple minutes into it by a call from an unknown number. I don’t like to answer those generally, but I was expecting a call.
“It’s Reindeer,” my main body said now that it was transformed into a weredeer. “Can you come bring me clothes? Or you could even stop by if you want.”
“I’ll get the clothes to you, but after that bit last time, I don’t think I’m the partner you’re looking for on that stuff.”
“Fair enough,” said the heroic version of myself. “Throw in something for medical, if you can.”
This was a Firecat body, so I grabbed up Qiang and fetched Reindeer’s costume from the basement lair. Outside, I tossed her into the air, changed into big cat form, and jumped up to catch her on my back before racing off toward my store. I could remote active some things to get the rockets in the back ready for deployment. I kept first aid kits in stock nowadays, along with bottles of Riccan Bottled Nanite Water and a gas mask fit for a deer’s muzzle. Still had to manually load them. The time I lost in doing things myself was made up for by how fast the rocket blasted off into high atmosphere and homed in on where Reindeer’s call came from.
I loaded up a spare rocket with more medical supplies if they needed it and kept it on standby, but Qiang and I went home again. I wanted to actually relax in my own residence while watching what was going on. She wanted to watch, too, but I told her we’d have to wait until her bedroom was clean. We got a good bit of it, but she rushed like most kids, so I’m thinking I’ll ask the nanomachines to comb through everything when she’s off at school.
Reindeer was with a crowd of protesters. I hadn’t been keeping much track except to know there’d been violence and there were way more protests than the news was covering. I’m still pretty sure the protesters didn’t need to be seen with a supervillain watching their backs, but people liked Reindeer. The rocket slowed its approach as well and deployed a parachute so the stuff inside wouldn’t be ruined. Reindeer passed out a few of the medical kits and waters before someone shoved the costume in her face. A few protesters formed a ring around her to cover her up while she changed out of a borrowed hoodie and makeshift skirt into her costume.
“You with me?” she asked one of the cameras.
The phone of someone nearby played a brief clip of a character from a TV show saying, “That’s a Texas-sized 10-4, big shoots.”
“See if you can’t help us out with some of these cops,” she said. I expanded my mind, directing some of this feed to the TV so my daughter could watch. They had a pretty big force of police in front of them, with some white supremacist paramilitaries flanking the protesters. Cops were wrapping around, trying to surround the protest, but it was too large at the moment. They’d need to stop them. I broke into the channel they were using to coordinate the flankers to the north and indicated that they’d need to head further north with the protest having moved off in that direction.
I noticed an issue at the rear of the group. SUVs and vans were riding up and people were snatching isolated protesters into them. Sure would be a shame if something in the vehicles’ computers messed up and their engines died on them before they could get away, huh? And look at that, electronic locks. The guys holding them had weapons, but they were also vastly outnumbered by the protesters looking to de-arrest their fellows.
While I ran electronic interference, Reindeer was walking near the head of the group. They put here there, not as a figurehead but as a blocker. Didn’t make any difference to the cops who they gassed, apparently, but people who saw photos or watched footage would see a hero getting attacked by militarized, trigger-happy goons.
The paramilitaries didn’t hesitate either, and that was a lot more clear of a distinction. Hero versus people with Confederate Naval Jacks and Nazi Swastika patches beside the authoritarian “Back The Blue” flag. They were getting in people’s faces and I could tell Reindeer was having some of the same control issues I was. She really wanted to punch these assholes. I wanted to fuck with their cellphones and make them explode. Both of us knew if we did that, a situation that might become violent would become violent. I kept the idea in my pocket, but went ahead and planted some fun little worms in their phones to track and siphon off data. Might be a rash of mysterious deaths in the next few days.
The tension didn’t quite drain away, not even when someone ordered the cops to withdraw despite the orders from on high telling them to stay there. That left the way clear for the march, and it left the white supremacists all alone with a much larger crowd of protesters. The paramilitaries took one look at the numbers difference and the retreating cops, and decided they didn’t want any part of a crowd that beat a militarized, million-dollar force using cardboard shields and leafblowers. They ran scared, their silly Hawaiian shirts flapping away.
A cheer went up, and Reindeer spoke into one of the cameras. “You’re pretty good at this. Tell me you got names and addresses.” She turned and looked into a phone nearby where someone was filming everything that was interrupted out of nowhere by an arena full of people chanting along with a wrestler, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The surprise to me came the next day when I checked the news and found out Reindeer wasn’t the only superhero who stepped up and started blocking for protesters. There was even a big deal where one had stepped in and captured a would-be mass shooter in Wisconsin who murdered someone and tried to kill more. This weaksauce president we have currently after all the fighting and political maneuvering may be a traitorous son of a bitch, but he cared enough about which way the wind was blowing to pretend he did something. Then the protesters paraded his goons from the vans in front of news cameras and he announced he’d be withdrawing federal agents from protests.
Ah Earth. Those “civilized” aliens out there may look down on us, but I think I’ll take those assholes in the streets over the ones who never go further than expressing concern any day.
Back on Earth, I walked one of my spare bodies up to the remnants of the lake. The aliens had blown the whole thing out. There were a lot of people around from government agencies still finding dead fish in trees. I came in pretending to be a civilian: no costume or visible powers. Even the distance I was at, I could spot where the scorchmarks ended and the regular dirt and grass began. Guess I’m lucky, or maybe I’m just that tough.
The cabins looked fine. Took a lot of self control to not rush the one we’d been staying in, but I didn’t know who I could trust and who I could take. One of the suits approached, a classic man in black sweating his ass off in the summer heat.
“Excuse me, miss?” he waved at me as he jogged closer. “We need you to stay away from the perimeter of the incident.”
“My niece was staying here. Tell me where she is before I get an itchy lawyer-calling finger,” I told the guy, raising my middle finger to show off that was the finger in question.
“You believe your niece was staying here?” he said, pointing over to the cabins. I noticed he still pointed toward the cabin we’d stayed in. Looked like it got sprayed with fish guts, but otherwise safe.
I pointed right at the cabin. “Yeah, same one you just pointed to. Where is she?”
He also pointed over there. “The girl from that cabin? She assaulted a federal agent and says her mom was abducted by aliens. She also didn’t call any aunt. She didn’t call anyone.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You worked so hard for all the power a stupid suit and badge would give you and now nobody’s scared of you. I don’t even have a leafblower and I’m not impressed. You and I both know you weren’t sent here for any real answers. Most suspected alien encounters on Earth don’t even get reported, let alone investigated. They only sent you because a weapon went off, but anything capable of doing this kind of shit after flying to the taint end of the universe could already be blasting monuments.” I leaned in and decided to use some of my outdated stolen top secret info from the government. The United States has had a few organizations meant to investigate or even fight extraterrestrials. They don’t last long for some reason. “I’ve been there, working Majestic duty. X-twelve-dash-zero-five-one. Come on, a favor for a friend here? I bet I’ll even figure out how to get the mom back and make you look good.”
“Shit,” he cussed under his breath, looking around. “This way, ma’am.”
I probably shouldn’t have laughed when I saw her, but she looked so cute all trussed up like Hannibal Lecter. The agent explained, “She tried to grab a gun.” Attagirl. They had her done up ina straightjacket and mask, strapped to a dolly.
I smiled and bent down to address her on her level and in Riccan. “Hello baby. Momma’s here, but I had to use a spare body.”
She immediately stopped cutting out of her jacket with the knife she had on her. I told the agent, “Let her go.” Just before she got free, I told her, “Don’t cut him.”
“What?” he asked. He stepped away real quick as Qiang tossed off the straightjacket and cut her way through the remaining straps on her. She tossed the knife blade-first into the grass as she ran into my arms for a hug.
The man put his hands on his waist. “What the fuck am I dealing with here?”
I stood up with Qiang in my arms. “Since you’ve played so nice so far, I’ll tell you I’m the one they abducted. I have some spare bodies I can put my mind into, like this one, but the one they nabbed is the real me.” Unless I’ve inadvertently found a way to distribute my memory across multiple bodies at the same time, but I’d rather not test that. If I didn’t have the ability to send signals across the multiverse, I’d be stuck without the benefit of terrestrial resources.
“So you are on an alien spaceship and can report back to us in real time what it’s like?” the man asked. He was getting excited now.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know how much help you can be, but I’m going to need some help. A teleporter would be best. If not, I suppose a spaceship would do…”
“A spaceship? Where even are you, up there I mean?” He pointed up at the sky. He’d raised his voice, so some of local law started to notice. There were a few more black suits there who also realized he’d let Qiang go and were starting to amble our way.
“You got a laptop? A holographic display would be better, and I don’t like all these cops around,” I said, eyeing the approaching crowd.
“Everyone but members of the Bureau, clear out!” the agent said, leading me over to a white van.
“Agent Fort, what is going on here?” asked an older black-suited man.
“Agent Tarkington, this woman has valuable information for us,” Agent Fort opened the back of the van and reached in to grab a tablet off a rack. He held it out for me. “Here, holographic display.”
I set Qiang down. She stared down the agents with a firm grip on her knife while my spare body, another homo machina, interfaced with the tablet. I guess some higher tech was starting to filter through the government. Soon, with a bit of satellite triangulation on my side, I had enough of a location and idea how they were moving to create a visual aid. Two points appeared, one small with the words “I am here,” over it, and a larger one marked, “You are here.” The two different points pulled apart as the hologram showed the relative distance. A line between the two showed us about 400 million miles apart. The distance decreased slightly, then increased slightly as the dot representing me moved in a few circles, then moved to a new position nearby to do more circles.
“Why are they doing that?” Agent Fort asked. He’d been explaining my out of body experience to the others and just the others. The cops had been shooed off by then so nobody had to explain anything to them.
Tarkington stepped up, keeping his sunglasses on. “They’re at Jupiter.” He shook his head in disbelief and turned to another one with them, a mustachioed short guy. “They’re doing donuts on Jupiter. That’s all the confirmation I need. They’re Xlevon.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking closer at Tarkington. “How’d you know that, though?”
“I’ve been at this a long time,” he said.
I shook my head. “No you haven’t. No agencies around here do this for a long time. The only one that’s lasted any appreciable length of time was back in the 60s, before you would have been born.”
“We’re with the United Nations,” Tarkington said.
“Pull the other one,” I told him. “Are you guys visitors, those guys with the Three Hares?”
Tarkington looked to Fort, who held up his hands and said,” I didn’t say anything about them.”
“If you guys don’t start being honest with me right now, this collaboration’s over with. I don’t have time to waste on whatever this is,” I told them.
Tarkington shook his head, then pointed into the van. “Get in there and we’ll show you.”
Qiang raised her knife. Attagirl. I nodded to her. “Hard no. Even my daughter knows not to get into a windowless van with strange men. I think we’ll be going now.”
“Wait,” Tarkington, said, moving in front of me. He very nearly took a knife to the junk before his head shook and became blank, faceless, and white for a moment. It shook again and he was back to looking like he did before. “We aren’t with any Earth government. We are a group of observers working for an organization that attempts to monitor and aid undeveloped planets at risk from malevolent extraplanetary species.”
“Didn’t stop the Hares,” I said.
“The Hares kept to themselves. We have assisted how we could with other invasions, but space is large. Most are resolved before we can do more than provide information. The Mobian and your superhumans are invaluable protectors, but your governments are unstable and don’t trust us. We want to help save you from the Xlevon, but we don’t have a lot of resources on hand for this little blue planet.”
I shrugged. Not the craziest thing I’ve heard and it seems to match up with what I know of the workings of the greater galactic community. But I also had a way to check. Back on the ship, I was hanging out with the fish snake alien guy. Well, hanging out on him. I sat on his back as he slithered along to a different prisoner biome to try and meet up with his allies. “Hey, you ever hear about some beings sent to planets that aren’t all that advanced to keep watch for aliens like the Xlevon and invaders?”
The fish gave his version of a laugh. “The one sent to my planet was a thing with no face who failed to turn into one of us. It died in the invasion that gave us the ships to travel space, but we are looked down on for achieving faster-than-light travel through such means. Many of these civilized species are too weak to defend we they mock. Perhaps not the one who travels in the light orb. He helps more than most.”
Sounds about right. Shapeshifting, featureless alien that claims to be helping but doesn’t ever contribute anything meaningful? Exactly what I seem to be dealing with here. It also convinced me Earth’s considered the space equivalent of the ass end of nowhere since I realized that the aliens who went “fishing” with some sort of explosive weapon were doing donuts in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“Assuming y’all are finally telling the truth here, do we have a spaceship?” I asked.
Tarkington nodded. “Dreiser’s bringing it around now.”
“That defeats the purpose of our cover here,” Agent Fort said.
Tarkington stared at him through sunglasses I remembered were part of the alien’s body. “You’re new, so I’ll excuse your excessive caution. I’ve spent tens of years wanting to be in a position to do something meaningful.”
Dreiser, the other one of the bunch, most have shared that sentiment. A black triangle appeared overhead right in the middle of the day, surrounding us in a bright light that pulled myself, Qiang, Tarkington, Fort, and the van up into it. We floated through the bottom of the craft and into a room with a lot of brown and amber colors and low lighting.
“Is there anything you need before we pursue the Xlevon?” Tarkington asked.
I looked down at my daughter, who was jumping up and down excitedly, then back to Tarkington. “I’m guessing there will be extensive risk of physical harm?”
“Yeah,” Tarkington said.
I walked another spare body, this one in wearing my power armor, out onto my front lawn along with a couple cases of supplies. The triangle ship appeared overhead and another flash of pulled it up and dropped the spare body the fake agents had been talking to off with my daughter. They figured out who I had to be once they saw that. And my daughter decided quite vocally that she should be allowed to go risk dying in space.
“You never let me do anything fun!” my daughter yelled.
“No, I never let you get blown up by aliens. You want to fight rednecks from space, you graduate college first. Besides, killing things in space isn’t as fun as you’d think. In space, you can’t hear anybody scream.”
Meanwhile, up in the ship, a blanked-out Tarkington tapped his fingers impatiently on the arm of the chair he’d just caught me sitting in. I looked up at him, then tapped my chest where a Starfleet communicator would go. “I need everything you can give the engines, Scotty. We’ll cut ’em off at the pass!” Then I reluctantly got up and let Tarkington take what I assumed to be his chair.
“This is why nobody likes immature species,” the blank alien said.
“I’ll go work on more genocidal weapons of mass destruction while you mature people try to catch up to the aliens doing donuts on Jupiter,” I said.
I sat up late last night staring at a loaded gun in front of me.
I don’t like guns. May come as a surprise because I put them on my VTOL design and on my drones. It even feels like a petty distinction to make between firearms and lasers. I’ve felt more open about using them lately, even though I said long ago that I find them unimaginative. That’s part of it.
Another is that when I think back to everything that’s happened to me, the symbol of what’s been done to me is that the gun in my face. Men with guns, giving orders. I was getting tired of dwelling on the past trauma. I guess that’s part of why I’m such a bad example for other trans people. I’m everything they don’t want to be seen as. Same for homo machina, or just anyone from my dimension.
I’m no hero. After the last time we teamed up, Reindeer talked about her disappointment with letting me kill the guy. He was too rich to be touched by the legal system, or they wouldn’t do anything to him. It’s not the same as making a mugger or villain back down with a show of force or a fight. Whatever goodness in me takes over when I weredeer out once a month is losing because the psycho killer version of me is the best suited to dealing with this shitheap planet.
So I stared at a gun and had thoughts. Before my daughter woke up, I spat contemptuously and put the gun up.
It’s a sad, silly little ritual, but I’ve been doing it a bit lately. Stay up or wake up early and think about doing the world a favor, get my daughter up and get her settled, then off to stand behind a counter at the shop I set up.
People stop in now that folks are more used to me. I’m kind of the local electronics store since so many others went out of business, and I carry stuff nobody has. There’s also been some interest in the cosmetic medical services I can offer. I can mod a body in a jiffy, while eating a gummy and sipping a slushy. I’m still trying to figure out what age is the cut-off. Parents often mind even when you can turn a skinny, acne-covered boy into a miniature Brad Pitt. Then there’s the possibility I’ll get folks wanting to swap genders, and I don’t know how I’m going to fuck that pig. I’m trying not to overstep bounds, but sometimes bigoted parents are made to be pissed-off.
These questions of mischief and ethics would usually occupy my mind, but I just wasn’t into it this time. I was feeling hollow. That’s why I didn’t really acknowledge the couple that came in beyond the standard greeting. They were the only other people besides myself in there. I used to have a ghost in the store, but he moved on. So it was just them and me.
They walked right up to the counter. Nice looking couple, I suppose. The woman had some curls in her auburn hair. The guy had a short, tasteful beard of the type I wouldn’t see as a turnoff, but I wasn’t thinking of the pair in terms of sex appeal. In act, when the guy nodded to me and said, “Penny for your thoughts,” he found out where my brain was at.
“Just wondering if… no… hold on…” I held up a finger, then waved the whole hand. “Nevermind, I got nothing.” I thought I had something, even something funny, but things slipped out. “Oh yeah, I got something. I know there’s a lot of alien civilizations out there, so why do we only get the worst of them visiting? I think we might be the space equivalent of the backwoods.”
The woman approached, and I noticed now she had a casserole dish with a bunch of chicken parmesan in it. “I felt you were having trouble and thought I would make this for you. And you deserve an apology for the misunderstanding some time back.”
“What?” Is all I asked. It had to do extra duty because this whole conversation was quickly getting cryptic and I was in no mood for some cloak and dagger back and forth.
“I can feel your distress,” the woman said. “And we contributed in some small way. We were part of the group that tried to get inside when you were meeting with the Torian.”
“Did everyone know who that guy was but me?” I asked.
The guy shrugged. “Some of us have tangled with him before. We didn’t know what he was doing here, but we thought it would end badly. We didn’t mean for it to seem like an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I appreciate food, so I just said, “Thanks.”
“We used to be heroes,” the woman said. “But it’s dangerous out there. There are villains, law enforcement if you go after someone important, and all the expectations. Hi, I’m Marianne and this is Adrian.” I took the chicken parm off her and then we shook hands. They had been heroes once upon a time. She was training to be an Olympian when her powers manifested and they decided her athletics must be a side effect of having powers. He ran into her one night when a friend of his met her on patrol. In the end, they decided they didn’t want to be heroes while raising a kid. They’d known Medusa from when they’d all had an encounter with someone too important to be messed with, and she offered them a place to have a family in peace.
“Guess I’m not making that easy,” I said.
Marianne smiled at me. “You’re the reason we don’t have to worry about the virus. My mom lives with us now because it’s safe here for her.”
I turned to Adrian. “Wow, I screwed you over.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Marianne enjoyed the joke as well. After it finished, he said, “It’s weird having you as a neighbor, but I trust me wife’s judgment. She said you needed help, so we thought we’d help.”
I shrugged. “It looks good, thank you.”
“Hey,” Adrian said. “I know everyone’s tired of isolation, but I thought I would offer. I have a friend who owns a cabin on a lake nearby. It’s a good place to go and figure yourself out. Maybe you and your kid can go fishing?”
I had nothing better to do, so I went home, fixed some spaghetti noodles to go with the chicken, cheese, and sauce, and told Qiang we were going to grab some worms. Should have waited until we were done munching on the spaghetti. Neither of us really give a damn about school, which no one should be in right now anyway. I got us a bunch of fishing equipment, set some traps, and off we went to a cabin near a nice-sized lake. Probably had a good 40,000 fathoms. About 7 Hectors around. A couple of leagues at least.
I don’t know much about measuring bodies of water and I wasn’t inclined to look it up over this particular lake. There were a few cabins around it, a dozen altogether, all up on stilts in case there was a parade or a flood.
I didn’t like it. The air conditioning and the wifi both sucked so much ass there should have been some censor bars and content warnings. If it was an appliance, it would have been an assuum cleaner. If it was an amphibious reptile, it would have been an assiater. If it was involved in sports, it would be Assistant Head Coach of the Boston Butt Munchers.
You know, at this point, it feels like I’m beating up on a kink. Ass eaters haven’t done anything to me, either. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I need to find myself a cute one to try out for awhile. Maybe it’s something great that’s often-maligned, like clowns and nuclear power.
If I sound more light-hearted, the place helped. Being away from the place I called home, in a relaxing way, helped. My problems felt far away. No wonder everyone else is going absolutely bonkers trapped in their houses. We had ourselves a day of fishing. Just us out there, hot and sweaty, getting slimy and smelling like fish. I hate fish. I’d rather eat ass before eating fish. I brought other stuff for us to cook, but I showed her how to clean a fish. She can have all the fish she wants if she wants.
“And that’s how you catch and cook a fish,” I told her as we both washed up. “There are easier ways, but most people don’t agree with tossing dynamite or other explosives into the water and taking the fish that float up dead.”
“It’s probably real easy, though. How does it work?”
I explained a little bit about the force of the explosion affecting their bodies, but didn’t go into too much detail about how that works. She can find that out later.
I sat on this dock that night. I’d brought the gun with me. Ridiculous thing. Not even strong enough to kill me. I spat a bullet out into the water, regretting it because of the taste at least. The gunpowder or lead has a better chance of killing me.
Then came the lights, filling the sky and making it look like day all of a sudden. A column of light poured down, pushing the water away. I jumped to my feet and got hit by a wave of water before the light enveloped me.
I awoke under a green sky. A fish face stared down at me, attached to a scaled chest and a pair of really skinny arms. Its mouth blubbed like it was trying to get air but my translation program sensed something about the pattern of noises it emitted and started translating.
I got something along the lines of “Fresh fish,” from it.
“Where am I?” I asked, kipping up. I barely made it. The gravity was funny, just like the sky was funny and the three suns were now blue. Fish guy didn’t understand, so I tried a few more times while looking around at the hilly area and at the elongated, snakelike body of the fish.
“You are caught. The Xlevon travel to remote areas of the galaxy to capture lifeforms for recreation. These are the unsporting ones who use a detonation device in the process. They think they are so superior.”
That got my attention. “Where are the others they brought in with me?”
Fish guy responded. “No others. Only you. No dead for food.”
Well, that’s a plus. They didn’t get Qiang, dead or alive. “Good. Now, how do we get out?”
Fish thing looked like he was hacking something up, which I figured out might be its species’ version of laughter. “I enjoy you. You will be useful. Yes, let us escape.”
Of course I’m alive. I woke up in a hospital wing, my HUD blinking 11:59 like a smartass and showing my location was being in the Exemplar base. Li’s the one that took debris to the brain, severing my connection. My consciousness reverted to my main body, which had transformed into Reindeer. As usual, my consciousness was pushed aside. I didn’t have a camera on Reindeer on this time. And the Flyer’s trashed. The good news is that more than 50% of it made it through the portal. Not in one piece, but neither was Li. Reindeer got me out, though.
This must have done a number on my reputation. Failed to kill a target, got all visibly emotional in public, ran from some perfectly killable Justice Rangers… people are going to start talking. The first thing they’re going to say is, “Aha! Gecko’s alive after all!” so that also makes it harder to stay on the down low.
Some of that I figured out from contemplation, and other parts were mentioned to me by the doctor who showed up to check on me. “You slept a little more than usual, but you weren’t in a coma. You’re uninjured. Do you feel any pain or discomfort?”
“Not comfortable with having my inner turmoil flaunted in public like that,” I mentioned.
“I’m only here for the physical problems,” the doctor said. He turned back to the door. “Speaking of, Medusa wants to see you. I have declined as she is not a family member. Would you like me to let her see you?”
I shook my head.
“You got it. She will see you when you’re discharged, though.” The doctor checked me over, looked at my chart, and all that. He started to open my eyelids and shine a flashlight into my eyes, before shaking his head and stopping.
“What’s the news, doc? Am I ever gonna dance again, or do these guilty feet got no rhythm?” I asked, voice no louder than a careless whisper.
“Could you dance before?” the doctor asked, scribbling things on a chart.
“I was a maniac at the macarena.”
“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to macarena out of here. Congratulations, you’re discharged. Director, you can come in!” The doctor called.
“Frell my cock off!” I cursed, only to be surprised by a guy in a uniform with a big E symbol on it.
“Medusa had to run. She had to take care of a secret fracking operation. I’m Eric. She’s asked me to arrange for your transport back to Radium.”
I pumped my fist. “Fracking, fuck yeah!”
“You don’t want to qualify that at all?” asked the Doctor.
I shook my head again. “Nah, I’m fine with it.
I didn’t really have clothes, still going all naked in my armor. Reindeer would have shredded any I was wearing and nearly trashed my armor, so they provided some clothes. Eric there seemed pretty understanding of the situation as he led me to the hangar. “Gotta get old, being stuck here like some sort of military operation, then having to chauffeur me around.”
“Many of us have nowhere else to go and chose to follow her, or are dedicated to the cause,” he said, totally not sounding like part of a cult. Totally. I wondered where they do the crazy sex stuff, but he interrupted me by continuing on. “I don’t mind flying you. You would cause more trouble on your own.”
I rolled my eyes. “Pure slander.”
“You stole the doctor’s wallet. I’d like that back, by the way,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Fine… old habit,” I said, handing him the wallet while slipping his into one of my new pockets.
“Come on, let’s get you back home and away from good people,” he said.
I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “I hate you, you judgmental asshole.”
At least he didn’t try to force conversation the whole flight back to Radium and dumping me off on my front lawn with nothing but the clothes on my back and a suit of power armor capable of stopping a medium-sized army on a bad day.
Yep… back home… just deciding to live with not killing the bastard who had my parents killed, had me abducted, tortured me, taught me to hurt and kill people under pain of death, and ordered me around as his own personal hitman. He needs to pay… he really needs to pay. But I guess it’s not going to be me.
There wasn’t a huge welcome back from Qiang, because this whole thing was much less dramatic from her perspective. So instead, I spent some time in the basement, designing a new Flyer to build and looking back over at my plans for Li II and the perfect body. Li II wouldn’t be it, after all. There’s so many supers out there, so many powers. But I’m getting tired of all this back and forth, so I should prioritize movement powers. That moves a couple of supers to the top of my list. I had time to come up with a plan.
I also had time for the news. The news in 2020 is so fucked that I was barely a blip on the radar, but news came from the other world of my apparent return from the dead. Or I came out of hiding. With Lulios’s brief stint of public celebrity over here, the ensuing drama held some people’s attention. The stuff about the Psychopomp project was deeply embarrassing to the government he worked for and was a betrayal to all those people who touted him as progressive. Because it wasn’t just that he did this, but that he’d hid it for so long. He’s looking at imprisonment.
There was some neat stuff in there about the Justice Rangers. People who thought they’d gotten a bit too militant were up in arms over how they’d treated the situation. They’d known about it and kept it under wraps, even kidnapped Lulios to lure me out and kill me. Even past Rangers and alternate Ranger teams are coming out against that bunch. Weird. I don’t really expect people to call for justice on my behalf. Maybe they learned something. Wish I could have. Oh, wait, not true.
I learned that pretty much no one filming the memorial park fight caught me turning into Reindeer. Luck was on my side there. That could have ruined my reputation. And, if I’m going to be honest here, that’s not only me wanting to avoid having people think I could be a hero. I don’t think Reindeer was right about that. I’m no hero. Too broken for that. But it protected Reindeer’s reputation. The only reason the weredeer has a shot is because nobody knows she’s me. Almost a shame she can’t come out more. She and I could make a great team.
But this tumultuous little chapter in my life just wouldn’t be complete without Medusa. She sent me a text that she was coming over, so I waited. She came, like she said she would. She opened up the door to the basement and there I was, sitting in a chair facing the other direction.
“So, you thought you could just walk into my lair?” I asked, swiveling the chair around while stroking a cat.
“I expect you to talk, Gecko,” she said.
“No, Medusa, you expect me to whine!” I tossed the cat, a fuzzy grey and black striped thing at her.
She caught it, then looked surprised. “You got a real cat?” She dropped it once it started to shift and change, though it didn’t fall too far.
“Huh, not as tall as I expected,” I said, looking up at her from the body of the catgirl in front of her. I looked back down, getting a sense of it. Yep, a foot shorter than I thought I’d be. Plus the sound…
“You found some cat shifter super to steal DNA from now?” asked Medusa. There it was, weird getting used to sound with these bigass ears. I could hear stuff in the walls. I think I even heard Qiang stealing a snack from the refrigerator.
I shook my head, both as an answer to Medusa and to draw myself back to the conversation at hand. “No, I stole some unrelated DNA from a woman in Vegas, thought I might adapt it.”
“So now I’m dating Catwoman,” she laughed.
I reached up and popped my claws, then poked her on the end of her nose. I was gentle enough not to draw blood. “Listen up… you know the story now, don’t you? The man you protected, what he did?”
She nodded. “I didn’t know all that. I honestly wasn’t sure your stories about your childhood were real.”
Well, that got some blood boiling in me, but I calmed down. “I can see that, I guess. I’ve certainly lied enough, said all kinds of nonsense to get sympathy. Holy shit, this tongue is weird.” I reached into my mouth to start rubbing the tongue, which also lead to me licking my paw pads. There was a lot to get used to on this body and I meant this conversation to go differently than Medusa looking on enviously at my rough tongue. “But,” I stopped, pointing a finger at her again. “Even if you thought I was lying, I told you to stop. You didn’t know that was him then, did you?”
“No, but I had been asked by the Rangers to help look after him on this world. I thought I was saving his life. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done it, but would you rather I punched you?”
I was not amused. “Yeah, punching me is something I’m used to you doing. We’ve fought and we’ve sparred. It might even seem a little backwards to you, but I draw the line at what you did. So we’re through.”
“Do you still love me?” she asked, looking into my cat eyes. It was dawning on her I was serious about this.
I sighed, which came out way cuter as a catgirl. “I don’t know how I feel about you right now. You violated a huge part of my trust to help someone who hurt me deeply. You hurt me in a similar way. I’ve killed people for doing that to me and nothing else. I’m not going to kill you, though. I don’t entirely understand why, but I guess a part of myself wants to be better. If that’s even what being better means. But if I’m going to be a person worthy of love, then I’m going to be a person worthy of respect, and if you aren’t going to respect my boundaries, then I’m going to make sure I can respect myself. So go.” I pointed off up the stairs behind her.
She was chastened. Saddened, even. I just felt weird. Like, this wasn’t about retaliation or revenge or that weird sense of righteous injustice I feel from time to time when staring into the eyes of a terrible person. This felt like an internal shoulder pat. Like I’d stood up for myself in a way I don’t when I’m killing people for petty reasons.
When we reached the door, I told her, “If you need us to move, I’m sure I can manage something. I’ll even leave Radium if you want.”
“No,” she said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a keyring. After a bit of fiddling with it, she handed over a couple of identical keys. “These are to the house. I meant that this place should become a safe haven. I guess I’ll… see you when I see you.”
“See you, Medusa,” I told her, shutting the door as she turned away. I turned and pressed my back to it, sinking down, somehow changing back into a cat while I tried to process the subtly gutpunch of the breakup.
This time, the happy ending means not getting the girl.
I don’t take vacations too often. I don’t relax very well, or at least the things I do to relax and the things I do as a vocation overlap significantly. Vocation, vacation, let’s toss the whole corpse out. Thing is, there aren’t many places to vacation at right now. Most folks have everything all closed down, but I found a nice spot in scenic Siberia that wasn’t afraid to stay open during these trying times. Lovely, Siberia, with its… uh.. snow. And bone-chilling cold. Qiang bundled up and ran around in the snow between the airfield and the hotel itself. Or maybe it was more of a lodge. A chateau? I don’t actually know what the criteria are for some of these things, but I only counted four stories on approach from the airfield. It was only a short distance away and they managed to keep the road clear. The clientele who visit this place get that privilege.
They don’t know who I am, but I dropped enough of the right names and signs. And their surreptitious scan at the airfield would show I’m nothing so baseline as human law enforcement. My wares would also be pretty damn suspicious. These things don’t grow on trees. They were surprised about my daughter, but some people do that. And they could see the knives she had with her.
They didn’t roll out a huge red carpet for us. Once you get inside, it’s a muted welcome. They showed us to the suite with our bags and trunk. I turned to the porter who led us up here. “When will the showroom be open?”
The pale man smiled. “Madam, the showroom is in recess for the next two hours for maintenance. After that, you may join us at your discretion.”
I let Qiang go play in the courtyard behind the place while I checked in on things. Medusa, for instance, was overseeing efforts to help protesters in the United States. Though, if you’ve been there, protests are something of an understatement. It’s very nearly a revolution at this point. What Medusa was telling me about was overwhelming. Cops were attacking protesters all over the country. Soldiers were patrolling American cities. The President hid in a bunker and turned off the White House’s lights while police pepper sprayed a kid in the face.
Medusa’s doing her best to keep her own visibility and the visibility of her people out of the spotlight. This isn’t about them, or about giving assholes an opportunity to make this about nefarious supervillains rather than an explosion of righteous anger. Heroes are joining in where they can, helping save people where they can. But the Exemplars are staying in plainclothes to help keep people out of the hands of cops, keep them safe. Pull people out of the way of white supremacist vigilantes trying to run over sitting protesters on a closed road using a semi-truck.
It’s a lot, and sometimes all you can do is be there for people. Or, sometimes you put on a mask and initiate a plot that helps folks instead.
After that, I checked on the rhinos. They’re going to need a more accurate climate to live in before long, but I’ve used the wonders of supertechnology to bring back more of the formerly-extinct black rhinos. I’ve got a veterinarian and a local rancher looking after them for now while I figure out who I need to kidnap to help me figure out how to make things work. I’m better at killing things than at bringing them back to life.
I sent Qiang back up to the room when I went down to the showroom. The porter was able to help me wheel the trunk down there. In other hotels, it would have been a ballroom. Here, tables were set up for people to view merchandise in person and over digital feeds. Everyone could see as I began to set out rhino horns and elephant tusks. I got the idea from growing an entire rhinoceros body. So I had them build me some authentic rhino horns and elephant tusks, separate from the animals themselves. A few other vendors and customers stopped by to look it over.
One white guy with an accent that seemed crossed between English and Australian picked up a tusk to weight it in his hand and look it over. “This is something. Where do you get a supply like this?”
I smiled. “I have my ways.”
He smiled, light reflecting off his bald head, ringed with short, coarse white hairs that came down his sideburns to join into a beard. “I know some people, very maligned, who would kill to have this much ivory. Could I possibly bend your ear to discuss a partnership together?”
I winked at him. “Let’s get dinner, next maintenance cycle. I’d love to talk about it with you.”
He smiled warmly. “I would be honored. Here,” he waved his phone over a scanner that was part of the standard vendor package at this place, putting down enough money to purchase a couple of the tusks. “I cannot wait to speak with you in a few hours.”
It was pretty boring running that little booth, but I was also overseeing some financial stuff. The money I made from sales was funneled through a couple of shell companies, then got split up to go to various bail funds, lawyer funds, and medical supply organizations. What, nobody thought I’d really stay out of this, right? Spread it on some toast, because this shit is my jam. The people don’t want a mad killer taking out the cops for them, looking like I’m some sort of leader. But I can at least give them some money. Maybe water that helps keep them a bit healthier than they should be and counteracts that virus going around.
That’s why I went to some classy, secret Siberian black market with a load of artificial ivory and rhino horns. Well, that was one reason why. Sometimes, my plans are like ogres. They have layers. One layer involved that meeting I had a few hours later with the South African. It was ok. I’ll never understand this recent fascination with skins-in mashed potatoes. He didn’t notice me palming the steak knife, either. Despite his invitation, we discussed little actual business. He asked about minor things, like how I was getting used to the showroom, where I normally sold, and where I normally operate.
This guy, Mr. Chester, was kind enough to walk me back to my room so we could formally talk business. A couple of other guests were heading our way from opposite sides of the hallway. One was a heavy-set man, the other a woman with some muscle on her, both in nondescript black clothing. “I am eager to learn how much of the business you participate in,” he said as I opened the door to my room. There were a couple more guys in there, also in black clothes. I felt a life poke into my lower back as Mr. Chester whispered into my ear. “For example, have you ever carved into the flesh of such deadly game and cut free the only valuable part? Into your room, please.”
I let him march me in. The two “guests” in the hall took up positions outside the door and pulled it closed. Mr. Chester pushed me onto the sofa, but didn’t try to join me. There was no objection as I sat up. “Not your usual way of treating an elephant, I hope. Not even Long Dick Johnson could pull that one off.” I looked around for any signs of Qiang. My daughter’s snow-covered shoes rested next to the door. The door to her room of the suite was open, as was mine. The TV was off, but the remote was on a table next to one of the goons, leading me to hope he turned it off. Which meant it was on when he came in. Oh look, the curtains. There weren’t any feet sticking out from under them, but there was a little bulge right about the same height as the interior window sill.
“You can look around all you wish, but you won’t find a way out. We know this building’s rooms well. They have one exit. The windows do not open. And they are completely soundproof for the protection of guests’ secrets. Secrets like where you acquired such a large source of ivory. Because my friends won’t like you undercutting them.” Mr. Chester said. The other two in there pulled out knives of their own. Mr. Chester twirled the knife around in his hand once before it came to rest, a wood-handled knife with a ring on the back of the handle and a blade where the back end looked like it was clipped off near the end of the blade.
I nodded toward it. “Fan of knives, eh? I prefer lasers.”
Mr. Chester laughed. Lasers shot out of my eyes and sliced off his knife arm at the elbow. His laughter turned to screams, and when he reached over with his remaining hand, I took that also. Both of the guys lunged at me, but one found himself with a stabby little girl on his back all of a sudden. The other turned to look at that and signed his own death warrant. I snapped his neck and took the knife out of his hand. Turns out I didn’t need it. Hot blood splashed across me from his throat. “Good job, kiddo.”
On the floor, Mr. Chester was shutting down on me. I knelt down to check on his vitals. “And good job on surviving. I have some questions of my own for you about those friends of yours. Part two of my little plan here, and I’m so glad you indulged me. But first, let’s see how good the soundproofing is.” I reached down and grabbed the blade Mr. Chester had hoped to use on me and walked over to the door, knocking on it. “Anyone out there?”
They couldn’t open the door, but I did The two out there seemed surprised to see me. “Knife to meet you!” Heavy guy took a knife through the skull. The woman took one to the gut. I kicked her over onto the floor. She turned and tried crawling away. I took a moment to grab the knife out of the one guy’s skull. I pulled his body into the floor and opened his mouth to set the grip of the knife in there, then walked over to guard who was now trying to get to her feet. I took hold of her leg and swung her overhead to where she thunked down with the knife going through her back and into her lung.
I left all the bodies outside the room, with a note for the cleaning staff. “These are dirty, please replace with clean ones.”
Just because Caligari’s gone, doesn’t mean this story’s finished just yet.
The sheriff stopped by the other day. The one with the big badge and hat, not the deputies. I’ve been known to use the terms interchangeably, I’ve realized. Seems like I see a lot of these guys around here. I was sitting out on the front step of my shop, chatting with the automaton I rescued. The automaton’s designation is a long string of numbers and symbols starting with five, so I got permission from it to call it Fiver. I’d have never gotten the full name out in time when Fiver jumped onto the sheriff’s truck, arms whirling and ready to tear through the glass.
“Fiver!” Some of its visual sensors rotated toward me. “He means no harm. Don’t you, sheriff?”
“I nearly shit myself,” the lawman said as he got out of his truck. I saw him try to reholster a pistol and settle for leaving it in the truck. “Do you have a leash for that thing?”
“Fiver’s not a pet. It’s a sentient and sapient being that was held captive. What can I do for you, sheriff?”
The sheriff took his hat off and wiped his brow. “You know the riots happening in Minneapolis?”
I nodded. “I’ve heard a thing or two about it. Seems like the whole thing could have been avoided pretty easily, but then I don’t have much room to talk.” I sometimes worry I’ve been captured and trapped in some sort of simulation because of how much people want to leave me be.
The sheriff’s eyes flicked between me, Fiver, and my shop. “You don’t have anything to do with it all, do you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Not everything’s an evil supervillain plot.”
“Only…” he trailed off. He put his hat back on so he could point up above my store. I turned to follow the gesture and found he’d noticed the large spacer rocket currently being assembled in the enclosed yard behind my shop. “…some folks believe you might be planning something.”
I waved it off. “All a big misunderstanding. That’s just to get my friend Fiver here back home. It’s old-fashioned by their standards, but it’ll do the trick.”
It looked like any old rocket they’ve launched here before, but a few improvements from Fiver and I made it a lot better for the automaton to travel in than those oldies would have had. We didn’t need to include life support, toilets, food supply, or exercise facilities, saving on room. Instead, we mainly focused on giving it good engines and radio systems. There are a few tricks I picked up that might be handy in other scenarios.
“Well, if you say so. Mind if I take a look around?” he asked.
“Ya know what, why don’t you come on in?” I said, getting up and opening the door.
I showed him through. He eyed some of the gadgets and weapons I had out on shelves already, but I claimed they were all milkshake blenders and sex toys and so on. “This too?” he asked, picking up a big metal gauntlet with a sonic cannon on top.
“Fisting,” I said. Fiver let out an inquisitive trill. I told it, “Organic reproductive/pleasure protocol.” The automaton clicked understanding. The sheriff just looked confused. I didn’t explain, just let him go stare at the rocket as if he knew anything about rocket science.
Ten minutes of walking a circle around it and staring, he turned to me and said, “Please don’t fuck things up for all of us.”
“Will do,” I said. “I got no desire to distract from those voices anyway. Not all evils come from people wearing masks, and not all fights are fought by people wearing capes.”
I got the feeling the sheriff didn’t entirely agree on my assessment of the situation, but he was smart enough not to object. I turned to Fiver. “You ready?”
Fiver gave me an affirmative.
“Well then… I wish you the best of luck finding your way back to your people.”
Fiver’s 6-limbed body crawled up the exterior of the rocket to its hatch. The artificial being secured it behind him while I headed inside and closed the garage door. It doesn’t sound like a lot of protection against the launch of the engines. One of Fiver’s additions activated with the engines, creating an energy cone that kept the rocket’s flare from spreading out as easily. Burned a hole glassy hole into the dirt back there, but it lifted off more easily and would help the thing maneuver in space. It also meant my whole store didn’t get destroyed again. Oh, and the town of Radium was safe, too. The sheriff didn’t even think to ask about that one.
Fiver was on its way back to the stars. The other captives stayed on Earth. This Earth.
Medusa figured out a situation with the guy who’d been watching over them this whole time. I didn’t even get his story until the end of this. He ended up deciding to stick with the kids. “I brought them this far. I’ve been through a lot with them. They’re my only anchor to the old world. I worry about them. But… I’m glad you worked this situation out.”
He, Medusa, and I were standing in the corner of the backyard at this new house. It was a bigger one, more on the outskirts of Radium. The couple there seemed happy to have a bundle of kids and teenagers running around. They’d managed to throw together a pool, playset, and batting cage in a hurry. There was also a guest house out back that this guy had claimed.
“Let me know if you need anything, Bo,” Medusa said. I guess that was his name. “We’re building a community. I want a place where young supers can grow up in peace and have a choice what to do with their lives. A place for supers to be people, with lives, mistakes, and dreams beyond fighting.”
“Holy shit you talk good,” Bo said.
“Bo!” called one of the little girls.
He looked over as she waved him on toward the playset. “Katie-cat’s calling.”
We let him go on, but Qiang ran up soon enough to keep us company. I missed her. There’s a difference between an adventure where I know she’s waiting for me and safe, and one where some guy might have kidnapped her. To many people, I was that guy. Back when I was guy, that is. I believe Qiang’s learned her lesson about inviting herself along to those adventures, and I learned not to be so flippant about her doing so. Ugh, she’s probably going to grow up to be the world’s biggest badass and I’m going to be that parent who walks in and embarrasses her in front of everyone. “You just killed a dozen ninjas using nothing but a clothes hangar? That’s nice, but you have a smudge on your cheek, hold still.”
I ducked out early to head back to the house, which had been unshrunken. I also had to deal with the collectibles. Medusa turned in Caligari and police got curious about that big hole in the river, but that didn’t stop me from raiding a few things from the stockpile. Weird way to go about it, the way things have been lately. I want something done with Caligari, but the non-police options involve killing him or locking him up myself. I don’t want to deal with a pet right now. Which reminds me, I couldn’t bring the black rhino with me. Maybe it’ll end up in the hands of conservationists, but having even one still won’t bring that species back.
Just something that wouldn’t leave my mind as I looked over some of the stuff I grabbed. Like the gigantic emerald set in a necklace or this pair of tea bags. Might was well keep a few trophies for myself, even if most of it isn’t usable. Oddly, I didn’t care so much about the old suit of my armor Caligari had that I took back from his stash. He’d into a lot of the components in all this. It must have killed him to do that to his own collection. Good.
I lifted the tea bags up and sniffed at them. Huh. I’m not much of a tea person, but there was something… enticing about this. I might have to try it, after… huh. It’s like a pattern the past few days. Remote control. Clones of Caligari. I wonder… if I had the biomass, then yes, I could do this.
The trick was getting the biomass. I got some cows delivered, dead but unbutchered. There would be major modifications, but the presence of bones and circulatory systems would make it easier on the nanomachines. I just had to give them enough to work with and the proper programming. A bit of metal for some more of the building… Yeah. I can do this.
And while I was doing that, I got an idea for solving my problem with Caligari. I practically sprinted to the Flyer.
Hours later, in Pittsburgh, I walked through the door as a hot but mean female lawyer. “I’m here to see,” I scoffed as I said the name, “Caligari the Collector. I’m his legal representation.”
The cops led me to a room while they went to go fetch Caligari. When he came in, he looked quizzically at me, but didn’t fight. He slid into the chair opposite me and held his hands up to have the handcuffs taken off. The cop looked to me and said, “He’s under special precautions as a gadget-using super threat.”
The illusion around me fixed him with a death glare, purely for the act. The cop uncuffed Caligari and left us.
“I don’t know who you are, but I’m grateful for the break from that cell,” said the Collector.
I just smiled, not at the idea of helping him. I smiled at the way my armor’s tail slid through the lower back opening on my chair, under the table between us, and up to stab Caligari in the neck. Inject him, really. Just a little bit of those same nanomachines with a nice old trick. He slapped at the back of his neck and turned, the tail staying nice and invisible. I don’t trust a police station that’s not on fire. So I withdrew the tail. Caligari turned to me and opened his mouth to ask something, but then his eyes rolled up and he fell forward, face thumping off the table. Little machines were in his brain, right around the spot you’d need to poke to induce a coma.
I stood up and walked out of there past the cops at the door. “Guess he didn’t want my representation. All yours, boys.” Trust them to see him passed out and think I unleashed a little brutality of my own. You can’t trust people’s best instincts, but you can trust them to be their worst. And, in a way, I was a little brutal.
As good an idea as the remote-controlled clones. I closed my eyes on the way back home in the Flyer and opened them again back home in the backyard, as a rhino. Oh, don’t worry, I don’t want to be a rhino. I tested out its range of motion, movement, senses. And the principle of controlling it. Feeling its power for myself. I pulled out and ordered the nanomachines to break down the computerized brain that let me control it.
Yay. I can bring back the Black Rhinos. And I can indulge a few other instincts. No need to steal a body, when I can have my own. Well, the powers would have to be bonded genetically, and just imagine if I could start blending them.
I might have to start snorting that fucking tea if it gives me ideas this good.
For whatever reason, Medusa insists we don’t have enough housing for this batch of transdimensional refugees. I suspect she’d fucking with me. Qiang’s regretting her enthusiasm for bringing them all along by now, too. At first she liked having other girls to hang out with, then the bathroom situation reared its ugly head. I managed to hide my private lair bathroom from them for a couple days, but then they started hogging that one, too. There was one time in the middle of the night, I had to head outside and use the greenhouse instead. Plus, the teens have hormones flying everywhere and I’m hot. Awkward things happen. Awkward boners happen.
With my patience about used up, but the whole crew having had a decent shower, crap, sleep, and dinner, I gathered them around to get them to draw me a map of the Collector’s place. They were having fun with it, remembering all the defenses. That ended when Medusa walked in. She’s not their Medusa, but she took the name and she looks the same as theirs. From personal experience, I know mine kicks way more ass. But it’s kind of amusing to watch their wariness around her. “Hey, I got pizzas!”
I made sure I got one of the first slices and bit into it before anyone else could. They looked worried at first when I acted like I was choking and fell down. Then I stood back up to choke some more and draw it out, and they figured out I was playing. “Seriously, calm down. She’s one of the good guys. She’s the best guy.”
“She looks like a woman,” said one of the teens.
“She’s that, too. But, seriously, she’s one of the paragons of superheroism on this Earth. Aside from the fact that she likes me. Maybe she got some brain damage in a fight.”
She walked over and gave me a playful elbow check. “She tells the best lies about me. Everyone ready to eat?”
I nodded. “I’m ready. Y’all good for a break?”
Food is a special. Builds trust. That’s what they mean about bringing people together. And it seemed to help out. And afterward, I was able to get enough private time away from her to let her know the kids were driving Qiang and I nuts.
She laughed. “I told them I could place them, but they said they wanted to stay with you. They don’t trust me because of the other Medusa. Just like that robot at Caligari’s will trust you more than anybody else on this planet. And I trust you, because you’re trying to save it and them. But you’re still that nasty badass bitch, and that scratches some itches for me, too.”
I growled. “Really wish the house wasn’t full of kids right now.”
“We’ll get them placed and make up for it. You might want to rethink getting pregnant if you dislike kids so much. You can see if the Collector has anything that can help with that.” She smiled at me.
I booped her on the nose. “I know what you’re trying to do, talking about kids and getting preggers to make me less horny. Joke’s on you, thinking about being your baby momma is a turn-on for me.”
Which was a weird thing to figure out on the fly.
Armed as best as I could with the knowledge from the refugees, it was time to go on the offensive. And since I was in a lighthearted mood, I even threw on some music to listen to. Something to get me pumped. Jazzed. That sort of thing. Science and rationality are one thing, but it’s also rational to understand the effects of emotions and use them to your advantage. Like when I played the song “Legal Assassin” while throwing on my armor even though only the last minute and thirteen seconds of it fits me.
Curious children, some teens hoping for a peek and some kids wondering what the music was, got to at least see me throw the power armor on. It was fun and theatrical. At the end of it, this one teen girl in the group was like “Whoa.”
Back to Philadelphia for me, ready, willing, and expecting to resort to violence. We hadn’t been that far from his, which was dug out from inside of a complex of stores. All the stores being shut down made it easier to stay hidden there.
According to the kids, the last line of defenses they had to deal with was the store they emerged from being locked up tight with stronger glass on the door and windows, and a door with an digital lock that could keep people in. I circled around slowly in the Flyer, stealth mode up. I found that one because Caligari the Collector isn’t Caligari the Window Installer. It looked like chunks of the glass had been gauged out. There were claw marks that tore a hole big enough to let someone out. I decided to stay in stealth so I could hover there and do a little recon. I popped a drone out and sent it in closer. If I was him and couldn’t get this closed up, it’d be the place to concentrate my defenses.
I went ahead and popped a few cameras with the drone. No response. Damn drone didn’t have all the fancy visual modes I’d have preferred, so it was a team effort. The Flyer could shift over to let me see things outside the usual visual spectrum, but holy shit that was tough in the daylight. And unless I wanted to shove the nose of my aircraft right up against the shop, there wasn’t a way for it to filter out all the solar bukakke. That’s on me for not going at night. At least the drone gave me a visual on the inside of the store. Cleaned out, empty even. No pressure pads waiting for me, no tripwires, no paint cans attached to strings, no bear traps hidden under toilet seats. That last one is very important, because your minions will learn not to use that toilet, leaving them the cleanest ones in there, and the toilet most likely to be used by an intruder who really needs to get something out in a hurry.
So I bit the bullet and hopped out, staying in stealth mode with my armor. I brought some more drones with me, but moved the little whirling, helicopter rotor thingies up out of sight. Nope, no lasers. No need to deploy my foolproof disguise as a kitty cat. You can fuck a lot of things up if people think you’re a cat.
Let’s see… next would be the gas trap down the stairs. The guy who belches green gas inhaled it long enough for the one of them who is stronger to lift it up. It was sitting on the ground. Looked like the lifting mechanism was broken. I squeezed past even though it blocked much of the passage and directed the drones in to follow me because the materials were making it tougher to maintain a remote connection. I put the Flyer into a hover mode. That had been triggered by a pressure plate. Around the corner was the corridor full of bees and burn marks from how they killed the bees. It’s a classic trap, but not efficient. Still, no evidence anything was being replaced.
The way in and out from here was more labyrinth than maze. Uh, just something I’ve read, where labyrinth’s were depicted, counter to the old Greek myth, as having only one path. It was long and winding, but impossible to get lost. People build them like that as a form of meditation. These hallways were an underground path you couldn’t get lost in, but it’s a dangerous journey. With all the storefrongs, I doubt there’s just one exit or entrance, which completely throws the comparison to a labyrinth or maze out the door.
And instead of a minotaur, I found a bunch of cages and glass containers with nothing in them. The lights were all off, too. Except for a blinking red one on top of a robot. Not an automaton, I think. The fresh arm on this thing looked familiar. This was Caligari’s guard bot, left behind for some reason. A parting “fuck you” to any cops or supers who showed up. It sensed the drones and let out a blaring siren sound. Good disorientation measure, I have to say. It raised both arms, including the one I made for it. A pair of grenades popped out, glowing purple and heading right for the space in the middle of the drones. Which happened to be occupied by me at that point.
I jumped and scattered the drones, who set to work firing on the robot. One went for the head, another for its original arm, and the other two tried to cut its legs out from underneath it. Nothing got through. A spiderweb of glowing light filled the air that none of the bullets penetrated. Not fair. There were gaps in between that 80s neon spiderweb.
A rocket shot out and destroyed one of the drones. Another caught a laser, so at least we know this robot has variety. I headed for it around the time it lunged for another drone. Metal claws with the same neon glow as its shield erupted from its original arm and went right through the cheap metal and plastic of the drone. I snapped its head off with one good punch, an energy sheathe building up around my other hand. That one I slammed through the robot’s chest. Both arms reversed, with the claw swiping for my head. The claw itself embedded in my helmet and got stuck there while I was using my knowledge of its newer arm to pop that one off. It was close enough for me to feel heat and wetness. I swung the new arm at the old one. The same time I did this, the old one retracted its claw into the arm so it could pull back, pop it out, and go for my chest. My swing deflected it. I dropped that arm and wrenched the older one off.
The robot brought its legs together and shot into the air on a plume of fire. The drones took some potshots but didn’t hit anything important enough to stop it. The ceiling above it retracted, giving my eyes a lot more solar bukkake to adjust to while the robot made its escape and leaving me in the abandoned den of Caligari the Collector. Error messages and danger messages from the Flyer rushed me. I hopped up to the opening and saw the Flyer visible and listing, with the rear ramp down. I heard feedback as speakers below me turned on and Caligari’s voice issued forth. “Wonderful performance, my cloaked friend. I would love to study your armor, but the capabilities displayed in your fight will need be enough. You will have to try harder to steal that robot you were interested in. Yes, using the quick-release mechanism built into the arm gave you away, builder.”
I heard Qiang’s cry over the speakers too. “Momma!”
“I used to have children of my own,” Caligari said. “I’d like them back. Your child for my exhibits. You handled my robot far better than they did, so it should be easy enough for you.”
I called up Medusa real quick, trying to make sense of this. I heard worry in her voice as she picked up and said, “Gecko?”
“I’m fine, but did he attack there? He says he has Qiang.”
“No. I tried calling. We just noticed she’s not here. I think she snuck aboard the Flyer.”
I directed it closer while keeping an ear out for Caligari’s gloating attempt at a deal. “…back to the space I had to leave because of their escape and I will know. My sensors show me everything that happens in there. Then, your daughter will be returned unharmed, and I’ll even consider selling you the robot you expressed a desire for. There’s no reason we can’t handle this like adults.”
“What happened? Are you ok?” Medusa asked. “How did he get Qiang?”
I hopped onboard the Flyer when it got close enough and saw some evidence of how that happened. There was blood around in there, and a dead giant tardigrade that had lots of stab wounds all over its body. “Looks like Qiang invited herself along and hid in the Flyer. I didn’t notice. Stabbed the shit out of this guy’s pet, but maybe he had another, or another robot. He wasn’t at the base. It’s abandoned, but he wants me to bring the refugees we rescued back there to get Qiang.”
“Gecko…” she started to say. I could hear agony in her voice. I know she loves Qiang, too. And she knows what I’d do to get my girl back. Caligari’s going to know what I’d do, too.
Amazingly, the refugees weren’t hiding when I got back. It took a bit to get there with one of the engines damaged, but Medusa was waiting out front for me, running up to hug me. Even in the middle of the kidnapping, she still fussed over little things like the bloody head wound I’d received through my armor. She’s gotten so good at knowing what I’m thinking that she even commented on the kids all gathered around at my front door before I could say anything. “They want to help you after what you did for them.”
I wasn’t in a mood for heart to hearts and Hallmark movies. I was pretty seriously considering giving Caligari the kids, then double-crossing the Collector and tearing his heart out. Then came the group hug from that whole bunch. Terrible fucking night for rain.