“Before we go in there, I got somethin’ to say,” I said to a group of nearby Master Academy trainees and heros. Many heads turned toward me, though a few gazes remained transfixed on the building ablaze before us. Venus preemptively facepalmed. “It’s better to burn out, then fade away!” Most of the rest followed Venus’s lead.
“What do we call her?” asked one of the others. Ball Boy, it looked like. Back in action and black in eye.
“You don’t,” said Venus.
At the same time, I answered, “Whirligig.”
“Alright. No one goes it alone. We get everyone out. We got lucky we were all out.” Seriously. As part of my “heroic internship” they made me do some of the heavy lifting while shopping for decorations and party essentials as a sort of in-costume public appearance to make people feel safe. They even stuck me in a re-colored version of the Master Academy outfit modified for what I had been going for in my latest disguise. They gave it a cheap “circuit board” coloring in spots; otherwise it was grey. We happened to be passing by an apartment on our way back when someone ran out smelling of smoke and asked for help with a fire.
“Let’s get in there and be heroes,” Venus said. I cringed. Strange thing was, the others were generally a little slower getting into the burning building. You’d think they’d never gone into one before. I, on the other hand, have spent so much time in fires that I might as well carry marshmallows with me everywhere I go.
I didn’t know who they assigned to be my teammate, but they maybe should have known to climb. I turned my run into a handstand that allowed my hoverboard drones to catch up and slide into place on my feet. They flew me upside down to the top of the building. I don’t normally work to get keep people from being set on fire, so it was a little bit of a new situation. On the other hand, my extensive experience saving my own ass came in handy. It was just a matter of throwing a person over my shoulder and then saving my own ass.
The difficulty came when I got out one last time and had to catch a girl who tried to run in. “Easy there. Hold on. Take this one.” I tossed the person I was carrying, a rather rotund man in boxers, on top of the kid.
That stopped the pre-teen from heading in any further, for a moment. The guy was conscious, after all. He stood up, apologizing to her. I had to grab her to keep her from running in. “You’re not supposed to go in there right now.”
“My grandpa and grandma are in there still!” she shouted at me. She pointed up, around the 13th floor. Or maybe it was the 14th. They can go to the moon, but they’re still afraid of magical numbers. As if simply not calling it the 13th floor will stop whatever evil spirits magically attach to it. Booga booga booga booga!
I had missed the floor, and it looked like most of the Academy supers were busy. I jumped up, the mechanical extra arms gripping the wall and propelling me up. They reached into the window ahead of me, knocking out any remaining glass in the frame before I slid through. I was in a kitchen. I pulled in the drones behind me and let them split apart to search. This apartment didn’t have anything. I made my way down the hallway like that, splitting up into three groups, all the while trying to keep myself low. Without my armor’s seals, I was as vulnerable to asphyxiation as anyone else.
On the other hand, it was getting pretty damn hot in there. Shoving myself in a metal can wasn’t the best way to deal with that. It looked like I may not get to gramps and gam-gam before the smoke killed them. I’m a hell of a lot healthier than any old coot and his old cootchie, and I was starting to have trouble.
Per-fucking-usual for my luck, I found them on the rear of the building, where the building had some tiny shared backyard with a building behind it. The old man held his wife closed with clenching, wrinkled hands. The woman held her hands clasped in prayer. I could tell her husband was mouthing something about love and her that sounded less like a prayer and more like a goodbye.
“Up and at’em, molden oldies. A little less conversation, a little more action.” I brought in the drones and raised the mechanical arms. They all fired lasers that cut a big hole in the wall of the apartment so I could get clear access to the fire escape. Someone hadn’t kept things up to code, though. The weight of that wall and brick caused it to fall down. I thought it was only going to fall that one floor, but, nope, they all went down. “That’s inconvenient,” I said as I looked down at it.
The building shifted a bit. Something weakened from the rising heat and a support fell, taking one of my drones with it. “Real damn inconvenient,” I added. That one wasn’t responding. I wrapped the mechanical arms around the two now-standing old people and called out the drone I did have. It couldn’t hold all that weight on its own, but it could at least slow the fall. Probably would have worked until a window blew out two floors down and threw us across the yard. There was much screaming and gnashing of teeth from the old folks. It only lasted until their teeth plummeted, but they weren’t still in the mouths of their owners.
I caught myself, but it was an awkward affair. I had to jam my arm in between a pair of the vertical struts of the other building’s escape’s rail. It broke my arm and left me hanging there. The man slipped from my arm and I had to catch him on my foot. It was not a fun situation.
I reluctantly turned on my comms in time to hear someone ask after me. “Any word from Whirligig yet?”
“No. Keep your eye out. That should be all of them,” answered Venus.
“We got a girl here talking about her grandparents,” another voice piped in.
“Shit, what floor are they on?” the first voice asked.
That was as good a cue as any. “Whirligig here. I got ’em. I must regretfully ask for a tiny bit of assistance here.”
The heroes were nice enough not to laugh at the sight of me hanging by a broken arm jammed in a railing with a pair of geriatrics weighing me down. They had flyers take the old people, and a last one brought up a first aid kid. “Let’s see to that arm.”
I held up a hand and reached to my belt, pulling out a syringe. A broken syringe. “Well, fuck.”
“Let’s see to that,” said the medic.
I waved him off. “I don’t need you sitting around here laughing. Just go and deal with the old folks or something. They were coughing real bad when I got to them.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I shooed him away. “Go. Off with you.” I gave him the stink eye until he left. He’s lucky I didn’t use a laser eye instead. So while he went off, I was stuck pulling myself free with the help of my mechanical arms. I finally got up and over the railing so I could try and set the arm.
In my ear, I heard, “Good job. That’s everyone.” But, upon looking up, that turned out to not quite be accurate. I saw rodents staring back at me through the window. Hamsters, I think. Or gerbils.
“This day,” I muttered to myself. I brought up the drone as a stepping stone and jumped across and through the window, pulling my good arm up to without thinking. That was bad, because that’s the arm that caught the remnants of the window glass and got cut up pretty good. But, hey, at least I had my mechanical arms. Grab each of the furry little assholes in one, ride the drone down. Easy. I called the drone over, which worked pretty good until falling bricks knocked it down.
But at least I had the pockets on this uniform. Of course, that’s when the ceiling collapsed on me.
When the found me crawling out of there, I was wearing tatters, barely enough to cover all my pink bits and keep this operation Safe For Work with all the kids around. I focused on something past the heroes to keep from looking any of them in the eye. I didn’t hear too much of what they said. Something about getting me into the ambulance.
Then I heard the crying. “What about Butterscotch and Werewolf?” asked child’s voice.
“I’m sorry, honey,” said a consoling mother.
“Don’t lay me on my back,” I told the heroes. “Lay me on my front. Trust me. And close these damn doors.”
“What are you talking about? You need to lay where you can get air,” said Venus. When did she get over here?
I coughed a bit. “Trust me, I want to be on my belly for this next part. I think I saved Butterscotch and Werewolf. Damn well better be them. They’re nibbling on my colon.” There was some hacking. Ah yes, the famous black loogie. Haven’t seen one of those in awhile.
At least they were understanding about keeping the door closed so I didn’t have to see the reactions of everyone to the reappearance of the two gerbils.
Good news, they sprung for some nanites to help me recover more quickly from all the internal organ problems. It was a weight off my mind to know the kidney failure was going to be fixed, what with the giant splinter through it. Just wish they would have left me alone in my recovery.
It wasn’t so bad having Qiang snuggled up to me in the TV room, which is as far as I got after escaping the infirmary. But then that one super who played medic stopped by to check on me. Another one brought me a plate of food. “That was kickass,” that guy said. Teenager, had some muscles on him.
I noticed some other hanger-ons, too. A fat guy sitting in a corner, pretending to focus on a tablet instead of on me. “Fuck off,” I said, then laid my head down.
I woke up an hour later, according to my eye clock. Qiang was passed out beside me.
“Ugh, she was the worst,” said this one tiny guy with way too feathery hair. “She had this big mole thing.”
“What’s all this then?” I asked.
“Hey sleepyhead,” said a guy with three eyes on his head. “These jokers were talking about teachers they remember most. Sorry if we woke you. Nice hair, by the way.”
That got a snicker. Yeah, my hair would be a mess. I pulled my eye out real quick to make sure nobody had drawn on my face while I slept. Still clean. Popped it right back in and heard some “Ew”s from the crowd. I ignored them and checked to see how I was doing. Still soreness and internal bruising. They were rationining the nanites, stingy a-holes. I figured I should be able to get around on my own again, but I thought I might add something to the conversation. “The teacher I remember most was… actually, she wasn’t one of the ones from the program.”
Everyone shut up hearing me contribute. I noticed Psychsaur passing by and stop at the doorway. I tried to ignore her. “Eleseta,” I said, though it was with the Old Country’s accent. More like Old World at this point. It came out sounding more like “Elizabeth,” kinda. “If I had to make it sound like English, I guess Elisabeth. It all started when I was loaned out by the General to help this guy… something like a Senator. Not exactly. He was a big deal in the Pure Human Party, but he used members of this gang to help his goals. They were the Metalheads. They stayed so high all the time, they would replace body parts with crude cybernetics until they had almost nothing left. The worst ones couldn’t even feed themselves.”
“This is a weird teacher story,” said Triclops.
I held up a hand. “I’m getting there. I was sent in to find out why some of the Metalheads were cleaning up graffiti and helping people all of a sudden. They would beat up other gangs to return stolen goods. I found out there was an underground school going on. This was a bad part of the city and these guys were killers, so you don’t expect to find out some unarmed, unpowered woman with ovaries of steel is teaching them math or ethics. She was getting them real jobs, even. Imagine some big guy who looks like the front half of a car on metal legs serving you at a fast food place. The Senator wanted her caught, not killed. He was very specific on that. He wanted her broken as an example. Not killed. Alive, but…” I couldn’t really articulate it. “I caught her, no problem. She just wouldn’t stop talking.”
I stared off into space, remembering. She wasn’t mean, either. She was disappointed. She offered to help me. She saw, or thought she saw, someone in need of the same kind of help as those idiots with blenders for hands. “She insisted it was never too late. Irritated the hell out of me. Before the Senator’s people could do anything, Metalheads broker her out with the help of this other group. Not exactly mercenaries, but not a police force. They were an international agency to solve threats from extraordinary individuals. They got her out, but I was close after them. They were bringing in a stealth VTOL, but it was minutes away and they were just a small branch. The Peacekeepers and the Metalheads stood between me and her.”
Actually, I found her first. I could walk right past all of them without anyone finding me. I was more mission-oriented in those days. I was more precise. I could still remember the way she looked. Her beautiful defiance. That was the first time I ever thought of a human as beautiful. “She wouldn’t back down.” She kept saying that phrase over and over again. It rang in my ears like I was Grendel, seemed like. “Not even after what I did to everyone else in the building.”
I killed them all. I’d been more precise up to that point, but I had to show her. “She was wrong. There’s always someone like me.” Someone who will prove her wrong by murdering her students and allies around her. It’s not like I dragged them all over to her, but she heard plenty.
“So I had her there, cornered on the rooftop. No escape. And, that’s that.”
“Did you kill her?” asked Triclops.
I shook my head. “That wasn’t my mission. I shouldn’t have told this story. Not a good one.”
I got up, picking up Qiang. She hugged onto me as I started to walk away. Triclops called after me, “What happened?”
I stopped long enough to give an epilogue. I spoke proudly, “After that mission, I got a lot less precise. Unnecessary casualties. Enemies and allies both had a tendency to suffer collateral damage. That was the spark of my own fire, waiting to be stoked.” I walked out and kept my eyes straight, away from Psychsaur. I don’t know how much she could tell about me at that moment, but I didn’t want any of them to risk figuring it out for sure. Let them think I killed her if that makes them feel better.
I didn’t think I could go back there so easily when I started that story. When the VTOL plane landed on the rooftop, I just stood there. The pilot must have freaked when they lowered the ramp and Peacemakers trained their useless weapons on me. Elizabeth just stared into my eyes like my visor was clear. She turned and walked up the ramp. Just before it closed on me, she turned back. It looked like pity again, or maybe a deep sadness over everyone who died to get her away. Chances are I’m imagining things and romanticizing the past. But I made out the same sentence she’d told me when I first caught her, and then when I confronted her again. It had been at the bottom of every syllabus she’d passed around. Chances are it was on the new ones she had printed in the next city she showed up in, well away from the Senator and no longer disrupting his plans.
“It’s never too late.”
I need to kill someone.
“Why aren’t we going out, baba?” asked Qiang. She’s been curious about being shut in so much, and finding excuses to keep her away from TV.
“Daddy’s a little tired right now,” I said. “Hey, why not play that Korean MMO some more?”
“I don’t want to. I’m not going up anymore,” she said, looking all pouty.
I’m trying to keep her away from Christmas. And I’m in the United States. Good fucking luck. Maybe if this was the 1600s or whenever they banned Christmas here as too un-Christian, but religion doesn’t factor into it a whole lot nowadays. This is the United States in 2017. God has no place here.
Our friend Catallus, he has a place here. That old Roman asshole and his poems. Odi et amo. I found myself tempering feelings about my daughter, and that came to mind. I’ve found myself unusually attached to her. Just like Moai. And Carl. Mix N’Max and that fucker Good Doctor, too. Good Doctor didn’t exactly help my mood, though an idea briefly crossed my mind. Those bastards, the Companions of Kringle, are using her to get to me. They can’t have me on their own, but they can steal her away if she believes in Christmas. She’s five years old, with Christmas shit everywhere.
They put a big tree in the lobby, for instance. Lots of fake presents underneath it. Mistletoe and decorations all around. I burned the tree down. Burned down the presents, too. And the lobby staff. They wished me happy holidays. Unlike those snowflakes who get triggered when people say anything other than “Merry Christmas,” I don’t need people around who can lead my daughter into holiday temptation.
Fuck, I can’t even give her presents, can I?
Listen, I’ll take a job to hurt a hero. Write up the contract, stick a quill up my ass, and make a deal. Though I’d prefer to inhume the guy. He owes me that much after that whole business when I held gladiatorial games to decide if I’d have to give up my rule of the Earth to an alien conqueror. He fought against me in the hopes I’d lose and then he and other heroes could defeat the alien, Cercopagis Lysis, easily enough. They’d done so before with team-ups, and I’d gone and gathered so many of them for the fight.
So I have no reason to refuse anything hurting Eschaton. Not even his powerset so much. Sure, the guy’s powerful, but everyone’s touchable. That they can be touched is a lesson that should be drilled into people since childho- you know, that sentence didn’t turn out like I intended. Anyway, it was the way they gave me the job that makes me want to block these CoKs. Kidnapping me, possibly saving me from being nuked, then threatening my kid if I don’t help them. It also shows poor business management skill on their end. Too much stick, not enough carrot.
That’s what she said. And by she, I mean me.
Back there in the room, with Qiang wanting to go outside, I sighed. Some choices are the hardest to make, and way too many of those involve loved ones. Life or death is easy. If you die, that’s it. Nothing to worry about since you can’t worry anymore. If you live, at least you know you have some degree of justification for doing whatever thing you did. But a loved one is involved? Or someone you care about, I mean. Can’t expect someone like me to love anyone. Better to say “care” than love. So if that kind of person is threatened, you can be made to do even worse stuff since it’s someone else’s life on the line. How could you live with yourself, you monster? There’s also a chance you’ll lose them anyway if they ever learn what you did, but that’s not the issue so much, especially when the task itself is difficult.
That’s why it’s probably a good idea to kill anyone you might end up friends with. Yep, just long glances at Qiang as she played around with her knife, chopping up some of the plastic plants left around the suite. She looked up and smiled at me. “What?” she asked.
“Just thinking about stuff I need to do.”
“What kind of stuff?” she asked.
I slid down to the floor and scooted over to her so I could put my arm around her. “I do a lot of things that other people don’t like me to do, you know?”
She nodded and turned to hug me. “You’re my daddy and I love you and you love me just like you loved mommy.”
Ugh. She is NOT making this easy on me. I hugged her tight against me too. “I think I need to do something I really don’t want to do. Now, don’t worry. It’ll all be ok, I promise…”
An hour later, the door opened to Master Academy. I’d been waiting out there this time instead of barging in or sneaking in. Venus pulled the door out enough and stood there in the middle, looking at me in my armor and the girl in my arms. “Gecko, what’s going on?”
“Daddy needs your help!” Qiang shouted at her. I winced inside my armor at that one. Yep, definitely something I didn’t want to do. That’s why I let her say it.
“Really? My help?” Venus pondered that, then moved aside to let us enter if we so wished. I let Qiang down. She ran on inside.
“No need to say it again. Ever,” I said.
She laughed at that. “You’re serious?”
“Honeybun, why don’t you go on in there and do stuff until we need you,” I said to Qiang. She smiled and ran past Venus to disappear down a hallway. I’m 99% sure the crashing noise I heard soon after that wasn’t her.
“I’m ok!” she yelled from inside the building. Well, I’m 99% sure she’s fine.
I stepped close to Venus. “Please.”
I saw her frown through her mask. “Come in and tell me about it.”
“Wow, look at that tree!” exclaimed Qiang from deeper in the house.
“Noooo!” I yelled and ran after her. I slid on tile and crashed into a janitor picking up a broken vase, knocking him and the pieces back down. I picked myself up off him and ran, waving back to him briefly, “I’m ok!” I found Qiang in the dining hall, looking at a giant Christmas tree standing in the middle. A number of presents were already piled up underneath it.
I dive tackled the tree. Slowly, with a scraping noise from the anchor at the bottom, it toppled. It crashed to a halt before hitting the floor as it caught on the awning for the kitchen area. I slid around to the underside of it and fell off, then quickly dodged to the side. It didn’t fall down on top of me, but it wanted to. Oh yes, it wanted to.
“What the hell are you doing?!” said Venus, storming into the room.
I held my hands out. “It’s fine, nothing to see here. The pine of unusual size has been dealt with. The invasion of the cafeteria is solved. Qiang, how about you go somewhere less colorful and decorated to hang out?”
She had the tip of one shoe on the ground and rolled her leg back and forth. “I want to stay here.”
“I know you want to, but I’d really prefer it if you went elsewhere.”
“No! I want to stay here with the tree!” She set her foot down with a little stomp.
I looked at her, then to Venus and all the students who happened to be eating in there at the time. Then I grabbed Qiang and picked her up in my arms. “Sweetie… I think it’s time for a very important lesson.”
That’s how I ended up sitting in an office with Qiang’s arms and ankles cuffed together, a blindfold and earplugs keeping her from seeing or hearing anything. She wiggled back and forth in the corner of Victor Mender’s office. It had been awhile since I had an audience with the head of the Master Academy, a disabled man stuck in a wheelchair without the use of anything below his head. I had Venus and several of her closest and strongest friends surrounding me. “I swear, it’s important to keep her in the dark.”
“I think we need to know what is going on before we have to inform someone of how you’re raising your child,” Mender’s computer said.
“Ok, so this is going to sound a little bit strange,” I started.
“We maintain a high tolerance for the unusual,” Mender’s voicebox said again. Behind me, a minotaur snorted his agreement.
“Ok, so it all started when I woke up to a snowman’s head in my bed and a card. I didn’t read the card. So I went to go spy on people from inside a bush, as you do, and that’s when cards started popping out of me like I fucked a Hallmark. I opened one, then I started to run off to go kick in the EAGLE’s nest. Next thing I know, I’m in Narnia. Only, instead of a satyr waiting to fuck my wee kiddy brain out, I find a couple of old guys and a masochistic hobo. Oh, and satyr with a pair of chains, so it wasn’t entirely inaccurate. They are the other spirits of the season, the foils to Santa Claus. The bad guys of Christmas.”
“The Grinch?” suggested someone behind me with a snicker.
“Don’t be ridiculous, the Grinch is fictional. So anyway, Belsnickel, Krampus, and Knecht Ruprecht tell me they can’t punish me directly because of that time I saved Santa Claus.”
I heard a flat “What?” from behind me but chose to keep going.
“So instead, they’re going to take my daughter. They didn’t say when, but I’m pretty when it’ll happen anyway.”
“When?” someone asked.
“Pearl Harbor Day,” I said.
“Really?” The voice asked.
“No, dumbass, Christmas Eve.” I raised a thumb up pointing back behind my high-backed chair. “Someone’s a few eggs short of some nog.”
“Excuse me,” said Mender’s voice box again. “You saved Santa Claus and your daughter is going to be kidnapped by the Krampus on Christmas Eve.”
“Essentially,” I said. It has perhaps been suggested from time to time and by multiple people in multiple places that I may, or perhaps may not, have what could be said by some to be a problem of one sort or another with brevity.
“What can we do to help?” asked Venus.
I smiled beneath my helmet. “Well, I have a few ideas, including, of course, starting with making sure she doesn’t believe in Christmas as Plan A and ending with overwhelming firepower in Plan M. I might need you to call in a favor for me.”
“If you want a favor,” Mender piped up again. “you will give them in return.”
I leaned forward. “Now we’re talking. Who do you need wiped out? Eliminated, even? Murderated?”
And that’s how I ended up tied up and hefted by a pulley to carry the start back up to the top of the newly-righted tree. “Don’t y’all have people who can fly for this?”
Venus called up to me with no small amount of satisfaction, Qiang watching beside her. “Quiet! If you complain this much putting a star on the tree, imagine how much you’ll whine shoveling snow!”
The sea is a fickle mistress, luck be a lady, and Psycho Gecko is currently a woman. But then, I’ve been just as fickle a mistress even as a dude. I’ve been known to turn petty arguments into deadly feuds, and just walked away from people trying to kill me. So there’s the precedent. Now, what do I do about this EAGLE thing?
I’m tempted to walk away. I got things to do. I still need to kidnap some biologists and geneticists, for instance. Plus, I got a voicemail from one of the Directors talking about fearing for his life and a move by one of this rivals to create a special security force answering only to them. Hell, I could go rob the Cheesecake Factory and it would probably be a better use of my time. Up until an animal-themed vigilante swoops in, knocks me into an open tank of cheesecake criminals, and an underground surgeon is unable to fix the physical disfigurement it causes me.
On top of that, someone’s trying to get my attention. I woke up today with a snowman’s head in my bed. Underneath the top hat was a sealed, waterproof envelop. I didn’t open it until I’d sealed myself in my armor, in case snow wasn’t the only powder found in it. I have a lot of fans who would no doubt love to send me things like Anthrax or Neflix or jury duty. A guy’s got to be careful what he sends in the mail. Better off just leaving the mail behind completely. On second thought, I think I’d like to get jury duty sometime. That’d be fun.
It was a rich, dark green, like the needles of a pine tree, but with an embossed golden border. It had my name on the front of it. Looking at it, I kinda hoped Mix N’Max had found a new way to annoy me with Christmas greetings. Because this stank of the holidays. Wait, not the holidays, the Holidays. You save Christmas ONE time and personifications of holidays start asking for favors. Always something to be wary of this time of year for me. I’ve gotten off easy, but it’s only a matter of time before Kwanzaa Bot or the Hannukah Zombie show up needing me to do something. Ya know, Hannukah wouldn’t surprise me this year if it wanted a favor. Lots of Nazis running around.
I was going to throw it away, but I remembered I had a kid. It was somewhat easier to remember that since she weighed down my lap at the time, oblivious in her slumber. It would be difficult to toss it like that, especially with my aim, so I hid it and resolved to burn the thing later. It’s not just for my own sake, either, though my own sake is often enough. I didn’t need Qiang getting caught up in all that and having to deal with it her whole life. Plus, who needs visions of surgarplum fairies dancing in their head?
I didn’t need the distraction either.
That’s one reason why we were back at a hotel. Away from the house with her friend and her friend’s parents. They were wanting to cuddle and inviting me to stay. I’m trying to avoid my own married life; I’m not eager to insert myself into anyone else’s. And as I am a woman at this point, then that is what she said. So I took Qiang and we got out of there. Another big room at a hotel, courtesy of stolen money. The kind of place that can afford what she was doing to the walls with watercolors. It was a lesson in appreciating the arts.
When she finally awoke, I had forgotten about the envelop and instead resolved to get a little of my side work done around here.
Later that evening, I was scouting out a nearby college. I stood on campus, behind a bush, eyeing grad students. Since I didn’t want to appear threatening, my armor made it look like I was wearing a trenchcoat. Yep, just a nonthreatening woman in a trenchcoat looking at young men and women from behind a bush. The woman thing really must have been a big enough difference, because nobody called campus security. Got invited to a few parties, though.
“Mmm, baby, show me what you’re working with,” I said to myself as I spotted one woman walking along with a thick textbook. “Mmm, mmm, mmm, I’d love to get better acquainted with your biology,” I stopped and took a sip from a bottle of a soft drink made by someone who should pay me if they want me to say their name, before continuing, “Class.”
All of a sudden, I saw it. There, up in the sky! The Gecko signal? No, just an augmented reality message provided by the spy program. It gave me a real time update from one of the many devices I spied on around the Master Academy. They’d found him. The bomber and the hidey hole of his compatriots that I like to think of as the EAGLE’s Nest.
“R U sure?” asked one message about the confirmation.
“Positive. He is moving around, but no further than an area comparable to a building. We found out the problem before was the computer reading vertical change the same as horizontal change. Elevators.”
I bet this was an in-house programming job. While children and teens are historically known for providing a pool of free or low-cost labor, it is generally understood to be unskilled labor. Having someone who dabbles in programming is fine for many things, but perhaps not for trying to track a surreptitiously-bugged suspect in a bombing investigation. Sadly, whatever computer they are tracking him from has not yet been infected by the Gecko-transmitted disease that’s spreading through other devices around campus. I know they know where he is, I just don’t yet know where he is myself. But I will, as soon as they head over there.
The person who used too many single letters sent another message. “Send to ECPD, FBI, ATF. They get 1st dibs.”
Goddamn government, going around calling shotgun on all the good murders. This is as bad as that time they refused to let me strangle Charles Manson. Fucker was cheating at Go Fish. Those shoelaces should have been mine.
Something itched in the ol’ nasal cave and blowing my own trumpet turned up another green and gold envelop flying out of my nose. Ok, nice trick, but I’d rather have a quarter or some lighter fluid. Hmm, I wonder if I can create some sort of gland in my nose that lets me spew fire from my nostrils… nevermind. Instead, I put the envelop in a different trash can, and set the trash can on fire, and threw the trash can out a window. It was then I was struck by a sudden urge to visit the lavatory that filled me with a little bit of disbelief. One trip to the toilet later and I had another envelop on my hands. Well, floating in the bowl. Whoever’s sending them didn’t quite think this one through.
“Ok, whoever just sent my ass a letter,” I said, raising a finger and angrily addressing the air, “I just want to say that I’m willing to what I need to make this stop, as long as you give me something a bit cleaner than all that. After finishing my business on the toilet, I stood up to leave and felt my abdomen harden up on its own, followed by an ache down there. A literal pain in my ass. It was like a ripple down there. It relaxed for a second, then did the whole thing over again. Standing there, wondering what the hell was wrong with me, I had to drop my pants again. As soon as I did so, I began squeezing something out of bajingo, which is like a vagina for people who don’t like talking about pussy.
I had to stare down, water on my face from sudden, localized rain clouds, at the incredible sight before me. “Did I just fucking give birth to? Did an ass-gargling envelop drop out of there?”
Ok, fuck the EAGLE. Someone else clearly wants to jump ahead on my deadlist. I opened this one.
“Though mischief you are want to make, and lives you plan to tear asunder, heed us, you should stop and hesitate…” it read, the top half of the card showing a cartoon scientist rubbing his hands together while in front of a cartoon atom bomb sticking halfway out of a red and green present without its top on. Underneath a dividing line, the bottom half showed Santa Claus slapping a “return to sender” sticker on the same present whose contents is still visible as the top can’t completely close over the bomb sticking out of the opening. I turned the page to see a newspaper of showing a newspaper with an image of the scientist next to another of a mushroom cloud. “…or else hope you can outrun the thunder.”
I felt an urge to invent new cuss words. I intended to barge out of that college bathroom and get back to my room to figure out what the shit was going on, and pulled my pants up accordingly. As soon as I threw open the stall door and stepped out, I found myself in a frozen, snow-filled landscape with wind blowing flurries all around me. It wasn’t quite so cold as I expected. Looking around, I saw it was a hill of sorts. Down below, in what should have been similar weather, was a small fortress with thick walls of concrete in the middle of a forest. I could see it perfectly, no need to zoom in.
I didn’t see the bag coming until it was too late. Big-ass bag materialized out of thin air and smacked into my helmet. Ashes got everywhere. I turned to see the arm holding the bag was likewise appearing from nowhere, belong ing to a white-bearded man in a brown robe with a pointy hood and small bells hanging around it in places. A staff materialized in his other hand. My HUD labeled him “Anomalous.”
“You did not ask about his prayers,” said a French-accented voice from the side. This one didn’t appear until I looked as well. He was also in dark robes with a similar beard, but without the hood to cover a head full of wild white hair that stood out against his sooty face. Chains jangled, hanging off his waist and arms. He had a whip instead, which he swung at me. I caught it around me arm, looking at the Anomalous label popping up for him too.
A stick broke over my helmet from behind, used by another figure appearing. This one had a mask with a big, fake tongue hanging off it and looked like a bum with furs sewn into his clothing. He had a fur hat with bells dangling off it. You guessed it, anomalous. That one spoke up, “It matters not; the woman is as naughty a being as I’ve ever seen.”
“What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?” I asked. “What kind of geriatric sex party did I just stumble into?” I pulled on the whip and grabbed its wielder when he flew toward me. “Explanations fast, or grampa gets to see what’s behind the bright light.”
Something bumped me from behind, which suddenly appeared as a large, black, hairy satyr with a greasy beard a tapering, pointed tongue that fell over my helmet. In my arms, the anomalous whipper disappeared. Before I could get away, the satyr wrapped chains around my arms and bound them against my side, then lifted me up. “We did not bring you here to fight. Cronus has seen to that.”
“Now shut up and look,” said the very first one of the bunch, pointing with his staff to the valley below. “We didn’t save your life for nothing.”
“Nowhere you shoved cards counts as saving my life.” I muttered. “How about I show you the best place to shove things when I get free?”
The furry hobo raised his broken switch to his mask. “Shh.” He then pointed down there as well. I looked to see what they were on about and noticed the eagle design on the helmet of a man walking the perimeter. He stopped and turned as if seeing something, but fell. The crack of a sniper’s rifle accompanied his death. An alarm sounded from within the base and guards began to stir.
A man flew into view. He had a short, black, square cut of black hair, which was the closest to normal-looking he got. The man had glowing green skin. He wore a black outfit with a tactical vest, but no coat. It wouldn’t have fit too well with the tank he wore on his back. Hoses from it stretched from it directly into hole in his back, neck, upper arms, and upper legs. It pulsed with a light blue glow that sped up as the man held his hands toward the base.
The base blew the fuck up with the distinct cloud in the shape of a mushroom. I was close enough to see a guard disintegrate from it. One moment he’s there, the next he’s blowing away like dust in the wind. All they were was dust in the wind. And despite my proximity, I felt nothing. No shockwave, heat, or EMP. After the roar of the blast was silence, until I asked, “I’m really going to need some explanation here.”
“You called it the EAGLE’s Nest,” spoke the staff wielder. Broke-ass Gandalf cosplay followed up by saying, “And this is where you would have been if we hadn’t intervened.” He pointed and the distance seemed to shorten and shift. The base was back, and now I could see inside it. I noticed it wasn’t snowy there. A door opened on its own, and I noticed minor shifts in the grass as something walked briskly out of there. At the sound of the sniper’s shot, I lost track of the invisible figure until a guard on a nearby wall flew off as if knocked outward. I didn’t see what was going on again until the nuclear blast, when the hologram dropped and someone in my armor was thrown outward, armor glowing red and melting around the person.
“That’s what y’all say happens, if this nuking occurs. Don’t know of too many heroes who would use that kind of firepower on American soil,” I said.
“This already occurred,” said the bearded wizard person.
“You’re welcome,” hissed the satyr who held onto me in those chains.
“No, you’re welcome I haven’t introduced all y’all to a beatdown yet. Let me go.”
“You shall not leave!” said the staff guy, suddenly yelling. He raised it up, then slammed the staff on the ground. “You shall not leave us until you have agreed to return the favor we have performed for you.”
“I hate to be a buzzkill,” I said, perhaps purposefully mixing up hate and love, “But y’all already did the favor, and without my prompting or anything. Just all on your own. That kinda means you can’t expect reciprocation.”
“We are the Companions of Kringle,” spoke the furry one now. “The darker and lesser spirits of this season, and powerful enemies.”
Shit like this makes me regret saving Christmas that time. “You interrupted something y’all had no part messing with.”
“Yesssss,” hissed the Krampus.
“Don’t do that again,” I said to him, trying to stretch my neck so I could tell him that to his face. “The fuck did I do to deserve this visit.”
“You have knowledge,” said guy with the staff. “Where other mortals have belief, you know we exist. Knowledge is always stronger than belief. This makes you a beacon among mankind. Beings such as we sometimes require the aid of those who walk in your world. This is one time.”
“You’re expecting an awful lot of friendliness here,” I said. The satyr growled at me. If these things are related to the holiday shenanigans, that’d make him the Krampus.
“We only need obedience, not friendliness,” said the hair guy. That’d be Belsnickel. It’s much easier when I have a frame of reference. “You would be ours to punish if not for Nicholas. He has become soft-hearted. He is out of town but still binds us from truly harming you.”
I struggled against the chain then, pushing with all my might. I couldn’t break the damn thing, but just when I thought my body was about to give, it disappeared. I fell, having just then realized I’d been held up a bit by the Krampus. I stood up, brushed the snow off myself, and looked around for a way back, like the bathroom stall door. It wasn’t there. “Huh,” I said. “Ya know I’ll freeze or need food or something eventually here. You can only loophole this forever.”
“We will send you back even if you reject our offer,” said the guy in the robe with the hood, who should be Knecht Ruprecht if I guessed right. “But it is a task you would delight in.”
“I’m currently disinclined to help the holiday spirits, especially ones who kidnap me,” I told him, still looking for any exits. I’d have taken anything, even a wardrobe. But I figured I’d find out a little more about my predicament. “But what did you have in mind?”
The world flew by our hilltop until we were looking out over a man who burned hot white as he flew through the sky. I knew those flames as belonging to Eschaton, the hero who burns as hot as the sun. It’s a tagline, so I don’t know if it’s actually accurate, and he’s never really had a reason to go that far I tink.
He raced to catch a crop duster overflying an airbase in the South. Whatever he dropped also dropped people when they breathed it in. Eschaton finally reached it, his flames burning through the chemical weapon. He soared up to ram the airplane, causing the rear of it to explode. The pilot fell out of the wreckage, waving his hands and screaming, until he was caught from behind by the now-human arms of Eschaton, who carried him off to jail.
“What do you have planned for Eschaton?” I asked.
“He hasss been naughty,” said Krampus. “Ssso naughty. We must have him.”
Under my helmet, I raised an eyebrow. “Got a bit of a crush, do ya?”
“He was a good man and a hero before this year,” said Ruprecht. “The higher the paragon, the deeper the fall. He is despondent and gave up believing in Santa Clause decades ago. He puts up no tree, nor lights, nor dons gay apparel.”
I dunno, the guy had this mask shaped like flames once that became real popular in pride parades.
“So, what, you want me to make him believe in Christmas again?” I asked. I’d become trapped in a holiday movie. And a bad one that didn’t involve killing terrorists in a skyscraper.
The beings around me nodded at once. “Make him believe,” said Belsnickel, reaching a hand out to me. Then he clenched it in a fist. “Then, when he believes, he’s ours for the taking.” He let out a laugh I’d classify as “molesty”. Krampus snickered around his tongue, while Ruprecht just stared at me.
“Get him to believe in Christmas so the evil versions of Santa Claus can kidnap him and spend Christmas whipping the shit out of him?” I asked.
They all nodded again. I mean, I’ve heard worse deals.
“I’ll consider it,” I said. “But what if I…” A yawn interrupted me. “Don’t…?” I started to ask, but realized how woozy I felt all of a sudden. I normally only get this way with a little help from drugs. When I could no longer stand to, uh, stand, I fell on my back in the soft snow, my eyelids closing as if on their own.
The sudden exhaustion passed, and I opened my eyes to find myself in my room. The clock in my helmet flashed 12:00 a couple of times before setting itself to a day after I was taken. The whole experience felt like a dream, but something nagged me about it. Like one last little bit I could barely remember, no matter how many times I tried to replay it in my mind. So instead, I replayed it in my mind. I pulled up the recording made by my eyes and cyborg portion of my brain. “Then we take an impressionable child in his stead,” was Ruprecht’s answer to my question. I glanced down to see Qiang asleep on my stomach.
Like hell they will, I thought to myself.
Our story so far: Psycho Gecko, our protagonist, visited Empyreal City to make peace with the villainous Spinetingler, who stubbornly refused to die no matter how many times Gecko ended up having to kill him. While successful, the newly-minted peace was rocked by a car bomb seemingly meant for Gecko, or at least one aimed right at the hotel where he and his daughter were staying. A bit pissed and protective, Gecko set out to find the perpetrator of this deed and bring them to injustice. Unfortunately, the heroes got there first and have temporarily foiled his quest for truth, injustice, and the American Way by locking the bomber up in a private, hidden prison without judicial proceedings. Now, Gecko seeks to infiltrate the lair of these heroes, find the bomber, and do things so unspeakable, he’d have to slip into third person to describe them. And it’s all thanks to his clever plan of… being invited.
Ok, so the last part kinda makes it seem a little less skillful on my part. And it bugs me, which might be part of the point. Because I know they have this bomber, Sam Bass, hidden under their base. And they have to know I know. And I know they know I know. Once again, I must perform a delicate balancing act by walking the line between the known and the known known. More accurately, I gotta throw myself into a potentially dangerous situation and make it work out. Not ideal. The best fight is one you’ve won before it ever started.
I didn’t like mixing work with family in this case, but I brought Qiang along. It was Thanksgiving dinner. Well, more like Thanksgiving cafeteria, if I remember the year before. The food hall had plenty of people chowing down on fried turkey the prior year. When I showed up this time, the place swarmed with considerably less activity. In the intervening year between my captivity and now, most of the anti-cape protesters gave up and went home. Qiang and I passed by some of them. They had chairs, tents, and portable heaters. Some of the kids from inside were bringing them food. Just little kids who happen to have powers for one reason or another.
People get born into some shit like that. Good to show the other side who it is they hate and think is such a danger. Their answer, or at least the one I overheard way back in the Psychopomp program, is that a mere child with that kind of power is even more reason to keep them locked up or neutralized. Of course, the guy who said that seemed to smile every time he riflebutted one of us in the back of the head. Anyone paying attention to me when I wax philosophical knows a person can say whatever they want to justify whatever horrible things they’re about to do. Also makes for a handy piece of bullshit to try and tempt someone to doing what you want.
“Do I have to wear my armor?” Qiang asked. She popped her helmet off as we walked through the gates.
I looked her over, wearing mine as well. I had to pad it a bit more to work with this body shape. Plenty of room in the crotch, but it’s tight in the chest, with problems in the arms and legs. I pulled my helmet off as well and shook out my hair. The bells on each of the three tails jingled as we approached. I smiled. I’d been here as a prisoner. A prisoner when I should have been a corpse, a well-kept prisoner, but a prisoner. I returned an emperor. Well, empress.
I figured we drew stares walking across the campus to the main building. I saw them firsthand as we entered. They weren’t as crowded with students as when I’d stayed there, but they had a fair number. And, unless I was mistaken, they had parents. Family members. As soon as I spotted some of those, I activated the hologram projectors on mine and Qiang’s armor. Tucked under her arm, her helmet became a purse while her armor appeared to be a pretty little dress. I pulled the same trick with my helmet. Nifty disguise, actually. Explains why I’d keep it with me all the time.
Qiang waved to a girl who caught her eye. She ran off toward her friend and the friend’s family, who I approached more leisurely. Had to fight a smile that decided to show up on my face for no reason, too.
“Who is your friend?” asked who I thought were the parents of the girl. A little older, but the woman had the same curly hair as the daughter, whose face sorta resembled the man’s.
“My name is Qiang!” she said in her formal English. Heavy accent, I should clarify.
The excitable girl in front of her turned to the man and woman there with her body, but kept facing Qiang. “These are my parents. Mom, Dad, this is Qiang. Qiang, this is my mom and dad.”
“And I’m Qiang’s parent,” I told them, stepping up behind them. “You may call me Gecko.”
They plastered some smiles on their faces like they’d just been told it was time to gang rape a cow and happiness was mandatory. The woman spoke up first. “You and your daughter have very different accents.”
I shrugged. “I do a lot of traveling.”
“Rhonda,” said the woman.
She gestured to her husband who said, “Leland. Your daughter seems to know our Kayla, doesn’t she? Are they classmates?”
I shook my head. “No, but they might be.”
Leland smiled and looked around. “I was skeptical, too. It’s hard to leave Kayla in the care of people you don’t know who walk around fighting supervillains, but they’ve taken excellent care of her and she knows so much more control than she used to have. Don’t worry about the price, either.” This prompted a minor facepalm from his wife. Leland didn’t notice and just continued, “They’re understanding.” Then he noticed Rhonda. “What?”
“Gecko, you don’t need to hear all that,” she said, eyeing me up and down. At first I thought I had some swingers here looking for a third wheel. Then I realized it was the quality of the dress and purse I appeared to have.
A bell rang and the school’s intercom crackled to life. “Dinner is now ready to be served, if all our guests would join us in the dining hall.” With a bit of polite murmuring, we all obliged.
“Daddy, can Kayla and I sit together?” Qiang asked, turning to me when we got near the dining hall door.
I smiled at her. “I don’t see why not.”
It was just as we entered the now-decorated dining hall that Kayla’s father asked me, “Ge-cko. Is that Thai?”
Truth is, it would have been perfect to sneak out when everyone was going in. With Venus not having picked me out and everyone’s attention on the crowd, it would have been easy. It also wouldn’t have gotten me food. A girl’s got needs, after all.
Unfortunately, Venus found me in the middle of eating. “There you are,” she said, as if surprised to find me mingling with those hairy lower life forms called homo sapiens. She set a hand on my shoulder, confirming that I wasn’t a hologram but that my dress was. “I wanted to tell you something in private, if I could.”
We stepped over to a corner to get as much privacy as we could in the place. “Feeding the poor now? I knew you heroes were nothing but pink Commie bastards,” I said with a grin.
Venus brushed it off. “I’m glad I found you before you went looking for the bomber.”
I feigned shock. “Whaaat? Can’t I just come and enjoy a nice dinner like every other mass murderer? But, since you brought him up, I would like to have a little chat with that guy. Got any ball gags around here? Maybe I should ask Psychsaur instead.”
Oh, a little blush. “You aren’t-” A vibration through the floor. “You felt that?”
I nodded. “I don’t suppose you left anything in there with the bomber, did you?”
She shook her head. “I heard our suspect may have a contingency to get out. There was talk of mercenaries.”
“Bad time to have guests over, looks like,” I said. I looked over and noticed a plate full of cranberry sauce jiggling
Now it was her time to grin. “We’re not that easy to attack here.” A glow lit up the windows, presumably a force field of some sort.
“Folks, we ask you to please be calm,” said Psychsaur. The lizardlike humanoid had feathers in place of hair and could do shit with her mind. Telekinesis and telepathy. This announcement was made with a microphone instead of all that. “Master Academy is reinforced and happy to give you a demonstration of how safe your children are with us here.”
Several of the adults and teens got up, leaving families behind. One of them even made a show of pulling open his long sleeve shirt.
“You’re welcome to play if you don’t hurt anyone too seriously,” Venus said with a wink. Maybe I’m onto something now that I have womanly charms. I mean boobs.
Before she walked out of earshot, I heard someone call out something about “Drillers”.
I’d heard of those guys. They’re kind of a gang, kind of a group of thugs for hire. They’re good with drills, able to bust through a lot of safes. A high-pitched sound brought me out of my thoughts for a moment, accompanied by a sizzling sound from the force field outside the dining hall. Oh yeah, they do sonic weapons, too. Real handy if they’re fighting people in their getaway tunnels. That’s part of why they don’t operate in big cities so much: they like to drill up from underground to get at their targets. They’re good at getting into secure places that way, but cities screw with that.
Venus trusted me enough to leave me there with children and families, but that also left things wide open for me to pay the special superhuman cells a visit. I walked on over to where I sat with Qiang to grab my purse.
The corner where I’d been talking with Venus exploded in dirt and other debris as a conical drill bit the size of a riding mower burst through the floor. A man in brown leather sat in a chair that swiveled to keep him parallel with the ground. He pulled his goggles off and blinked his eyes just before a half dozen of his closest friends jumped out of the hole.
I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find, which turned out to be a platter of cranberry sauce. I threw it, Captain America style, and bonked one of them in the head. The others all raised their sonic rifles. “Get down on the floor and stop fighting, or we’ll open fire on the civilians!”
“Dad!” called Qiang. She tossed me my purse, and I noticed her slipping her own on over her head, the hologram falling away to reveal her armor and helmet.
“Put the purse down!” said one of the Drillers as he stepped close.
“Whosever holds this purse,” I started, “if they be worthy, shall wield the power of Thor…. Thor ballth.” I swung the helmet underhand into his balls, then up and onto my own head. I let the projection fall away and reveal my armor.
The Drillers didn’t know what to make of all this until I grabbed a turkey leg off someone’s plate and jumped forward, bashing one of the mercenaries into the wall. It broke over the next one’s head, who fell like a sack of potatoes. The next closest had time to pull a handheld drill with a conical bit like the one that brought him there. I looked around for a suitable weapon of my own now that I didn’t have a leg to fight on. I settled for a dish of dressing.
I charged him. He charged me, yelling. Drill met dressing, and plowed on into it, throwing dressing into the both our faces. Except I had a helmet. I pulled out, spun to the side, and wanged him in the head with the casserole dish the dressing had been stuffed into.
I turned to deal with the other two who had gone out, but I saw them being dealt with. One little girl had one of the guys by the ear. A boy about to enter puberty grabbed onto another and the guy instantly fell asleep, the kid leaving behind a round mark where he’d touched him.
That just left the one riding the big drill. He took one look at the situation and told a walkie talkie, “Plan B failed. Plan C.” With a whir, the drill bit began glowing red and drilled downward, curving sharply away after it got down enough feet.
I let him go. My part in all this was done, except for seeing to the same guy I assumed they were after. I headed out the doors, finding most of the party happening elsewhere. They could change locks, but hallways, so I found my way to the access for the underground section I’d been kept in. I was right at the door when I felt explosions. When I got in, I found a trio of openings along the floor of the hallway, Drillers spilling out. I felt more tremors, but nothing else opened up near me.
If I had to guess, they figured out the underground stuff had to be where Bass was being kept. It would have been too reinforced to go in stealthy, so then they opted to draw people out and have him turned over as part of a hostage situation. Plan C must mean blowing open holes and just looking all over for him.
I was a deadly, beautiful blur of braining and brawling as I beat the bastards up, down, left, and below. I even picked one up and squeezed him until he squeaked like a toy rubber duck. It was more a matter of getting through the numbers, even as the lights cut off and the fire sprinklers in the hallway started spraying us all down. The dark didn’t seem to bother them either so long as they had their goggles on. It was the dying that offended their sensibilities. Or, as I found out when I started opening doors, it was because they’d also been burning through walls in the side rooms.
I don’t know who else they had in there, I just know I didn’t find anybody. No one. Zip. Zilcho. I actually had one of them in a head lock as I opened the last door in the hallway. Finding nothing, I shoved his head into the doorway and slammed the door on it until things cracked.
I was walking back to the stairs when the lights came back on and a group of heroes, Venus in the lead, came into view on the stairs. “What happened?” asked Venus.
“They got him, I think At least, every damn room down here’s empty and got a hole in it.”
“Jesus, someone’s paying a lot of money,” she said.
“Oh, they’ll pay something,” I said. “Get me some of the Drillers.”
Venus held up her hand. “No.”
The other two heroes with her, the same femullet and guy from the other day, flinched back.
“’No’ is an unacceptable answer,” I said. “How about you rethink it before this night gets even worse.”
She raised her chin up. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“My blown-up boxers say otherwise.”
“Psychsaur pulled it all out of his mind last night. We know who he works for and why he did what he did. Some Middle Eastern delegation was staying there. He didn’t know you were there. He just didn’t care about collateral damage, like your boxers. This whole thing is paranoia, revenge, and stupid bad luck. It’s just what happens when one guy decides a group has to die and doesn’t care who gets in his way. It sounds familiar to me.” She raised an eyebrow.
I cocked my head to the side. “Give me a name for the organization, then. Something to keep an eye out for in case they get in my way again. Then we can go back upstairs and eat some pie. You like pie, right Boopsie?”
She rolled her eyes at the innuendo. “EAGLE. All capital letters, but it’s not an abbreviation for anything. They’re one of the groups we have now in the not-so-United States. They’re almost impossible to find.”
I waved toward the holes in the floor. “We got tunnels, don’t we?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “We have people working on that. They loop around and dead end. By the time we reach the real exit, they’ll be long gone. Meanwhile, we have people to take care of, prisoners to secure, and a lot of people who need reassurance and a meal.” She unfolded her arms and held out a hand for me. “Come on. Let’s take care of you, too.”
“I don’t want to end it here,” I told her. “It can’t. This is stupid.”
“If you have someone you love to care for, it has to end here for now,” she told me.
Most of my part in taking care of the place was helping them with their food problems and thinking of a way to hunt down this EAGLE. Well, part of me thought of that. Another part thought that if this is just that dumb luck, she’s not entirely wrong about dropping it. A third was still pretty sure Rhonda and Leland were sizing me up, but they probably had a clue who I was by now. It didn’t stop them from sitting near me or letting our daughters chat away.
I didn’t sleep easy that night. Not over fear or regret. Some of it was residual anger. Some of it was being the middle spoon. Some of it was the cold. I woke up to find the covers stolen and Leland a bit cold natured, but that’s not what pulled me out of sleep. It’d be the alert from a little bit of malware I spread all over that damn school. Which reminds me, better make sure Kayla’s parents didn’t give me any meatspace malware.
Call it paranoia, or just being a villain, but I made sure to connect to computers and phones to leave a little something behind to keep an eye out for clues. Just certain phrases, like “EAGLE” and “Sam Bass” and “where they went” and “tracking”. When heard, microphones would activate and send me a recording of the conversation, with different priority levels based on how many of the phrases were used together.
Like an exchange between Psychsaur and Venus about how they knew the extraction was coming and planted a tracking device on Sam Bass just in case he was rescued and taken to an EAGLE base.
Well looky there. Now I get a chance to hunt down EAGLE and fry it. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.
The vacation with my daughter continues. As far as her nightmares go, they’ve eased off. It’s all about distraction. I’m good at distraction. It was nice to relax, too. Kick up my feet. Enjoy some TV, let the food build up a layer of fat. It made it easier to get ahead of things over in Ricca, too. Stamp a few things, for instance. Got some Directory guys consolidating powers. Might see the beginnings of some power-hungry assholery. I could nip it in the bud, make myself a target for any future regime changes… or maybe I’ll let them direct that energy against each other. I can swoop in at the end, put a stop to anything too bad. I’ll look good, too. A real savior of the people.
Of course, all that cut in on running down leads on our cop friend. Sam Bass, like the fish. Any resemblance to people in other dimensions is purely coincidental. There’s information on him, but some things a guy has to do on his own. Or a girl, in this case. I kept the boobage. Thinking of changing the fingernails though. Blackened zirconium is nice, but it gives me a Goth look, so I painted them. After the first attempt at ladybug nails, I gave up and just went pink.
That’s where I was when I got a knock on the door. Qiang looked up from her show as I stood up to go check it. I found pair of people out there who definitely weren’t room service, unless Qiang ordered a pair of people in civilian clothes with tights hidden underneath. It’s the neckline that gave it away.
First instinct? They looked young. Master Academy. I turned, figuring I’d pretend we weren’t in long enough to gauge what they’re after. Instead, I found Venus sticking her leg in the open hotel window. She held a finger to her lips to quiet Qiang, but the cat was out of the bag. I ran over and pushed Venus back out of the window. She swung from a cable attached further up the all, maybe the roof. She just kinda swung like that.
“Well, well… isn’t this magical?” I asked, sounding unimpressed.
Venus gave me the finger and caught the window when she got close again. I grabbed her hands and let her go, but she caught hold of my wrist. She held onto me. We shared a frustrated pair of expressions. “You here to get on my case?”
“Yup,” she said.
“This going to be a fight?” I asked.
“Not unless you make it one. I’m here to talk.”
I looked her over. She came in costume, but not her power armor. “…Fine.” I pulled her in the window. “Better let your friends know they don’t need to blow up the door.”
And that led to Qiang hogging the couch while a trio of heroes tried to make themselves comfortable. “Anyone want anything to drink?” I called from the kitchen.
“Soda if you have it,” Venus said.
I tossed the last six pack of soft drinks out the window. “Just ran out, I’m afraid.” I walked back over and tossed the three of them some cheap beer. The teen boy looked particularly happy at that, but Venus shot him a look that said she wasn’t in the mood for zero tolerance. I smiled at that and picked up Qiang so I could sit in her spot with her in my lap. “So, how’s everyone doing?”
“Did you kill a guy?” blurted out the girl with them. She was trying to pull off the sexy female mullet look that used to be popular about a decade ago, where all the hair is swept straight back over the top of the head. I rolled my eyes, and I’m pretty sure Venus did, too.
I nodded. “More than one.”
“Recently?” asked the boy. He had a few too many bags under his eyes. Sneaking out, I reckon.
“Oh, one just in the past few days. It gets a bit messier if you go back a week. Come to think of it, if that tripod still had the camera on it, it would have been like a deadly colonoscopy. I gotta remember that for next time…” I laughed at the image.
“What’s a colscopeepee?” asked Qiang.
I ran my fingers through her hair. “It’s the world’s grossest first-person shooter, dear.”
“Should we be talking with her here?” asked the girl with the femullet.
“Now you ask,” I said. “This is Qiang, my daughter. She’s led a more adventurous and dangerous life than y’all did at this age.”
She waved at them all happy. “Everything’s so good now!”
“Is this safe? He’s got his kid here, and I’m worried, you know,” said the guy, looking at Venus.
“You’re not going to hurt my kids, are you Gecko?” asked Venus with a sly smile on her face.
I leaned forward and gently rested my chin on top of Qiang’s head. “Are they yours?”
“Is she?” She asked right back.
I broke the awkward silence that ensued. “It’s safe to say we all have loved ones. Master Academy has helped me out, so I won’t go after its people barring attacks made against myself, my people, or my loved ones. You only gotta worry about me going momma grizzly if y’all try something here. Speaking of which, why the visit in the first place? A friendly reminder that you’re not going to make me leave, but I really need to leave?”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Venus said. “I’m working on a case but I’m given updates about everything we find out you do. It’s hard to justify leaving you alone when you’re murdering people.”
“I’m just trying to figure out who tried to kill me that day. I mean, the person who blew up the hotel, not the one who shot me with the rocket. That one’s no more of a threat.”
“That’s the case I’m working on. I’m trying to find the suspect behind the hotel, too. You’re distracting me and you’re stirring things up on the streets. I had an informant in the Wolfpack you put in the hospital with testicular torsion.”
I tried to look serious. “That sounds bad. Tell me, doctor, will he ever pee straight again?”
She gave me the ol’ death glare. It was slightly undermined by the teen boy holding in laughter. Venus turned and gave him the glare, causing him to put a lid on that reaction real quick. I chuckled at that and said, “Well, my way got me the ID of the guy who drove the bomb there.”
“Me too,” she said, shifting to cross her legs. “I didn’t kill anyone. It pays to play well with others.”
“Ugh, you didn’t even get to kill anyone?” Qiang squirmed around in my lap and eased out so she just had her head laying on my thigh. I looked down to her. “You ok, dearheart? Need anything?”
She giggled and rolled her head back and forth to indicate no.
“Can we talk without her here?” asked Venus.
“Fine fine…” I looked down at my kid. “Sweetie, I need you to go into the other room. Our guests are about to threaten me about something.”
“Ok!” she said, sliding down onto the floor before standing up and running off to her room.
“Don’t tell her that.” Venus said.
“Oh? Then what did you want to discuss?” I asked.
“I came here today to tell you to get out of town and leave this bombing alone or we will have to try and make you leave,” she said, trying to hold back a cringe on her face at the threat. “This isn’t about violence.”
“Of course not,” I said, smiling. I wanted to jump up and do a dance about telling her so. “After all, I didn’t take your subtle hint back at the infirmary, right? But more than that, what makes you think you can enforce this against me?”
The fellow piped in. “You have a kid right over there! Shouldn’t you be worried about fighting around her? She could get hurt.” Things got quiet again when he noticed me looking him over for easy access to arteries. “Venus, why is he looking at me like that?”
“You implied we might hurt his daughter. And I don’t know how much he takes offense to it, but he’s identifying as female right now,” she answered.
She was slowly leaning toward him when I turned and smiled at her. “I’d hate to think your school was teaching new heroes that sort of tactic. After all, threatening children,” I nodded toward the boy. “is the sort of thing I would do. Or our suspect in the bombing, since Qiang was staying with me as well. I’ll leave after he is dealt with.”
“I think we’re done here,” Venus said.
Her underlings were out the door first, but she hung back, closing it and turning to look at me. I’d been seeing them out, so I was right up close to her. “Hey, I just want to let you know, I really didn’t want this whole talk to go so badly. He was out of line, but he’s just a stupid kid.”
“Yeah, yeah… I’m trying to be forgiving of Master Academy and its people nowadays. Somewhat. You understand I have limits. She’s my daughter.”
“I completely understand,” she responded. “In fact, I had another reason for coming and it involves her. I don’t know what your plans are, but you really should bring her by for Thanksgiving dinner. I think it would be good. For both of you.”
I turned to look down at the hand she had been reaching out toward my arm. I looked back at her face, eyebrow raised. “I know you love, ahem, ‘Taco Tuesday,’ but I don’t have time to waste my time on your seduction games. Hands off the merchandise.”
She floundered for a moment, or at least her facial movements resembled a fish, before she said, “I’m going. Feel free to come by if you want to join us for Thanksgiving.”
As soon as they left, I headed back into my room to check on my armor while pulling up my information on Sam Bass. Satellite imagery, nearby cameras, anything that could give me a more current view. I had his last known apartment, one from before then, and his mother’s house. All three were swarming with cops and people in Master Academy field uniforms.
They actually had figured out who he was, looks like. It took some time to worm my way through police databases like a bunch of bad apples. None of them mentioned a suspect taken into custody. Bomb making materials, a few drugs, and Bass’s mother was caught with an unusual number of pain pills from various doctors. Granny’s an OG drug dealer. No, she might literally be one of the original gangsters, depending on age.
I think they took Bass for themselves for some reason. That means he’d be locked up in the special cells they build under their school.
Ya know, might do Qiang some good to have a Thanksgiving dinner with other powered children. And I need to figure out how much of this is a trap and how to stay out of it.
“There there, sweetpea, Daddy’s got you. You’re ok.” I hugged onto Qiang. She’d woken up screaming again. I may have made a teeny-tiny mistake already. She, uh, didn’t quite handle the skydiving as well as I’d hoped. I figured it was just the natural jitters of jumping out a plane for the first time at first. Not everyone handles it well, though people wearing parachutes tend to come out of it the best. I came back that night with a minor villain tied up in the closet. I didn’t find out until the next morning that Qiang had nightmares about falling.
So… yeah. Screwed that one up already. So much for not scarring her for life. She’s been keeping her armor on almost 24/7 since then, including to sleep in. That’s also been causing a few sores in places she isn’t used to, which I’ve been treating. I had to send out to Ricca for more nanites anyway. I’ve been taking it easier on her. Less work, less education, and less running around and doing stuff all the time. I don’t know what to do in this situation, but I figured lots of hugs and attention might help. The good kind of attention. Not like when you break your thumb in martial arts training and the instructors start teaching you how to fight with a broken thumb and what ways someone might defend against you in such a state.
So that’s where I was, holding my daughter. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s here, and I have a secret weapon for dealing with bad dreams.”
Qiang rubbed her eyes and spoke in a pouty voice. “What?”
I think it was my enthusiasm that cheered her up more than anything, but I knew the pancakes would help. Pancakes tend to do that, especially with lots of butter and good syrup. I wonder if I can get the food cult back in Ricca to help me break Canada’s maple monopoly. Questions for later. I had more pressing questions to deal with at that time, like one from Qiang. “Do I call you Mommy now?”
I looked down at my boobs and wider hips, then back into her face. “I mean, you can, or you can still call me Daddy.”
I did mention the need for more nanites, right? Yeah, so I made a few changes. I hope I won’t need my armor in the near future, because it’s not really fitted to this body.
“Listen, I don’t always stay a man, but I’ll always be your dad. I might look a little different, but remember, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. What’s on the inside right here?” I asked, moving my hand over my heart.
“The heart?” she answered.
I nodded. “Good, good. And here?” I moved my hand.
“Can’t fool you, can I?” I asked the giggling girl. “Or can I…?” I pointed at a different spot, on my throat.
“Jing…” she started, reverting to the Riccan pidgen. I let her take a while. “Jing, jing, jing…” She closed her eyes trying to remember.
“Jing Dong Mai,” I answered her finally. Then I leaned down and kissed her head. “You almost got it. Now come on, let’s go see about those pancakes.”
After a good breakfast that I think took Qiang’s mind off things for a bit, it was time to see to our guest. I fixed a separate plate just for him. I had my eyes shift to look a pale green before I stepped in, a purple-haired chick with black fingernails in a white shirt knotted to expose my belly, a pair of shorts, and sandals. Not something to go outside in, but something to show off skin. Because men have two brains.
I know, it’s a cliché, and it’s generally a good idea to be wary of those. In this case, it’s true. I think this Earth hasn’t gotten so far with the science yet, but humans who are sexually aroused end up with lower inhibitions that cause them to engage in riskier behavior. It actually works on both men and women, too. I could be wrong, but I have a statistically better chance of setting off this guy’s tickly bits by being a woman. Wearing a thong high enough that he can tell it’s a thong also helps.
“Here’s breakfast!” I said, cheery. I set it down on the table in front of Quadmaster, bending low to better emphasize the low neckline of my top. Ladies, it really is hard for guys to control looking at big boobs, and even harder if the woman’s bending forward. It’s basic maturity to avoid it, if guys are in a situation where they think that maturity is a good idea. I was banking on this rather vanilla-looking fellow in front of me not being all that mature.
Quadmaster tried to say something, but he still had the ballgag in, along with the handcuffs and ropes. I’d originally picked the ballgag for sexual connotations meant to humiliate this guy. Now he got to think about ballgags as a beautiful woman removed one from him and held it up. So glad I didn’t take the jumpsuit off and leave him in nothing but his boxers.
I helped him out of the handcuffs so he could move his hands. He tried to grab me. I put him in a simple wrist lock to dissuade him. “Hands off the merchandise,” I said with a smile. “I’m saving your life. Show some gratitude.”
I let him go and stepped away. He glared at me. He glared all over my body, and suddenly it was less of a glare. More of an ogle.
“You kidnapped me,” he said.
I held up a finger. “I save you. The Wolfpack had you surrounded, and the police had them surrounded. I was the only way out that didn’t end with you in a coffin or handcuffs.”
He held up his wrists and pulled up his shirt sleeves enough to see the lines made by the handcuffs. “The fucker in the armor still put me in handcuffs.”
“Yeah,” I said with a wink, sitting down on the table with my side turned to him. “But those were just for fun.” Notice da booty. Bow to da booty. Do not adjust your set. Da booty controls the vertical, da booty controls the horizontal.
“They aren’t fun for me. I’m lucky my hands didn’t fall off from lack of circulation,” he rubbed them. “Who are you? Why did you kidnap me?”
I wagged a finger. “Saved you, and it wasn’t me. The one who saved you was Psycho Gecko.”
“The hell you say!” he spouted off, mouth dropping. “But I shot him with a bazooka! He’s gonna kill me.”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t bother trying to predict him. He’s weird. Bruno asked why he wanted you alive after you attacked him like that.”
Quadmaster leaned forward. “What did he say?”
I cringed, showing off my teeth. “He pulled Bruno’s intestines out and fed them to him, started telling some story about Genghis Khan getting shot in the neck by an arrow. They took the archer prisoner and Genghis Khan found out who he was and made him a general. Then Mr. Gecko said he wasn’t Genghis Khan.”
“Oh Christ…” he said. I think he set a new record for quickest sweat.
I stood up and moved in front of him, putting my hands on his shoulders.. “Relax, breathe. Just breathe. In and out. In and out. Listen, I have something to tell you.” I leaned in real close so he could get a nice earful of all the wonderful noises my tongue made as I enunciated my words. “There’s a way out of this. A way to save your life.” I backed away a little to look him in the eyes.
His eyes quickly shot down to my boobs before coming back up to meet my gaze. “How? What do I have to do?”
I looked down as if thinking and slowly ran my tongue over my lips. “Psycho Gecko doesn’t think you acted alone. He’s ranting and raving about someone blowing up his hotel or some shit. I think he’s looking for an excuse to kill people around here. He’s looking for an excuse.” I looked him in the eye again. “He thinks you had something to do with the hotel attack. Something blows up, then you fly around blowing up more stuff? I can see why he’d connect those dots. Right now, you’re the furthest dot. You have to give him more dots he can go after instead. He’s looking for an excuse.”
That’s right, buddy. I’m your friend. I’m trying to save your life. Help me, help you.
“But if he doesn’t need me, he’ll kill me!” Quadmaster’s eyes focused more, though.
“I said I don’t bother trying to predict him, but if you don’t talk, I think you’ll live for a long time. He knows how to hurt people who hold out on him. Don’t get me wrong, I like to work for the guy. He’s an awesome boss if you stay on his good side. Real understanding if he trusts you. But if you betray that trust…” I shuddered.
“When is he coming for me?” Quadmaster asked.
I pretended to think. “I dunno. Not for a few more days.”
“Let me go,” he said, pleading with his eyes. “I-I-I-I’ll tell you what I know. You can let me go. He trusts you, right? So you vouch for me and and you look good, right?” He smiled at that.
I bit my bottom lip and shifted like I was uncomfortable. It had the effect of shaking my boobs just a little. “If you lie to me and I let you go, it could be really bad. Really, really bad.” I twirled a finger through my hair as a nervous affectation. I pushed the pancakes back and sat down on the table, showing off my legs. Freshly shaved. I found this awesome gel. Makes me sound like a fucking commercial when I think about it. “But if this is for real, that would make Mr. Gecko happy with me. And if he’s happy with me, I’ll be happy with you.” I leaned forward and set my forearms on Quadmaster’s shoulders.
Sure, he’s a murderer. Lots of people are murderers. Dear reader, have you ever stopped and thought about all the people you run across in any given day who have killed someone? People with crimes uncovered, or crimes hidden? Or just a soldier who has taken their fair share of lives. Not to disparage that, don’t get me wrong. My point here is that there are a lot of killers out there and they have loved ones. They can connect meaningfully with people on an intimate emotional level.
I’d been playing up the sexual angle, being the friendly henchwoman, bringing pancakes. I wanted him to connect to me emotionally and have a reason to fear not telling me things. I wanted him to care enough that he wouldn’t want to see me tortured to death by myself, and maybe get a thrill about the possibility of reward from a sexualized woman.
Quadmaster took deep breaths. “I didn’t have anything to do with the bomb at the hotel.” I started to open my mouth, which also gave him a nice mental image of my lips in that shape. He hurried up and didn’t let me say anything. “I swear. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I saw who did.”
I shut my mouth and cocked my head.
He sat up close to the table and, coincidentally, my long legs. “I was flying around for my own job. Well, I wouldn’t say it was a job. I do that kind of thing for fun, all those dirty immigrants running around, trying to replace us. Not like a demure and helpful Oriental like yourself. Your people come over and you don’t make a bunch of slums with carjackings and bodegas.”
What a difference a shift in power makes. And did I not mention the Asian features? As Qiang’s parent, I decided I’d better look the part. “You were talking about the hotel,” I reminded him.
He nodded. “Right. I was on my way to shoot some wetbacks when I passed this building and saw a guy get out. He had a jacket and hat with him. I flew back by, it was the quickest route from the jumping bean festival or whatever they were doing. I wouldn’t go straight there but your boss damaged my rig. I was slow as Christmas, but when I got there, I saw the guy again, only he was dressed as a cop. He was out front keeping people from getting there, but I saw him walking away from cop cars pulling up. He had to be on cameras. There was a traffic light there, a bank branch with ATMs, something.”
He’s right, there were cameras. Onsite storage of the hotel’s got wrecked in the explosion, though, and the remainder didn’t catch whoever left the bomb.
“If I get the footage, can you identify him?” I asked.
He nodded. “Oh yeah. I can do it. Just, uh, let me go and I can meet you another time…”
I left him there and ran to go get a tablet. I’d already pulled that footage, of course, looking for someone weird and out of place. I went over it with Quadmaster. Quaddy didn’t seem that professional. Low level guy, not all that impressive. Plus, we were going over footage for a solid forty minutes before he pointed at a face in the crowd, a cop jogging along, looking back over his shoulder. If it’d been a guy in a mask and camo, he’d be instantly suspicious. A cop? Not so much.
“You’re sure that’s him?” I asked, running facial recognition, searching through databases. I could have done that anyway with the footage, but I’d still be sorting through everyone with a parking ticket or unpaid taxes or a gun and an anti-government screed. You’d be surprised, Dear Reader, how many people how many people you run across in any given day have killed someone.
“Absolutely. I’d recognize that mustache anywhere.” He clapped his hands together and looked up, smiling. “Whaddya say, can I go now?”
I took the tablet away and examined it while checking over things in my head. I got a match. A cop, or at least an ex-cop. Pulled a guy over, asked him for license and registration. The guy turned around to get it from the glove compartment. Our bomber cop pulls his gun and shoots him in the back. The dash cam saw it all. While normally he’d have gotten away with it but nothing but paid suspension, the guy he shot didn’t die. Video is no problem, but not actually killing the unarmed black guy he shot in the back? No police force in America could handle that level of incompetency. Shoot to kill.
They fired him. He has no reason to be running around any disaster sites in a uniform.
I smiled to myself. “I’m going to go run this guy’s face.” I turned to Quadmaster and winked. “You’ve been a big help today. Hey, eat your pancakes. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
And it was time to change hotels again. That one wasn’t safe. I heard they found a dead body in a janitorial closet there. Some freaky sex thing. This guy was in there, tied up and wearing a jumpsuit. Handcuffs, syrup, a ballgag. The guy must have had a heart attack, but I think it was something he ate. Police are asking around in case anyone knows who he was doing whatever he was doing with.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
It’s been awhile since I checked my old PO Box around this place. I know, the guy with a brain computer keeping a PO Box for snail mail. I checked it infrequently even before everything went to pot. It was usually only good for junk mail, like some of the stuff I got. “Dear, Psycho Gecko, we have an exciting opportunity for you. How would you like $6 million to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II?” Followed soon after by, “Disregard prior message. The business opportunity is no longer solvent.” That one was signed by just MI6 and dated a day after the one before. I’m not technically in the hitman game anymore since becoming a world leader myself. It seems somewhat beneath me. Like a world leader taking orders from a random person with money on who to kill? This isn’t the Cold War, though not for lack of trying from the Ruskies.
It’s practical in other ways. Up until taking up government work, I was the World’s Public Enemy Numero Uno. I should be careful about taking jobs to sneak into dark, secluded places for killing people. Someone might find out, like the person who hired me, and I’d be in a dark, secluded place that’s perfect for an assassination. I don’t need that headache. Funny how becoming a political leader made a lot of countries ok with all the mass murder and weapons of mass destruction I’ve built and used, though.
I sometimes wonder if the spy agencies enjoyed working with me. I might think one of them was behind the bombing on that one hotel, except it was too messy. CIA doesn’t technically have jurisdiction within the United States. While that’s never stopped them before, it’s also their ass if they do something stupidly public, like a car bomb, and then it fails. It’d barely be acceptable if it worked, let alone if the only casualties were American civilians. Same for the other domestic agencies. And foreign ones? Yeah, they don’t want to be caught blowing up buildings in the U.S. either.
I had time to work this out despite everybody and their mother clamoring for my attention. Updates from Ricca, updates from North Korea, Qiang wanting me to take her a giant toy store. Ya know, they mistook me for an elf? For some reason, a guy can’t walk around with bells in his purple hair without someone thinking he’s strange. And, of course, wish her a holly jolly funeral in front of Qiang. This kid is seriously interfering with my game. She’s cockblocking my skullfuckery.
It wasn’t all spoiling her with toys, though. I gave her that day, and then that night was boring and unproductive. The next day, though, I put her through some physical training. She’d never been parachuting before.
“So you say some of your old friends are looking for work?” I asked the pilot at the front of the plane as we took to the air above Empyreal City.
“Oh yeah. It’s shitty as all hell on the airlines. Bad hours, bad pay, no benefits. I got friends collecting food stamps. They don’t want food stamps. They want money,” he looked at me. “Me, I’m stuck doing this kinda stuff ever since getting off.”
I’d struck up a conversation with our pilot because I’d recognized him as part of that crew who would fly for villains a few years back. Always nice to know of a bunch of desperate pilots looking for work in all the wrong places. “If you can give me some people who work around the west coast or who are willing to move over there, I might have something for them.”
He smiled. “After all this, alright?” He gave me a thumbs-up.
I returned it, then turned to address the tugging on my pantleg. I found Qiang standing behind me. “Daddy, did I have to leave my armor?”
I knelt down. “It’s too heavy, my sweet. You’re wanting it now?”
She nodded. “It makes me feel safe after what those guys tried to do.”
“The guys… the ones with the dog ears and the claws that I beat up?” I asked.
I hugged her. “This is one time when you can’t wear the armor, but I’ll let you wear it as much as you want anytime you can, ok? Just know that I love you and I would do anything to keep you from being hurt by anyone.” I kissed her on the forehead. “Ok, now let’s go jump out a plane!”
They had her tandem jump with someone else. Good for her. People started freaking out when I did it, though. Probably because I slipped the chute off and threw it out first.
As amazing as it was seeing the Earth from that high up, that’s all housekeeping. That’s the veggies of this whole situation. Let’s get to some nice, firm, hot meat up in here. The stuff that doesn’t involve my daughter.
The night of our skydiving trip, the police channels started to perk up about a situation involving the Wolfpack and a big electronics store. According to the cops, it looked like a siege. Wolfpack was spreading around to the side doors and rear loading area. Someone inside had heavy weaponry. I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time, if it was my guy. All I had to go on was the Wolfpack interest and the presence of automatic weapons. Either one was explainable by all the self-appointed vigilantes out there who think they’ve stopped a mass shooting if they stop the guy from killing a 27th person.
Luckily, height is easy to translate into horizontal distance if someone’s smart and has a way to control their fall. Like, for instance, rockets built into their power armor. By the time I’d arrived, things had only escalated. Under ordinary circumstances, the police were all too willing to use tear gas, shotguns, and riot police to break up a hostile crowd of unarmed college students or people protesting Nazis. Against a gang of white criminals claiming they’re about taking their neighborhoods back to a safer time of law and order, they were mysteriously stand-offish. All they were sending in were people to form a perimeter.
Maybe they just thought a hero would help, the sort they don’t like when they’re putting the boots to peaceful groups.
That didn’t stop the Wolfpack, who responded by throwing things at the police lines. They weren’t as covered up from that side. The cops must have distracted them from the store, but they were slinking back to it as their best cover. The problem with that was gunfire from inside keeping them from being completely safe until they took him out. It also led to one of the Wolfpack firing on the police line, which caused a few more to briefly open up. I noticed the ones on the nearest side of the store booked it for the group at the front. The ones who’d been sent to the rear didn’t bother heading in until they caught a glimpse of police headed their way.
It’s not that unusual that they weren’t more violent to the lover-like attentions of the police. They know they stand a pretty good chance of not being killed so long as a cop doesn’t die. Most criminals don’t want to end up a copkiller. That’s the kind of situation where the police just fire until all the guns run empty. It’s important to remember that most criminals do things for money, with a few others focused on pride.
As for murder? Well, that looks like a job for… Psycho Gecko!
I landed hard by the rear of the building. The wolves there realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t law enforcement and opened up with what guns they had from behind the soft cardboard boxes they were using for concealment. Can’t call those cover. When I got close, they tried to surround me and use those metal claws. First one to try it received an amazing price: all you can get kicked in the dick! Fresh and hot, right from the oven. Ah hell, dick kicks for everybody!
They were all so full afterward, they had to recover on the ground. I left them and their groans behind as I ran inside, trying to find one specific source of gunfire in there. It was easy enough. The guy was focused on the front of the store with his belt-fed machinegun. It was Quadmaster, though his white and grey harness only had three at time time. That probably had something to do with hitting up this place and its spare parts for just those sorts of rotors. “Yeah! Get some! Get some!” he yelled, firing sporadically on the gang members by the front of the store.
I walked over, past the few terrified hostages laying still on the floor, and knelt down behind him. I took my time adjusting myself there, then poked him on the elbow. He whirled around, firing past me and through a wall, shredding a row of office shredders. Then he looked down. At crotch height, I headbutted. He flew back, dropping the gun and trailing arms and legs behind him. He toppled one flimsy set of cubicle walls and rolled over. A printer fell off the shelf above him and clocked him in the face.
“Nice to see you again,” I said, standing up. “Looks like things haven’t been going so hot.” I walked over and tore a couple more rotors off his harness, then grabbed his foot. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
The canines still had their bone to pick with him, and now the shooting from back here had stopped. Three of them ran. I dropped Quadmaster’s foot and grabbed a nearby display laptop. Slamming it shut, I dropped into discus stance and whirled around, releasing it toward one of them. He fell with a laptop half-embedded in his chest. “I guess you could say,” I said, standing up. I had a moment while his comrades looked at him, stunned, and used it to project a set of holograph shades I pulled down over two of my helmet’s eyes. “He had a big Mac attack.”
One of the others lowered his hands, dropping a pair of claws that looked to be attached to a harness under his fuzzy sweatshirt. He ran at me. I looked around for something to have fun with and came up with a camera tripod. I swung it upward to knock a swipe from one of his claws up, then caught the other one in the middle and twisted. He cartwheeled and came up on balance, pulling his claw free. I jammed the head of the tripod into his belly. The third Wolfpack out of all this chose that moment to jump on my back, but I ignored him while I used the tripod to lift his friend into the air. The one on my back was trying to wrap an arm around my neck and choke me, but my helmet’s jagged neck guard bit into his arm. I gave the tripod a little jab into the air to push the one with the big claws into the air. When he came down, it was by getting his ass impaled on the tripod with a cloud of bloody spat from his mouth. I pulled the legs out, prompting a long, low moan from him as I set him up like that.
It was hard to hear over all the screaming from the one on my back, who was losing a lot of blood trying to free his arm from me. I let him go and caught him as he slid off, then threw him against the nearby trashed display of laptops. I walked over and grabbed the power cord from one of the laptops. Lifting my injured assailant by the neck, I wrapped the cord around his neck. A gaggle of gangbangers arrived just in time to see me pull hard on the cord and pop their friend’s head off like a cork. It actually makes a popping noise like that. Gets me every time.
“Anyone else?” I asked to the Wolfpack.
They ran, leaving me to pull a drowsy, recovering Quadmaster up over my shoulder, aim for a skylight, and jump out of there.
I kept him out of his wits on the way back to my hotel room with periodic application of a well-known treatment called “My Fist”. Causing pains in my ass? Painful, burning irritation in my hotel room? Being a headache? You may need My Fist! Now available in children’s dosages. Once I got him there, stripped off his harness, searched his clothes, tied him up, and shoved a ballgag in his mouth.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “It’s for your safety too, and it’s only lightly used.” For some reason, that got enough of a response from him that he didn’t shut up until I offered him some more My Fist.
Now to learn everything he knows about that attack on my hotel. I’ll ask real nice.
“Well you tell the Americans that if they’re so worried about me launching missiles their way, they should be happy the thing exploded. It’s nothing harmful,” I told one of the Directory members over my head phone as I shaved.
Next to me Qiang looked up. “Will I ever have to do that?” she asked.
“What, shave or launch missiles?” I asked.
She pointed up at my face where I guided a razor along no closer to my wirsts than it’d normally be. “That,” she said by way of explanation.
“Maybe when you’re older and you start getting hair in different places,” I told her. To the member of the Directory, I said, “The missiles didn’t violate U.S. airspace or waters at all. They can’t blow us up just for farting in their general direction.”
Qiang giggled at that one.
“And no, don’t tell them I’m in the country. Legally, I’m not in the country. I’m back home, or over there on Mu.” By the way, the ambassador’s still alive. More than that, he’s sent reports confirming the discovery of the assassin who made an attempt on the life of my robot double and my wife. He bought off people with some of the advanced technology of the modern world: disposable razors and lube. “By the way, think up a medal you guys can award Toyotomi. Anyway, I gotta go. Something really important I gotta do over here. Yeah, yeah, hail to me, too. Ciao.”
I had to rinse Qiang’s hair, you see. She’s decided she wanted her hair colored. Rather than go the nanite route, I just found dye for it. She insisted we match, though, so I’ve gone purple as well. When she saw me do my hair up in three tails with a bell on the end, she thought it was the coolest thing. So now my daughter has a pair of ponytails with bells in there of her own. I know it’s meaningless, but I just wanted to let someone know
As always, the days are together time, but I figured out a way to keep her a little occupied. I know, it’s hard to do that after spending the day teaching her basic arithmetic in base ten and base two, but I’ve given her some options. Reading a book, for instance. I’m starting her off simple with stuff like Dr. Seuss and Sun Tzu. But, hey, if she’d rather watch TV instead, she’s welcome to it, so long as she writes about the show. What she saw, what she liked about it, and why she thinks she liked it. I might be going too far there, but she’s not in school. Seriously, there are all kinds of ways I could mess up raising her, and having her turn out stupid would fucking blow.
There’s nothing physically wrong there, that’s for sure. Her brain is in good working order. It’s just my job to fill it and see which way her interests go. And she’s five. And that’s stuff y’all don’t want to hear about either. This isn’t Parenting And World Domination in Retrospect.
Out of the local gangs, the Wolfpack has the widest territory. I’ve been in and out of their area a few times by now. I’ve taken to swapping hotels every couple of days with Qiang, in case whoever blew up the last one is persistent. I suspect the Wolfpack. I just don’t like them. Could be because they tried to stick me up with Qiang present. Could be because their rhetoric reminds me of the militias that were demonstrating all over the place before rising up in armed conflict earlier this year. One of them blew up part of the Lincoln memorial in protest of a town taking down a statue of one of the guys who founded the Ku Klux Klan.
Still feeling really good about murdering that clone of Hitler a couple years back. Go me.
Since I suspect them, I’ve kept my presence on the down low. Word might filter out from Rothstein’s Bar, or it might now. Either way, they’ll just have to suspect I’m doing things to them.
For instance, I followed a small group of Wolfpack as they stopped by this laundromat with baseball bats and their claws. They busted a window before guy could hand over money from a lockbox out of the back. The guy leading this group didn’t secure the cash as well as the store owner, though. When I accidentally bumped into him, he threatened me with a set of claws. There weren’t any street lights around, so at least I didn’t have to work hard on animating the face and making it look scared.
Don’t worry, I didn’t just stick to pickpocketing protection money, which will probably get someone killed.
There was another time I found a few of them helping themselves to whatever they wanted from a corner store. They’d already beaten the shit out of the cashier, who seemed to be breathing awfully quick for a guy who is supposed to be knocked unconscious. He was fumbling for his phone, and it was only a matter of time before the gangbangers turned and saw his hands working at it. I contemplated waiting for that, but that also meant more time for him to successfully call the cops. I don’t agree with their involvement on principle, seeing as I’m a lot more wanted than this bunch of young punks.
I started by throwing one of those weighted ash tray stands through the window, knocking down one of the wolves. The rest turned as I stepped through it, the florescent lights showing off my armor without a lot of glare. One of them actually grabbed for a gun he had in his pocket. It went off, causing his friends to duck for cover. Sadly, he didn’t hit any of them, nor even himself in the head. By the time he aimed it my way, I was standing there with an open bag of chips, smashing them against the mouth of my armor. “Om, nom, nom.”
He fired. The shot bounced off, thanks to a combination of bad aim, small caliber, and kickass armor. “Well, aren’t you just as sharp as cream? Don’t worry, you’re about to graduate up to whipped cream.” Before he could process that, a phrase which in this context means before New Year’s, I tossed my chips at him. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s innuendo in another country, but here it meant he shot at a bunch of flying corn tortilla triangles while I ran forward, picked him up, and threw him into a beer cooler door. I walked over, pulled it open with him in it, grabbed a beer from a six pack, and broke it on his head for good measure.
He still had a couple pals, though. They were trying to get the one hit with the ash tray up. Then one of them looked up and didn’t see me anymore. Movement caught his eye and he whipped around to see me pumping my hips with a tall can held against my crotch. I pulled the tab and, with a hiss, foam spewed out into his face. “And there’s the money shot!” I said. I had to let go of the my can to grab his hand when he tried to bring a knife to a fight involving my crotch. I can’t really call it a crotch fight, not since I gave up cockfighting. I went to pound the aluminum can into his forehead to flatten it, but I “accidentally” missed. Lots of people survive just fine with one eye.
The last one dropped his friend’s legs, started to pick up his baseball bat, then turned to run. I looked to the shelves near me and found dog food. He caught it in the back and went sprawling shortly after taking a step outside the broken window I entered through. I grabbed a bag of overpriced diapers from another shelf and followed him. He tried to run before he’d finished standing up completely, and that’s when he got a diaper slid over his head, yanking him back against me. We both fell back as I wrapped my legs onto his head. My grip didn’t slip, and I took up singing, “Rock-a-bye baby…” He struggled, but it was just as effective as a baby. I would know. I had to repeat the song a few times, until he finally relented and the lost airflow put him to sleep.
“…the cradle will rock, when the bough BREAKS,” I emphasized that word as I twisted his neck. I stood up, dropping his head to the ground, to see the one-eyed Wolfpacker and the first one I’d knocked down both getting to their feet. “…down will come baby, cradle and all.” I said. I know I skipped ahead, but it was more intimidating that way. It sounded better.
The winded guy who took an ashtray grabbed a baseball bat. I lifted him by the neck. His buddy tried to kick me in the balls, but I took the bat off the first one and knocked him in the nose to get him to back off. Then I set the bat between my feet, wide end pointed up in the air, and changed my grip on the ash hole until I had him by both shoulders. Then I pushed him down, hard. I made a human pogo stick. He didn’t bounce well. More like a pogo stick if Vlad of Wallachia invented it.
The one-eyed wonder boy finally broke and tried to get away, but he lost his best chances already. I hauled him over to the slushee machine, opened it up, and drowned him in it. Even worse for him, regular drowning doesn’t involve brain freeze.
Yep, couldn’t leave any of them alive. Though, I noticed, the cashier was still on the floor, still holding his eyes closed. I leaned down. “Good job not opening your eyes. Now, where do I access the surveillance recording?”
He pointed to a door to the back. “In the office. The password is IhateMondays.”
I patted him on the head. “You’re a smart one.”
And now, thanks to footage that’ll soon leak out to the Wolfpack, it looks like their guys were all murdered by Quadmaster. Ah, the wonders of video manipulation. It’s about working smart, not working hard. It was also fun, and I made a little money off of it, including what I took out of the register on my way out. My Qiang may need a private tutor, and I’d rather not kidnap one. Which reminds me, I need to kidnap some smart people at some point…
I know I said I’d consider having Qiang schooled by the Master Academy, but I’m not cozying up to those no-good cock stranglers just yet. And if I sound mad, you try being told by someone that you MIGHT be turning good. I’m torn between my debt to the school and my desire to strangle Venus until I go soft inside her. The more I think back to her note, the more parts of it annoy me. I knew they’d be an annoyance upon my return to Empyreal City, but I didn’t think it’d be because Venus thinks it’s a good thing that I’d take a rocket for someone else. Having a kid sucks so much sometimes.
A bit of a no-win situation there at the moment. But I have other things to deal with for now. If I happen to cause excessive violence and have to deal with her trying to save people, so be it.
First off, I want to know if the dildo jugglers who set off a car bomb at the hotel I stayed at had anything to do with me. I’m quite sensitive to people trying to kill me, and blowing up a place where I’m staying doesn’t seem like mere coincidence. Then someone flew by the event I was attending and tried to wreck the place. They failed to blow me up, but they still tried. I heard I scared that one off with the explosion, maybe even damaged his flying machine. No body was recovered. Yet.
I have a few options I can explore there to see about making contact. Like Johnny Butterfly, who seemed to be in charge of the local mafia scene last time I was in town. Or even the Ukrainians, though they wouldn’t like me much. That option is less about asking questions and more about enhanced interrogation.
Instead of contacting the local organized crime, I decided to insert myself back into the scene of disorganized crime. Good ol’ Rothstein’s Sports Bar. The place had received a renovation recently. And an explosion. That explains the renovation. It’s supposed to be something of a no-fighting zone, but shit happens. Sometimes, I am that shit. I’ve always been a bit selective in following that rule, which sometimes causes people to excuse the treatment toward me. It’s a sort of self-policing. What is a bar full of villains going to do, call the cops? They have to put up with me because the cops are just as likely to try and arrest them.
My absence from the bar has likely been a sign of great good fortune for the bar, despite the alien invasions, my dictatorship over the world, a civil war, and whichever one of those caused the explosion that destroyed the front of the building. Knowing what I’d be walking into, and still a bit fuzzy from the concussion I suffered, I decided to call in a little help. All I needed to do first was make sure that my people back in Ricca’s factories had followed through.
Back there in Ricca, one factory loaded drone payloads onto trucks for shipping to the military base. They were loaded into missiles manufactured earlier and already delivered, because there is no reason to leave missiles laying where anyone can get them. One such missile was aimed in the direction of the United States. It rocketed into the upper atmosphere, where it fired off a series of smaller rockets before exploding harmlessly and spreading its pieces far and wide, probably to kill random people somewhere. Can’t make an omelet without killing a few people with random missile debris.
The rockets mostly aimed for where I was at, though a few instead headed for coordinates of some of our black market prosthetics customers. All of these rockets would go the way of the main one, leaving behind packages drifting on parachutes. They weren’t left up to the mercy of fickle winds. Propellers, acting to keep them on target, blew to direct their drift.
From initial launch to landing, packages arrived within fifteen minutes. I could have ordered a pizza from Ricca, if their pizza wasn’t crap. I’ve considered that it might be a good way to kidnap people’s children and replace them with artificial robot replacements, or even remote-controlled drone people. This time, they just brought nanites, material, and repair tools.
I spent a bit of time making sure I was ready in case things turned violent. Y’all have read this far, so I shouldn’t have to explain too much why I try to account for that possibility. The bit with the nanites was unusual, though. The brain has no pain receptors itself, so I had to go on what little I could feel from the meninges. Was neat to be dizzy one moment and then feel that fix the next. And while most concussions make it problematic to go engage in physical activity right afterward, the repairs by the nanites mean that is no longer an issue for me.
With my brain damage repaired and the armor of myself and little Qiang cleared for combat, it was time to go.
The door was heavier than I remember. I gave it a rap, but only with my knuckles. No need to spit hot fire at metal just yet. Though it looked like beautiful wood of some sort, it sounded like metal. A light above the door turned on, angled in front of me to restrict my sight. A viewing door that meshed seamlessly with the door slid open, but the light hid whoever was looking at me.
“You look new,” said a muffled voice.
“And improved,” I said. The door slid open. It wasn’t a password type of situation, but they didn’t seem to have identified me. I expected more resistance to that, though the person did try to shut the door on me when they saw Qiang. They’d already opened it, so instead my armor let me hold the door for her.
The person behind the door looked rather normal this time around. A balding man with an unexceptional build, in casual clothes. There were rooms for fancier occasions, but Rothstein’s Sports Bar tends toward the casual side. I briefly wondered if it has always been such. It’s hard to find memorabilia, despite the fact that Rothsten’s has been an Empyreal City institution since its founding in 1919 by local villains. It has a lot of history, even if its front had to be replaced recently, and a rear corner was blown off before, and cops busted a back wall in a Prohibition raid, and a former owner burned it down for insurance money. It’s like the proverbial axe that had its head replaced one year and its handle changed out the next; always reliable and always swingin’.
Qiang and I stepped in to see people checking out the football games, some of them tapping away on laptops, while a waitress wheeled around a giant cart of hot wings. “Can I have some, baba?” asked Qiang, eyeing the platters of wings in their different sauces. I favored the ranch ones myself, but…
“Didn’t we just eat, dearheart?” I asked.
“I got more room now!” she said.
I let my head flop dramatically toward her while sizing her up. “Really?” I leaned my head in close ot hers. “Reeeeaaally?” I noticed her armor start to shake a little as she held in giggles. I pressed my helmet to the top of hers and whispered a quick, “Reallyreally?” She stopped holding them in then, laughing.
“You shouldn’t have a kid in here,” the bartender said. That got us some looks, but nobody else said anything. It’s not like it was hardcore sex exhibition night at the bar, nor was it ever likely to be the way they turned down my suggestions in the past.
I walked on over to the bar and helped Qiang up to a seat. “Ok, you can have a couple, but that’s it. Eating too much can make you sore.” I waved at the waitress.
“A child sidekick, eh?” asked the bartender.
“Just keeping my kid safe and well-armored,” I said. “By the by, I haven’t been around here in a long while, so I had a question or two.”
The bartender paused. “Really?” he asked, prompting another giggle from Qiang. He glanced at her, but then said to me, “If you’ve been around before, you should now how little I’m supposed to talk about what I hear here.”
“Here, here!” I said, raising an invisible glass and throwing back a nonexistent shot. Then I held it out for him, opening my hand to reveal a hundred dollar bill. “Barkeep, perhaps you can help me lighten my load.”
He took the money from my hand and went to clean a glass. I looked at him a moment. He looked down at the glass, avoiding my gaze. Finally, he said, “Thanks for the tip.”
Yeah, pretty sure they didn’t know who I was. Must be the new armor, or the lack of a body count so far. “Ya know, hon, instead of waiting on the cart, maybe you can just run over and grab some wings for yourself,” I told Qiang. She eagerly slid down out of the stool, pulled off her helmet, and left it sitting next to me while she ran over to the waitress and the wings.
I raised a finger and wagged it to beckon the bartender closer. He leaned forward. “You know you can’t threaten me,” he said.
I projected a smile over my helmet. “That’s fine. I wouldn’t dream of threatening you. Catching you, maybe. Finding you leaving here late at night, picking off whatever weak little security detail you manage to scrounge up. You try to run, only I break one of your ankles with a sledgehammer. You try crawling away, but I’ve got pair of scissors I’m just jamming into your Achilles tendon. And, brother, you are no Achilles. Hang you upside down, shove a funnel in your ass, dump an ant farm in there. Maybe a hornet or two for good measure. Then I tie off your penis until it’s not getting blood flow and we start a game of Twenty Questions.”
I noticed it when he hit a panic button. “Who do you think you are? Do you know how many people come in here with power armor running on Duracells, thinking they’re big and bad because they swear they’re gonna be the next Psycho Gecko?”
“I’m actually interested in finding one of those guys. But don’t worry about me. I will never say I’m going to be the next Psycho Gecko,” I said with a little haha-ing at the end.
“Good, or my friends will have to teach you a lesson,” he said, indicating the doorman and then a pair of people over at the stairwell, one of whom had a hand replaced with a tendril of black fluid like the bodies of the Fluidic aliens who invaded recently.
“They could stand to brush up on it themselves, starting with history.” I had my armor project an image of my old armor. Instead of this bulkier style, it suddenly took on the appearance of a top of grey armored strips with orange along the chest meeting a rounded helmet with a glaring visor. The legs were lightly armored, almost light tights except made of nanomaterials with armor pads on the front. “I’m the original Psycho Gecko. This can end in either another tip or me paying funerary costs. I’m trying to be nice in front of my daughter there. Come to think of it, you did say she shouldn’t be in here. Maybe you’re right, maybe she should wait outside…”
I turned as if to call to her, but the bartender’s hand was suddenly on my shoulder. “Wait.”
I turned right back around, smiling to myself. “Yes?”
He got cooperative in a hurry. Funny thing is, the bartender realized he wasn’t protecting anyone much worth protecting. After the Fluidic invasion, the government had issued a wide-reaching amnesty that could be accepted. Many villains took them up on it, but their numbers have seemingly been made up for by technology and substances getting out that created new villains. Some of them are almost certainly linked to those militia idiots getting grafted with cybernetics and provided equipment by the Ukrainians on behalf of the Russians.
The guy I was looking for, Quadmaster, might have been one of those. The bartender didn’t know. They just know he walked in one day, hitting his quad rotors on the door and making a big stink over the door not being big enough. He then managed to get kicked out and banned before too long by hurling racist insults. “He didn’t get why we all thought he was a piece of shit,” The barkeep said. “The guy calls everyone every name under the sun, then he starts talking about free speech and how he should be allowed to say whatever he wants. He even tried to claim it was all a big joke right before the Leland booted him out.” He indicated the doorman with a nod of his head.
I nodded. “Any news on where a guy like me with a penchant for asking questions might find him?” I had begun to wonder if he was another of these militia members converted into a superhuman, the way he’d been acting. They probably still want me dead.
The bartender nodded. “I know where he likes to fly a lot. And when you do catch him and do whatever you do, I’d consider it a favor if you could tell him the words ‘like a bitch’.”
Quadmaster may be pretty fly for a white guy, but it looks like he likes to hang out with the dogs. I get to go bird-hunting in Wolfpack territory, that gang of low-life extortionists. Right after I let Qiang recover from her hot wing binge the long way. No nanites. She’ll live, she just won’t like it too much and maybe she’ll learn something from this experience.
With my quest done, I had more time to spend with Qiang. Sadly, I had more time for my responsibilities as a ruler, as well. American holiday or not, people are still going to cause trouble in the Pacific. Nothing too big to worry about. Without me around to commit it, crime is down. The influx of new recruits allowed a lot more downtime, made the corrupt security guys realize I didn’t need them. It helped that they’ve had ample opportunity to realize I’m both a bad motherfucker and willing to kill them for stepping out of line.
I’m proud of being a bad motherfucker, by the by. It’s a hard title to obtain. It’s much easier to become a good necrophiliac than a bad motherfucker, for instance.
There have still been some incidents, but without me there to hold his hand, the Directory appointment over Internal Security has figured out his role. First he panicked, then he locked himself away for three days with as much whiskey as he could find, then he switched to bourbon and started bossing people around just right. Which, coincidentally, reminds me of what I drink if anyone ever asks me to do any creative writing. His panicked emails and voicemails gave way to drunken slobbering and then a certain resigned cynicism that’ll serve him well. This is no world for optimists.
Optimistic that things weren’t going to be so bad, I had a Dudebot sign off on some new laws and regulations, then decided to check in on the robotic double of myself over on Mu. By now, the new ambassador had arrived to relieve Citra, my wife. She expected the marriage to be political, I’m sure. She never expected me to have her appearance altered to make it look like I was marrying the princess of a nation of bronze age people on a mysterious island that appeared in the middle of the ocean.
I took over running the Dudebot there to walk her out to the newly-arrived delegation. It almost got awkward when the new ambassador-regent’s baggage dropped and some bondage gear dropped out. Those poor, innocent Bronze Citizens will learn soon enough what that mask was for.
“Welcome to the Bronze City, Regent Toyotomi,” I said, the robot body double giving him a handshake. The man smiled warmly for all to see, and sensors in the hand detected that he tried to squeeze it. The guy was younger, with a beard, and had a bit of fitness on him. It probably frustrated him to face a robotic grip that he couldn’t out-muscle, but otherwise I think the guy will fit in just fine. Calling up his file, he’d been the embarrassing son of one of the more important former government bureaucrats to stick with the island. The bureaucrat had become a big deal in our government. His son had stayed an apparent embarrassment.
I’m not fond of how little they thought of the post, but I think they got the right guy. Gregarious and competitive; using ambassadorial luggage for sex gear is a good sign, too. He’ll fit right in with people who think the height of entertainment is a play about a guy banging his own mother.
I may have impressed the Bronze Citizens with my incredible ability as a playwright with plays stolen from actual Greek poets these people have never heard of. I’d have used my own legitimate works, but I don’t think they’d care for my stage adaptation of Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. I also haven’t written it yet, which presents another obstacle. Need a lot more alcohol and free time.
With a last wave, it was time for Citra and my Dudebot to depart. Oh, and to snatch an arrow out of the air before it could hit Citra. Another almost got Toyotomi, a third bounced harmlessly off the robot’s armor.
“Well,” I told Toyotomi, “I suppose there might be a few problems with this new job you’ve been handed…”
And just like that, the Drone Squad got assigned to security duty. The humans and Deep One immigrants who have taken up service with the remote-controlled warmachines should be more than enough to handle the conspiracy brewing around the Bronze City. You can tell it’s a conspiracy because the guards never found the guy. I know, I know, people used to be fairly incompetent at catching criminals, but think about it, dear readers. Most people in this city don’t go around armed. A spear might not cost a lot of money or take much skill to make, but this was a bow. Not everyone carries a bow in a city. It’s hard to carry a bow inconspicuously. And what kind of bow in a Bronze Age society is going to be both good enough to attempt an assassination and cheap enough to dump somewhere to escape?
The kind of boy funded by someone with money. Makes me wish the old Riccan project to drop mind control drugs from planes worked out. Damn chemtrails just never got off the ground. It’d make this so much easier, and I’d rather not use nanites for this job. I’d rather not think about this place until I had a use for it beyond denying it to other people. Hmm… yeah, I have an idea after all. That’ll be for later, though. I just need to kidnap some people.
In other news, Queen Beetrice, who rules North Korea as part of my empire, has sent me a lot of formal invitations to dinner. Also, a jar of honey that she claims is North Korea’s biggest export. She’s even got a program here where she rents out the services of some of her Buzzkills. The bee people go out, do a little cross-pollinating, and collect money from private interests and state governments who are a little short on bees.
So that’s another idea I can work with. I need an evil plot to kill wild bees.
Yep, plots everywhere. It’s a world of possibilities. So what did I start on first?
I took Qiang around to find a Day of the Dead celebration. They had a sort of one here in the city. It was really more of an outreach thing, but she had fun. She nearly broke a tooth on a sugar skull, but she forgot about how much it hurt when she saw someone dressed as La Calavera Catrina.
Then things got awkward, because she went running off, yelling “Citra!”
Oh fuck all kinds of donkey. She ran up and hugged a confused Venus, babbling away in Riccan pidgen. She pointed back at me before I could change the hologram from my armor to resemble something less like myself.
Venus wasn’t in armor, I should say. She wasn’t even in costume. She was there in a dress, and not one meant to seduce or show things off. Just a green dress. The puzzlement dropped off her face when she saw me. Thismight be the longest I’ve kept a face since I was a kid, and the projection even included some of those nice little scars from when the Master Academy supers were doing brain surgery on me.
“Qiang!” I called out. Speaking in the Riccan pidgen, I told her, “That’s not Citra. That is someone else.”
“She looks just like how Citra looked!” Qiang said, turning and looking at me, then back up at Venus. “Did she change how she looked?”
“No, that is how she looked,” I said. I had hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward.
Venus’s stance had shifted. She’d gone on guard. I noticed her reach for her phone on her hip and start tapping on the keys. I didn’t make a move to stop her. “Hello Venus,” I said in English.
“Hello Gecko,” she responded. Her eyes flicked down to Qiang. “Who is this?”
“Hello, I am Qiang,” Qiang said, also switching to English. She gave a polite and respectful bow. “Do you know my dad?”
“Your DAD?!” Venus seemed rather surprised by the concept that I could have a kid. Sure, it didn’t happen in the conventional sense, but I’m allowed to have kids. Normally, I’d feel more like stressing that point toward Venus, but I didn’t want to deal with her right now. Not with Qiang around.
A few in the crowd around us had looked at hearing Venus’s dramatic response, but stopped paying us any mind. I stepped close as well, though I didn’t give a bow. “Yep. Venus, this is Qiang, who has already introduced herself like a good young lady. Qiang, this is Venus. We are… acquaintances.”
Qiang smiled. “Dad, what’s a acquaintance?”
I looked at Venus. She looked at me. She looked at Qiang. I looked at Qiang. “Well, hon, she’s not exactly a friend, but we know each other.”
“You don’t like each other?” she asked. “Why don’t you like my dad? Dad, why did Citra-”
I cut her off right there. Going back to the pidgen, I told her, “Do not talk about Citra in front of her.” Even if it was Citra’s own choice, I didn’t want to explain to Venus that a woman seeking my affection did so by making herself look like Venus. I probably also wouldn’t like explaining how Citra had access to nude photos of Venus’s entire body. I’m just going to have to close that line of inquiry now. State secrets.
Venus looked us over again, then crossed her arms. “Who is Citra? Why did your daughter run up to me saying that name? How do you have a daughter?”
Starting to regret not using that magic tree to wish her pregnant with my kid. Thinking of Venus with morning sickness is fun. Thinking of it swelling her boobs is better. Probably the best part would have been “accidentally” saying in front of everyone that she was carrying my baby.
Then again, seeing her kneel and ask Qiang if she needs help and if I kidnapped her, I considered the possibility that I might want her hanging from a wire that’s been run through her bowels, a light bulb shoved into her mouth to help her serve as a giant Christmas light.
“My daughter is just fine. She doesn’t need your help. We’re not causing you any trouble here, now are we?”
An explosion bwawoomed in the distance. Venus glared up at me. I held up a finger. “I had nothing to do with that, I think.”
“Right,” she said, pulling her phone off its little hip holder.
“If I’m lying,” I said. “May your puny excuse for a god strike me down where I stand!”
The skies rumbled. I pointed up at a nearby cloud. “You watch it, mister. Don’t make me come up there.” Instead, it parted to reveal a man in what I’d call a quadcopter suit. Four giant rotors on his back.
He fired a shotgun down into the crowd of celebrants while dropping a few racial slurs.
“Stand back, I got this,” said Venus, tearing the bottom portion of he dress away for better agility. Then she saw the guy drop his gun and pull out a rocket launcher.
I sighed and looked to Qiang, then pushed Venus aside. “Looks like I got this.” I dropped the hologram, began charging an energy sheath, and jumped.
As I hoped, the guy realized some big metal man was heading his way and adjusted his aim accordingly. It was a bit less likely to hit anyone I cared about. Or Venus. With my free hand, I whipped out a chicken grenade, pinched the head off, and threw it at what I hoped would work for the distance. I’m not known for my skills as a quarterback.
The quadcopter racist fired at me. I pulled my cape around my front as much as possible, raised the forearm encased in a glowing aura, and loudspinningwhiningnoiseowthatsmyasswhyistherehalfabodegaonmyass…
After a moment spent laying around and collecting myself, I went to shake my head clear and stand up, but my head was already shaking. I stopped it and tried to stand up. First attempt ended in me falling back on my ass and the calf of my right leg. Don’t worry, it’s still attached. Aside from a minor spot of flash-frying on my arm, it seems my armor held up. That doesn’t mean punching a rocket had no consequences. One of them showed up in that all the people around me were on mute and someone had left a high-pitched whine going.
The first to rush over were Qiang and Venus. Qiang actually managed to lift me, at which point the hologram on her armor failed. Venus seemed surprised, but also surprisingly-willing to help me up and try to look me over. Man, there was a lot of sugar skulls. I began to wonder why they made them in the first place, like how they got that idea and how hard they were to eat. And why were we moving so slow.
I pulled away from Venus and picked up Qiang. “Leave me alone, superhero. Always being mean and never liking me. You just want to think I’m nothing but trouble.” I was probably speaking really loudly. “Your help has a hell of a lot fine print than anything I ever do when I kill people! My daughter and I are going to our hotel!”
Despite having trouble with my balance, I fought through the killer headache I had to get out of there, though I didn’t feel well enough to jump or run off. That worked out possibly for the better as Qiang and I found ourselves soon staring at the smoking, flaming wreckage of our hotel, where someone had set off a car bomb at ground level. I turned to Venus, grabbed the shoulders traps of her dress, and used her bosom as a face pillow. “Why can’t I have nice things?!”
My memory gets a little blurry around that time, but I woke up in the regular infirmary of what my GSP assured me was the Master Academy. At least this time, I didn’t have brain surgery. Or a prison. Just a heavy kid sleeping on top of me still in her armor, and a crumpled note in her hand from Venus.
“Dear Psycho Gecko,
The doctor says you can leave after you are rested. I do not know what makes a man like you jump in front of a rocket for people, but it is a positive change for your life. Do not make me regret it.
P.S. Your daughter is welcome to attend. We will make a hero out of one of you yet. :)”
She says that, except now I’m planning to kidnap some people, steal some equipment, and murder the compatriots of whoever blew up my luggage. I’ll just do it out of another hotel.
But I’ll consider the offer for Qiang.