“I’ve been looking over this book and it’s quite the magical artifact itself. Both science and magic seek understanding of the nature of the universe and manipulation of its forces, and eventually to overcoming the limits of the universe. I found the ritual he used and it’s powerful, like a trebuchet or blockbuster bombs. But crude, imprecise, and flawed.”
Mobian led me up the steps of his ship to the platform with the control panel. “Didn’t these steps curve differently before?” I asked.
“I change the interior sometimes. I have control over spacetime in this ship.” He pulled a lever. An image appeared over everyone, showing Earth, then a bunch of copies of Earth, then moved all of them over to the right and showed lines trailing from them to the left. He also showed a little orb next to one Earth. “Time travel is normally about moving along the time stream, the past or the inevitable futures.”
“The future’s not supposed to be set in stone,” Marivel said from below us.
“It can’t be,” Blackstone said.
“Chaos theory’s a bitch,” I called down to them.
“Quite,” Mobian said. “It’s possible to travel to the past and alter it, but that causes problems.”
“The Universe Divide is a rough barrier to pass through,” I noted.
Mobian continued. One Earth then slid on top of another, covering it and its timeline. “Yes. And that will create problems.”
“It hasn’t yet,” Blackstone said. He pointed to Marivel. “Things are better than ever.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you why this is so wrong,” Mobian said as Marivel stepped away from Blackstone.
“Yeah,” she said. “Who are you really?”
“I’m Doug, for real. Just a Doug from a worst Earth. Things went wrong there,” he answered
I pointed to Mobian. “The Claw, dead. Ricca no longer on the warpath and all the brainwashed supers free. Empyreal City not ruled by Spinetingler. Mot dead instead of eating people. The Fluidics, all gone. Did I miss anything?”
Images appeared of all of them as I called them out. “Some would see your assassination of the Presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation as preferable,” Mobian added.
“They’ve killed millions,” Marivel said, looking at Blackstone. “Why did you cause that?”
“I didn’t cause it,” he said. “She did!” he pointed to me. “She killed my mom and dad.”
“We’re getting too much into statistics here,” I said. “Most people here aren’t better off, and you’re not her husband. Just a lookalike from another dimension trying to live his life.”
“It’s the way my life was meant to be,” Blackstone said. I cringed to myself.
Marivel squared up with him. “I’m not an accessory to my husband’s life. My Dougie loves me!”
“Ever meet Kant?” I asked Mobian. He shook his head no. “He’d be perfectly fine with a discussion like this taking forever… feels like we’ve been here for days already… but that’s not what I’m here for.”
I hopped down to the lower floor and walked over to Marivel. She’s such a skinny little thing. She can’t be healthy. One good fall, or twist, and her poor little head might snap off. And if that happened, what reason would Blackstone have to stay? He might try to just take the ritual back to now, but I like my odds of taking him if he tries that. Then we just try with a different mage.
“If I may interject with a compromise,” Mobian said. “The Earth you rightly belong to is not destroyed. It is temporally displaced, but this can’t last forever. There will be temporal bleed. There are already signs of it. Gecko’s presence is one effect. Others are more difficult to detect unless you are as intimately familiar with the workings of time as I am. They will get worse. People will have memories of both timelines as they merge. That could get rather ugly if it doesn’t go smoothly. You ever seen two people mashed together by temporal displacement? You would throw up your stomach.”
“What’re you thinking?” I asked.
Mobian showed moved one Earth off the other on his hologram. “It’s simple. Knowing this is an alternate universe imposed on our own, we should be able to use the ritual to reverse the two. My craft can guide the ritual so that we don’t displace a third universe. The timeline will be a mess for the period the two were one and the same, but you or I could bring Blackstone back to it as himself.”
“What about my Doug?” Marivel asked.
Mobian gestured with a roll of his hand. “You would still have your husband as himself, and then this one would show up as a separate entity.”
“But then she wouldn’t be mine,” Blackstone said.
I rolled my eyes. “She was never yours. This situations’s fucked up. You don’t always get what you want. Welcome to life.”
“Is there one of me on your world?” Marivel asked.
“Probably,” Mobian and I said at the same time.
Marivel looked to Blackstone, who still had that look in his eye like someone who didn’t give a crap as long as they got what they wanted. My poker record is nothing to carve into the moon with a giant laser, but I can still recognize that one well enough. It’s like one of those guys who raises before they’ve even looked at their cards.
But Marivel, who at this point seemed to be the only voice Blackstone might listen to, stepped toward him and cowboy’ed up. “I don’t love you, but it’s possible that the me on your world might. I love another Doug Blackstone, and he loves me. If you stay, you’re hurting your other self and me. If you love me, leave.”
I saw Blackstone bunching up like he was going to argue or pounce. In the end, he did neither. He took a breath, let it go, and unclenched. I stepped up behind Marivel and patted her on the shoulder. “Good going. We’ll have this mess sorted out before the worldwide disasters start for once.”
Blackstone glared. “Get your hands off her.”
“I’ll put my hands wherever I want, but if you really want me to leave her alone, you know how to make it happen,” I said.
At that, Mobian pressed a button. Part of the floor opened up and a pedestal arose with Los Cincos Soles Dorados, the transcribed rituals of Nahuatal time mages, open upon it.
“I have configured this altar to redirect the energies of the book, to focus them on separating the two,” the time traveler said.
Marivel raised her hand to about head height. “Do you need me to do anything?”
Mobian smiled at her, “No, my dear, you’ve done fantastic already.” He gave me a look. Have I clarified before that there’s a difference between looking at someone and giving them a look? One’s a form of perception, the other’s communication. There’s meaning behind a look. This one was something like relief and a warning. I think he realized how close Marivel came to being sacrificed for our cause.
She stepped off to the side while Blackstone approached the book. He looked at me. “The sympathetic magics involved should be more easily accessed, but I need you here with me.” He held out a hand and I took it, standing close. The book really didn’t like me looking at it, but he read from it just fine.
Mobian rushed up the staircase to his control center and oversaw the creation of many bops and beeps.
“I need you to be honest with me, Gecko. What do you want more than anything else in the world?” Blackstone asked in a pause between chants.
I closed my eyes and recalled video of Qiang. “I want to see my daughter. And family. And friends.”
“You aren’t sad to leave an entire new world of victims behind?” he asked.
It was my turn to give him a look, one of incredulity. “I want to go home.”
He nodded and began chanting. I had a bit of trouble with the language, my database not having a lot of Pre-Colombian New World Languages to go off of, especially not in the areas colonized by the Spanish. But I could feel the power in the words. The light rose around us. I looked around and saw markings in the air the same color I’d gotten use to from the book.
“Whoa nelly!” Mobian called from his control dais. The lights expanded and then contracted within the timecraft. A spotlight from the ceiling shone down in a circle around us and the lights began to form a line in that lit area.
I heard Marivel gasping as she watched the whole thing, but I stayed focused on Blackstone and the book. And home. And Qiang.
With a sudden thunderclap, it all gave out and sparks flew from the ceiling. Blackstone braced himself on the pedestal. I caught myself on it as well. Marivel just collapsed. The timecraft jerked all over the place, which put me on my ass. After about a minute of tilt-a-whirl, Mobian got control of his ship.
“Captain’s log, Stardate 01-14-2019,” I said, standing back up on shaky knees. My HUD’s clock blinked 12:00 instead of giving the proper date, so I was going off of when we were before all the magical hijinks. “Something went down. We were… shot through a wormhole… in the… asspull nebula. Mr. Chekov, where are we?” I looked up to Mobian.
“I’m the captain of this vessel,” he responded. “We’re in the correct place, with the correct timeline.”
He brought up an image of the Earth. After a moment, he zoomed in, showing what looked like my city, but paused. “Now we watch as time reasserts itself.”
Eyebrow raised, I kept an eye on it while palming the ceramic knife I kept under my bed. I began to wonder if swiping it behind me without knowing for sure Blackstone’s there would take him out, then I realized with a smile that little deal was no longer in play. I wouldn’t have to throw a knife in the dark at a random intruder or set up bear traps. I could just end it right there.
I turned and swiped for his throat. Before I connected, I was yanked out of the timecraft. It was like being thrown out an airlock, but I was the only one being tossed out the now-open door of Mobian’s timecraft. Suddenly, my clock reset back to December, and the day the world changed. The fall was unusual as well. I didn’t feel the normal wind of skydiving, and I accelerated faster than terminal velocity before slowing and settling on the couch where I’d been when Blackstone’s ritual first took off and separated the world.
I sat there, watching as everybody sped up from moving slowly to normal to rushing in superspeed. Nobody touched the presents and the tree began to dry and drop needles everywhere. And I just sat there, unable to move while the clock on my HUD went crazy, finally settling on January 14th, 2019.
Lights out… and then I woke up to find myself dogpiled by Qiang, Citra, Mix N’Max, and even Silver Shark. I knew she still liked me. “What’s up, guys?” I asked, keeping a firm hold of Qiang.
“You went missing!” My daughter said through teary eyes and snot bubbles.
“Something freaky happened,” Max said. “Nobody believes me.”
“Max was really high. He was talking about another life where he’d never met you,” said Sam, who went for a punk green and red mohawk with isolated bangs.
I hugged Qiang. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too, mama,” she said.
I kissed the top of her head a bunch. “You didn’t open your presents.”
“The Little Empress was waiting on you,” Citra said. I kissed her.
“Well, if we’re finally ready for the mother of all belated Christmases,” I said, looking around. “I’ve got a hell of a story for everyone…
Everyone thinks about the benefits of being a world leader, but not so much the downsides. Yes, I can park anywhere I want, especially when people see the missiles and canons on the side of the Flyer. But I’m constantly interrupted by people wanting my attention, even when I’m heading off somewhere to deck someone’s halls and sleigh some people.
This comes up because, right when I’m waiting to hear back from my team and Baron Samedi, Intelligence Chief Pagan called me up with an update about the Paris Situation. It didn’t help he was confusing me with his facts and nuance. “What do you mean they aren’t entirely right- or left-wing? That’s the damn country that invented those terms!”
“Mommy, there’s a tree in the living room!” Qiang said from the doorway. Young Qiang this time. Not the future version that I saw reach down a man’s throat to pull his heart out. That’d be ridiculous. Her hands are too small. She’d have to use both, and a little kid can’t fit both arms down a human throat. Not sure how common of knowledge that is for you, dear reader, but it’s true. Personal experience.
“That’s for sticking shiny things on and hiding presents underneath it!” I told her.
“I know it’s a Christmas tree,” she said. “The movies are all over the TV!” She smiled at me. D’aww, she’s going to be a real heartbreaker some day. When her hands are big enough.
“You can go decorate it and stuff if you like. I’ve just got a call right now,” I told her.
She clapped her hands. “Ok!”
Back with the phone call, Pagan had invited someone from the France Office of the European Section on to give me a better idea what was going on. “Yeah, ok, so a mix, possibly hijacked, with some astroturfing and all. More importantly, did we get what we were looking for?”
“We retrieved the painting the Deep Ones told us about, and the casket from beneath the cathedral. We successfully masked the thefts. Proceeds from the artwork and gold we obtained are expected to more than pay for the operation. We can escalate the riots at your discretion, ma’am.”
“Nah, no need to toss weapons into the mix. And, hey, if this treasure hunt you’re on doesn’t work out, at least it hasn’t cost us anything,” I told him.
“In my eyes, the existence of the map confirms the Squamous Reaver’s existence. I will claim its power for Ricca.”
Either the guy’s developed a treasonous streak, or he’s just really into hunting this thing down. Some people get like that, you know? I think it’s a very old instinct, evolutionarily speaking, to fixate on a hunt. But I’m fairly good-natured as murderous dictators go, so I told him, “If you need a help, for any reason, feel free to let me know.”
After that, it was a nice night of tree decorating up, cookie eating, and movie watching. As it happened, it was nearly one in the morning when I heard from Baron Samedi. Well, first I heard from Skul. With that bunch of magic users, he was the only one who thought to take a cell phone with him.
“We’re getting’ real close, Psycho,” he said.
“Hand me the damn phone or I’ll shove it up your ass!” said Samedi in the background.
“I discovered, with no help from Baron Samedi, that there is a ritual going on. That was me. If he had wanted to dispute that, he should have brought his own phone and maybe shouldn’t insult my phone case’s bedazzling.”
“I am a god!” Samedi said.
“And I’m an atheist. I don’t believe you’ll do anything about it,” Skul said to the Baron. The next part seemed to be directed at me. “We’re attempting to disrupt whatever’s going on. You have a secret admirer.”
“Are there nudes?” I asked.
“There’s hair,” he answered.
Ew. Not liking the thought of how some hostile person got that stuff. “What do you mean about whatever’s going on?”
He responded more quietly. “We’re almost in. We’re bypassing wards to shield the building and alert those inside to our presence. It’s an old asylum. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Not really. I’ve messed with one or two before, but it wasn’t all that significant. I mean, I DID meet a girlfriend in one.”
“You dated crazy?” he asked.
“Worse, I dated a hero,” I told him.
“I have a bet with someone. Was it Venus?” he asked.
“Nope,” I told him. “What’s this ritual thing look like?” I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, wondering how I’d look with something more in the purple shade for lipstick.
“This is advanced stuff. They took a long time doing it. I see a ghost with sunglasses from my position. Blood. There’s a clock and blood, too. Wait, something’s… Baron Samed-”
Everything changed. The decorations, the tree, my daughter asleep in my lap… it all disappeared. “Skul, what the fuck?”
The response from the call wasn’t encouraging. “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.”
It didn’t look like anyone had lived in this place for awhile. I got a rush of weird notices from incoming data that confused me, too. Conflicts in scrapers. No access to the Institute of Science. Weird notices about the Empyreal City Nightmare Zone. Stories of the Fluidics in their remaining safe zones fleeing Mot and civil war. Eschaton the superhero burned down Moscow in the name of Ricca. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
There were three things I wanted immediately: my daughter, my armor, and a clue. My first guess was some sort of Ghost of Alternate History, but one didn’t appear. I checked outside the door and found a hallway. Someone didn’t get rid of the rest of the palace in this continuity. There was a servant out watering a plant in the hallway. She looked up when she saw me. “May I help you, madam?”
“You can see me?” I asked.
“Yes, madam. Should I not be able to?”
“I don’t know. It’s still 2018, right?”
She smiled. “Yes, madam.”
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Does the name Psycho Gecko ring a bell?” I asked.
She began to back away. “It does not. Perhaps I should fetch someone for you.” She set her water jug down and turned.
I put my hand over her mouth before she could call out. “Tis the season for me to give you a choice. You can either go sit in that residence for awhile and pretend you got knocked out for awhile, or you can call out.”
She made a sound, so I slammed her head into the wall, knocking her out. It only occurred to me after my percussive anesthesia that she might be trying to signal agreement with shutting up voluntarily. I left her safely locked in the residence while I made my way out of the palace.
The secret is to just be cool, dudes. Walk like you belong there. Seeing as it’s my damn country, I know I do. But whatever this is, they don’t realize that and I don’t have my power armor. Or nanites. The lack of my nanomachines is troubling in particular. Even if they for sure didn’t have my face on file after walking across the courtyard, there aren’t many people strutting their stuff with four arms.
Everything felt different in the city. It had that tension I hadn’t noticed until it was gone. The one where regular people know they can’t be too much themselves in public. I didn’t see any Deep Ones at all until I came across one with a cart strapped to him. He was bent over while the owner of the cart lashed him with a short whip.
The Deep One stood suddenly and grabbed the man’s arm. With a pop, he tore the arm out of its socket. The Deep One began tugging at his restraints amid spewing blood and screams. It was locked on, and he was trying to tear off the thick lock with his claws.
“Hold still,” I said, jogging over. My laser eye lit up and cut a line down the harness next to the lock. A couple seconds of effort later and he had the collar off.
“Thanks,” he said before booking it down a side street. I went the opposite direction, and didn’t trail blood after me. I had to find myself a liquor store, so I headed for the traditionally poor section of town. World leader 101: keeping people drunk is an easy way to control them. They can’t even organize like that because if you get enough drunk people in one place, they turn their anger on each other.
I slowed down and caught my breath before heading into one such store. “You have a marker?” I asked of the teller.
The pudgy, balding man with the goatee looked around and reached for something. Before handing it over, he stopped. “What’s this for?”
“Calling a ride,” I said.
He squinted curiously, so I nodded toward the palace and reached for the marker. “I’m on assignment.”
He went to hand it to me. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a headbutt, then grabbed his had and slammed it down on the counter again and again. I finished him off with a beer bottle to the back of the head. But I didn’t kill him. No, I just covered him in high-proof liquor and used that marker to draw out a figure of a man in a top hat on a wall away from the counter. “Ok, calling Baron Kriminel. You out there, Baron? I hope you’re not too picky about going through Papa Legba, but I know you do this stuff in Memphis. I got wine, rum, a whole damn liquor store for you.”
When that got no answer, it was time to resort to the bigger offering. I sighed and turned to shoot a puddle of moonshine pooling under the counter. The moonshine lit up with blue flame that climbed the counter and caught the cashier on fire. As expected, that woke him up, and led to screaming and flailing.
Kriminel didn’t show. Fuck. There goes getting out of this with magic.
I headed out the doorway…
…and found myself in New York state, standing outside an old, abandoned home for the criminally insane.
Standing before me was a crying young man, not even to his mid-twenties, with long hair and a beard that existed more for lack of shaving than actual effort. Purple light from his fingertips joined into an orb at his palm. “Come all the way through,” he said.
I looked at the doorway I was in. The other side showed the liquor store that was catching fire as the cashier ran around trying to put himself out.
“Maybe I don’t wanna,” I said.
“It’s the only way we can get back,” he said through tears and strain of effort.
“Back where? Who are you? Where are we?” I asked.
“I’m Douglas Blackstone. I’m the person who has been tormenting you so I could obtain the reagents I needed to get here. A world where you never existed.”
I was on him in a flash, throwing him to the ground. “You got rid of my daughter!”
He pushed a hand to my chest and said a word that threw me into the air. Purple tendrils appeared from thin air and wrapped around my arms and legs, holding me captive. Blackstone stood up, coughing and wiping himself. “You killed my family. If you care about your daughter, think about what you’d do to the man responsible. How you’d spend years preparing for revenge. The things you would give up. I’ve spent six years of my life on this… and I get here and they’re still dead. And things seem worse. What kind of fucking joke is this?” He ran his fingers through his hair to get a handle on himself.
I just raised an eyebrow. “The Aristocrats.”
In a moment of dark empathy, we both started laughing. After he calmed, he looked up at me. “As much as I would love to kill you or leave you behind in this world, I need you for the ritual. If that failure of yours is normal for you, you can’t manage magic of this magnitude on your own.”
“So… you tried to get me to die while you worked on your magic plan to somehow shift everything to a timeline where I don’t exist, and upon getting what you wished for it turns out not to be worth it. Yeah, sounds like a Christmas miracle.” I tried to spit on him.
Blackstone sidestepped it. He shook his head and glanced at a phone laying in the snow nearby. “I never thought you… listen, do you want to get back or not? I vow to work with you and not see you come to harm until we are back in our timeline, and may this vow be binding upon the spirits and the universe. Agreed?”
He made a gesture and interlocking symbols appeared in the air between us.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I already preferred a world where I existed, thank you very much.” The symbols shifted, then shot into a line between myself and Blackstone. I immediately felt the tendrils loosen and gently lower me to the ground. I walked over and tried to punch him, but my hand stopped of its own accord inches from his face. “You agreed to it, too,” he said by way of explanation.
Instead, I grunted my frustration and began to rub my arms, having not been dressed for snowy New York. “Ok then. What do we need to get back to a wonderful life?”
“Bet you didn’t expect to see much of me from here on out, eh?” I asked the man in the doorway. He was hidden by shadow, but I could make out the cane he held himself up by.
“You tempt fate calling me,” he said.
I held out a jug. “That’s ok. I brought rum to tempt you.” I sensed more than saw the smile. The darkness enveloping the loa in that door frame wasn’t mundane in nature. My HUD classified it as a magical anomaly as well. Despite that, the loa tend to enjoy wetting their whistles. “Unless I’m getting you mixed up with the Baron. I’ve seen him in action recently, and I thought it was him at the bar in Memphis. I don’t intentionally mean disrespect. I’m just a poor, confused little mortal.”
The Back Alley Voodoo Bar on Beale Street is one of the villain bars that isn’t normally accessible to civilians or heroes precisely because of the criteria for entry that involve a representation of who I used to believe was Baron Samedi.
Papa Legba reached out and took the jug from me. His hand passed out of shadow to do so, revealing an old, thin, weathered hand. “You assumed too much. I answer the calls of mortals much of the time, but we chose Baron Kriminel to be the doorman. He likes you supervillains. And if the Baron Samedi was here, I think you would soon find yourself bearing a dark baby with dark powers in that tummy of yours.” He poked my belly with his cane.
I snorted. “He’s a little old for me by, what, a few hundred years?”
“That hasn’t stopped him yet,” answered Papa. “I would not be surprised if he tries the next time he sees you.”
“That’s going to make this awkward then, because that’s what I’m going through you for,” I said. “I believe there are protocols for your particular branch.” I put it as diplomatically as I could, considering my conflict with the Three Hares.
The Hares are a collection of stranded aliens, powerful supers who had been seen as gods once upon a time, and the human descendants of those supers. Considering they tried to brainwash me at one point and pretend I was another god, it’s possible they aren’t even immortal so much as passing along code names. The fighting ended when we found out a rogue alien named Barkiel had been manipulating events to set loose Mot, an ancient and nigh-unstoppable superhuman powerful enough to end the world as we know it. I’d taken care of Mot for them, and my allies, the hero Venus and the superhuman activist Titan, figured out something like an agreement afterward. And proved that we’ve grown way, way beyond simply giving ourselves the names of mythological gods.
Venus sent me an email about the further details of the peace they negotiated with the Hares. I should read it someday. Instead, I set about contacting the loa portion.
Legba cocked his head. “What does the Psychopomp want with an old man like Papa Legba?”
I swept my hand back to the table in the room I was in. “Perhaps you could bring me Baron Samedi and enjoy some of this hot red beans and rice I have here in the kitchen.”
I hadn’t used my own place for the ritual, but a local restaurant had jumped at the chance to be especially nice to the dictator. When you control a country, people just jump at the chance to do nice things for you. And if you happen to favor them in the future, well, that’s just being nice to your friends. And that wouldn’t count as bribery pretty much anywhere.
Legba stood up straight all of a sudden and twirled his cane. “That sounds wonderful, thank you,” he said as he stepped out of the shadows. He’d gone from old to young and horny. They looked like bulls horns a bit. He didn’t exactly let me study them while he headed to the other room.
The doorway he’d left was suddenly filled with a bespectacled man in a top hat and a black coat over purple shirt and pants. “What brings me here?” he asked before looking me over and cocking an eyebrow. “Psycho Gecko. Damn fine to see you.”
“Samedi, you ol’ horn dog. All that time I was messing around with the Hares and I never ran into you?” I walked over and gave him air kisses.
“That is truly a shame. You’re a hell of a woman.” He grabbed my ass.
I grabbed his balls and squeezed. “With long, sharp nails. Interested in being one, too?”
He laughed and we let each other go. “What are you fuckin’ around with now to give me a call?”
I handed him a jar of rum. “Thought you might be interested in helping me find out some information about some specific ghosts.”
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I know you Three Hares types like to pretend you’re gods, but if you can’t be arsed to care about someone showing you’re asleep at the job, I guess that’s on you. In the meantime, feel free to relax. But what would I get the people who have hidden compounds, alien technology, and money squirreled away? A really good razor?”
The Baron chuckled. “Let’s talk land, head bitch of of Mu.”
Both of the loa had left by the time I was once again visited. Having become secure in other ways, and remembering how the Ghost of Christmas Present had toyed with me, I didn’t bother squeezing into the armor for this one. No, when the clock struck one and a figure in a black hood and robe appeared, transparent as always.
It found me in my own bed, nude, hands moving under the covers and a loud buzzing noise. It stepped toward me, then threw the hood back. She had a face painted like the Calavera Catrina, with her face painted like a stylized skull, with bright blue “petals” around the blacked-out makeup surrounding the eyes. As pretty as it was, the the makeup ended at her neck. That wasn’t a painted spine connecting her head to a bony chase. Whatever kind of ghost she is and powers she has, she couldn’t be mistaken for someone with powers in a costume.
She put her hands on her hips. “Is this meant to shock me? I’ve seen it, honey.”
I sat up and threw the cover up. Before it even fell from the air between us, I fired the plasma tether. The scientists thought it up. Instead of a smaller blast, this one fires as a continuous arc. The yellow-orange discharge lit up the see-through ghost, which burst and showed of the scorched wall. I powered off the plasma tether and set it aside. After applying a bucket of water to the wall, and walked into my closet to throw on a dress real quick.
I turned around and there was the ghost again, standing at the doorway. “Did you think that would stop me?”
“Nah,” I told her, holding out my hand. “But it makes me feel better.”
The spirit grabbed my hand and squeezed with an intention to inflict pain, but my grip’s pretty good too. It’s when she let go that I noticed we’d ended up somewhere, and somewhen, different. We were in my office, being ransacked by people speaking American English and dressed in civilian clothes but with SMGs and pistols around. “Dead at last, dead at last. Christ Almighty, she’s dead at last. You think they’re out there toppling statues?”
“That’s what the other team’s supposed to be doing. May not be working. If it doesn’t, the extraction team has a nuke to leave behind,” said another.
One of them held up a diamond broach and whistled. “This is a profitable mission if we’re quiet to home base.”
“Yeah, but where did she hide the schematics. Blueprints. Nuclear codes! There has to be some kind of documentation. Were the scientists the only ones who could read here?” asked one of the three. He turned to the door. “How we doin’, Frank?”
From outside came a thud.
The one who called out pulled his pistol. He eased up to the door and turned the knob. The door fell in, along with the body of another “civilian”. The two further back in the office began to pack up whatever they’d found, which seemed to be art ripped out of the frames and some jewelry. The man in the doorway’s head exploded. A blood hand stuck through it holding a pistol of its own that shot one of the others in the head. The last remaining one opened fire on his comrade, who needed the extra bullets like he needed a fist-sized hole in the head. The corpse collapsed. The owner of the fist seemingly vanished into thin air.
The last remaining looter looked for anyone. Then he realized what was up and opened swept the gun from side to side, firing wildly. He was stopped when the gun flew upwards out of his hands and a woman appeared. Blood marred the outfit she wore, with flecks on her blonde hair and just under eyes that that revealed Asian heritage. I liked the outfit, too. Close-fitting, but not skintight, with a short skirt and leggings, all dark red with gilded portions that formed a dragon soaring through the red fabric.
Her face rippled and became a smiling reptilian visage. She reached down his screaming throat and pulled his heart out only so far as his throat, where she left it.
“I like her,” I said to the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The ghost responded, “You might. She’s your daughter.”
The guy who had been shot in the head stood up and shot her in the head. She fell to the ground.
The ghost coughed. “She was your daughter.” She held her hand out for me.
I ran to the future Qiang. “The fuck is the point of this?”
“Showing you what your life is leading to,” said the ghost. “Let’s go. We have much of this dark future to see.”
“Bullshit,” I told her, looking over my downed daughter and running a finger over the wound and bullet. “This story you’re copying might be old-fashioned, but it’s about changing someone’s ways. Exactly what ways do I change to prevent my girl from getting shot in the head.” I turned and looked at the ghost, laser eye glowing.
She looked at me. “You could end it.” She seemed shocked at the words, then turned to glance behind her.
“You done fucked up now, pretty pretty,” said Baron Samedi, grinning at her from behind his skull facepaint and glowing eyes. “Tell the truth now, skeleton cunt.”
“I was told to frame things as needed to encourage Psycho Gecko to depression and worse,” she said. “My master believes it would be easy. It’s the holidays.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.” I backed off as Qiang opened her eyes and sat up, throwing a knife through the open door. I heard a cry from the last of the infiltrators, then another thud from out there. Oh, right. There was a living guy here. Kinda lost track of it in the middle of seeing my daughter shot in the face.
Qiang shook the bullet free from her skin, which had stopped it. There were some darker colors than regula flesh in there, so maybe some subdermal bulletproof nanotube mesh? Either way, she got up, swore to herself, and ran out the door to go finish off the guy.
Samedi watched her go, too, until I hopped up and hit him on the arm. “Hey, she’s my kid.”
He turned to me. “Kids grow up.”
I grabbed his throat and started choking. He sputtered and spat a cigar in my face. I charged him. We rolled over a few times, the Ghost of Christmas Future forgotten. In the middle of pulling the Baron’s top hat over his face and punching it, I noticed her turn and fade away. Everything looked dark again, as we were back in my closet. I quickly pulled the top hat off. “You able to follow her?”
“I am the master of the dead, bitch. Her ass can’t hide through space or time, though it helped find you that you two never entirely left this room. Shit, I put my mark on her the moment we touched.” He patted my butt to emphasize the word “touch”.
I pulled his top hat back down and socked him in the nose again before standing up. “Good. I have just the team to go pay this little gaslighting son of a petaQ a visit. Commissioner Gordon, it’s time to light the batshit signal.”
I know, I had to do it. I passed out, of course, but don’t believe the hype. I wasn’t out long enough long, just long enough to wake up in the arms of a man with the body of a Greek god. I don’t know when Apollo circled back around, I just know he was carrying me.
I got the sense Titan had been shielding us with his wings. He stopped to look back, but Apollo yelled something back. I don’t know if I hit my head again, but I know I passed out. When I woke up, I was propped against the door of a really hot building. The smoke was making me cough, but a Venus ran out with a baby in her arms. I fell down, hacking and vomiting.
Next thing I knew, I woke up strapped with my belly to the front of a cart that rolled down a street. I couldn’t see where I was going, but there were gunshots and impacts against the back and ass of my armor. I tried to turn, but then I hit some sort of barricade and the cart flipped.
Not good times for me, and the didn’t get better until I awoke coughing to a Riccan medic applying nanites via aerosol spray up my nose. “Easy, Empress. You’ve suffered a lot of brain trauma.”
I nodded and sat back, working on breathing. Not the best way to apply nanites, but it does get to the lungs a lot quicker, and I remembered something about smoke at the time. After a moment, I had time to ask, “Anything permanent?”
“Not now that we’ve applied the nanos. You were out of your own, Empress,” he pointed out. He pulled out a flashlight. “I need to check pupillary response.”
I let him go through checking me real quick, but once he seemed sure I was ok, I shooed him off. I looked around as I made sure to signal the nanites to emphasize my brain and essential organs over my lost arms and any skin-deep injuries. The carrier bay of the Psycho Flyer was loaded down with the injured, my soldiers doing their best to see to them. They hadn’t been sent out for a rescue mission.
I didn’t see the heroes, Hares, or Titan in there. They’d stayed behind to help with the evacuation. Even the Hares. The news showed Apollo trying to whisk people out of ground zero as Mot stalked the city, then left for greener pastures. And they get a lot greener around there.
And once I got back in control, I was able to contact Titan’s people to coordinate getting the wounded to Cape Diem bases for medical treatment and evac via portal to better places, including some who went with me to Ricca. I had other things to prepare. I couldn’t run myself ragged trying to get more than a billion Indians out of the way of a being that devours people, or the next billion next door in China.
It had been an emotional whiplash. Rage at Barkiel trying to kill my daughter. Tension. And then all kinds of shit from the actual fight with Barkiel that hadn’t even been processed. Sympathy. Humiliation. Indignation, which isn’t quite the same as anger. I can tell, because there’s still plenty of rage from knowing he played me like a harp from hell. And I know it’s boring to mention I spent time processing this kinda shit, but not doing so got me into this mess. For all I know, I had plenty of other enemies who would send a bomb to kill my daughter. My first assumption was to think it was the Hares, and that’s exactly what Barkiel wanted me to think to make his plan work. I can’t be going up against Mot with that kind of handicap.
So I And, let’s face it, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. If Barkiel was telling the truth, it sounds like pretty much everything I’ve done since that whole time travel mess has played into this. And I didn’t even go anywhere good, like to go back in time and become Genghis Khan’s father, or kill slavers during the American Civil War, or punch Hitler in his face while wearing Puerto Rico’s flag on my chest. But no, I had to go, leave behind a broken time machine, and not save myself as a kid.
Barkiel really hammers home how important it is not to get too wrapped up in all that. For all his manipulations, he let loose a super with who-knows-what powers that promptly devoured him. It was that, or face the god of war. The same asshole wannabe deity stayed behind to fight something he had to know he couldn’t beat, and then Apollo carried me out. Going to subtract points for using me as a door stop and a battering ram, though.
All that stuff and more went through my mind as I laid in a nanite bath in full armor, healing and repairing. I sent a great many of the nanites out to build more and steal materials. That involved a raid of the refrigerator, for instance, where I made absolutely sure they didn’t touch anything with Max’s name written on it. The guy’s full of so many substances that eating after him or stealing his food could mean all sorts of nastiness. Only guy on earth who could start a zombie plague with an STD.
If it seems that I was basically sulking in a tub, yeah, a little. But I was rebuilding myself. And, more importantly, I was building a little something to deal with Mot. It would take a lot to kill him, and the future-that-won’t-be used armies and supers had plenty at their disposal. But they didn’t have my brain. Which sounds a lot more braggy than intended. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with my other Earth of origin and the portal to it in Canada, but I have to imagine there was some reason they didn’t step in to help in the other timeline.
Why bring up that delightful place? Because of the technology required to breach the dimensional barriers of the universe and cross into a new dimension. That’s right, that simple little weapon is the answer. Because when ever problem’s a nail, then stop, because it’s hammer time.
Qiang sought me out in my little tub. “Mommy? Are you ok? They said you were hurt.”
I had to connect to a music speaker around the house. “I’m ok, sweetheart. I got hurt, but unless I’m destroyed completely, I can come back better than ever.”
She hugged the side of my tank. “You broke the kitchen.”
I laughed through the speaker. “I was mad and did something stupid.”
“Why’d you do that?” she asked. The pouty and accusing way she asked that made me laugh again.
“Honey bear, someone made me so mad I couldn’t think straight and I did dumb things.”
“I don’t want to be so mad that I, that I, that I don’t, um,” she went on.
“Sweety,” I interrupted her, “Everyone gets mad. Even people who go around all snobby saying, ‘I don’t get mad or sad, everything I do is because of my brain being smart’, but it’s their brain that gets mad, too. Because they don’t think they are being that way, they don’t realize it and don’t know how to deal with it. There are good ways to deal with anger.”
“Like when you and Uncle Max drink that stuff?” she asked.
Huh. She got me there. “Yes, but that’s a special drink for adults that can also make people act stupid if you don’t use it right. I’ll teach you more once I’m done beating someone who is very, very bad.”
“Some people say you’re bad,” she said.
“This person’s way worse and bad things are going to happen if he’s allowed to do what he wants.”
“What kind of things?” she asked.
I didn’t tell her, but I’d been keeping track of that. At first, he seemed to be moving at just a walking pace. They could try to move folks out of the path. Try. It’s hard to hundreds of thousands of folks to up and move in so little time, and those are the ones capable of moving under their own power. Then he teleported straight to another city. The noises coming out of Allahabad don’t sound good. One guy on the Indian military lines just kept repeating “They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other,” over and over until I found a way to disrupt his signal. It went out on its own soon afterward.
Morale’s important right now, and this is the time to manage it. That’s part of why I’m taking my time. The other part has to do with a pair of D-Bombs. They’ll be a bit on the crude side rushing this through. Less precise, and I won’t have enough to teleport them in using another bomb as a sort of wormhole. That means hand delivery, and this HAS to go right. I don’t know if I can trust Dudebots. I think this has to be me. Or maybe I still think I have to personally do all this.
There’s basically a hurricane moving across India. There are random earthquakes. Gotta give the Hares credit for however they sealed this guy up if it was able to stop this sort of thing. California’s even on fire again, but that might just be how that state works now for eleven months out of the year. Ricca’s shield has had to go up because of all the tsunamis.
Oh great, superspeed. He’s got superspeed too. I had a top, down satellite view and he just zipped right the fuck out of Allahabad and crashed into Lahore, Pakistan, population 5 million while heroes are still playing catch up trying to calm people down and get them out of Allahabad in India. He dragged the hurricane with him. If it was almost anybody else, that’d be awesome. A superspeed hurricane. That’d be a good name for a band.
Suddenly, a bright orb flew through Earth’s atmosphere and began to fly into the hurricane clockwise to the hurricane’s counterclockwise spin. “People of Earth!” a voice said, taking over all frequencies and channels. “I am the Mobian, and I promise you that Earth will not fall while I live. This being is Mot, and he has powers beyond that of any superhuman to walk the face of the planet, but he can be stopped” He spoke with such conviction, I gotta say I got goosebumps.
As usual, someone had to fuck it up. “General Mayhew here. We are monitoring the situation and the world wonders: how? What is Mot after?”
Mobian sighed. “Your life. I know that Mot will only rest when the world is ashes. I’ve seen it in a future that cannot come to pass. You can’t debate him, you can’t buy him off with money or a fiefdom. It is at the core of his being that every human is inferior and must be purged.”
“Mobian, if this is meant to inspire hope, you’re doing it wrong,” chimed in Titan’s voice.
“I’m Psychopomp Gecko,” I said. “This is my home, and I’ve never met anyone too powerful to die.” There in my palace, I rose out of the solution of the nanite tank. Taller than I had been, and ripped. I looked so good, I could have done an infomercial, or even porn.
“You have a plan?” asked this General. I pulled my armor out from the solution and slid it on, nanites melding it to my skin.
“I need Mot held in one place and I need to get close to him. Then I’ll need everyone to run,” I told them just before I slipped on my helmet and the nanites built up a final seal meant to be permanent.
I gave Qiang a long hug before I grabbed the D-Bomb cluster by a pair of straps I’d built onto it.
To that same channel Mobian had opened up, I said, “I looked and saw a pale horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hell was coming after him.”
I’m “swearing” off women other than my wife. Yes, the square quotes are intentional. I didn’t swear actually swear or promise or make a deal about anything. I’m just going to try. I don’t know why it seems worthwhile to me. I don’t love Citra. We’re friendly but not friends. Maybe the best reason I can come up with is the dignity of my position. I mean, just imagine how hard it’d be to take a world leader seriously if I had strippers and porn stars doing tell-all interviews describing what my sex parts look like in an embarrassing way. Like saying it’s abnormally big and resembled a Sarlacc pit.
I know, it’s weird. It’s just that her feelings suddenly matter more after a few of Max’s beers. Not that they were completely out of mind. Carl, Moai, Qiang, Max… not the first people I cared about.
I confronted someone I didn’t care about, too. I visited Elda. Technically, she’s supposed to be my wife as part of a political marriage with the Bronze City over on the island of Mu. I betrayed her and put her into a coma while marrying Citra who used nanite surgery to look like her. I stopped by a special room in the hospital that no one knows about and left a sword in there. “Hello Elda. Long time no see.”
She didn’t respond, naturally. The equipment hooked up to her showed her to be healthy enough. The nanites were keeping her comatose. She’d lost weight, though. I sent out out an order to nanites and the medical staff. “A bit skinny there. I’ll work on that. I’ve wronged you, Elda. No duh, right? You had dreams of being some warrior princess and here I come to be the one to marry you. I should have worked something out with you that didn’t involve hurting you.” The nanites made sure my message go through to her, because science. Hail science!
“I’m sorry. This sword is the first of the gifts I’ll be throwing together for you. They’ll bring up clothes later and I have armor being printed off for you. Before I… there’s a fight coming up involving people who have a reputation as gods, and the powers to back it up. When I go, I’m going to make sure we drop you off somewhere. Give you a shot at being your own person, as you deserve. I’ll throw in some money and arrange for a tutor on this crazy new world you’ll be in, but I think you’ll fit in. The land I have in mind is a land of conflict, where you can find your way for good or ill. A land where you can, with effort, become who you want to be out from under my shadow.”
I stepped close and laid my hand over hers. “I am by far the shittiest spouse you could have gotten. I hope you find a better life than I obviously planned for you.”
That decision’s going to bite me in the ass at some point. But it’s still the right one. Ugh, that statement… I need a beer.
Speaking of things that can fuck me over, Hu. Hu’s attempts to get me to understand proportionality, like Citra, rubbed off on me. The dude’s still not being my liason another time, but he’s got good skills and he cares. He just fucked up. I suppose the case could be made for how I shouldn’t have killed that judge or Wong the Director, but I can rationalize it another way. Hu is still good at his job despite his poor judgment, in which he went above and beyond his authorized powers. Wong and that judge’s entire job amounted to their judgment and how they used it. They both showed themselves incompetent with the powers vested in them, which was hazardous to my nation.
Side note: Queen Beetrice, the giant bee woman obsessed with snoo-snooing me to death, has heard I did a good job on the courts and thinks I need to help out over in North Korea. They are my people too, but I guess her self-education hasn’t prepared her for making North Korea’s judicial system less gulag-y. I got her some notes, but that’s the best I could do. I have more important things to worry about than that at this point.
I have the Place du Bourg-de-Four under so much surveillance it would make a porn site feel forgotten. Do you know how many rats fart there on average each day? I do. Disturbances in the pattern of rat farts could be the only indication the Three Hares have snuck an ambush into place or deployed some form of weapon. Rat farts start petering off and then I find out there’s poison gas hidden around that’s been killing them off slowly while waiting on me to get close.
The Hares wouldn’t expect me to pay attention, but I’ll show them. I’ll show all of them. There’s an ancient conspiracy uniting ancient European, African, American, Asian, and Oceanian mythology, involving gods and aliens guiding the world while remaining hidden, and the rats will tell me if they try to kill me. Yes, the Three Hares will rue the day Psycho Gecko started taking her medication! Mwahahahaha!
So like I said, the stuff Max is giving me for my mental health has done wonders to make me a more sane and functional person. And it’s all thanks to my extensive drinking of alcohol. Couldn’t have done it without putting all that beer in me. It’s practically made me a role model compared to my old self.
That doesn’t mean all my problems are solved. In addition to keeping an eye on the Three Hares, the United States government wants me to give back Rhonda, Leland, and Kayla. I’ve refused on the grounds of Ricca being safer. The envoy from the U.S. Started to laugh at the idea that U.S. Citizens are safer in an foreign dictatorship until I showed him the front page of the latest newspaper showing brutal murders committed by police, children being rounded up and placed into internment camps, and constant mass shootings. The only response was an awkward, “We didn’t realize you subscribed to American news.”
He’d had a drink of water. It would have been so easy. An aneurysm. A heart attack. A stroke. He sat there, speaking as if I needed to do what he said or I’d be obliterated. Because how dare anybody challenge them. The rest of the world just has to let them push them around. Makes me want to find something big to shove, whole, up that guy’s ass. Reminds me a lot of myself.
Well, Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day. The Visigoths didn’t have dimensional technology. I do, so I’ve been throwing one together. It’s all part of the plan, you see. Get peace, or make them die trying. But that’s all boring. I’ve built plenty of those. The really interesting stuff happened, as it so often does, when I was in the shower.
I was sudsing myself up with all four arms, getting my curves nice and clean. The door rang. It was that pizza I ordered that I didn’t have enough money to pay for.
Fanservice over. I was farting my way through another shower when someone screamed my name. It’s not an unusual sound for the shower, but I do prefer the person screaming it be in there with me when the magic’s happening. I didn’t think too much of it, until more voices joined in. Figuring the household wasn’t turning into my own personal chorus of the damned, I threw a towel around my waist, another around my boobs, and a last one around my hair. The final towel I tightened into a spiral for self defense.
I found Silver Shark, Citra, and Rhonda all surrounding Qiang. My daughter held a box between both hands. The top of it had fallen open toward me and I read the phrase “Hold your hands on the markers for the surprise!”
I started to ask what was going on until I realized Qiang was shaking. One second I was in the hallway, the next I was by all of them at the door. Qiang looked up at me. “Mommy what is it? It said to pick it up?”
I looked down at the digital timer inside the box. It was made of a black composite material, with two things sticking up that could have been shortwave antennae until one of the tips began to glow and turned to point at me. The other light up with a hologram of a dark silhouette. “Psychopomp Gecko. The glorious apparatus will negotiate with your successor.”
The Three Hares, those slimy sons of parakeets.
“Just hold onto it… let me look.” I checked it over from various angles, then popped an eye out and eased it down between the bomb and the box. While it had pressed against the sides of the box with either pressure sensors or fingerprint scanners, there wasn’t anything like that on the other sides. “How are your arms, sweety?” I asked as I popped the eye back in.
“They huuurt!” Qiang whined.
I nodded. “I nee you to keep your hands there, but we can set them it down on something. Let’s just sit you down, ok?”
She nodded and I guided her over to a little table in the living room where she could sit down and rest herself and her arms. “A person can be perfectly strong, but holding something out in front of you with arms extended makes anybody tired quick. It’s- no, we’ll discuss Tai Chi later. What we have here is a small example of an implosive-explosive sub-molecular device. Not a big deal at all, I promise y’all.”
It was the size that was so astonishing. Excellent miniaturization. The thing wasn’t round, but it was a couple baseballs in size.
It seemed like a longshot, but I reached in with a finger and pressed it to what I’d identified as a crucial computerized part of the initiation sequence. A lot of these explosives, it’s really a matter of chemistry and physics. Fire or water can set stuff off, or simple kinetics. It often just depends on which chemicals are used in the process. Even an atomic bomb isn’t that complicated of a weapon. My ability to bond with computers would be useless against Little Boy, for instance.
The difference here is that this thing had sensors rigged up, and a timer. I’d have just put a timer on to scare someone while the thing detonated whenever I wanted. This person put one on to tell me I had five minutes to fix the problem.
When I linked up with it, I found that an internal mechanism was capable of reading when the timer reached zero to activate an internal explosive driving… ya know, unless I want this censored in that dimension, I should probably keep the specifics to myself. Don’t want Optimal Outer Control getting in trouble for teaching people how to build a nuclear weapon, regardless of the availability of plutionium over there.
Regardless, the flaw wasn’t in the fundamental function of the bomb, but in how it was meant to be triggered. The sensors on the side were fingerprint scanners, which meant they specifically targeted my daughter out of a desire to die by having as much of their body shoved up their own ass as humanly possible. They would trigger the explosives that would initiate the fission reaction if released. Otherwise, the timer would make it all happen.
It was actually pretty simple to trick the computer in there into increasing the amount of time and holding onto a false positive for the scanners. “Ok, hon, you can take your hands off.”
“You promise nothing bad will happen?” my crying daughter asked.
Oh, something bad will happen to someone for this. “Mommy promises.”
Qiang pulled her hands away quickly, then started jumping and screaming in relief when nothing happened. I managed to put the bomb into shutdown mode, then disconnected and called up the Institue of Science. Dr. Creeper practically flew. Actually, he completely flew. I heard him roar in on an old-fashioned rocketpack that looked like if Wile E. Coyote joined the Third Reich. “I vill personally deliver zis to a secure room for decommissioning, my lady,” he announced.
I leaned in to whisper so no one else would hear. “Make sure the room can contain a nuclear bomb. This one’s crude and small, but still.”
He nodded, tucked the bomb under one arm, raised a fist to the air, and blasted off again.
“There goes trouble,” said Silver Shark as she watched the trail of his rocket power through the air.
“Make it double,” I said flatly.
“Are you alright?” she asked, looking at me. “I expected you to be pissed, or to go laughing mad.”
“I’m fine, Sharky,” I said, cracking my fingers and walking back in. Even when I hugged my girl to me, the cold rage in me refused to yield.
I’ll get peace when the Three Hares rest in it. All of them.
Sitting around and waiting isn’t much of a life for me, but it does give me time to catch up on doing things that need doing. For instance, we had a successful first test of the shield generator. It’s more my design, but the guys at the Institute of Science said they built in a few redundancies for the sake of security. When I asked for specifics, since the entire thing’s made for our security, they showed me fake panels on it that just look like you’re doing stuff if you mess with it. Now that it’s functional, they’re going to wire those panels so that messing with them sends a signal to myself and the men and women of the Riccan Armed Forces.
It also gave me time for a nice lunch meeting with Hu that I didn’t rush. It was overdue, but I wanted to prepare first. Part of that preparation involved a nice lunch outside on a balcony. Yes, I have balconies. I’ve sometimes imagined I’m never going to keep finding rooms and other areas on this house. I’m going to notice a door I never opened before, look inside, and find an entire dead menagerie of exotic animals. The smell will be horrible. But at least I knew about the balconies. Being outside, missing them would be particularly egregious.
I munched on some lumpia as Hu was sent out to meet with me. “Hey there, Hu,” I said, waving him over with the fried, flaky roll in hand. I moved a file folder out of the way as he sat in the only other chair available. Instead of files, I pushed over the plate of lumpia. “Care for one? I made them myself.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” he replied.
“You’re welcome.” I set one on a plate that I pushed toward him. “They’re not really all that authentic, since I focus on meat and don’t care for the normal mix of veggies. But I didn’t say they were authentic, just that I made them.”
“Are you alright, Empress? Have you been drinking again?” He took off his shades and pulled out a wipe to clean them off. He appraised me with bare eyes and I gifted him with a smile. He set his glasses down to try a bit of my lumpia.
“No, silly. Just offering you food here. And I offer all my people of Ricca my protection and services as the sovereign. I am the state, so they don’t have to. I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy ruling. And despite the fact that I am a vicious killer known to utilize chemical, sonic, and dimensional weaponry, I’m trusted with both. You trust me to rule, and you trust that I didn’t poison you on a whim just now.”
He looked down at the roll he’d taken a couple bites of. Then he looked up at me and sat back. I held up a hand to reassure him. “Nope, I didn’t poison you, but the point is that you know I cooked it and you trust me. It’s just lumpia.”
I lifted the plate up so I could grab one underneath it and throw the empty plate at the floor, smashing it.
“Empress?” asked Hu, still no longer touching his lumpia.
I smiled. “I wanted to be dramatic and smash a plate, just not while wasting the food. I think it’s damn good lumpia.” I set the plate down and continued. “There is an enormous trust placed in me that is not put in you. You are not the one people look to when things go wrong. When rebels storm the palace to throw someone’s neck into a guillotine, it’s mine they’re after, not yours.” I grabbed the file and set that on his plate, then flipped it open. “These signatures creating a paper trail, though, are not mine. Some people know how much I dislike paper these days. Plus, I’m a career criminal even if you don’t count my time in politics. Creating more evidence someone could use if a team of heroes decides to make their name delivering me to the UN? Not smart for me.”
“I can explain,” he said.
I nodded. “Good, because that’s why I invited you. I want to know why you’re issuing orders in my name for the sorts of things only I can sign off on. It was apparently quite the secret.”
“You hadn’t been entirely well after returning from captivity. I’ve been led to understand your nightmares are worse. You had been irritable, more murderous. Instability is the bane of nations. I used my own judgment to moderate your impulses militarily so that your disregard for human life did not extend to the grandiose crisis created by your predecessor. I feared you would lash out and create a similar situation to the one that required his removal.”
“What about my demeanor and drinking?” I asked. I wanted to keep the questions as open-ended as possible. Let him create a story to be tested and knocked down, if need be. Knowing how much I was messed up, I went back through the recordings of my memories.
“Your substance abuse convinced me I was right. Heavy drug and alcohol usage is a sign of distress after a traumatic period. I began researching therapists as well, but this is a delicate and private matter.” Hu picked up his glasses and tapped the side. A file appeared in my own augmented reality with a few names of therapists with dossiers attached. I checked to make sure they were real, then I skimmed to see if he’d done more work than a Wikipedia entry. Everything looked legit from that brief view.
“Doesn’t matter. Talk to me. Question me constructively. Suggest better alternatives. Let me know when I screwed up. I welcome that kind of interaction to help me improve. It’s better than not figuring out my mistakes until I have Eschaton halfway up my ass. And by all means exercise your power to do what you think is best. Issue your orders. But you don’t get to issue my orders.”
Hu sat there in silence for a minute after I stopped, then bowed his head. “Empress.”
“Intelligence Chief Pagan will see to your replacement. Take the day to organize the files for the continuity of your successor. Then you will be put on leave for the immediate future while Pagan decides your reassignment.”
Hu sat for a moment, then reached for his lumpia. He took a last, deliberate bite. He set it down and stood up, then bowed low. “By your leave, Empress.”
I got to eat another one before my next meeting was shown in. She sat across from me, smiling. “Hi baba!”
“Hello dear. What’s this I heard about you making fun of another student?”
“I don’t know.” She bowed her head but looked up at me.
“You don’t know?” I asked. I moved aside Hu’s plate and tore a roll of lumpia in half for her on her own plate.
She took it and began to munch happily, at least until she remembered what this was about. “The kids at school made funna this boy who had a bow in his hair and I said ‘Did you assume his gender?’ like you do to be funny and everyone laughed.”
I may have made a mistake. “Hon, let’s have a little chat, and then we’re gonna make a deal that involves ice cream.”
It’s a good thing most kids can understand all this gender stuff pretty easily. I explained to her about the differences between gender and sex, and how some people might be a certain sex but realize they’re a different gender, and this is just how people are. “And you shouldn’t make fun of people for that,” I finished, not adding that it’s really too lazy. Any asshole can make fun of someone for that, and they do. Just a constant stream of identical assholes, all needing to be torn up. “And you helped me realize that joke I made is a lazy one that works like how those bullies act even if I didn’t mean it that way. So from now on, I want you to let me know if you catch me saying it. Let’s try it for a week first. If we both get through it without using that joke, we’ll have big sundaes.”
She giggled. “Ok, baba.” Of course, then she had to sit up all excited and go, “I get it, because, because, because they’re just like you!”
I looked at her, wondering how I was going to explain the thing that is Psycho Gecko to my daughter, when she hopped out of her chair and walked over to hug me. “I’m sorry, mommy.”
Ok, let’s just leave that behind and focus on the other big major meeting that’s way more important and relevant and not gushy and in no way involves warm, fuzzy feelings or ideas about raising a child to be a better person than the parent or anything at all like that. We are dropping further discussion of Qiang calling me mommy from here on out. It’s dropped. It’s done.
After another day of observation to see how, if at all, Mix N’Max took my discussion with Hu, I invited him along to go fishing with me. Just the two of us on a little catamaran, switching off playing Kevin Costner as we headed out into the water. We each brought our kit: dynamite for me, pescacide for him. That’s fish poison, and that’s why I wouldn’t eat seafood from our fishing trips even if I did eat seafood. And even if he claims to have a way to treat them to make it safe.
Far out in the water, we opened a cooler, I pretended to drink, and began setting our lines. He took a jar out of the cooler and tied it to a rope before poking holes in the lid. I fetched out a bagged chicken, threaded it with fishing line, stuffed the dynamite inside, synced a blasting cap to a detonator, shoved the cap in there, and tossed the chicken overboard. The secret is to get good distance on the throw, and to include a bobber that lets you know when it’s a safe distance away to detonate. You really don’t want to lose track of an explosive cock. It’ll sneak up behind you and, bam!
I let us enjoy the fishing for a bit. Even set a timer for it. Max noticed when it went off. “Is that the Godfather theme?”
I reached up and squeezed the tip of my nose, shutting off the alarm. “Yeah, just to remind me of something.” I checked around to see where my bobber was. I’d had some nibbles, but nothing big, so I pressed the button. The water blew, causing the boat to bob a bit. I waited for the seas to settle before standing. “Well, guess I better get that net.” I walked on over to where we had this big net on a pole in the middle section. Max was sitting on the rear of it, legs dangling out over the water in some cheap flip flops. He’d smeared himself with something to avoid darkening his gothly-pale skin. “Hey, Max… just why have you been drugging me?”
He turned to look at me, standing there behind him next to a pile of dynamite, a net and pole in hand. “Are you going to kill me?”
“I’d rather not. I’ve buried enough friends. But I want to know what you’ve been doing to me and why.”
He shifted to the side so only one leg was dangling and he could better look at me. “I wanted to help you. I was trying to medicate your mental health.”
“Without discussing it with me.”
“You’ve been worse than ever and you never want to work through this stuff with anyone. You keep collecting traumas to carry on your psyche without ever offloading it.”
“Why the fuck is everybody so fucking worried? I function! I do more than function, this is how I win. It fucking sucks, but it’s made me the awesome being you see before you today.”
“Nice sarong by the way,” he said.
“Oh, thanks,” I showed off a little. I’d picked that shade of pink for its potential to cause blindness from how the brightness, and because it matched my bikini.
Max tied the end of his rope to a metal loop, then turned all the way around to face me while sitting. “It’s great that everyone is worried for you. It means you have people who care. That’s new for you, because you were alone for so long that you resented that and saw it as weakness. You’re still kickass, but think how much better you’d be if you were healed up there. Not to take away who you are as a person, but to get rid of the damage that’s keeping that person from being 100%.”
That made a frightening amount of sense to me, and I’d made sure my drinks on the way out here weren’t spiked. I turned away from him to contemplate this and scooped up floating fish from my dynamite blast. After a moment, I called back, “Never do it again, dude. And seriously, you’re on some Buddha level shit right now.”
“I haven’t felt my face for days!” he called back happily.
“You did what?!” yelled Venus at me through the phone.
She interrupted me in the middle of proceeding over a bit of judicial housekeeping. One of my judges was taking kickbacks to imprison people. Unlike the Americans, we don’t give private prisons contracts that depend on them keeping a certain percentage of rooms occupied. This situation puzzled me as a result. Hu dropped me the details: he’d been taking bribes from gangs to give rivals longer sentences.
I pulled the guy aside for a chat, just the two of us, over drinks in one of the island’s many fine establishments of seductive delight. “I am honored by your presence, Empress,” he told me upon my approach to meet him at the entrance. “But I do not believe this is a respectable establishment.”
“Despite your profession, I wouldn’t judge the respectability of the workers herein if I were you.” I slipped my arm into his to guide him inside. I even paid the cover for him. I’m classy like that.
Inside, I guided us to a table next to the wall. A female Deep One with an epic rack sauntered over. “Get you something to drink, handsomelings?” she asked.
“Are those real?” I asked stopping myself short of groping the bouncy pair.
“Yeah. All natural. Touch if you want.” She jiggled them from side to side for me. “You know we mate with humans, don’tcha?”
I gave them a squeeze. “Filthy habit, laying down with those ugly humans.” I turned to the judge. “No offense.”
“Of course not, Empress,” he said, averting his gaze as I motorboated the amphibious fishwoman, raising a hand with a wad of cash from the judge’s wallet. She snatched it out of my hand and was happy to let me take as much time as I needed until I was pulled away by Venus’s call. I had to leave the judge getting a lap dance from a woman whose tattoos moved and changed.
That brings us back to Venus yelling “You did what?!” at me.
“What did I do?” I handed a bouncer some money and he ushered me through the door into the private rooms.
“You know what you did,” she responded.
“Yeah, I know what I did, but I don’t know if you know what I did. I’m not ‘fessing up to anything until it turns out you already know.”
“This is no time for jokes. You know what I mean,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “I swear to you, Venus, and you should know I wouldn’t lie about something like this… I never do only one thing you think is unforgivably wrong. If only you know where I stuck my face earlier, for instance. Let me know which horrible thing you’ve discovered and I’ll let you know what I think about it.”
“I know, I know, I let her live. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of being judge, jury, and executioner, it’s that many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Not many, but some. Maybe one in a billion if I’m being generous. Really, the ratio is heavily on the living people that deserve death side of the equation, but I didn’t indulge this time.”
“You raped her mind!”
I flopped down on a heart-shaped bed. “That’s being a little dramatic, isn’t it? How much of a mind could she possibly have?” She hung up at the worst possible moment. I’d just decided I liked the bed. They had really fluffy pillows.
Venus had kinda ruined the whole trip, so I headed back out, despondent, to find the judge enjoying the show and a beer. I slid into the seat next to him as the next girl came out. A cat screamed and the multicolor lights around the stage flickered. Rough, droning guitars began to play, a song I recognized as “It Took The Night To Believe”. A pale woman appeared on stage, her loose white dress not really working with the usual strip club aesthetic. She swayed and took a step forward, then the lights flashed off. When she reappeared, she was crab walking, showing off enough leg to see the garter for tips. Another flash, she was upright, her head twisted at an angle usually accompanied by a loud snapping sound and the cessation of life. The next flash left her spinning around the pole, arms twisted around and her mouth stretched unnaturally open. That’s when the dress came flying off, showing tattered lacy bra and panties.
I was in love, and soon short of cash. I even used some of my own money.
Sadly, this whole meeting was business, not pleasure. I dragged myself away after her dance and back to the judge. “I’m having fun, but you seem to be taking things a little too seriously. You gotta relax.”
He sighed. “It’s difficult to relax around one’s sovereign in a gentleman’s club.”
I shook my head and stood behind him, massaging his neck muscles. “Here, let me help you loosen up.”
“I’m not sure-” he started, until I slammed his head forward into the table, busting the bottle.
I grabbed his hair in one hand, the bottle of the broken bottle in another, and jammed the jagged glass into his neck. The blood sprayed into the air over a table dancing vampiress, as did the cash I threw out while yelling, “Make it rain!” The vamp ran her hands down her bloody breasts, mouth open wide in a hiss.
Venus got back to me about 6 AM locally, but I had the call routed through my brain. “Hello?”
“I’ve had time to cool off and get some sleep. We need to talk.”
“Sure, sure. Glad you don’t feel like yelling anymore.” It made it easier to keep from waking anyone on my bed up.
“You’re quiet. Are you breaking in somewhere?”
“No, I just don’t want to wake up the vampire.” Though, with her snoring…
“What are you doing with a vampire?”
I smirked. “Daisy chaining.”
“It’s like sixtynine, but I also had the fish woman and the onryo woman… I don’t think she’s really one, because I’m pretty sure those are ghosts, but I figured I’d ask her over breakfast. I make fantastic eggs, something you’d know if you were so lucky.”
She cleared her throat. “You’re trying to avoid the subject.”
“I’ve made my family safe from an enemy who is inexplicably good at finding me and who works for our enemy. Our enemy. She fooled you too. She’ll never be able to fool me again and it got us valuable information.”
“You don’t do that to people.”
“You don’t. I’m responsible for a nation. Millions of people rely on me for prosperity and safety. That means I know things they would hope never to find out about. When their lives are threatened, I eliminate the threats. When someone infects them with a disease that could kill them or take away their abilities, I’m the one who failed them. Turns out I have the perfect moral temperament for a world leader.”
She said, “You’ve gone full Nixon. You never go full Nixon.”
“This is morality, not legality. Remember how slavery used to be legal in your country? But seeing as I’m the Empress here, you don’t have any way to punish me anyway. All you can do is wake me up in the middle of some very lovely sleep and chastise me for invading Dame’s head.”
“It was despicable,” she said.
“Despicable and right aren’t necessarily incompatible. But, if it’s any consolation, tell her I’m sorry.”
“Wow. Oh my god, do you mean the nation of Ricca, is that what you mean?”
“No. I, Psycho Gecko, am sorry. I’ve gotten to know her more closely than anyone else. And whenever you remember she betrayed you too, and you get all pissed off, I want you to let her know that she may seek asylum here. There are advantages to being someone I know can’t act against me.” I felt the woman I was spooning with start to stir. Her dark hair twisted out of the way as her face looked back at me, almost completely turned around backwards. I pressed my lips to her for a kiss, my tongue dancing with what felt like a couple of tongues in her surprisingly roomy mouth.
Meanwhile, seeing as the call went through my brain, I just thought further responses to Venus that came out on her end as sound. “Geez this stripper’s hot.” As I said, my thoughts. “Anyway, I’m going to have to set up a formal meeting with you and Titan about our endgame. How’ve you been doing?”
“Surprised you’re thinking about how this all ends. Your tips were good. We found where they stored stolen artwork and other valuables in one. Another had a server farm we’re looking over. We took a few people into custody but we had to put them in the hidden cells. We can’t just beat up people guarding a building and insist the cops arrest them because of some conspiracy they’re tenuously connected to.”
“I have video evidence. And I ooooooh… sorry, real life stuff happening… and I followed that guy who was dead.” I squirmed as the Deep One stripper’s hands groped and fondled me fondly.
“The fact that you’re involved committing crimes in other countries makes it questionable. If that’s all we have, the cops will be useless.”
“Yeah, you might see if there’s a way to make them useful. Use some influence with politicians if you can to prep them for this going public. I’ll do what I can on my end, but Belgium’s of limited use as an ally in this regard.”
“You’re allies with Belgium?” she asked.
“We’re still in talks. Medical aid and technology exchange deal, but the Belgians are starting to waffle,” I told her.
“Anyone would if they had to put up with you using that joke as often as I’m sure you do.”
I started to answer, but instead I squealed like a stolen Ferrari in a getaway.
“You sound like you’re occupied with something else,” Venus said. “Let me go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up. Stay on the line. Hey, how husky can you talk?”
She hung up.
After eventually escaping my bedroom and fixing a lovely breakfast, I left the strippers pleasantly chatting with my wife, daughter, and ex-girlfriend who all showed up at the first sniff of food. I had a pretty damn important piece of info I needed to confirm with Max and Dr. Creeper over at the Science Institute in a conference call in my study.
“I’m sorry,” Max told me. “Without a vaccine, any cure is only a temporary reprieve from the disease.” He referred to the one that afflicted the brain with the condition that allowed superpowers of all sort to be disabled by the power collars.
Dr. Creeper’s faux-German accent came from the phone set between us. “Doctor Smith has failed to find a vaccination method. If subjects have a reaction, it is the severe one that risks death. Perhaps if ve could integrate the cure with the human body or nanites?”
“No can do on that,” Max said, shaking his head. “That’s now how it works.” He nodded to me, then over toward the minifridge. I nodded and he walked over to fetch us something to drink.
“You could just try!” Creeper said.
“Doc, if Max says he can’t do something with chemicals, that generally means it just can’t be done.” I waited a moment before remembering I could try to soften the blow. “But thanks for your zeal. The fact that you care so much is why I trust your people are doing their best.”
Max tapped me on the shoulder with a beer. Not my favorite, but it was a breakfast beer anyway. Seems like he’s been wanting me greased with alcohol a lot lately. I grabbed it and took a sip while he popped the top off his own. “Creeper, how are we on that shield generator project?”
“Ve vill be ready for a test soon. Do you anticipate needing it vithin the next veek?” he asked. Is it just me, or is he emphasizing his “w”s more than usual?
“Hopefully not. I just always like to have more weapons and gadgets in my arsenal. Never know when you’ll need to pull them out and surprise someone.” I said, whipping out a serrated rocket knife for emphasis to a man who couldn’t see anyway. Meanwhile, Max looked behind me, trying to find where it came from. “I want us prepared for the peace talks, because I’m going to make peace happen no matter who loses their head over it.”
Greetings again, dear readers. I come bearing news and fingering the bunghole, but that could be too much information for y’all. Maybe a little working the taint, I dunno. Regardless of what I do in the privacy of my own kitchen, it gets results. And so does Intel.
Hu got a hold of me. They traced back the shipment of collars. It’s a good new lead, and one Dame didn’t know about. This suggests Max may have been correct in criticizing me for not thinking and going a bit, shall we say, wonky there. But Hu trusts my judgment still. As an underling, he has no choice but to trust me or risk that judgment. He brought me the whole story one day while I was sitting in the Directory building, checking over some judicial appeals and other important documents they thought I should look at. Looks like the Vatican’s extradition request for that priest isn’t getting approved!
“We traced the collars to a ship called the Rangoon. In deference to your desire to better acclimate to current events and focus on your family, I took the liberty of authorizing the interception of the Rangoon.” Hu said. The captain proved more than generous with information once he learned we had no desire to uphold or be held to maritime law, and access to shitloads of valuables. Literal shitloads, including the finest in ancient golden chamber pots. Caught between the carrot and where we might stick it, the captain pointed us to an outpost he called the Flying Dutchman.
This Dutchman, unlike the mythological ship or its Disney version, turned out to be a semi-submersible oil platform off the coast of Mauritania. Hu spoke about it like he knew, but I’d never heard of it. “In fairness to your Imperial majesty,” Hu told me when I murmured something to that effect, “The best kept secret is that in the news of any African country other than South Africa.”
“So who runs the Dutchman?” I asked.
“That would be Colonel Duray, formerly attached to the United Nations Taskforce On International Stability. They were originally meant to travel around the world and bolster governments threatened by socialist revolutions during the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR, the task force was downgraded and repurposed to combat terrorism. It saw a resurgence following the United States’s last presidential election, when they began to shirk their UN and NATO duties. Last year, the United States attempted to completely defund and disband the task force after it was ordered to intervene in the U.S.A. Duray took the unit AWOL instead. Since then, they’ve functioned as a mercenary force called the Privateers. They stole from the United States and other nations with the justification of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who escalate conflicts, but have seen action as pirates.”
With that information to go off of, I knew where to search. This isn’t the first time my decision to stay in America upon coming to this world left me ignorant of world events. “Quite a story. If they were any closer, they could be frequent customers or enemies. We need to find out if they’re related to the Hares though. I wonder if the Psycho Flyers have the range for this…” I stood up, tossing papers aside.
Hu caught a bundle and handed them back to me. “Surely every action we take does not require you to attend to it personally. You are the will of our nation. Decide what must be done and we shall do it for you in your stead.”
I coaxed him in closer with a finger. “Cut the bullshit. What is this?”
“Empress, you are too important to run around after every single problem. You are a ruler now, not one of the soldiers to be risked and captured if need be. If word of your capture had gotten out, it would have threatened the new social order and risked plunging the island into anarchy. While I’m being frank, there are rumblings about your mental health as of late. You are scaring your people.”
I ground my teeth and took a seat, pondering. As much as I felt insulted over him calling me out over my sanity, it has always been my policy that underlings be allowed freedom to speak and criticize me. A supervillain who kills people for telling her things she doesn’t want to hear is a supervillain who is the last to know if security systems are shorting out or someone defected and snuck out through a secret tunnel. Plus, there’s a lot of minutia I don’t like to handle and it’s easier to delegate it if people think they’re allowed to have thoughts of their own.
I took a deep breath and released it before continuing. “It’s been a hell of a year. Any particular recommendations on where I should focus my attention on this matter from here on my throne?”
He bowed. “Respectfully, Empress, now may be the best time to increase the pressure on the Three Hares by allowing your allies to raid the locations you have learned about.”
At the time, Titan was the one most likely to be awake with how time zones work, so I called up Cape Diem first. I snapped my fingers for a Directory page to bring over a mirror and nanites. I was trying out skin tones and making some alterations. I called up Qiang and let her watch from my perspective as I changed up a few features.
“I like your eyes! Baba, can I have eyes like that?” she asked.
“Sure thing. You want them with this angle or…” I moved a few things as far as inner and outer angle. “Like this?”
“That’s neat. I want to look just like you!”
I smiled. “Fine, but only if I get to look like you too.” My nose shifted to a button nose like hers would probably turn out to be once she grew up.
“Hello, Gecko?” asked Titan’s voice from elsewhere in my head.
“One moment, gotta extricate myself from how I was passing the time,” I said, before swapping back to Qiang and telling her I needed to handle a very important call. Then, I could come back to Titan. “Heya. You sound a bit out of breath. Did I pull you away from something important?”
“No. I finished my business before I got here. Your friends are kidnapping refugees.”
“I’m not aware of my friends doing anything. Max has all the ingredients he could want right now.” To my knowledge, there haven’t been any additional attempts on my life. With Hu’s concerns, he might have intercepting people, or maybe Max has been looking out for me.
“The refugees were kidnapped by a cabal of low-level magical supervillains. They escaped, but I managed to recover the victims,” Titan informed me.
Huh. I bet that’s why I got that invitation for beer and bratwurst from those guys I don’t know. “Was this around Poland?”
“Yeah. You know what’s going on?” he asked
“Nah, just vague stuff I heard through the grapevine. I’m not really part of the normal villain social scene. They don’t like me. I invited myself along to Secret Santa one year and they all converted to Judaism on the spot.”
“Venus said you liked to tell pointless, unrelated jokes.”
“I wanted to talk to you about the Hares. I got a few spots for you to check on.” And a sudden urge to RSVP in the negative to that beer and brats invitation.
“Shouldn’t you get Venus on the line for this?”
“She’s probably asleep,” I told him.
“She’s a hero. She patrols. Hold on.” I heard beeps, then the sound of distant sirens.
“Hello?” came Venus’s voice.
“Venus, it’s Titan. I have Gecko on the line. Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah, I guess. The Question are long gone.”
I spoke up here. “The Question? I have questions.”
“Pro-government anti-government terrorists. I don’t understand it either. They wear masks with the letter Q and just blew up an NPR affiliate. They like riddles.”
“Huh. Never heard of them, but they sound fun. Listen, it’s about time I shared some of the love with y’all as far as the Hares, if y’all aren’t too busy.”
“Let us worry about that,” Titan said.
“I’m emailing a map along to y’all with relevant info I obtained from a high-value prisoner who grew up in the Hare conspiracy. The individual did not particularly enjoy the isolated lifestyle of the Hares, but I believe I’ve located more important sites than what we’ve run across before. I have important duties to attend to instead.”
“How are you doing after your capture?” asked Titan.
“I’ve been saner,” I said.
Venus spoke up, “I can recommend a good therapist.”
“They’d have to be bulletproof,” I said, laughing it off. I went ahead and sent the emails. “The encryption key is 12345. I know it’s the sort of thing a moron would use for their luggage, which is why it’s the last thing they’d expect from me.”
Titan sighed. “It’s one of the most widely used passwords. If that’s everything, are you sure you can’t give me a tip about the refugees in Poland?”
“Sorry guys, I should really see to these things around here. I’ve got to shampoo my hair and look over some judicial business… oh, I’m getting attacked by ninjas. Gotta run, buh-bye!”
I hung up on them and stood up. They had all they needed from me. I checked out the mirror. “What do y’all think? Like the new look?”
The trio of ninjas who had dropped into the Directory building took fighting stances. No stage pajamas here. They were in tight black outfits with balaclavas pulled over their faces, light armor vests and plates on their limbs. One held a couple of kunai, another wielded a metal claw, and the last had a handscythe with a chain attached to the bottom of its handle.
The Directors scattered, which made quite a sight since many of them had adopted the practice of wearing sashes in some attempt to out-bling each other.
The one with the scythe, a kusarigama as they like to call it, swung the chain at me, sending the weight on the end of the chain right at my face. I snatched the chain out of the air. That ninja pulled it back, scraping some skin off my hand. I took a step in that direction and that’s when the kunai came for my head. My head snapped back.
When I lowered it back toward them, I held the kunai in my mouth, the bladed end held deep in my throat. Claw guy came at me then. I grabbed the kunai and tossed the wet end at his face. He swiped it to the side with his claw. He brought it across again at my torso. I threw myself back on my throne, laser eye blaring to life and searing a letter Z through his torso, smooth as Zorro.
He fell, only for the kusarigama’s weighted chain to come swinging for my face. I got a hand up. It stopped a lot of the damage, but still left me stumbling and trying to spot the ninjas between all the circling birds. I raised my hand in time to block an overhead stab from the guy with the kunai. Better my palm than my eye hole.
“I got one of those, too,” I used one of my spare hands to whip out a thin trench knife and cut him from cock to Adam’s apple. Smoke appeared all around me, burning at my eyes. The kusarigama’s chain smacked the head of its dead, deceased compatriot to the side.
So there I was. Knife versus chain and scythe. I’d already killed two. I was an assassination target on the edge, willing and able to sate my rampant murderlust. I stepped forward and the chain forced me back. Again and again, the remaining ninja used it to keep me at bay, my knife sparking as the chain slid across it the last time.
I pushed a lever on the side of the knife and tossed it in the air in frustration. “Fine, I get it, I shouldn’t have brought a knife to a chain fight.” The rocket in the handled of the knife fired suddenly, more like a momentary explosion. Only momentary, as the blade lodged itself in the chest of the remaining ninja. He reached up to grab it, then refused to pull it out. Then he dropped his weapon and turned to run.
“This is what happens when you buy your ninjas American. Adios, cowboy. ” I reached under my dress and came out with another rocket knife, one in each hand, and switched them on, aiming. The ninja fell dead with four knives in his back. “Knife meeting ya. Man, I hate missing all the action.”
Venus was kind enough to offer me the hospitality of the Master Academy while I waited on my ride. After everything that happened, we all agreed I needed access to as many showers and fresh clothes as possible. Plus, and she didn’t actually state this, I think she was worried about all the laughing I’d been doing. Couldn’t help myself. It kinda had to do with the intersection of Gecko and Tripura. She was so nice, and she was me.
Too bad she had to kill. I just can’t catch a break, even when I don’t know hardly anything. But she killed to save an entire city, except for that part when she murdered someone for being a dick to her. The ratio of assholes to innocents makes it clear how much better a person she was. I could try and argue something about tabula rasa, but most people have really weird ideas about that. Like, they think being born with genetic preferences that can change over time somehow means the mind is born with knowledge. You know, because we should really call a baby’s inborn preference for cinnamon at birth “knowledge”.
Eh, this Earth will grow out of that at some point, maybe realize that a stream bed’s curves determine what path the water travels, but it’s not a stream without the fluid.
This sounds nice, but part of the reason I was tittering to myself so much is my ability to recall the name of that thingy on the table that salt falls out of. A mind is a terrible thing to lose, and now I’ve got mine back. And so many things are being reevaluated that it’s caused me the legitimate giggles, and some instances of laughing to spite the alternative.
It disturbed everyone around Master Academy West. They sat me in a common room with, like dark woods and a tv and books all around. If it was a social spot, it wasn’t after I got there. So I kept staring off into space, comparing memories, reconciling things, and catching up on the news. Like, seriously evolutionary psychologists? A paper about why the Jews are genetically predisposed to dominate the world? No wonder the brownshirts are marching.
In the middle of sitting down, arms around my legs, laughing my head off to myself in a dark room with the lights turned off, I noticed a guy arguing with Venus. “How long is she staying here?”
That snapped me out of my thousand-yard stare. “Hey, stop assuming my-”
“She’s a criminal, a murderer, a- a- I don’t even know what she’s committed so many crimes. And she’s transphobic,” said the teen boy to Venus.
“I’m not transphobic. There are very few people I hate more than I hate almost every one of you damn humans,” I said.
The guy actually responded. “I don’t hear you dropping the N-word or any other racial slurs.” He walked into the room, staring at me. A bit androgynous and chubby, with a wide nose that almost makes me think it’d been smooshed as a kid.
I grabbed him and pulled him onto my lap, cradling him with four arms. “It’s ok there. Shh, shh, shh. Let me tell you a little story.”
“Gecko, let him go,” Venus said. I held up a finger.
“Just a quick story and he goes free unharmed, deal?” I asked.
From my lap came the teen, “I’d rather just go if I have any say in this.”
I patted him on the head. “Hush, Venus is speaking for you.”
“You promise not to harm anyone? This is just a story?” she asked.
I nodded a bunch. “I wouldn’t dare hurt the snuggly little Master Academy students here.” I gave the student a shake. The wind picked up in the room and blew some curtains a bit too much to be the AC. “It’s just a brief story of an assassin who learned how to use medical nanomachines to perform reconstructive surgery to alter the assassin’s looks. Colors were easy, adjusting flesh and cartilage as well. Muscles, harder, bones harder still. So many things were changed… face, hair color, eye color, even skin color. And in all that time, nobody who knew the assassin’s identity questioned anything about the assassin’s personality over the fact that the assassin changed appearances so often.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Venus spoke up.
I blew her a raspberry, then continued. “Then one day the assassin grows a bodacious pair of boobs and starts wearing skirts. Suddenly, everybody starts wondering if they should call the assassin something different over THIS change. THIS change was unusual. This change caused them to worry about the assassin’s mental state more than usual.” I chuckled at that part. “The assassin just changes and doesn’t think much of it. The assassin thinks it’s stupid to assume anything off about a person just because they want to be a woman.”
I pushed the teen off my lap. “Story time’s over kid. Now get out of here.”
The tean dusted himself off and looked at me. “Inside, what do you feel you are?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I’m always just me, no matter what.” I closed my eyes and sat back, hoping they’d get out of my long, beautiful hair.
Venus ushered the teen out, then turned to me. “Maybe it would help you with all your self-loathing. That can be a sign, you know.”
I waved dismissively. “Not all that important right now. But thanks for the tampons and the brief tutorial.” I opened an eye just to wink at her.
“I know about your self-loathing. Do us all a favor and find a version of yourself that’s happier. And just because changing sex isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s a small thing for someone to be made whole on this Earth, you douchecanoe.” Venus crossed her arms as she looked at me.
“If you hate me so much, if the world’s better off without me, why save me?” I asked her, leaning forward, and maybe squeezing the gals a bit for better viewing. She’s not immune to boobs. Hell, these days, the power of boobs reaches far beyond men to all sorts of genders. “Not like anyone there knew what was happening. You could have let me die.”
“We have this talk a lot, but I refuse to go through life believing the best way to solve my problems is to kill everyone,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, “But isn’t saving me a way of condoning my actions, especially when I kill people like The Claw?”
She shook her head. “Your choices are your choices, but I’ll always hold out hope for you, and I’ll always be here if you want to change. It’s never too late.”
Ugh. It’s like she’s got a psychic around to figure out the best way to annoy me. Oh, right, she’s fucking the only surviving psychic to be in my head. I was more than happy when the Psycho Flyer arrived with an honor guard of soldiers in power armor. We made quite the sight, Psycho Gecko walking up a ramp flanked by Riccan soldiers while a force of Master Academy heroes stood guard.
One long, long, long ass trip later that involved a stopover in Mu for refueling, the Flyer passed right over the military base and landed between the Palace Residence and the Directory Legislature building. The Directors were quite curious to see what all the hub bub was about, and were surprised when the soldiers lined up and I stepped out in my armor. Not a copy, or a replica. Not a Dudebot. Me and my armor.
One of the Directors was pushed by his comrades to come meet me. “Empress, we weren’t aware you were away. We have been denied news and prevented from an audience.” He quickly bowed.
My bow wasn’t so deep, but then I’m the Empress. “It was necessary, unfortunately. If it’s any consolation, I’ve missed y’all too and I’ll be more than happy to provide more information after I meet with my family.”
I maintained a properly dignified dictator-walk until I reached the stairs to the Palace Residence. That was when Qiang got loose and came running down the steps to meet me. I pulled my daughter up in a four-armed hug and carried her up to the top of the stairs where I pulled in Citra, my (politically-motivated) wife. Then Mix N’Max, Silver Shark, everyone I could grab. Even that friend of Qiang’s, Kayla, and her parents who I’ve banged.
I got the 411 inside while snuggling Qiang. Max had a whole presentation lined up, starting with the slide, “Infiltrators, Detainment and Punishment, A Play In Three Parts”
“You may be wondering what we did with Dame, the woman you informed us was made to look like you,” Max said. “First step, identification.” The first slide after the start showed photos of the crowd all photoshopped to wear different clothes. Sam Hain, Max’s assistant, looked very pretty in Citra’s dress. Another slide showed a picture of me labeled “fake” either hugging or kissing.
“Second step, capture,” Max said. The next slide showed Sam’s head pasted to the body of a black lingerie model, perhaps to make it obvious this isn’t Sam’s body. Then a cage falls on the fake me. Then there’s a trapdoor, followed by a picture of an alligator, a school of piranhas, and a train.
“This movie sucks,” I said. “The pacing’s terrible, the acting’s subpar, and what’s with this sound design? Nobody knows how to hold a boom?” Max, ever-present grin on his face, flashed me the middle finger.
I held up one of my own toward him, then made a circle with some fingers and moved it up and down around the middle finger.
“Ahem,” said Holly, the preppier of Max’s assistants. “I worked really hard on this, and would appreciate if you paid attention.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the punishment stuff. More photoshopping, along with stills from movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Passion Of The Christ. “Bottom line,” I asked once we reached the end, “Where is she?”
Max sighed and clicked on to a last slide that said, “TL;DR, she’s in the military base.”
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. I hugged Qiang to myself, then set her down. “I’ll be back in a bit, sweetest of hearts. Mommy has to go see the bad lady.”
And I did. The men, human and Deep One alike, were happy to have me back. They showed me down to a special room, one that’d be hard to find for anyone not familiar with the holding cells. Recently, I’d been the one sitting in a darkened room, with a circle of light. She knelt in the circle, arms and legs held to the floor. She was covered by a thin white dress, barely more than a scrap. I could practically see through it.
I stepped up and pulled out a can of spray cheese. “Wakey, wakey, dearest Dame.”
She looked up wearing a copy of my face. She started to say something, but I filled her mouth with cheese so cheap. I had to find the can in a flop house by the dock where sailors passing helped themselves to a high while they were on the island. “I don’t know how much they’re feeding you. I assume some food’s involved. Wow, I know how to put together a body shape, don’t I?”
She fought to get through the cheese. Since she had nothing to say, I kept on going. “This whole game of spy versus spy and who is better at planning and counterplanning, it’s just needlessly complicated and annoying. Never knowing who to trust… it’s just no fun. So today, I make you a promise. If you cooperate, I won’t kill you. Won’t order you killed or anything like that.”
“Your guards beat the shit out of me every day,” she growled through cheese.
I patted her on the head. “And they’ll stop now because you’re going to be my own personal project.”
Her eyes fluttered and she shook her head. “Whaaaaa-why is everything… doing that?” She looked all around.
I knelt and stroked my lookalike’s hair. “It’s just the nanites, dear. I made sure you only go the best cheese.” I held up the can and shook it, smiling under my mask as if she could see it. Then I sighed. “Not quite so fun knowing what’s going to happen.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, kneeling forward, trying to rest her head on the floor.
I rubbed her head sat beside her, moving her head into my lap as the nanites set to work. “I don’t like where your mind’s at, so I’m changing it. Making a few alterations where I can. Looks like you’ve got that little disease that can inhibit superpowers too, even if you use a gadget for your fun. I had a lot of time on my flight to review everything we know about Unity, the same drug they used to make me thing I wasn’t me. Same drug I bet you were trying to steal from Ricca when they first captured you. Neural pathways to access long-term and short-term memory. Funny thing is, it’s entirely possible to start using these nanites to replace parts of a brain with a, what do you call it, cybernetic alternative. There may be a few hiccups, but that’s why I’m trying this trick on you instead of someone I care about.” Here I felt a little bit of Tripura tug at me. Dame started to scream until I forced her to stop via well-placed nanites.
I leaned in to whisper to Dame. “You know, I felt so normal and innocent there thanks to what your people did to me. Then I get my memory back. All of it. Poor Tripura… but that time gave me so many wonderful ideas about how to deal with you, them, and any other problems that come up. Losing my mind has been incredibly refreshing; I highly recommend it.”
I stood up. “Don’t worry about screaming. You got a mouth, but you won’t be able to. New process like this, I told it to take it’s time. A couple of days and I’m sure whatever you’re feeling will go away. Or you’ll suffer brain damage. Either way, I’ll be back later to pick your brain.” I stopped and waved my hands, jazz hands style. “I’m thinking something old school, maybe wrinkly, but cute and… ya know, pink’s a great color.”
I giggled at her shaking her head and waved it off. “Oh, don’t worry about your silly opinions. I’ll replace those later.”
I missed that feeling of news coverage. The BBC talked about Psycho Gecko’s Blasphemy. Al Jazeera wondered which holy site was next. Outlaw X loving detailed the attacks, starting with my ride of the valkyries in London. Fox News ran a story suggesting rich Jews were secretly financing my attacks in order to draw attention away from a pedophile ring Hillary Clinton runs out of the basement of the Alamo. Not all PR is good PR. Some of it’s just fucking stupid.
It helped that I was rampaging around the United Kingdom, one of those countries that news people actually report on. Anybody who’s ever tried to hold someone hostage in Croatia knows what I’m talking about there. As Dame promised, there were many old religious sites with the Three Hares icon. They didn’t all turn up anything useful. Some had no secrets to share. Some had been long abandoned, with careful demolition yielding no further results. Others had been emptied before we got there, leaving little for us to find other than signs of human occupation in places humans shouldn’t have been living.
They didn’t all have that magic door, though. Good thing the proud interrogators of Ricca were on the job to follow up and ask questions in the area afterward. Or, more likely, they bribed a shitload of cops to ask a few questions for them. Nosy neighbors are a great source of information. They get so pissed about big trucks in the middle of the night, people moving, all that.
We also moved about. Dame didn’t like traveling with me, so Qiang and I had ourselves a little father/daughter road trip. We left the British Isles as quickly as possible in order to find something to eat, though. I was forced to express my displeasure in British cuisine after it turned out a waiter hadn’t intended me to bang his head into the table, then mash his skull. Then there’s the blood pudding incident. We don’t want to talk about the blood pudding incident.
Just me and muh daughter, driving around Europe. She was absolutely delighted when people started driving on the right side of the road again, even though it meant much less swerving from me. She’ll get used to cars heading straight for her. I still remember my first headlights. When there was still adrenaline involved.
Being in France tempted me to hit up the big tourist spots like the Louvre and rob them blind, but I have a child to look after. I have to think of her. That’s why we robbed a candy store instead. I wish I could say it had the Three Hares and we went on an amazing summer adventure of life, love, and lollipops. Instead, I punched the teller and Qiang, too distracted by her armful of candy, missed her shot to grab the cash. Instead, I grabbed bunch of those giant suckers, licked it, and smacked a cop in the face who tried to stop us right outside. The guy was going to have such a big bruise once he pried that thing off his skin.
I had to leave her behind for the next attack, and I was glad for this one. Dame met me in her normal guise in the twilight of the French countryside. More specifically, she asked me to wait in south-central France, at the edge of a great forest near a mountain. She tried to get the jump on me, but my armor’s traditional 360 degree display stifled her attempt. “Hello, Dame. Lots of trees around here. Please tell me this isn’t about some musty church in the middle of nowhere.”
“This isn’t about some musty church in the middle of nowhere,” she said, floating down to land next to me before solidifying.
“Good. Now I need you to get down on your knees and pretend you’re licking ice cream.”
She slapped me, which might mean she likes me. We’re in France, so I think I was supposed to grab her and kiss her at that point. “Don’t talk to me like that again or you can find your own hares.”
“Why is it that bitches always get testy when you break out the sexual harassment?” I asked.
“Ask your mother if you can catch her at the dog park,” Dame said. “Shut it already. You make everything profoundly less fun.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d gotten down on your legs already,” I mumbled. “Ok, ok, what are we doing here?”
“Off in this forest is the Chateau du Maquis, a former church refurbished as a hunting lodge following World War II, in honor and recognition of the Maquis du Mont Mouchet. They fought the Nazis in guerrilla engagements ending with a final attack where the force was dispersed, but not destroyed. The Nazis brought everything to stop attacks from infantry hiding in the woods; the Luftwaffe, artillery, armored units, motorized units, and veterans from the Eastern front all fought. 3,000 Germans fought 2,700 French and only managed to kill about 500. The rest lived to fight another day.”
“While the Nazis ended up as history. So where’s the forest in question? Is it behind all these trees?” I raised a hand up above the eyes on my helmet to shade my view.
“It, it.. it… flames, the flames, flames on the side of my face. Breathing… breathing.” Dame threw up her hands. “Come on, get in my car.” She pointed to a dark blue Aston-Martin.
“Hardly a fitting vehicle for a supervillain,” I said. Her response was to eye my rented Yugo. “What? You’d be surprised how much plastic explosive you can fit in one of those things. It’s the perfect car to blow things up. Nobody cares about the loss of a Yugo. Nobody investigates too hard. Nobody mourns the Yugo.” I looked back at it and gave the car a thumbs-up. A stiff wind blew and the wheels fell off. “So, your car?”
The Chateau, as Dame only informed me upon nearing it, had a minimal occupation of caretaker. No big security force. No police anywhere around.
“Sounds like the perfect place to run a side hustle. What are we looking at? Drugs? Weapons? Not to be too stereotypical, but wine smuggling? I could smuggle the shit out of some wine. Takes a whole ‘nother class of mule to pull that off. Or push it in, as it were.”
“Vacations. The wealthy need a place to hunt and hold secret meetings.”
“Which brings us back to the drugs and weapons and wine shoved up someone’s ass,” I told her. “They going to be put off by us showing up in costume?”
“Rich people. Isolated chateau,” was all the answer Dame provided, or needed to provide.
Heavy on the stone, steeples, and climbing vines, the forest pressed close to the chateau grounds, obscuring it. It felt confined by the forest. Perhaps that explains kicking the doors completely down as I did. “Everyone, drop your pants and raise the roof!”
An old man looked up from pushing a broom in front of an empty fireplace. “What are you wanting here?”
“Must be a Parisian,” Dame said to me, stepping up and slapping me on the arm. “Pardon me, my eccentric friend and I interested in the grounds. Is there anyone present who could educate us?”
“If there’s anything to know about the chateau, I would know it,” said the old man. He continued his sweeping past the fireplace. Didn’t even bother to pick up an old machete laying next to it, though. “I must finish. Then we will talk.”
I decided to set the doors back up while we wait, and noticed the old, burnt wooden Three Hares above the door. Dame helped herself to a glass of wine while I checked the Hares over for a trick entrance or some sort of mechanism. Had to pile up a couple of really old chairs to do it. Older than this place if it was only built after WW2. The Hares symbol itself might be salvaged from another site, which means a whole ‘nother trip involved.
“Any weirdness around here, Dame?” I asked. “Maybe help us narrow down where what we’re really looking for.”
The old man appeared at the doorway on the opposite side of the building suddenly. Fast old fart. “The Beast was caught around here.”
I checked with Dame, who almost had to waste a drop of wine to surprise, then looked to the old man. “The Beast, eh? May I ask which beast?”
“The Beast of Gévaudan. It was a giant wolf, the fiercest such beast to ever stalk the forests of Earth. For three years, the Beast claimed the lives of the innocent. Hunters came and failed. They shot a greatwolf and stuffed it, but the attacks continued. The hunts of man and wolf continued until Jean Chastel shot the Beast with silver. Its body disappeared into the care of a surgeon who confirmed it had feasted on human. This is the story of the Beast of Gévaudan.”
“Interesting story. Werewolf?” I asked.
“Here wolf,” said the old man, dropping to all fours. His clothes disappeared into long, grey fur upon the rise of a wolf the size of a bull.
Dame jumped up, tossing the wine bottle against the mantle of the fireplace as she put distance between herself and the old wolf. I was more focused on the knowing eyes of the old beast until the fire started. I thought it was the fireplace itself until I saw the machete was burning. From the flames, like ashes, slid an arm, then the rest of a dark-skinned human body with iron plate piercings running along the arms, the chest, and everywhere else not covered in red pants and shirt. He set his red sash around his chest and picked up the machete. When he spoke, the words I heard didn’t match his lips. “You come to my house with weapons and violence in your heart?”
I threw my cape back, unleashing a pair of laser drones. “Violence is such a simple description for what I do. I prefer if you call it a nightmare.”
Dame lit out of there without so much as a “Sorry,” and a piss in her pants. And as I squared off with the two, I heard things. Things like a car revving up and speeding out of there. Things like creeks and snapping branches. The satellite imagery showed more things were out there. I began to suspect I was entering that point where I didn’t know how many it’d take to whoop my ass, but I’d soon learn just how many they were gonna use. If they’re all as tough as the one at the first site I hit in England, that won’t be many.
So I jumped out as well, pushing the broken door out and knocking over someone. I didn’t get a good look at them as I slid a ways, then jumped off and into the thick woods surrounding the place. A dropped rubber chicken grenade set a fire to spread and cover my tactical re-mobilization away from the main area of conflict.
Whatever these guys were, however good of trackers and hunters, it’s a bit tough to hunt someone more powerful than a locomotive who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. I called in my own dogs then. Or at least their voicemail. “Titan, I’m going to need the Riccan soldiers in France. It’s better if you don’t know pretty much anything else about it. Oh, and if you see Dame come around, tell her she owes me a lot of ice cream.”
I smiled, hearing the crashing of trees in the night and the flutter of fleeing birds.
Nice place for a hunt. I’m hunting Hares, they’re hunting Gecko. Time to see who’s the top predator around here.