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.
At least where I am, people are being responsible and staying shut down. Gives me free time to work on armor and oversee my daughter’s education. Undermines the business I myself was trying to get off the ground there. It’s not a huge loss to have the store closed.
I even got some work in online, with an advertisement I put in VillaiNet coming back. Just something where I said I could provide high-quality cybernetic limb replacements as long as people provided a few measurements and any custom particulars they needed. This one was a simple handjob. Armjob, too. Everything below the shoulder. The client gave me the length and width he needed to match it up with the opposite side of his body. He also requested ball joints for the elbow and wrist to give it a more full range of motion than what humans have, as well as some empty modular spaces inside the shell of the arm that could accommodate storage or installation of other gadgetry in the future. That meant the shell had to open, but that wasn’t so tricky.
So, with everything all shut down and nothing riskier than selling an arm for less than an arm and a leg, I brought Qiang along with me. Give her a chance to see outside the city while she was at it. I was itching to change up how I looked, but why should I have the fun. “Would you change what you look like if you could?” I asked.
She nodded while eating her bowl of cereal. After she swallowed her mouthful, she told me, “Some of the kids think I can make them sick because I look different.”
Whoo. Shift happens. “There’s nothing wrong with your heritage and how you look. They’re being ignorant and mean, and so is anyone who tells them that. I just wondered if you wanted to look different for fun. To see what it’s like.”
One dip in the nanites later, and I had changed myself up, and so had she. Her hair now looked wavy curly like my own natural hair turned out to be, but it was also bright blue. She was the same otherwise, so I guess that turned out to be a good start without reinforcing any harmful messages. Speaking of messages, I had some I wanted to send to the parents of Radium if I had a way to contact them all. Qiang advised me to leave out most of the bad words, but she laughed at some of the descriptions of what I’d do to people, so I think I’m in the clear.
Which is good, because when it turned out I’d started to suggest she change her appearance after people teased her about how she looks, I was about to shit a brick. I’ve jumped in front of a rocket for that girl. I’d depopulate an entire country to get back to her. And if something actually happened to her… well, it’d make the old me look like a puppydog. So, yeah, no way in hell do I ever want to contribute to going after her like that. I’m just glad she had enough experience with me changing up how I look all the time to understand.
I had trouble in this area, too. Thought of going ginger because I have a certain fondness for that look. Then I considered pale skin, straight black hair, and high cheekbones; a real Morticia Addams look. Then I was like “How about shaved head, mohawk matching my daughter’s hair, with a couple tufts of hair coming down on either side of my face.” Sounded pretty good as well.
I opted for the Morticia Addams look, including a black dress that showed some boob. Fabricated a gothy sort of veil that would look like I’m staying safe from the virus in public, even though my tiny machines already have it beat. After the plastic surgery, I was swarming with the things.
So my daughter and my Gothy self took off in my private Flyer to make a special delivery to a suburb of Philly or something. Suburbs like that provide a good middleground between being able to hide in rural areas but have no shot at real money or power, or being crowded into a big city where all the important stuff happens and people can find you more easily. This place had a little bar we could sit outside and eat, with me keeping the arm in a purse. So Qiang and I had a meal while the client spied on us and cautiously approached. I assume he did the spying, I mean. Since we were close to Philadelphia, I did the tourist thing and ordered a cheesesteak sandwich. It was greasy.
Anyway, the bench my daughter and I sat on was soon approached by a fellow with some truly amazing sideburns, wearing one of the medical masks. “Pardon me, but you look as though you need a hand.” That was the sign.
I gave the countersign. “I already have an extra one,” I said, pointing to my bag. My daughter’s alarmed gasp instantly got the adrenaline flowing. I whipped around to see she was fine, but looking across the street at something hiding behind a mailbox. It looked like a dog-sized tardigrade.
The client held up a hand in a calming gesture toward the tardigrade. “I must apologize. I brought that for my safety. I recently had an incident with security.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Someone broke into the ol’ lab, eh?”
He smiled through his mask. “I am a collector of rare and exotic finds. Someone decided to take a part of my collection and damaged by guard robot. This will fix it up nicely. You should see some of the astounding things I have in my possession.”
Someone taking up a hobby like that is bound to want to show it off, and I was trying to be polite while working this side hustle, so I let him show me. Besides, Qiang found some of it fun. There were rare animals like container of jackalopes(“It started as two, but you know rabbits”) and a black rhino. Unusual weapons and armor, including one of mine from way back. He didn’t know it was me, I should point out. But at one point, going into another section of live exhibits, there was a robot that definitely didn’t follow human design conventions. It was roughly diamond shaped, with two sets of three soft robotics-style tentacles it used to try and get a purchase on its container. The reason it stood out to me is I understood its cries for help.
“Huh,” I said, leaning in closer.
“That’s not the robot I’m repairing. That is some spacebot. It’s completely hostile and has gibberish code.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “I wonder if I could fix it.”
“That would be dangerous,” he warned.
I shrugged. “I think I can fix it. Seems more dangerous to leave it like that. I could put a deposit down. Pay you to take it into my custody and fix it, then you give the money back, plus extra for repairs, upon return.”
I really did have it in my head to fix the thing up if it needed it, but I intended to set it free. It’s part of a civilization of free and freed automatons I encountered in space once. I deciphered the language and connected with them, even helped save one of their leaders and stop the attack of the space station this all took place on. They seem like ok beings, just misunderstood by fleshy sapients without my unique perspective.
“I see what you’re after,” the client said. “You want to buy it!”
Not exactly, but that’d work too. “You got me. I have a fascination with autonomous robots.”
He pondered it, stroking his chin. “I’m not sure. It feels as though I’ve lost so much already. Rain check? I will reconsider your offer when I reobtain the stolen portions of my collection. You won’t be waiting long.”
I shrugged and held a hand out as if I was shaking an invisible hand. “Ok. You have my contact info.”
Qiang had gotten a bit bored in all this, so was dancing. I danced with her a bit before going off to find somewhere we could wash our hands and then making our way back to where I’d hidden my Flyer. Though it wasn’t as hidden as I’d have liked. Sensors in the VTOL informed me of trespassers while we were washing our hands. I decided to handle this personally instead of putting on an aerial show that dumped out all the people I saw in the cameras. More kids is not what I need, and this bunch consisted of a couple children a little older-looking than Qiang, four teens, and a grown man.
The fact they found my vessel was enough to raise suspicion, but one of the teenagers burped up a cloud of green mist at one point. While smelling bad is a particular expertise of teenagers, it usually isn’t visible, so I figured I had some supers on my hands. Maybe some local group of teenagers with attitude or some such.
“Honeybunny, do you have your knife with you?” I asked as we got closer. Qiang pulled a blade seemingly out of nowhere. “Good. I need you to stay out of sight. Someone helped themselves onto our ship and I need to find out who they are.”
“Aww, can’t I help?” she asked.
“You’re a big help to me already, but I don’t want you getting hurt. This is one of those times when you need to do what I say without trying to weasel your way out with your cuteness,” I said, cutting her off just after she tried a pretend sniffle. She stomped her foot against the ground all cute and angry, then stopped walking.
“Ok,” she said. She looked around and spotted a ladder on the side of the building. She started climbing it up to the roof.
I smiled and began walking toward the parking lot around the corner. Sure, I’d doubleparked, but the VTOL appeared to be a pair of minivans, so nothing looked out of the ordinary. I walked softly through the illusion and up the ramp into the back of the aircraft. No one was standing guard, so they didn’t see me right away.
“It’s not airforce,” said the man with them, looking in on the cockpit. “So-so first attempt, but this wasn’t designed by a professional.” He turned and saw me. His reaction to me prompted the others of his group to notice and turn around, getting into stances as if ready to fight.
I leaned against the side of the ship, nonthreatening but ready to command nanobots to form molecule-thick blades for slicing and dicing. “I like it because it’s mine,” I told them.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the youngsters all ready to fight. “We need to borrow it. The cops are all over the roads.”
“They’re looking for you?” I asked. “Why?”
“Some sick freak caught us and kept us in his private zoo!” said the boy who’d burped up a mist earlier.
Another guy in the group stepped forward. His stance was wary, but he stopped holding his hands up like he would punch me. “Please. We’re not from here. We came through the portal because we thought nowhere could be as bad as our Earth, not even the one we’re calling Bad Earth.”
I cocked my head to the side. “I’m guessing you’re not meaning the portal from the Earth with homo machina, so are you talking about the one where Master Academy were the bad guys?”
The boy nodded. One of the little kids, a girl, chimed in, “And all our good guys are bad guys here!”
“So you came through the portal and you somehow got captured,” I said.
A lot of the crowd was relaxing as I heard them out. The adult in the room came forward as well. “He called himself Caligari the Collector. Some of the children and I were part of his collection until last week. The police are looking for us now, so we don’t trust them.”
My expression went from stoic to flat and annoyed when my daughter called out from behind me. “We can get you out!” I love her, but she needs to learn to listen to me.
There was a time I’d have seen this as a great opportunity to doublecross these transdimensional refugees and save that robot. And plenty of people who call themselves heroes would just save the people and leave the bot. “Fine. I know a place where you’ll be safe and someone who can help you get settled in, but I need y’all to help me out in turn. I need to know how to get into Caligari’s place so I can break out this.” My artificial eyes flashed them a hologram of me watching the footage of the robot.
The adult came forward and reached his hand out. “Deal,” he said. We shook on it.
And the other little kid, a boy, nudged the girl and said, “Told you this was Bad Earth. She wants to save the mean killer robot.”
I admit, I took a tiny bit of pleasure in watching them squirm when I told Qiang to go to the cockpit and call up Medusa. Back when she was a more clear-cut heroine, Venus got the idea to take the name Medusa from her evil counterpart on the Earth this bunch are from. Now, Medusa’s the one saving their lives.
The immediate aftermath of the retaking of Washington wasn’t any smoother than grabbing the Nuclear Football was. The codes weren’t still active, by the way. I’d rather not go into details how I know, but I know. The national guard ended up moving conveniently slowly through the same areas of the District that the Exemplars prioritized. They got K Street cleaned up in a hurry, though. But the main threat was over. The Exemplars were mopping things up with the aid of some gangs and mutual aid groups until the military swept in one night and decided that was the time to enforce some weapons laws. Officially, the Exemplars stood by and let them get taken.
But that early morning raid didn’t go off without a hitch. They had a couple wagons out for all the suspects they arrested. Medusa hit the first one hard enough to cave in the engine. I was more refined, tossing a shrapnel grenade into the cabin of the other. All the soft tissue damage, none of the danger to the passengers in the back end, who all disappeared, along with the evidence. And some odd digital distortion messed with records of who they were even going after. The warrants could have been handy for that, if they didn’t go up in a fire. It was all a real clusterfuck of police work. Personally, I think someone should resign.
When the press corps finally returned, word got out that the President was supposed to have a ceremony honoring some of the “heroes” of the occupation. Just none of the Exemplars, or the local leaders. Just cops, firefighters, EMTs, and the like. Give them a medal instead of anything that would improve their lives, but don’t even bother recognizing all the inconvenient people. Cap off the heroic storyline with a big ceremony.
But this particular section of the story isn’t over yet. Not all of the dead have been accounted for. Like my girlfriend, Medusa, one of the few heroes who can take me in a fight and live to tell about it. Except someone tried to have us killed when we were keeping the last bunch of cultists from setting off a nuclear firestorm. She was sure it was the President. He’d tried to tell us he couldn’t scramble the Air Force to shoot down the presidential jet the cultists took, but then a fighter showed up to blow us out of the sky when we’d accomplished our goals. I could follow her logic on that. She had threatened him before.
I’d taken a quick trip home to pick up my daughter. Little Qiang had missed us and I’d missed her. It’s unfair to leave her behind so much, but I also shouldn’t bring her along on my adventures. Armor or no armor, she’s just a kid who deserves a better life than fighting. Or abandonment. The both of us met Medusa at a bar that had seen better days. Some of the harder-to-reach stains were still around from when they had to clear the place of zombies. The doors need to be replaced; they had wood pieces nailed to them from where zombies had broken through parts. A pump-action shotgun hung over the bar, stock and barrel covered with tally marks.
“Hey other mommy!” Qiang said, running to my nemesis at a booth against the wall and hopping into her lap for a hug.
Medusa gave a happy “Oof!” and caught her, squeezing her tight. The look she gave me seemed a little sheepish. She rubbed Qiang’s back. “Hey baby.”
I sat down across from the both of them. “Lovely spot here. A place for survivors.”
A waiter stopped by and dropped off some beer for myself and Medusa, along with a root beer for Qiang. We had ourselves a nice meal with Qiang, listening to her talking about her cartoons and her books. I even let her have her pick of some of the fancy jewelry one of the museums around here misplaced during the recent unpleasantness. When she was sleeping on a bed in my Flyer, Medusa and I sat down in the cockpit to discuss what the future holds. Not the baby thing, or anything like that.
“What’s it feel like to be dead?” I asked, pointing with a thumb toward the screen and the image of the city.
“I’m not officially dead yet, but it could be useful. I can see why you like it,” she smiled. She grabbed the chair to hold herself steady when I plopped her feet up in my lap and started undoing her shoes. She makes about the closest sound a human can to a purr when getting a foot rub.
“People hate me. Liking you so much, they could see it as a betrayal if you decide to play dead,” I suggested.
She purred and closed her eyes. “I see my options as playing dead or punishing the President and making sure he doesn’t try this again before he’s out of office. No way he wins re-election.”
“Strange things happen. The pandemic and the zombies show that a lot of people have no interest working together to deal with a threat to their lives. Especially when they can pretend it’s not their life threatened.”
“Pessimist,” she said.
“Gotta know what’s wrong to fix the problem,” I countered. Not that I cared being labeled a pessimist. I am one, and worse.
She squirmed a little as I inadvertently rubbed a ticklish spot. “Ok, so how’s this? We’ll meet him after the ceremony. If he announces I’m dead, I stay dead and you get to remove him from office.”
You know, killing the President isn’t such a big deal at this point. I’m sure I’d find some way to enjoy it.
Medusa continued, “But if he doesn’t say anything, I’ll make sure to get something compromising on him and hold you over his head like the Sword of Damocles.”
The ceremony was held the next morning. That alone should be enough to kill over. Everyone’s sleep is all screwy from the entirety of the fucked-up times we live in. Venus showed up. Without all the metal in her body like I have, she doesn’t set off alarms. She’s never been shy about hiding her face with how public her heroics have been, but she’s also been in power armor for a couple years now. So she attended, I watched it on TV, and I met up with her afterward to bring her a hot dog from a food truck run by a Deep One immigrant from Ricca.
“Status unconfirmed,” I said while she scarfed down the hot dog.
“Mhm,” she mumbled between mouthfuls. I took her hand and we began to walk, taking a leisurely stroll back to where I parked the Flyer. There, she sat down to play a game with Qiang while I donned my armor. She looked at me, then down to a circle of holodiscs I’d set up on the ground. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
The White House can be tricky to sneak into, but there are several holes left open when the guy in charge of the whole place is incompetent. Like when you piss off a woman who has worked closely with the Secret Service before and who they like more than you. Medusa, in this case. She still had friends who managed to survive everything from me to zombies, and they were willing to let me in on the condition that I not physically harm anyone. They didn’t say anything about emotional harm, so I headed up to the Presidential bedroom to see what dirty laundry he had.
As Presidents go, it was pretty standard. Some women’s clothes in his size. No big deal there. Pills, coke, and heroin. I think he’d be a lot more chill if he was smoking weed. Ooh, nice, dirty photos on the personal cell phone. Geez, this President’s so crappy, he can’t even get a hot mistress. Not to be too mean about looks here. JFK set the bar really high with Marilyn Monroe. Maybe this guy’s into that sort of thing too. I should be less judgmental about the asshole’s tastes. I still kept the photos, along with footage of all that stuff up close and personal in the Presidential bedroom. Oh, neat, he had a bust in the room too. Thomas Jefferson. He’d turned that one around so he faced the wall like a fun little prude.
Enough tourism. I had what I wanted, so I stopped by the office to talk business. I waited at the door. “Medusa, you at a stopping point?”
“Pausing. Ok, ready.”
When I opened the door, the hologram system synced up with the holodiscs. I became hidden under an image of Medusa in civilian clothes and a mask. And when she spoke, it came out of my suit for the President, and an assistant, to hear. “Afternoon, Mr. President. We really should talk about your attempt to kill me.”
“You survived!” he said, standing up He was a boxer guy, but not because of any interns hidden down there. He glanced down at his lack of pants, then sat, “Someone spilled some soup, my apologies.”
“You have a lot more to apologize for than soup. Start with trying to blow me up.”
He held his hands up. “I told you, the Air Force wasn’t under my full control.”
“How did they find me?” Medusa crossed her arms. I copied the movement even though no one could see me.
“The cult-!” the President started, standing up but leaning over the desk for propriety.
“The cult ordered themselves fired on?”
The President shook his head. “Fine, why not? They’re religious fanatics!”
“All that with the plane’s radio and phone lines down?” Medusa asked.
The President went silent for a moment, red building up in his face. “Whatever you think you know or are going to accuse me of, know that you will not come out of this looking good for attempting to assassinate me.”
“I’m not trying to do anything. As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m not even here. The only record of me being anywhere near the White House are your recordings of this conversation. So if I were you, I’d think very carefully about how I spent a week straight fighting zombies, raided one of the jets you use for Air Force One, took out the last of the cult, survived a fighter jet, then walked in here like I own the place.”
The President sat back in his chair. “You owe me for a fighter plane, by the way.”
Medusa laughed. “Take it up with my friend.”
“Friend?” asked the Leader of the Free World.
The image of Medusa vanished, replaced with the swirling cloud of darkness I used to obscure my presence. The best the President could do was a glimpse of sharp claws swiping through the cloud as I jumped onto his desk and said in a deep, distorted voice. “Me!”
I vanished as well, leaving him to create a puddle under his chair that the assistant rushed to try and clean up. I imagine he had another one later when he found Thomas Jefferson’s head in his bed, with ketchup packets to simulate blood and give me something to write the message. “I was here, too.”
Medusa found us a lead. Which is nice, because I’ve been busy designing some things to make the zombie pest control situation a little less tedious. I made some incendiary grenades, but they smell pretty bad. I don’t think we have to worry about the element of surprise when it comes to zombies. I also redesigned a pistol to function as a flamethrower. It gets more usage out of the fact that it fires a quick burst of flame. It saves on fuel and makes the thing lighter, but the fact that it’s a modified handgun means it doesn’t handle all the fire so well. I’ve got my autofactory assembling a better design as more of a rifle. Or even a facemask. I don’t expect people to like the facemask option with the heat being what it is.
I’d be further along, but I spent awhile designing an add-on to my suit. I now have… a tail. A tail that can shoot fire. A tail that, when I first wore it, accidentally set my lair on fire. It’s a work in progress, and that progress gave me less time for the firearms.
So when Medusa had a lead, I was ready! And also glad that, soon, I wouldn’t be working so much with a group of people who were still on the hero side of things. Vigilantes and not fans of the laws, but still trying to help people. This zombie apocalypse doesn’t appear communicable. The only reason it stands a chance is that people risk dying if they get too close to each other. A couple of military units in their godawful biohazard suits have shot up a horde over in Maryland. A competent military response cold wrap this up or force them to go underground.
I sat around, waiting for her to get to my part of the plan. There was some sort of lodge or something they were going to hit up. Some social club for influential people in Richmond, Virginia. They expected living guards, so they wanted to bring in more people to try and round people up without killing everyone. I felt like that part was a bit of a knock against me. I felt that even further when she finished the briefing without telling me what I needed to do. I called her up real quick.
“Hey Gecko. How’s the tail coming?” she asked.
“Work in progress. But I do have guns and grenades y’all could use. You know, on the mission. I can just zip ’em on over to you whenever you want. Great time to let me in on my part of the plot. I’m great at sneaking in and subduing people.”
“I’m happy for your enthusiasm, but you’ve been too enthusiastic and it’s hindered the intelligence-gathering aspect of our mission,” she answered.
“I got you useful info from the mountains and I took care of the problem to boot,” I told her.
“You burned up the bodies and any documents we could use to identify them. It’ll take forever to figure it out from DNA testing. We don’t know who anyone was, who was involved, where the money was coming from, nothing. I appreciate you helping us, but this is the wrong operation for a resource like you. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well remember when you asked me how you looked in that purple dress? I lied. The straps stand out too much against your muscular shoulders and you would look better with clear straps. Or strapless!” Seeing as the phone equipment was part of my head, slamming the phone wasn’t a good option. Regular hanging up would have to do.
Qiang walked up and looked up at me. I smiled down at her. “Hey kiddo. I get left behind too, sometimes.”
She nodded, then pointed right in front of me to a large metal pot. “Are the meatballs done yet?”
“Indeed,” I said menacingly, thinking of turning my enemies into meatballs and spilling their guts like noodles. You know, fuck it, I’m 99% sure those aliens didn’t fix my brain. I shouldn’t have gotten that upset over not helping heroes. I should be happy to spend all my time at home with nothing but childcare, homeschool, and hobbies to keep me company. Well, with dinner just about ready and my daughter’s lessons over for the day, I cracked open one of my incendiary grenades for a sip. That is some truly foul-smelling stuff, but it’ll get you drunk.
I passed out early that night thanks to the drinking. It’s a good thing the sunlight didn’t light me on fire, I had so much of that stuff in me when I passed out and while I slept. Pretty sure my blood alcohol level was enough that I’d need a liquor license to give a blood donation. I felt like the walking dead until I topped myself off with nanomachines.
Medusa hadn’t come home that night. I checked out front, then winced and hid from the sunlight like Ben from Night of the Living Dead taking a shot to the head. Except I did my shots last night. I’ve been on a zombie movie kick for obvious reasons lately. As a supervillain having to take part in a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to be aware of and avoid some of the common pitfalls even if they didn’t all apply here. It’s the same reason I wanted to make damn sure my daughter didn’t remove her armor when she went with us. I figured most movies, her doing that would be the exact moment she got bitten. But if they spread by bite, some of those dead bodies on the mountain wouldn’t have needed to be raised separately.
It made the scenario much different from movies, but I wasn’t taking my chances. And some of the movies feature unusual scenarios. Like the Return of the Living Dead series, where the zombies are nigh-indestructible, capable of speech and thought, actively seek out brains, and are created by a mechanism that could raise the dead from a graveyard. Huh. Well so could these necromancers, ya know? And if I was a right-wing mage raising the dead to help me take over Washington, I’d pretty much have to stop by Arlington.
So I hijacked a government satellite passing by and took a snoop down on Arlington National Cemetery. There was a crowd on Roosevelt Drive, near the walkway up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They had chunks of wood they were offloading there, using a clear, paved space to build. A handful of them standing around wore the usual black robes, except one whose outfit looked like a flag. My first instinct was to keep it to myself, but for all my pettiness, I knew Medusa had a point. And I can’t be going around hating that they leave me out at the same time I’m so instinctively opposed to the hero work. So the way this is supposed to work is I stay petty, I run off and try to do this on my own, and this time the other guys have some way to beat me.
I sighed. Time to be all responsible and mature. I called her back up.
“You done acting like a baby?” she asked.
Time to bite my tongue. Remember, I love this woman for some reason. “Yeah, sorry. You’re right. I’m used to doing things my way and I messed up. How’d the op go?”
“We neutralized some Zeds and guards, but they don’t seem to know where the leadership is. No sign of the Reagan zombie either. We have some notes they made about a mass animation.”
“I think I know where they’re doing that,” I said. “I got the idea to check around graveyards since they can just raise the dead right out of the graves, and I prioritized where they’d probably want to go if they’re planning to take Washington D.C. There’s a small group of cultists at Arlington National Cemetery right now putting something together. They brought some zombies with them.”
“Good job. Can you send us what you have?” she asked.
All professional, no more sniping. No more bullshit like a high school TV drama.
I still went, of course. I came in loud and proud, dropping an anvil on whatever wood altar they were putting together. I dropped out of the trapdoor and into the biggest group of shamblers, fire erupting from around me thanks to a pair of my moonshine-based incendiary grenades. Even without apparent zombification as a threat, I’m still glad for the environmental seals of my armor. This shit has a smell that tells you it’s flammable. I actually can’t know if the ignition or the scent is what knocked the closest zombies away. I tossed plenty more around, lighting the area around me aflame, and charged for the group of cultists.
The folks doing the heavy lifting were in fogged-up hazard suits, so they didn’t try for me, but they had a group of guards in tactical gear. I could tell they weren’t military from all the Punisher and “Don’t Tread On Me” patches. The wannabe weekend warriors charged while firing. I dropped forward so I balanced on my hands and feet, a tail of metal swinging in the air. The tip of it ignited in fire. I went around with an extra pair of arms for awhile and that took some getting used to, but a tail isn’t an arm. It’s not a leg either, so I haven’t entirely worked out how to make it fit in with my neurochemistry. It swung around, spurting flame a little higher than I meant at first, but the second pass was low enough to catch the clueless fake soldiers on fire. While the zombies would stumble along in flames until it burned through them enough, these guys had more immediate things to fear from being caught on fire. And I think only a couple of them remembered to stop, drop, and roll.
I passed by one of them who was trying to shake off all the fire and handed him one of the incendiaries. “Here, hold this for me.” I had a nice chuckle when I heard it go off behind me. That guy nearly did the Wilhelm scream!
I didn’t expect much from the Cultists left until one stepped forward and threw off his robe. This one wore a dark costume that looked like a bunch of black feathers, working its way up to a plague doctor-style mask.
“And who shall I be killing today?” I asked, leaving a holographic copy in my place while I cloaked and stepped to the side.
“Unkindness,” he responded with a moan. I glanced at his skin and noticed heavy rotting. Ah, that’s be that secret weapon of theirs that would inevitably come into play. I went to grab him and break his neck, but he dodged and knocked me to the road with a shimmering wing that resembled his armor. While I was down there, I saw the sky filling with birds, heard the cawing of ravens. Some were perched nearby, on trucks. A lot were perched nearby, actually, and I got the impression they could see me somehow.
Unkindness took to the air, his wings propelling him a little higher. A sword just kind of grew out of his hands. I rolled to the side, letting it miss me and embed way further in the dirt than it should have. Its patterning glistened and I realized it was supposed to be a metal feather. I rolled to my feet, but a black shape crashed into me hard right when I was getting to my feet and knocked me back down. It was a raven. More filled the air, landing on me and pecking. They weren’t a danger, but they kept me from seeing anything. I tried using my tail, but it whipped around all over the place and shot fire into the sky while I had to roll around trying to get birds off me. Couldn’t get the thing to turn and douse me in flames.
I didn’t figure I was in any real danger until I felt my weight shift. We were flying. And by we, I mean the ravens were flying. Every time I went to brush them off, more would land on me. Finally, I tried one of my incendiary grenades. I scrambled for the pouches I’d brought them in. How the hell were so many gone? I tried one, feeling a beak try to slip it away. Damn smart birds. The wave of flame from the malevolent moonshine gave me a little bit of a clearing as birds fell off or escaped en masse.
That gave me a second to check out my situation. The birds were regrouping, flying in to cover me the same way. Unkindness was with them, grabbing onto me wherever my arms and tail couldn’t brush. And we were pretty high up, but not enough to guarantee my death. They wanted me higher, and I was out of grenades. And blunt force trauma is a well-known way to get around armor.
I called for my Psycho Flyer remotely. Should be something onboard I can use to shoot at all these guys without penetrating my armor, or at least catch me when I fall. But the sky was thick with ravens. The birds flew into the jets, sacrificing them to cripple the engines and force it into a crash landing. Yeah, so I got a little worried.
I didn’t really notice a pattern in all the squawking until they got loud and panicked, too. They all retreated, leaving me to fall from a height that might possibly do me in. They were fleeing a trio of Psycho Flyers, one of which did a roll to catch me through a trapdoor that slid closed while it rotated around.
I tuned into the Exemplar channels on my internal radio. “Bird 3 reporting. We have Lizard Queen onboard.”
“Nice flying,” Medusa called out. “Ex-squads, let’s mop them up, see if we can gather some people. Priority on disabling the bird man.”
“Called himself Unkindness,” I said. “Is my codename Lizard Queen to y’all?”
“No time for discussion, Lizard Queen, but thanks for drawing fire. Now we know what their surprises are. Birds, don’t let the crows take out your engines. Swing low, let’s drop some squads.”
By the time it was my time to jump out along with the squad of power-armored Exemplar soldiers in the back of that Flyer, there was no resistance left. What zombies wandered close were taken down with headshots without a need for flamethrowers. And the guys in robes were just plain gone.
“Any sign of the cultists?” I asked.
“Negative, Lizard Queen,” someone reported. “We lost them. Squad One reported they disappeared into a crowd of birds that flew off.”
“Bird 2 here, we no longer have a visual on Unkindness,” I heard one of the other pilots call in.
Well, I was thoroughly grumped out. I don’t like it when the list of people I want dead doesn’t match the list of people I’ve killed. And my flamethrowers seemed to be too much work when compared to a simple bullet. For what it’s worth, Medusa came along after the end of it and patted me on the shoulder to say, “You did well. And you did good.”
I shuddered. She playfully smacked me upside the helmet. “I’m serious. You’re a good vanguard, and without you, we’d have almost half a million more zombies to deal with. If they keep raising supers from the dead with their powers, I think we’ll need someone on our side who is good at killing supers. You up for it?”
I jumped up, smacking my fist into my palm. “Leave ’em to me. Once I’m done with Unkindness, you’ll quoth a raven nevermore!”
I’m back in my proper time, and am glad to see there isn’t a mob chasing me anymore. There isn’t much of anything chasing me. I had to check the news when I got back and found that while there wasn’t much in the way of a change to history, there was a new pandemic that swept the world. I headed home first and foremost. I didn’t mean to lose so much time to time traveling, but The Mobian is always so inconvenient. He even brought Reagan back to life after I killed him during the assassination attempt on the guy.
The problems of heroes fighting for the status quo seems to be magnified when it comes to time travel. Hitler loses in the end, and that’s good, but a bunch of other improvements don’t happen just because people failed at the time. Until or unless I can do the same thing, there’s not too much I can do thinking about it. Especially when I have to find a daughter during all this “social distancing” stuff.
She was at home. So was Medusa. Amazing, my vigilante girlfriend wasn’t off trying to save the world from a disease. Instead, she sat there watching TV on the couch while Qiang played on a tablet. Both of them jumped up when they saw me.
I scooped up Qiang first, then welcomed Medusa into the hug. “You’re not infected are you?” asked my girlfriend.
“Hey now, I stayed faithful while time traveling,” I assured her.
“I meant with the disease,” she said. “When and where have you been?”
I owed them an explanation, so I gave them one, careful to leave out the worst of it for Qiang’s sake. Yeah, she’s seen and heard worse, but she doesn’t have to be like me. She can have a childhood. So I gave the reader’s condensed version where people still died. Medusa borrowed Qiang’s tablet at one point to check something. She turned it around to show me the Wikipedia page about the hospital where I tried to stop Reagan’s resurrection. A coincidental accident. That’s what they list it as. Somebody accidentally crashed a bus into the Presidential Limo, injuring and killing some Secret Service agents.
“What changed, momma?” Qiang asked.
I held up my hands to signal I didn’t know. “Don’t know yet. I didn’t see this virus anywhere when I was gone. I don’t know about some of the rest of it..” I suspect my own downloads of various archives and internet subjects changed.
Medusa shook her head. “This was around before you left, but it hadn’t spread much. It’s shut down much of the world temporarily. It came from China, originally.”
“Huh. China,” I pondered it. Can’t think of anything special Reagan did with China, so maybe she’s right. Or maybe this is one of those butterfly effects. A butterfly in China flaps its wings, and people around the world start getting sick.
“A lot of people said mean things to me,” Qiang said.
Medusa stroked my daughter’s hair. “There’s a lot of racism going around because of where it started.”
“Oh yeah? What ended up happening?” I locked eyes with Qiang. I’d be more worried about the racism if my daughter wasn’t a certifiable knife nut who I’d trained in martial arts and sneaking around, with her own suit of power armor.
Qiang looked down at the floor. “Mama Medusa caught me breaking into their houses so I didn’t get to finish it.”
I reached out and patted her affectionately. “Aww… I know you tried your best, baby. If it makes you feel better, Medusa’s caught me before, too. Tell you what, you and I’ll get together and…” I looked up to see Medusa fixing me with a preemptive glare. “…constructively work out our problems with the other people in a way that teaches everybody a lesson.” Internally, I sent a private digital message to Qiang and only Qiang that showed a pair of stick figures with long hair, meant to be me and her, beating a pinata with baseball bats. When it cracked open, a small stick figure fell out that had the word “Meanie” pointing to it.
“How’s that sound?” I asked Qiang. She giggled and nodded.
Medusa emitted a strange noise. I raised an eyebrow but played it cool, in case she was somehow spying on us. I had my doubts when she pulled out her phone. Nice to see one of those again, though. You don’t realize how much you miss them until they’re gone. Well, maybe y’all don’t, dear readers, but I do. But Medusa’s still typing on her phone’s touchscreen, so I doubt she’s sophisticated enough to intercept private communications between myself and my daughter.
She looked up at me and held her phone up. “So this is your doing then?”
Someone had forwarded Medusa a video of a news report coming out of California. “This is live aerial drone footage brought to you safely from social isolation. There’s a crowd of people in flagrant violation of the lockdown order at the Reagan Memorial Library. Police have been dispatched to tell them to go back into lockdown, but I don’t think they’re listening.” The drone zoomed in to show a bunch of people in really bad shape shuffle forward and lunge for a bicycle cop. The cop shouted at them, then pulled a baton. He got a couple good hits in before collapsing underneath the weight of the horde. “Oh god. They’re eating him. Shit, this is the zombie apocalypse. Fuck this. Fuck my boss. Fuck my lying, cheating girlfriend Brenda who I know is sucking off my best friend. Fuck you too, Ron. I’m out.” The drone zoomed out of there.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not my doing,” I told Medusa. “Torian and Mobian kicked me out and I don’t think they’re the type to raise a zombie horde.”
“What’s a zombie?” Qiang asked.
“Usually, a human body returned to life. Some versions are just infected with a disease. Either way, they try to eat people. You’d be safe in your armor, though.” I felt like ending the explanation on an uplifting note, in case I just gave my daughter nightmares. Still, there comes a time in every girl’s life when she has to grow up and realize she’ll be opposed by an unthinking mass of people who will try to tear her apart. But enough about Republicans.
Oh, wait, zombies at Reagan’s library. It’s not over yet. Medusa cleared her throat. “You’re going to help with this, right?”
I pretended to think it over. “I mean, it’s just zombies, right? That’s not really a big thing with me.”
She held up two fingers. “One, too many horror stories involve someone thinking zombies aren’t that big of a deal and not helping out fight them.” Very good point there. Those folks are usually called dumbasses. “Two, the Reagan Memorial Library is where he’s buried. Your story can’t be a coincidence, but more than that… don’t you want to kill Zombie Reagan?”
I stood up as the beginning strains of the Superman theme began to emanate from my body. “This looks like a job for Super Gecko!” I left Medusa to make her calls while I went down to the basement to throw my armor on. One does not fight zombies without wearing armor that can withstand bites and lives no room open for infestation. I’ve never regretted making sure my armor was sealed up and filtered air from the outside.
When I got back, Medusa was waiting on me, but Qiang wasn’t around. “Where’d she go?”
“She ran off to her room when you went to the basement,” my girlfriend answered.
I went off down the hall and knocked quietly on my daughter’s door. “Sweety, did I scare you talking about the zombies? I’m gonna go beat ’em up real good, if that helps. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I don’t want to stay here alone,” she said.
I could understand that. “We’re going to fight them, and it’s dangerous. And you’re a kid.” Kids are like people in that they make bad decisions, but they’re way less predictable about it.
The door swung open. “I have armor!”
She had on her power armor, which I’d so recently let out for her. Unlike the slimmer and more organic look of mine, hers featured heavier plates over a thin layer that no zombie would have been biting, shooting, or stabbing through regardless.
Medusa stepped up next to me. “This is a horrible idea.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I worry about leaving you here alone, so…” I ran and got a bottle of water from my former nation of Ricca. Former in the sense that they deposed me. It still exists, probably pretty safe from this new virus thanks to all the medical nanomachines I made sure were in the water. “Here, have a sip. Just to make sure you’re healthy.”
“What is that?” Medusa asked while Qiang popped her helmet and drank some of the nanite-laced water.
“Nanite water. When I sell a health supplement, I mean business,” I said. It would sell better if I was a barely-legal Youtube e-girl claiming I’d bathed in it, but… ew. “Anyway, dear,” I rubbed Qiang’s hair. “You stay here, and stay safe. Keep your armor on if you worry. We’ll go handle this.”
Cut to Simi Valley, California. Despite air travel being pretty quick, by the time we’d arrived, Reagan’s library had been ransacked by the zombies. Most of them had moved on, too. The Psycho Flyer we were in, one of my VTOL’s that Medusa had taken for her vigilante group, sawed through a group of them with its guns. I was one of the first to drop down, along with Medusa. She didn’t usually wear armor that concealed her entire face, but this was a good time for an exception. The rest of the Exemplar squad who followed her were in power armor that protected them just as completely from the few biters we encountered.
I tore one’s heart out of his chest, but it had stopped beating well before I punched its head off with the fist holding the heart. The Exemplars were all business, going through rooms of the library and either declaring “Clear!” or shooting first and declaring things later. It was the sounds of Medusa fighting that drew me to Reagan’s tomb. It had been emptied, possibly by the hulking, bulging mass of dead tissue Medusa was fighting that looked like a group of bodies had been mashed together into a larger form that was about ten feet tall. I saw one of Medusa’s punches disappear into a gap in it and the closest bodies grab for her. She wrenched away.
I walked up, holographically appearing to be one of those sports hot dog vendors who walks through the stands. “Chicken! Get your chicken here!” The arms reached for me, too. I handed out headless chicken grenades and tossed some inside before jumping back and calling a warning to Medusa. “Babe, watch out for the-!”
The chickens exploded in sequence throwing blood and undead ass everywhere.
“…splatter!” I finished. Real glad Medusa wore a mouth covering, even though she looked ready to vomit.
“You fools!” someone called. It was a person in a brown robe with sewn-in glyphs all over it, likely a man from the voice. He waved a dagger and pointed a handgun at us from atop this short wall above the pit that had once been Ronald Reagan’s grave. “You are too late! Our lord has come again, to walk the Earth and render judgment upon the heathens.”
His dagger lit up red, but then he stumbled forward and fell into the pit. His screams ended with a loud crack. Qiang became visible on the little wall and waved a balled up fist at him. “You smell funny and you’re stupid!” she called down at him.
“What are you doing here?!” Medusa called.
“I sneaked off with you!” Qiang said. “See, I’m not afraid, and I didn’t take off my armor.”
“Did you know about this?” my girlfriend asked.
I shrugged. “I thought she might do it, hence the nanites. I was keeping an eye on her.”
Medusa growled and hopped into the pit. “We can’t ask him any questions now.”
Qiang scuffed her boots against the wall. “Did I do wrong?”
I shook my head. “You didn’t do wrong. You just could do better. For instance, fantastic timing, honeybunny. Perfect.”
Medusa hopped back out of the pit, holding the man’s wallet. She looked through it carefully before holding up a laminated card. “What do you make of this?”
The Esoteric Order of Reagan. “Sounds like a secret society. Considering the circumstances, it’s worth chasing down. But first,” I leaped up to the wall, threw Qiang into the air, and caught her piggbyack. “Family bonding zombie-killing time.”
As Medusa promised me, we went to go see Beetlejuice the Musical where it was playing in Empyreal City. We brought along Qiang, too. The play about death was lots of fun for the whole family. We even stayed the next day over, just to enjoy ourselves and feel less rushed. The downside is when it came time for us to fly back, Medusa had sent her flyer off to go help some Exemplars dealing with other problems.
“Just call yours,” she said. I’d finally asked her about it, since it was getting later in the day.
“I did,” I told her. “The problem is, it might not get here in time.” It would be close, but I didn’t have my condition explicitly mapped out. As a weredeer, I know the full moon prompts my transformation into a half-woman, half-deer. I don’t know if I have to actually see the moon, or if its light has to shine on me, or if it has to be night.
Qiang skipped along beside us, playing with a tablet we got her, oblivious to the whole conversation.
“Nobody knows it’s you. Don’t worry,” Medusa said.
I rolled my eyes. “If you were trying to protect someone from a werewolf, would you bring them to the middle of a crowded city and stop worrying?”
Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. “You’re not a werewolf. You don’t hurt anyone.”
“But Medusa, think about all the innocent criminals!” I said, meaning to remind her about those people I hurt, but just causing her to laugh at the inadvertent joke.
“I trust your other half to beat up the right people,” she said. “I’ll tag along if you want.”
I turned and shook my head, putting my hand on her chest. “I don’t want you to see me like that. The full moon brings out a dangerous part of me that I’m not proud of. I become a danger to my loved ones.”
Qiang giggled. She was looking up from her tablet to watch us. While I was distracted, Medusa grabbed my hand. She kissed my fingertips, then entwined her fingers with mine. “Relax. If you don’t want me coming along, I’ll respect that. I’m getting you a body cam, though.”
We got right on that and headed back to the hotel room. I didn’t want to ruin the outfit I was in even if the dress didn’t look as good on me as I thought. I know, I throw money around like it doesn’t mean anything. At least I robbed someone straight-up instead of doing the dishonest thing and scamming them out of cash by selling colloidal silver to cure illness like that bipedal wart Alex Jones is doing.
Yeah, I said it. Sue me, you bloody cumwad. Send a lawyer and try to guess what I’ll send.
Anyway, I got changed into some less expensive clothes that would keep Reindeer warm, provide good mobility, and can be easily replaced. I don’t like what my alter ego does when I change. I’m still going to keep her dressed. Waking up with my clothes shredded in winter isn’t fun. With those precautions taken, I checked in on my personal Psycho Flyer. It wasn’t as close as I wanted. Thanks, bad weather. I set it to fly to the roof of our hotel instead of coming to find me and decided it was time to face the music.
I was pretty much ready, so I strapped the camera onto my head , turned it on, and just watched Medusa and Qiang for a bit. Qiang walked over to show me some clip of these guys playing some sort of hide and seek where someone hides in boxes that look like they’re from videogames, and the people searching for them poke the boxes with fake weapons looking for them. It was amusing.
I lose my memory of the change, and I guess the time immediately before it, so the only way I know what happened for the rest of the night after this point is the body camera. I’m glad I don’t remember it if the footage is anything to go by. It looked and sounded painful. No word yet on the smell. Things grew and snapped into place. Qiang started crying, so Medusa held her and they gave me some privacy. After experiencing the sound of my own screams changing to match a new muzzle, Reindeer stood up and had already ducked her/my way out the door. She caught the elevator at the end of the hall, and waved to Medusa when my superhero girlfriend poked her head out of the room to see what happened. She looked more worried than earlier.
Reindeer went on the prowl. I know, it’s a weird way to describe a patrol, but she was looking for action in the way that involves beating someone up. If she was looking for the other kind of action, Medusa was right there. We’d have had to set Qiang up with something to do elsewhere, but it was possible. Hell, my girlfriend’s dated a woman who is part dinosaur and a guy who was part sloth; I think she’s ok with some hot furry action. And come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t mind if I stopped shaving down there. She’s put up with way more hair.
Despite me turning out like this being connected to my occasional contracts for the Winter Spirit, Reindeer didn’t seem to be capable of flight. Instead, she’d jump into the air on legs that seemed about as strong as the pseudomuscles of my power armor that let me do much the same. I know the transformation to and from being a weredeer does a few odd things to my physique, but I wonder if the upgrades I’ve made to my bones and muscles are still there and help her out.
Reindeer ran and jumped everywhere. She’d land on a roof and jump off. Then she might come in close to a tall building’s walls and run along it briefly before pushing off. The city had been beaten up pretty well over the years, something I had a hand in, but it didn’t take her long to find an area where the lights were a bit darker, a bit dimmer. Fewer in number for one reason or another. She landed on one roof and then I heard a distant scream. Reindeer took off for it. When she got near, she peered over a rooftop to see a man and a skimpily-dressed woman in a courtyard. The woman was on the ground, kicking at him, all tears and blood. The man tried to catch her leg with his left hand, a knife in his right.
Reindeer jumped off the building and was looking down as she landed on the guy’s shoulders, smashing him to the ground. He screamed as some bones snapped, but wasn’t going to be doing too much more with his arms after that. “Are you ok?” she/I asked the woman. After the surprise wore off, the woman nodded, pulled herself to her feet, and hugged onto Reindeer, thanking her. I or she, whichever, didn’t stick around too long. She made sure the woman was fine and kept an eye on the downed guy while the woman ran off really fast for someone in high-heeled boots.
She didn’t take the guy in, but she also didn’t give him any medical attention. Instead, she jumped up to the rooftop and continued on patrol. After awhile, she stopped and sat down, just watching and resting. “Gecko, we should talk. This is my body, too. I’m a lot like you. I am you. The other parts of you that you bury. The part that wishes you had really been a hero. I’m glad you stuck me in better clothes, but I need a costume ’cause I’m going to keep going. I think you die if I die. And can you look into some sort of shoes?” She pulled her leg up to let me see the bottom of her hooves.
Before my evil heroic alter ego could continue on about her plans to to stick around and steal my body once a month, she dropped her leg and hopped to her feet. She set off with something in mind, heading in one direction, then adjusting her course. A few streets over, I heard the sirens. Running toward sirens to help the police. That monster. It’s hard, seeing what gets unleashed on the world by the full moon.
The police were chasing a shiny hovercar. Despite the braking issues of that form of vehicle, it held the advantage by being able to jump over cars on the road. Cops had to wait for folks to get out of the way. Drivers in this city didn’t getting out of the way for anyone.
It was the Privateers, riding around and occasionally firing back at the cops. And… fired off fireworks? That was weird. They’re a rogue military organization, but ultimately professionals. They’d only do something like that if they were deliberately trying to hold the pigs’ attention. “This is a distraction,” Reindeer said. She turned and headed in the opposite direction they were going. It was a simple way to go about it. “I don’t have your homo machina abilities, so I’m giving this a try.”
Ha-fucking-ha. She ended up being right. She caught a scent or a sound or something and turned toward this lab. They had another hovercraft there, cleverly hidden behind four pieces of painted cardboard. I sighed to myself watching that part. I use holograms! Why bother with fucking holograms when cardboard cutouts work?!
Reindeer landed in its open top and kicked in the console. She proceeded to tear out wires that looked like they did something. Before long, the Privateers rolled out a couple of carts full of expensive equipment. They all tossed the cardboard out of the way and one of them hopped into the hovercraft. “What the fuck? Someone sabotaged us!”
Reindeer lifted the hovercraft up like a boss. Are people still saying that? Fuck it, she’d be a boss character in a videogame, so I don’t care. Seriously, she lifted a damn hovercraft and overturned it on top of most of the Privateers. The equipment probably made it out ok, but it looks like Reindeer shares my disregard for collateral damage. A couple of privateers were left. One pulled out a military machete. The other whipped out a pair of pistols and squeezed the triggers.
I didn’t see any projectiles, but Reindeer screamed and brought her hands up. It knocked her over, but when she brought her hands back down, they were covered from blood. Her ears? She didn’t have time to ponder it before machete guy was in her face, swinging. She bent over, then raised her head. The machete was gone. Oh, she used her antlers. Then she dropkicked her assailant, sending him flying into the guy with the pistols. She got up faster than they did and ran over, smashing one of the pistols.
One of the others raised the other, but Reindeer jumped and landed. I saw from her point of view as the Privateer raised the pistol and fired at her. Poor guy forgot his physics, though. Sure, Reindeer cried out in pain again and it threw her off. But that meant she splashed onto the guy and slammed him back down onto his friend who was still on the ground. They struggled for the pistol, but she won it when her antlers cut into the guy. She tore the pistol apart and spun to her hooves. One kick and one punch, and those two were out.
If this was a movie, that’s when the cops she called beforehand would have arrived. Ugh, calling the cops. I can’t… I just can’t…
Ok, so the cops got the Privateers, and the rest of the night proved fairly uneventful until the morning sun vanquished this horrible curse.
Longtime readers know it’s been awhile since I woke up in a field covered in blood with no memory of events the night before. Not since I cut down on bath salts for getting in the way of my cocaine habit at least. Priorities, people.
So I woke up covered in blood, took one sniff of the situation, and said, “Something foul has happened,” and then… it’d be weird if I started things off this time by mentioning that and didn’t elaborate any further.
So, the other day, I asked Qiang about some of the pictures she had of me in her room. They were of me as Reindeer. For those in the audience taking some bath salts, that’s what I was called when I was turned into a half-person, half-deer being late last year due to a magical dick-measuring contest between St. Nick and the Easter Bunny, or whatever else Spring has. Some dispute between magic related to the seasons as part of a plan to raise awareness of climate change by turning people into half-animals and turning power plants into regular plants.
Then, the Spirit of Winter added to my misery by giving me a pair of horns like on a female reindeer. I also had some lost time that turned out to be me doing weird stuff that undermined the Spring side of the conflict. Mindful of that lost time, and naturally wanting to show an interest in my daughter, I finally felt like asking her about it.
“It’s from when you became a big deer last month!” she told me.
“You mean in December, right? Last month was January,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, you did it then, too,” she informed me.
“I don’t remember that. Did I do anything?”
She showed me where she got the picture from, which was a news snippet about Reindeer, framed in the light of the full moon, beating up some people who robbed a liquor store. Not even bank money. Who gets bent out of shape over liquor store cash? Whether you’re stopping it or stealing it from them, it’s a lot of work putting someone in the hospital for just a few hundred dollars. Anyone robbing a liquor store probably needs that cash for rent, or an abortion, or drugs. The real assholes rob pension funds. Beat them up.
The articles didn’t mention Reindeer burying her muzzle in anything that would explain why I don’t remember that. I don’t like losing control to the extent that I engage in what appears to be legitimate heroism. I didn’t find any strange bags of cash around the place, so I think I just gave it back. I don’t know, really.
It scares me, that my personality can shift so much.
So when I woke up Sunday morning covered in blood, I was a lot less worried about it than the other time it happened. You wake up covered in blood, you don’t immediately assume something good happened. First thing I did, after all, was call up Medusa to make sure I hadn’t decided to solve our relationship problems the easy way.
What I learned would shock me to my core, which risked exploding. It’s really unhealthy for anyone in at least a mile radius to try mess with that power core I keep in me.
“You didn’t kill me.”
“Good,” I told her, until she went on.
“You turned into Reindeer and ran off to the city. You said you wanted to do what you always wanted.”
I held out hope in this regard as well. “Murder… uh… no, I already killed the Pope that time. And the President…”
Medusa interrupted my ponderings to tell me, “You said you had been desperate your whole life to be a hero, that it was the fantasy that got you through your worst times as a living weapon on your world, and that a lot of your attempts to fix this Earth are a twisted reflection of what you wish you could do tainted by your pessimism and haunted by your past as a merciless killer.”
After a couple of dumbfounded seconds, I said, “Nah, that can’t be it. That’s way too poetic for me.”
“Regardless, you showed up right when a mad scientist was trying to take revenge on a bank that seized his house.”
“Wow, that’s a real dick move for me to defend. Maybe I was talking some hero nonsense after all.”
She got a little irritated at that response. “Hey, I’m not on the bank’s side either, but he didn’t come to me. He made a giant duck that was wrecking the whole city.”
“Why would a duck do that?” I asked.
“Because ducks are assholes!” she said.
That checks out. Ducks are assholes. So are geese. Ostriches, too. A lot of birds, really. Don’t even get me started on roosters, those cocky little bastards.
I was interrupted by the appearance of a helicopter overhead. The sight of it sent a chill up my spine, or maybe that’s because I was in a field, half buried in snow, with no clothes on but rags that covered less than most of your options at Victoria’s Secret. No, the chill was from recognizing the chopper as a news chopper. I was being filmed by the news. “Uh, Medusa, there’s news people here now.”
“Try to keep your face covered if you can. Tell them ‘no comment’ if they ask questions. Refuse to go on the record. Where are you?”
“I’ve activated an internal tracking beacon… weird that I got that despite the whole transformation. Why did it do that to my eyes, but not the internal stuff, do you think?”
“Wrong time to want the answers to questions. Don’t give them any. I have pickup on the way.” She hung up then and left me to fend for myself against the media.
The chopper landed, the cameraman ending his filming before they got a real good, close look at my nips and my tucks. The reporter leading the way came up, averting his gaze. He even took his coat off. “Hello there, miss. Cold?”
I was, and accepted it. “Thanks. Who are you and why are you out here?”
“You’re a story, young lady,” he said. “That was something, what you did there.”
“What did I do?” I asked. I could have gone looking on the internet, but it was snowy out and I was very nearly naked. I don’t usually mind the nudity, but it becomes somewhat distracting when your nipples get hard enough they could cut precious gems.
“We should get you in shelter. Would you like a ride in the news chopper?” he asked.
“Hasn’t anyone told you not to pick up hitchhikers? I’ll sit inside and you can tell me, but we better not go anywhere,” I told him.
He nodded. “Deal, let’s go.”
What they showed me was footage of a duck the size of a bus quacking its way down the road, overturning cars and snapping at buildings with its beak. Not even a lot of destruction in my estimation, and it was being steadily herded toward a nice, fancy bank at the end of the street by a man in blue scrubs, a welder’s mask that completely obscured his face, and bright yellow gloves. He would occasionally throw these grenades that would shrink anything in an area or grow things in an area, leaving additional destruction, but he seemed careful to avoid hitting people with it.
That didn’t stop the duck from managing to pull someone out of a restaurant. The duck tossed them up in the air and meant to catch them in its mouth, but then a brown blur came flying in from the side and grabbed the person before they could fall into the fowl gullet.
The various videos and the news chopper’s footage caught Reindeer dropped in, landing with a clippity clop as if she or I or whoever had been super jumping or even flying. The light caught my antlers and eyes in a strange way that made them look like they glowed white for just a moment as I landed.
Reindeer set the man holding his bag of groceries down. “Nobody has to get hurt! Just turn around and go home,” I called.
“Someone’s already hurt, and it’s payback time!” answered the scientist. He pointed to Reindeer, aka me, and ordered “The bill has come due! Quackers, attack!”
I grabbed a loaf of bread out of the grocery bag and jumped up, kicking off a wall to land on a roof on the opposite side of the street from the wall. Also, a song started playing. The cameraman interrupted to point out, “Phones started playing that for some reason. We’re trying to find out what the song is.”
“Boom Boom Boom by Grace Mesa,” I said.
The other guy with them flinched. When the cameraman looked at him, he said, “I used to live in EC, and that sounds like a song a villain forced to play everywhere one time.”
“Back to the video,” the reporter said.
I, Reindeer, waved the bread at the duck, keeping its attention. It tried to fly up and snap up the bread, but I gave it a kick with my hoof that helped enrage it. It had to rise above roof level to follow me as I hopped away, leading it out of the city. After several minutes, I found a good, clean spot, a field outside the city limits where there weren’t a lot of buildings around, not even suburbs.
I stopped and turned, taking a fighting stance. The shadow of the colossal duck swept overhead, but then the big bird seized up and started shaking. It fell, landing on top of me. After several minutes, Reindeer burst out, clothes a mess and covered in gore. I began to wander away, dazed, and jumped my way out into some other fields.
“We followed the trail and found you here. It’s a miracle you’re not in worse shape after you reverted, but we think you probably had fur on all night,” the reporter said.
“How did you kill that thing? Do you have some other powers that let you shoot laser beams?” asked the cameraman eagerly.
“If I had to guess, it was the Square-Cube Law that did it in. If you don’t adjust your growing and shrinkage, it’s a killer. Something that big can’t function with organs the same relative size as a duck. Probably had a heart attack.”
Outside came the sound of something heavy landing. I hopped out of the chopper and tossed the coat back to the news guys. “Leave my face out of this if you know what’s good for you.”
Well, Reindeer’s civilian identity being escorted away by the Exemplars didn’t exactly do anything to keep them from making a big story about the superhero Reindeer saving the day and definitely being a hero. The insightful part was the mention in the article of others, not many, who likewise seemed to have retained the ability to turn into their half-animal forms. It only seems to happen when the full moon occurs.
Dammit. Turns out I’m now a weredeer.
As far as the regular people are concerned, Reindeer did what she had to do bringing a dangerous mass murderer to justice. In a way, that feels about as bad as when they celebrated me as a hero despite failing to save the people Conrad Thorne burned that first time. I wasn’t trying to defend myself or bring anybody to justice. I hunted him down specifically to kill him. I’d already been prejudged as a “good guy” in the public eye, and so the murder is justified.
I can at least rest easy knowing that none of what I did was to uphold an status quo. I stopped the Drillers because they were trying to steal the toy I wanted to steal. Conrad Thorne wasn’t tearing down the system by burning and shooting animal-people. The other way around, in fact. There’s nothing more American than the execution of someone who looks different. At the risk of sounding like a hardcore vegan here, his views about animal-people tie in to both some heavy racist tropes of the past, and into the somewhat twisted domination humanity sometimes exerts over other animals. So maybe this Verdant person had somewhat of an effect on my point of view.
As for the Spirit of the Season, Santa Claus himself, I haven’t seen him around since I fell out of the building. I’m a little paranoid about that last bit he said to me, but I think that’s pretty normal under the circumstances. It hasn’t escaped my notice that he turned me from a deer into a reindeer, then offered to give me flight. I love the idea of flying under my own power, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I wasn’t even thinking so hard about what Santa was doing. But the guy is known for hitching flying reindeer to his sleigh to fly him around. I wonder how close I came to replacing a Donner or a Dancer.
After all that, I was happy to sit around the house with a batch of vegan cookies, chilling with my chinchilla child. She watched movies while I wrapped a few last presents for other folks. Citra, Silver Shark, Dr. Creeper, Mix N’Max, Sam, and Holly. I already sent off a gift for my former minions, Carl and Moai. If I’m drinking to absent friends, I’m going to end up hammered.
It’s a good thing alcoholic beverages are vegan.
But that wasn’t really the worst of my holiday experiences this time. Santa’s stopped showing up and my latest conflict is handled. I’m free and clear to celebrate. Then the TV had breaking news, courtesy of a hooded figure in green tights and a cape that looked like leaves sewn together.
“I am Verdant, and I am here to turn off the lights!” he announced. “In mere minutes, I will use my transformative powers to transform all the world’s polluting factories and power plants into greenery.”
I rolled my eyes and started to gather up some boxes of my nanomachine “health supplements,” for travel. If this guy was serious about turning off the power completely, there were some hospitals that were going to need to make some tough decisions. That’s why all the reasonable people along these lines speak of transitioning.
At some point, I saw Verdant raise want. I noticed him moving his thumb to press a button, though. Pain shot through my body, causing me to drop my boxes. I heard pained squeaks from my daughter’s room, but my body didn’t want to respond to go help her. It felt like when I first turned into a deer, all itchy and with my bones stretching under my skin. It either wasn’t as quick or I didn’t pass out this time, and I saw Verdant look around nervously, then begin to mess with his wand. I figured something went wrong, but that applied just as much to me when I held up a hand. What had been furry fingers with thick nails were becoming a bunch of small fingers and one oversized thumb where the nail was growing into a hoof. Meanwhile, Verdant doubled over in pain and held up a claw inside a shredded glove.
When I heard jingle bells, I thought the Spirit of the Season was back to offer me another deal. Maybe he wanted me to pull his sleigh after I finished becoming a full reindeer. Instead, I received a vision. I don’t think anyone else saw it, after all. In it, I sat assembling a device. No, I was painting a big, round ornament. Both seemed to be true at once. Then, I climbed a rocket with a satellite attached, careful to avoid security lights. Except then the security lights were decorative lights, bursting and flashing around me as I climbed a tree. Below, Krampus patrolled, keeping an eye out. That part seemed true in both iterations.
I watched as, sometime later, the rocket launched. A satellite with my device separated from it once they reached space. The satellite soon blew up, and a large shard of the satellite continued around the Earth in an orbit. It was a weird thing to watch and I started to feel a bit nauseous. Whatever vision quest I’m on should use less shaky cam. This isn’t an action movie.
Instead, it became a story about some satellite in the distance lighting up a brilliant green color. I saw a shimmering white and purple mass from the Earth, though. Like a cloud, or an aurora borealis. I didn’t think you could see those from space. The two opposing colors reached for one another, the shimmering pushing back toward the satellite. The wreckage was headed right for it. The two collided at the same moment the pain and strain on my body subsided. The last thing I saw as this jingle-belled vision ended was a green crystal with a streak of brown through its middle falling out of the second satellite toward Earth.
I was fine again. Not just fine, I was humanoid again. I had feet and my antlers were gone. A 12:00 kept blinking in my vision, confirming the existence of my cybernetic eyes and brain enhancements that gave me a heads-up display. Sadly, I lost a little badonkadonk. On TV, Verdant seemed to be experiencing the same relief. And no matter what he tried, the power didn’t go out. That’s why I felt fine leaving the room long enough to check on Qiang, who was once again a humanoid girl. A stinky little humanoid girl who looked just a little different to me than before. A little more mixed than before, but not with animals.
“Mommy, I’m normal again!” she said, excitedly. She ran toward me and I swept her up into a hug that twirled her around a bit. I had to stop for my sake, as I was having trouble with the balance. I’d basically spent most of the month running around on my big toenails. I’m so happy to have feet again though.
“Good, then you can get a bath again,” I told her. She tried to “aww” at me about it, but I added, “Don’t you argue with me, stinky. You want to be the smelly kid? Off, go hop in the tub.”
I realized from what it meant for my daughter to transform back that I hadn’t come back with Dame’s stolen face, either. I didn’t want to think about that at the moment for various reasons, so I deflected by trying to go see what was up on the news. I heard an explosion, then they switched away.
Instead, for the first time in awhile, I reached out wirelessly and connected to the world’s network of satellites to help me get a signal. I had to figure out where all this even was. Boom, Virginia. Turns out Verdant had decided to draw a crowd to him at the site of a natural gas plant construction site. I spied on the situation and found he had various minions in robes.
On the other side of this equation was Medusa, her own costume a bit torn up in places. Maybe I can find some footage later of what she was turning into. For now, the Exemplars were beating up the robed minions and trying to protect fleeing reporters from the wrath of Verdant. The environmentalist supervillain didn’t have his satellite on his side anymore, but had some sort of yellow ray he fired from his wand that turned a cameraman into a pile of ashes.
One of the Exemplars, a soldier in power armor, fired a burst that missed Verdant. It forced the villain from his perch on top of a concrete slab. Another Exemplar created a mass of smoke between Verdant and the civilians that obstructed his view. Whatever that energy weapon was, it did jack shit to smoke.
I looked around in all the chaos for something to help out with. Verdant owes me a pound of flesh for turning me into a deer. I don’t care if I take a bunch of blood with the flesh, either.
I found a bulldozer nearby. They put so many electronics in tractors and construction equipment nowadays that they might as well be cars. I cranked it remotely and, using what third-party cameras I could see, began to maneuver the thing. A stray ray that hit the bulldozer did nothing harmful to it, but it gave me an idea. I didn’t like the idea, but that was more because I realized it represented a shift in my thinking caused by goody-goodies like Medusa. Infecting me with her goodness. I should have worn protection.
The bulldozer was perfect for building a bulwark out of the clay and at the construction site. With a pile of dirt and a bulky bulldozer in the way, the reporters and Exemplars were safe enough from the rays that reached through the smoke. Unfortunately, so were the cops who had arrived, too. At least they had they good sense not to get in Medusa’s way.
If it had been me going after him with the bulldozer, Verdant’s capture would have been a messier affair. Instead, a hero with a jetpack rose into the air blasted the wand out of his hands. Verdant tried to grab his wand again, but it sparked and shocked him. He settled on trying to flee. That’s when he learned one of the downsides to running around in a cape when you don’t have any sort of super strength or superspeed. It slowed him way the fuck down. It’s not even a weight issue, though that can be part of it. Capes catch the wind real easily and the resistance slowed him down. Medusa caught up to him and punted his ass into the dirt like it was nothing.
When she walked through the door that night, she was dirty and exhausted. She walked right up to me on the couch and laid down with her head in my lap.
“You look tired,” I said.
“You look different,” she responded.
“So does Qiang, but at least she’s still pretty,” I said.
Medusa pouted. “Hush… don’t talk like that or you’ll end upon the naughty list.”
I laughed. With how the holidays went for me, I couldn’t help it. I certainly wasn’t going to forget Santa’s role in things when Medusa headed back to get ready for a bath and rushed out to ask, “Where’s the other you?”
I winked at her, then projected an online article about a young soldier waking up from a coma. The picture showed the redhead whose body I’d been so recently controlling as my own.
“What did you do?” asked Medusa. “You’re still controlling her?”
I shook my head. “Nope. She’s fully alive again. Brain and all.”
“How?’ Medusa asked
“A Christmas miracle, dear,” I told her. It makes a good line to end on, but I ended up pulling her onto my lap and telling the rest of the tale. I am a terrible hero, still. But a villain who even runs counter to the nature of life and death? Sometimes, it pays to have friends at the North Pole.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Happy Holidays.
With everything that’s happened so far, I never got around to decorating the house. Qiang may not have grown up with the holidays they have around here, but she’s been seeing her friends’ houses and wondering when we were going to do stuff like that. So I bought a bunch of lights and decorations. She got to have a lot of fun being impatient while I had to untangle the lights right out of the box. But at least I got to talk to Medusa.
“Greetings, puny mortal!” I greeted her.
“Hey there, super deer,” she teased right back.
I fought back a desire to go into how I’m not a hero and all that stuff in a conversation where she mistakes my disappointment at failing to rescue the burn victims with my childish contrarianism where I view myself as a villain in comparison to society. Which isn’t always childish, by the way. Sometimes, society’s fucked up enough that the best thing a person can be is a villain.
Instead, I went with, “How goes stopping the person who’s supposedly trying to fight to fix climate change?”
“Ugh. So frustrating. Prisoners keep saying we’re a bunch of neoliberal corporatists. I hate activist theatre. If you had some sort of magic gem that lets you transform things with nature magic, and you wanted to fix a problem, would you settle on turning people into furries?” She asked.
“If it was me, I’d probably start sabotaging oil pipelines and power plants in a way that doesn’t spew even more chemicals into the environment. Transform anyone who tries to stop me to keep them off balance. Maybe turn a trained minion into a more formidable animal-person to go provide a distraction or fight supers who try to stop me. Why, what are they doing?”
“One of them turned a bunch of trash at a hockey game into meat-eating plants. I put on skates and fought the one who had the control remote on the ice. I don’t know if it was Verdant. He turned one of his henchmen into a polar bear man and got away while we fought it. Imagine being able to turn trash into plants.”
“Wow. I could fix that big plastic island with that kind of power,” I said.
“Yeah, see? That’s the most disappointing thing about people like you with all your plans.”
“Wait, me?” I asked, wondering how this became about me.
“Villains like you have powers that could revolutionize the world in a good way and you use them to rob banks or mess up hockey games. I’m going to do better than the rest of you when it’s time for me to clean up the world,” she declared.
“Geez, I’m the one running into burning buildings, and you’re declaring you’ll show the world when it’s your turn to pull off an evil plot,” I pointed out. “We’re bad influences on each other.”
She laughed at that, then I heard an alarm from her side of the phone. “Oh, I’ve got to go. I’m going to take a break for the weekend if I can. See you then, ok?”
Yep… she’s beating people up, I’m playing homemaker. I seem to recall being critical of this kind of turn of events when she tried to say I didn’t have to run around and be evil. Joke’s on her, though. I’m being lazy as fuck.
The artificial tree, for instance, was a breeze to put up. Pull out the box, roll it into position, hit the deployment button, and watch as it rises up into position with a fresh puff of patent pending New Tree Pine Scent. It was barely unfolded when Qiang rushed around it, throwing balls and other decorations on there.
Boring. Safe, too, but boring. I’m a sick deer, though. So while Medusa’s out there supposedly fighting the people who did this to me, I get to sit around figuring if I want to watch repetitive holiday movies or news coverage of the “Animalization Wave” that has finally completed its first run around the planet.
I’m wrapping presents, they’re hybridizing people with other animals, my girlfriend’s trying to stop them. Oh, wait, there is one more thing I’m doing. I’m plotting. It’s nothing so big as all the environmental stuff going on. I could probably pull off something if I had my nanites, but they’re still not communicating with me. Which I guess is what Medusa meant. If I was serious about it, I could have cleaned the oceans by now. The power cores I build, and then the dimensional tech that enabled us to power Ricca there at the end, could end every bit of pollution related to energy production on Earth.
Later, later, notes for later. I have something more important to worry about. See, I’ve been keeping track of that asshole I caught back there in Detroit. I’ve slept since I’ve been looking him up, too, so if any of that with Santa was real, he’s had an opportunity to tell me this is Naughty List stuff. The pyro tried to call himself Crosshair, but they found out his real name is Conrad Thorne. Damn, guy actually has a cool real name. And Conrad Thorne is having himself a bail hearing the next day. It would be a shame if no one was there to give him a warm welcome out of jail again.
After a productive day of decorating, I was almost disappointed when I sat up out of bed to see the Spirit again. He was skinnier this time, and the coat was more of a robe, but the beard’s a dead giveaway. “Hey there, big guy. Here to tell me I’m doing the wrong thing?” I asked.
“I am here because of a magic in the air that blinds me to what I seek. I need your help, again,” he answered. “I require the chill wind of a killer, the smoldering death of a fire. In return, you shall be ill no more.”
Killing someone to be done with this sickness? Eh, works for me. I hopped out bed and found myself immediately doubling over thanks to a pounding in my head. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, you said you’d cure me!”
This pair of velvety lumps appeared out of my head. They grew and grew, then burst to reveal sharpened bone. Fuck me, I got antlers. It hurt and itched and otherwise felt really uncomfortable to have my skull suddenly grow out a bunch of boney spears. I let out a low moan, then felt a hand on my shoulder. “Won’t you slay for me tonight, Reindeer?”
I don’t even remember how I got out of my room. It was that hazy, dream feeling you get where you skip stuff sometimes and don’t notice. I was flying through a foggy gloom, despite the weather having been clear of fog. I don’t know how long I flew, or what direction, but the guiding hand of the Spirit let me know when I’d reached my destination. It looked like a bar just outside of another small town. It was a squat cinderblock building with a number of trucks and motorcycles out front.
I charged the front door. I didn’t remember much of anything until I stepped into a cramped back room. It was some sort of office space, though most of the desk was taken up by cash, a broken gold menorah, and a large scroll. A bald man jumped up from behind the desk with a pump-action shotgun. I jumped over the desk and lowered my head, feeling the satisfying thud as he hit the back wall and my horns sank into him. With the top of my head pressed to his chest, I felt him breathe his last. I put a hand on his chest then, and held him there while I pulled them free.
Turning, I saw the Spirit had carefully gathered up the menorah and the scroll. He sounded gentle, like I was a child to comfort, when he said, “We have what we came for.” He turned to go. I snorted and followed him, mindful of oil that dropped from the menorah. I caught the smell of burning as the oil droplets ignited on their own. Nothing in the bar area looked familiar to me, but it was certainly brutal enough to be my handiwork. Like the guy bent over the table with a pool stick shoved up his ass and out his mouth, lined up for a shot with the cue ball.
We left it all to the flames, and I woke up. My ear infection and all the rest of the sickness I’d had was gone. But I was still a deer, and I had antlers still. And I’d overslept. Thorne had his bail hearing and, I soon learned, had made bail with the aid of a bondsman.
Money isn’t everything, but it’s a pretty good way to get information when you’re dealing with overworked court staff and a bail bondsman who is fully aware some of his clientele are going to skip out on him. That’s what bounty hunters are for usually. What bail bondsman wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a volunteer bounty hunter who is paying for the privilege of keeping an eye on a high-profile murderer who fancies himself a new villain.
He was significantly less enthused when I checked out the place Thorne was supposedly staying at and found no trace of the killer at his apartment. It looked like he’d thrown his dresser drawers open and grabbed what clothes he could before leaving. But my enhanced reindeer senses told me I wasn’t out of luck just because I couldn’t see the guy. I smelled fear. And pee. Not like he pissed himself out of fear, though. It smelled familiar, like when I pee every morning now as a deer. Listen, the smell is different, folks. Of course I noticed the difference.
I noticed the smell of gun cleaner, too. It’s normally hard to smell after too long, but this was around here quite a bit. Most of it led to a closet where some large hooks on the wall suggested the guy kept a really big rifle around.
I don’t know a lot about Detroit’s gun laws, but I figured the guy was a hunter. Maybe that was why he decided to flamebroil some animal-people, or maybe he’s going to hide out in the country with a rifle until he think things have blown over.
Funny thing though. I realized when I left the room that it had a certain oily odor to it that I could still smell wafting through the air. That’s when I knew I had the perfect excuse for one of the most over-used cliches of all time.
I said, to no one in particular, “It seems the hunter has become the hunted.”
As if being part deer wasn’t bad enough, I awoke to find myself nearly deafened, achy, sweaty, and with my ears feeling stuffed full of something that made me want to shove a spike into each one. I eventually stumbled my way to the doctor, realizing I had somehow become sick.
“Yep. Looks like a nasty ear infection and the flu,” the doc said after listening to my breathing and sticking a thing too deep into my inflamed ears. “I recommend getting vaccinated next time.”
“I normally have tiny robots to fight disease for me,” I said.
The doctor looked me over, then began to type away on his computer. “How long have you been using those as your immune system?”
“Give or take an entire life,” I said, breaking out into a sweat. It wasn’t nervousness. The office went from freezing cold to super hot in an instant. I’d say I’ve been brought down to mortality, but I’m an anthropomorphic deer on top of all this. Even as a human, the nanites would affect me enough to keep me healthy. Either my transformation has given me such a radically different body type that they aren’t adapting right, or it’s magical in nature. It grew eyes for me and did something to my implants that give me bluetooth connectivity, so I’m leaning toward magic. I hate magic. And it’d be just like fucking magic to turn me into a deer for December. Right here in a small town, snow all over the place, Christmas lights up and children playing. Merry fucking Christmas.
“I’m writing you prescriptions for antibiotics. I still haven’t finished that veterinary course since the last time you visited. Take these, and I want to see you in here in two days to see check your progress.” He glanced at me. “Get a lot of rest and drink a lot of fluids. No more heroics.”
I snorted. “Trust me, no heroics here. I’m surprised you give a damn about little ol’ me.”
“I help the poor and the needy. That’s you.”
Looking him in the eye, feeling absolutely miserable, I had to ask, “No one would ever know if you gave me something to kill me.”
He turned fully toward me. “I’ll make a note about depressive thoughts. I took an oath to do no harm to any of my patients, even you.”
I stumbled my way out of there and through this happy holiday scene of a town, burning and freezing alternately and at the same time. First I had to get the damn antibiotics, which required a stop in the small franchise pharmacy they had here. Waiting took forever. I can’t be too specific because I began to drift in and out of consciousness. And when I awoke, I couldn’t completely tell. I’d dreamed I’d kicked over a few chairs in the pharmacy’s waiting area. It was all fine when I woke up. I even went up and asked if everything was fine. The young woman behind the window gave me a funny look. “It’ll be fifteen to twenty minutes still.”
Annoyingly, the word “heroics” kept looping through my head during that whole wait until I got my medicine and stumbled out into the cold.
Even the walk felt like it took forever, but I eventually cleared my head of the “heroic” loop by laughing it off. Why I get upset at that shouldn’t matter. They can say it and they can be wrong on their little TV shows. No one will even have to know it was me.
I pushed my way into my house and tripped over something Qiang must have left out. Normally, I’d catch myself easily. Normally, I’m not a sick deer. So I fell.
“Tis the season for doing the right thing when no one knows,” I mumbled. Or I thought I mumbled it, until strong, mitten-clad hands helped me sit upright next to a raging fire that, somehow, didn’t cause me to break out into sweats. It felt just right. Refreshing.
I followed the mittens upward and saw a fat man standing there whose face I had never seen before, but who I recognized instantly. “You again?”
“Making my list and checking it twice,” said the Spirit of the Season.
“Is this your doing,” I said, gesturing toward myself.
He laughed. “No, no, no, but it why you are sympathetic enough for us to converse.”
“I don’t want to save Christmas again or be some big hero, stop it!” I said, throwing something of an undignified tantrum. I think I’m entitled this time. I’m one more wipe from being flushed down the universe’s toilet if I’m lucky. I was sick, tired, and had been craving nothing but veggies since I’d been turned into a reindeer.
“I never said you had to be a hero,” the jolly old elf told me. “Just between you and I, the gifts you give when no one knows say the most about you.”
I don’t like the guy, but I couldn’t resist telling him. At least I didn’t sit on his lap first. And afterward, he looked down at me, eyes glowing like the fire in the fireplace that I then remembered my house didn’t have. “I can help you.”
My laughter turned into a coughing fit. “You had something to do with this, didn’t you? You made me a reindeer.”
I felt a deep chill that ignored the fire and my fever. “I did not.” The large spirit in front of me had lost the humor in his demeanor. That coat wasn’t red, but the brown fur of a bear. And the curly whiskers of his beard weren’t backed by rosy cheeks at the moment. “This is not my doing. This is the season of death.”
After a moment, he changed, easing back toward the more friendly aspect I’d been used to. “That is why you huddle together and exchange gifts with family in the warmth. Someone is interfering and throwing the seasons out of balance.”
“Isn’t this all kinda biased in favor of certain hemispheres, though?” I asked.
“They targeted the portion of the world in winter, in my domain,” he answered, then patted me on the head, the gentle warmth of the fire returning. On top of that, I could smell cookies in the air. “It is my problem to solve, reindeer. You are sick and badly out of sorts. I would not force you to aid me.”
“Good,” I said. “I feel like shit.”
“But if you did…”
“Oh fuck, here it comes,” I said.
“You would be on the Nice list this year, and I could justify giving her that present,” he said.
“That’s kind of mean,” I said.
“It is optional, Psychopomp. No one will know if you refused or risked yourself but you.”
Well, that made it simpler. And when I woke up, I was even in my own real house, with the door closed. I didn’t feel any better, but that’s what downing antibiotics is for. And water. And shopping for extra, really illegal drugs online to try and speed this process. I’m not embarrassed about the horse tranquilizer. I’m, like, almost a horse or something. I zoned out on the computer anyway, so it’s probably just a formality at this point, but the pressure in my ears makes me want to be just about anything but awake.
Still, delivery isn’t instant. I have the fever to blame for not being able to tell if I was asleep or awake. It should have been easier to tell, if I wasn’t having some weird dream about needing to put together an ornament. A big orb. Painting it all up with festive designs.
I know that part wasn’t real because there were no weird art projects I could see around my room the next morning. I didn’t get out of my room much except to fix some veggies and noodles for Qiang before she squeaked off to school. Ugh, now I have to worry I’ll give her whatever this is, though the reality is that she probably gave it to me. So I basically fell to pieces, did some laundry, and sweated my way through more fever dreams.
Like pulling a sleigh a long distance. It’d suck as just a nightmare, because it’s the kind of mean-spirited and tedious nightmare that you’d inflict on someone as a punishment. Now imagine you take frequent breaks from it to roll around in a cold sweat, not sure where the dream ends and reality begins. I actually wondered if the sleigh had a mattress on it, or if I’d dragged the sleigh into bed with me.
After that, my ordeal became to climb a Christmas tree. An enormous one, going up and up. Lights near me began to spark. I heard a roar at one point and glanced down to see a large, black thing dragging chains behind it. I didn’t recognize the thing running around the base of the tree as Krampus until later.
The day after that, Qiang left a bowl of chicken noodle soup out for me. Aww… it was so cute. And she left it for me when she went off to school, so it was cold by the time I dragged myself out of bed like a warmed-up piece of crap. But it was so adorable, of course I gave it a try. Then I gagged, because it has chicken in it. Oh deer.
Then it was off to the doctor’s office to request he at least give me some psychedelics. Fuck, man, I’m orbiting Uranus here without ’em. I figure if I get even higher, things might wrap around.