Geez, it’s hot. Someone ought to turn out that sun for a bit. I took my daughter and the superkids to an amusement park and I actually began to miss being frozen in ice. My suit isn’t quite as good at regulating away heat as it is protecting me from the cold. That’s something I ought to work on and leaves me visible to thermal imaging.
Conventional cameras caught enough of a view of myself and all those kids, though. They didn’t make a huge deal about it in California, but I guess dreary, muggy Kingscrow really doesn’t like to see people enjoying themselves. I spotted vigilantes watching us. It worried the kids, too. In the end, they didn’t find a good time to come after us. Even messing with a ride was too likely to cause serious injury, but it still brought down the childrens’ mood.
Escape was as simple as a pair of Psycho Flyers dropping smoke grenades around us and loading us all up. Almost all of us. I had to stop and give Psychsaur a hug goodbye. “Good luck with whatever you do from now on,” I told her.
“Try to be good,” she told me. I think she actually meant it.
“Aww,” I said, then reached out and snatched a bola out of the air. I tossed it back through the smoke at where it’d been thrown and saw a shape skid on the ground. “Why be good when I can be great? You just let me know if you need a hand.”
She patted me on the helmet. “I wish you were this giving to people who weren’t your friends.”
I shrugged. “I tried, but they didn’t want me as their leader.”
“You’re not mine either,” she noted, then stepped back, just before a boomerang would have smacked into her. She raised a hand and the boomerang reversed course back to where it came from. Someone outside the smoke yelled. “I guess you better go.”
“I’ll be back!” I declared, throwing a fist up. “You haven’t seen the last of me!” I turned and jumped into the back of the waiting Psycho Flyer. The loading bay closed up behind me as we raised up and began to make a break for the Pacific.
The trip could have been an absolute nightmare. A dozen kids on a long road trip, but with the power to freeze stuff or create plants? It’s a good thing they were all tuckered out from the trip to the park. They slept a good chunk of the way there and saved me a huge headache.
I can’t have a huge welcoming party every time I come back from somewhere. I’m away too much for that. So instead, I disembarked with Qiang and called up leftover Directors from Housing and Education to see to the kids. I should create a Child Supers program while I’m at it. I need an agency to help care for and train children with superpowers on my island, as well as being able to identify them among the general populace and help aid families who have trouble caring for them. I sent Director Pagan and Dr. Creeper a message about working together to find someone reliable, educated, and caring to help me manage the situation. It wouldn’t do for children of Ricca to be snatched up and sold off to some underground fighting and sex ring right under my nose.
With all that handled as much as it can be for now, it was time to deal with other problems. That meant doing things like reviewing test results on interdimensional vehicles for the expedition back to Uranus. It seems the data I stole from that other universe included some nifty new designs for increasing efficiency and stability in the dimension-breaching process, including a way to build devices that craft the portals to allow sending people through without also sending through a device.
There have also been some rumblings from the Lost Continent of Mu. The people of the Bronze City have learned to accept my ambassador as if he’s one of their own, but they’d really like to see their own sometime. I technically married Citra to forge bonds with Ricca, though she looked like their princess in order to fool the Bronze City and forge a bond with them. I forwarded her the email to see if she might be willing to fool them in between semesters of college. I suppose I could hunt down the original, who was last spotted saving Pennsylvania from a rampaging extradimensional T-Rex with the help of Veloci-Raptor, but she’s probably still pissed at me.
There was also a court case that was an issue. People had been appealing to a higher power, meaning me. Then a vigilante broke the person out and it became a non-issue. Or, more accurately, it created a new issue. Someone caught selling info to foreign powers broken out by a superpowered person. I don’t know if this means a superhero or a supervillain. The way this island works, it’s not so clear. Security and the Military have both been put on alert, especially at the ports.
Finally, there’s Venus. I had plenty of time to work on those other issues because I was waiting for her to get back to me. Because, causing my paranoia no end of worry, she wasn’t on the island anymore. According to Max, she disappeared with the Pink Justice Ranger. They were last seen getting on some sort of pink hovercycle that probably belonged to the Justice Ranger. They always get cool toys like that out of nowhere. I even tried spying on her phone, but she left it behind at the residence.
So it was that I went to sleep one day, just myself cuddled up with my daughter. And the next, I woke up to four people in Ranger tights and helmets. I sat upright and screamed, throwing the nearest object at the one in red. He caught my daughter, at which point I pointed to her. “Bastard, give me back my kid!”
By now, Qiang awoke. She kicked him right in his crotch. It wasn’t a hard shot or else they’d have sparked, but it doesn’t take much of a hit to the balls to get someone’s attention. He dropped her. It was Blue who held up his hands. “Can we calm down please?”
I held a pillow up. “Not when you’re sneaking into my room to catch me sleeping!”
“We wanted to talk,” said the Red Justice Ranger.
I tore the pillow open and pulled out a meat tenderizer. I pointed it at the green one, “Then why’s he got duct tape?”
Qiang and the Rangers all looked at the duct tape the Green Ranger held, and watched as he dropped it. “Misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstand my foot up your ass,” I said, leaping to my feet.
“Let’s talk about this. We’re trying to find our missing teammate,” Blue said.
The door burst in and a smoke grenade rolled in, spewing pink mist. Mix N’Max came in, syringe gun in hand. Sam stood behind him with a water pistol. Holly held a wooden stool like a bat, ready to wing. Qiang hopped onto the bed with me and whirled on the Rangers, knife in hand.
The Green Ranger turned toward them, pulling a piece of tape taut in his hands. Yellow and Blue pulled guns, but Red raised a sword out of nowhere. Almost as an afterthought, a Dudebot stepped out of my closet.
“Seems we have ourselves a Riccan stand-off,” I said.
Red turned between me and Max. “This doesn’t have to go bad.”
“We’re prepared for bad,” Max said. He’s right. Villains are exactly the sort to jump in and make the first move in a stand-off like this. We usually don’t have as much to lose, or just don’t care about collateral damage.
“Believe me, I’d give a lot to see Psycho Gecko die,” Blue said.
Green stumbled. “I’d rather not if it’s all the same. We were supposed to be a force for defense and de-escalation.”
Red looked to Green, then lowered his sword. “Rangers, stand down.”
Green lowered his duct tape and Yellow her gun. Blue looked to Red, “This is our best chance.”
“Technically, your best chance was in the other universe, on Uranus,” I said. “Nice try, but it didn’t take.”
“If it was me, it would have,” Blue bragged.
Red grabbed Blue’s gun out of his hand. “How many people aren’t going to live if you die here today?”
“Kinda surprised you’re even bothering with talk of defense and saving lives the way you bunch spend all your time over here, dealing with our problems.” With the Rangers all off guard, we could have easily gone ahead and attacked them. Part of me ached to do so.
I lowered my tenderizer. “Get the fuck out of my room. Everyone. You want to talk, Red? Give me a minute to get indecent.”
Minutes later, with Qiang running to go change out of her pajamas, I walked into the living room. Sam was playing bartender for Holly while giving the Rangers some side eye. Max lounged on a chair, syringe gun in one hand, flask of glowing green goo in the other.
My armor on and arms crossed, I stood in front of the waiting Rangers. “Talk.”
“Ranger Pink has gone missing,” Red said. “We thought you knew something.”
“But you didn’t think it was me?” I asked.
Red shook his head. “We thought you might have evaded our surveillance when you went missing, but then you appeared in Kingscrow.”
“The Pink Ranger is no more special to me than the rest of y’all as far as I know,” I said. “I don’t like you, but I’m tolerating you for helping us in the past.”
Blue jumped in. “So you don’t know who she is?”
“I suspect she tried to kill me when we were all off fighting a war in another dimension,” I said.
Blue flinched, but Red sat up straighter and said, “What did you do with her?”
Wow. I think I might be right about Pink. “I didn’t do anything. A superhero was investigating the attempted murder. They were last seen together. I know when they left, but not where to. I would think you have some fancy ways to track each other.”
Yellow lowered her head. “That is at our command center. Nowhere on this whole planet has technology sophisticated enough to track the bio-force signature of a morphed Ranger.”
I smiled under my helmet. “Almost nowhere. I bet we have a few handy tricks around here.”
“What do you want?” Red asked. “You want us to help you find her so you can kill her?”
Hmm. Good point. They’d never go for it if I did that, but I really don’t feel like letting my potential murderer go free. “I want you and any other Rangers to leave my island alone forever. Don’t get close. And as for the Pink Ranger… we have courts here. Good folks, I want what ever victim wants. Justice.”
Yes, I got a kick out of saying that last word to the Justice Rangers. No, I didn’t have to change my underwear afterward. Wasn’t even wearing any.
Row, row, row your boat… oh, hello there. It’s me, Psycho Gecko, better known as the Great Empress Ice Pop. With that name, maybe I could get a cameo on She-Ra. I’d fit right in, except for all the cussing, murder, and torture.
I probably seem fairly calm, considering my situation. Being frozen in one spot wasn’t too fun, I’ll admit. Neither is the hunger, or peeing myself. The armor’s helpful like that. I designed it with some similarities to a biological body, including a circulatory system full of nanites. It’s a pretty handy tool that helps me be sure I can break out whenever I want.
That’s a big part of why I’m so calm. I have a lot of options for getting out of here. Here has changed, by the way. With the aid of their captive cryomancer, they managed to cut out a smaller ice block to keep me in and moved us. I think this whole production moves, but they sent myself and the kid to Kingscrow. Been awhile since I’ve been back there. I only have hijackable cameras to go off, but it’s still somehow as gloomy as ever, even in May. There were plenty of automated cars driving around whose systems were easily exploited if I wanted to use them to escape.
At the same time, I’ve been directing Dudebots to follow us. I put them into position around my new resting place: underneath the Museum of Natural And Unnatural History. I’m currently sharing a freezer with what looks like a Neanderthal and a giant clown head on a worm-like body, all of us in our own block. It makes sense to stick us here, since they already have the freezers for this sort of thing. Plus, I looked it up and found Meecer helped endow the place. There’s much less I can do with the security here, as it’s mostly passive defenses and manual security grates. I don’t know if they realized that was a hindrance for me, or if this is just a location they use for their Dark Bazaar business.
Whoever has to deal with this mess is going to have a lot of work on their hands.
Meecer flew in to join me on Friday evening. About time. Didn’t he know I had places to be? I got people back home complaining about some court case, and my guys are still in the middle of working out a mining deal with the people of that Uranus in another universe. Meecer’s kept me from drilling Uranus.
When he came, he came with guards. I should be flattered. The private detective I’ve been dealing with led the way, wearing his pokerface. His Lady Gaga impression contrasted with Colburn’s shark grin. The big guy pulled the teen who froze me along with him. The boy kept his face down, hair covering acne-ridden skin. They at least put him in more clothes this time. Then came a pair of big men in suits. One had a chrome ray gun, the other had a green hand. Only his hand was jade-colored. The dude must be awesome at growing plants.
Finally, after all that fanfare, Erin Meecer joined us. About time. He seemed like a pretty mediocre-looking white guy. Rounded jaw, but not fat. A strong nose like a triangle, but without being over-sized. Blue eyes like a tropical ocean. Short black hair that looked a little wet from the gel used on it. Unlike all but the captive boy, he had left his jacket behind. “Is she alive?” he asked his people.
Colburn nodded. “Thermal scans show she’s putting off a lot of heat.” He licked his lips afterward. Ugh. At least the guy didn’t use words like “moist” and “succulent” to describe me. Then he spoke again. “Mmm, a succulent breeder.”
Ew. Spoke too soon.
“Jeffrey, shut the hell up,” Meecer said. He turned to one of his guards, who handed him something bundled in white cloth. I could feel that something, actually. It was the bobblehead of me. How nice. The one with the signal jammer inside.
I poke up through is phone. “How nice. You brought me a gift.”
He pulled it off his belt and looked at it. “You’re awake?”
“Alive, awake, and a-waiting to get out. Won’t be long now, will it?”
He raised an eyebrow, looking at the chunk of ice I was stuck in. “I intended to take you out of there. You are a special piece to me. Now, I’ll admire you from afar until you’re… ripe.”
“Necrophilia? I hear ya. That way I can’t complain about what a terrible fuck you are.” I responded, then laughed through his phone.
He gritted his jaw. “I meant you would weaken.”
“Good luck,” I said, laughing again, this time through all the phones any of them had.
His face went red and he raised his voice as he addressed me this time, “Stupid whore. You will stay in there. If you’re lucky, I’ll let you out while you’re still strong enough to open your legs for your betters.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr. Meecer. I meant good luck escaping.” I set the laughter on repeat. My gauntlets began to glow. The energy began to melt the water, and turn some to steam. On the ground level of the museum, Dudebots grabbed a guard standing at the main entrance and tore his head off. Three headed inside. A fourth sat at the door and blocked it, which meant I didn’t have to walk that one around. It’s not easy controlling that many bodies directly.
Colburn grabbed the shoulder of the teen cryomancer, fingers digging into the boy. “Freeze her!”
I stopped laughing long enough to give him some advice. “Hey kid. Guess what it means that I can control the signal in their cell phones from here? Guess why the alarms aren’t going off in this museum now?”
The kid looked between me and Colburn, then reached up to his neck. Then he smiled. He grabbed Colburn’s hand and covered it in ice. He pulled away and ran for the door. The closest bodyguard reached for him with his green hand. The boy raised his arms and created a shield of ice in front of them, smacking through the man’s arms. The man put a hand up to stop the boy from pulling the door completely open.
I activated my helmet’s laser. Everyone out there, including the boy and the guard at the door, turned at the crackling. The detective reacted first, diving to the ground. The guard at the door raised his hand. It began to glow. Whatever he was trying to do didn’t stop the beam of coherent light that burned a hole through the ice and the door. He looked at the whole I left, so close to his chest, and realized the teenager was using the opportunity to slip away.
“Forget him, let’s go!” Meecer called. He ducked and headed for the door. His guard there opened it up and fell back on top of Meecer from a punch by a Dudebot. That one stepped in, firing its eye lasers lower down on the block of ice I was in.
The guard with the chrome ray gun raised it and fired. A glowing dart shot out of the end and shot a hole through the chest of the Dudebot. He fired again and again, the Dudebot advancing slowly. He wasn’t hitting anything serious, though he was penetrating the armor. It forced him to back up, ended up against my ice block. Then the man with the green hand raised it and shot some energy blast at the back of the Dudebot’s hips that sheared it in half. It toppled to the ground.
They might have felt safe for a second, until the other two Dudebots stepped in. One raised its boot and brought it down on the chest of the guard with the hand. He moaned as something cracked. Another stomp cracked even more, but he didn’t moan any longer.
The guard with the ray gun took careful aim, but that’s when I shattered the ice bock enough to pull him back against me. I popped the Nasty Surprise and a mini-chainsaw shot out from under one of my arms and through the man’s chest, throwing hot blood all over the place. I tossed the body aside and hopped out of the ice block. I turned to Colburn, as did the remaining two Dudebots. He raised his hands, going completely black. He disappeared into himself, is the best way I can describe it. It’s like he folded up into himself, leaving me alone with Meecer, who was finishing a yell with “…leave me! You’re finished, Black Hole! I’ll make sure of it!”
I and my robot doppelgangers turned to Meecer, who was still pinned underneath a dead bodyguard. Nearby, the private detective crawled behind the neanderthal for safety. I ignored him for the moment, as he seemed smart enough to leave me to my scheme. “You won’t be doing much of anything from now on, Meecer.”
He laughed and held up his hands. “Go ahead and arrest me. The evil Psycho Gecko is nothing but a law dog, isn’t she? Trying to go hero?”
I retracted the Nasty Surprise and walked over. Reaching down, I pulled him to his feet, then got a better grip on his collar and lifted him off the ground. “I’m no hero.”
I grabbed his arms with my spare ones, his legs with one of my Dudebots, and the last Dudebot wrapped its arms around his belly. “What are you doing? Don’t you know who I am?!” Meecer called, trying to kick and flail his way free.
“Yeah,” I said with no small amount of pleasure. “A dead man.” I pulled his arms off. The Dudebot yanked down and tore his legs off. Then the one hugging him pulled down while I still held him by the throat. His head more or less popped off and rolled away, mouth still moving and eyes rolling back.
As one, myself and the robots turned to the detective. He wet himself. “Please,” he whined. “I tried not to have anything to do with it. I didn’t touch the kids.”
The three of us cocked our heads to the side, staring at him silently. Up at the door, the Dudebot on guard held its arms out at the boy who escaped helping the girl he fought before along, a crowd of other children with them. That drone projected an image of the detective. “This man. Did he hurt you?”
The boy just stared, but the girl shook her head. “You could tell he never liked being there, an’ he never did anything with me.”
“Me neither,” said another kid. There was a general murmur of agreement. The Dudebot stepped aside and held the door open.
“Congratulations,” I told him. “The kids put in a good word for you. You’d better make sure they don’t disappear.”
The detective nodded his head enough I thought he might lose the thing. “Yeah, yes, sure. I won’t let you down.”
“I know. You’d let yourself down. About six feet!” I cackled at that one. He crossed himself and ran out of the room past my Dudebots.
I called out to the nearest cell of my agents. We had a couple of guys in Kingscrow. “Empress?”
“I’m going to need a place to lay low for a few days. Things got hot here. Hot, wet, and sticky.” I stepped over the corpses I left as I followed by Dudebots out, the drones each grabbing a half of the downed Dudebot to drag after. By the time we got to the first level, most of the kids had left, but not the girl or the boy.
“Can we come with you?” asked the girl.
I stopped. “Why?”
The boy looked at her. “Because our parents sold us. Some of the other ones, they got here the same way, but we don’t want to go back.”
“There’s a system for kids whose parents did that…” Yeah, and I bet some of those kids were sold by people in that system, too. Child Protective Services isn’t an area where I bribed any officials. “But if you want to come to Ricca while you figure out what to do next in your life, I will let you.”
We picked up an even smaller boy outside who had been waiting around. He ran up to the kids following me as I was calling my local agents back up. “Make that myself and a few children. We have extraction coming.”
I was antsy up until Psychsaur and Qiang arrived. My daughter rushed into my arms for as tight a hug as her armor could let her give. “Don’t do that!” she admonished me.
“What, get caught?” I asked.
She nodded. “I couldn’t hardly sleep!”
I chuckled and patted her on the helmet. “Don’t worry about it. I try to get caught as little as possible. Let’s go home, pumpkin.”
She looked past me to the superpowered kids lounging around. “Did you get me brothers and sisters?”
Psychsaur snorted. I laughed. “No, dear. I have plenty of my own already. I saved them. They wanted to come with us.”
“Kidnapping children?” Psychsaur asked, but the smile showed she didn’t think much of the illegality. Knowing what was going on, she knew I wouldn’t be as bad as them.
I spread my hands. “Hey, all’s fair in love and villainy.”
Psychsaur came along with me to Seattle. I wasn’t going to bring her as there wasn’t any real reason to and she has her own life to live, but she asked about what I’m doing. “Just infiltrating some rich douchecanoe’s party scene of trafficked girls and boys to confirm he’s doing what I think he’s doing, then killing him. No different than your average Catholic Church service.”
What, did Pope Francis think I forgot? A lot of priests should consider themselves lucky I wasn’t Pope long enough to make some decrees.
Psychsaur ignored the jab at the Catholics. “You’re going to take your daughter with you into that situation?”
I thought about it. “I guess I can leave her in the room.”
“Around a bunch of criminals known for trafficking girls, who you’re going to piss off when you kill someone and stuff starts blowing up?” she asked, raising a decent point.
“Right, I need explosives…” My hands went to my waist, where my more integrated design left me without a belt to hang rubber chicken grenades from.
Psychsaur crossed her arms over her chest. “You know what I mean.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine, you have a point. I probably should arrange for a safe house for her.”
“I know people. I’ll go with you,” the heroine said.
I thought it over. Having a known superhero with me has the potential to alert Meecer’s people, but I did just give Psychsaur a hell of a makeover. She didn’t look anything like she used to. As long as she doesn’t throw on a costume, they shouldn’t realize who she is. “As long as you don’t go acting or looking like a hero, we’ll be fine.”
She shrugged. “Deal. I’m getting out anyway.”
“Really?” I asked. “Wow. Just so we’re clear, you’re going to stop being a hero?”
She nodded. “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting and risking my life. There’s a lot of pressure to make that your calling when you have powers, especially if you don’t look human. I just want a chance to live my own life.”
I smiled. “Good for you. In that case, thanks for helping me with my super business before you hang up the cape and tights for good.”
She smiled. The bathroom door opened as Qiang finished and stepped out. “Ok, I’m ready to go!”
I threw a fist in the air. “Ok, kiddo. Tonight, Seattle. Tomorrow… the world!”
“Really?” Qiang asked.
I motioned her on over toward the door and the car. “Of course not. You’re too young for a whole world. Start with a fish and we’ll see how you do from there.”
Getting to Seattle wasn’t the problem. I just walked into a private airstrip like I owned the place and stole a doctor killer. That’s the nickname of private planes with a tendency to crash when flown by amateur pilots with more money than know-how. Lucky for us, I’m no doctor. If I was, I probably could have diagnosed why Psychsaur was so quick to get out of the plane when we landed and rush to the bathroom.
“Huh. I wonder what her problem is,” I said, looking to Qiang.
My daughter had put her helmet on at some point during the flight. As she unbuckled her seatbelt, she said, “Maybe she doesn’t like flying upside down.”
“Could be,” I said as I slid out of the plane.
Meecer’s people found us that night to invite me to the evil kidnapping rape ring, but in a classy way. You know, with an understated white envelope slid under the door and a beautifully calligraphied invitation with embossing. I held it up for Psychsaur to see. “I have a location.” And an instruction to dress casual.
It turned out to be a movie theater. I looked like anybody else on the street with my armor altering how I appeared to others. Some of those others were just people going to see a movie. I was missing a prime chance to catch the new John Wick alongside these folks. Well, most of these folks. The women with the super-expensive earrings and the guy whose watch I stole weren’t the usual types to go to this theater. I saw them head down a separate wing after an older ticket taker directed them there.
He approached me. “You are a new face. Do you have a ticket?”
“This is something of a premiere for me,” I responded, holding up the invitation. He looked at it brifly, then stepped aside and motioned for me to head down that wing of the theater. It led to a short stairwell down, then a doorway. And from there, a lavish scene of chandeliers, red carpeting, and a waiter stepping up.
“Drink, ma’am?” he asked.
“Not this moment. Perhaps later,” I said.
Two men approached. One was the same private dick from the house, whose name I never caught. The other was a larger man, wider, fatter, but not obese. He had a devious, hungry smile without a matching gleam in his eyes. “There you are… our newest guest.” The private investigator broke off to speak privately to the waiter while the big guy reached a hand out for one of mine. He settled on upper right. “Colburn. Jeffrey Colburn. I will be your host tonight.”
I looked to the investigator, who kept turned away to look at other attendees. I turned back to Colburn. “I thought our ultimate host was Meecer. I thought I’d be meeting him.”
Colburn laughed, like if Santa Claus wanted to take a butcher’s knife to some kids. “He limits his attendance at the Dark Bazaar. He doesn’t like connections. Here, let me show you our attractions.”
It’s disappointing Meecer himself isn’t here for the sake of convenience, but on with the show. The tour started with a particularly noisy area, where a cage surrounded by a clear container held two people. On one side, teen boy in a cage stood in a pair of shorts. He was a skinny one, no real muscle to him, with long, black hair. Facing him was a chunky girl who could have been in middle school, in shorts and a shirt. Both had collars around their necks.
Something yellow flowed out of the girl’s eyes, like little motes that drifted in the air. She began to hover off the floor, then moved her hands toward the boy. The motes shot at him. The boy raised his arms to shield himself and ice blossomed outward from him. Spines stuck into the ice or bounced off it, flowers beginning to bloom off what had come from the girl’s eyes. The girl directed those seeds or pollen or whatever they were down to the floor where they began to grow together into a quartet of thick vines with snapping flower mouths on the ends. They rose above the lip of the boy’s ice wall. He created small shields in the air to stop their bites, then held his hands out. Ice formed in the air in front of him and kept spreading over the rest of the enclosed area, trapping the vines. It almost reached the girl when a light flashed above the arena and the ice stopped moving and the girl fell to the floor. Both combatants appeared fine, but it seemed the boy was much stronger.
“Disappointing fight, but he’s so powerful that it’s hardly fair,” Colburn said. “We normally fight even after they bleed, but he can freeze anyone. I’d like to break him of the habit with a death match, but he’s premium breeding stock.”
“And the girl?” I asked, watching as both combatants were dragged out by guards in riot gear with batons and tasers.
“She’s too young for breeding, but pleasure is another matter. I advise giving her room to grow,” the ringleader of the night’s events informed me.
“I don’t think this was all made clear to me,” I said. “What’s all this about breeding?”
The man led me away, putting his hand over my shoulder in an overly-familiar way. He looked puzzled for a moment as he touched the armor, then continued his imitation of a shark’s grin. “An impressive villain like yourself must know the value of superpowers. Magic, cybernetics, random mutation, natural training, unnatural physiology, mad science; the ways to obtain such power are legion and unreliable. Prominent families agree that the best way to insure superpowers in your legacy is the result of proper breeding.” He led me to a hallway next to a bar area.
I looked around but I couldn’t see that investigator anymore. Maybe he’d ducked out, if he was smart enough, if he had me figured out. I doubt it, which meant he probably thought I was like all of these things.
Colburn jostled my shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts? You’re more quiet than I was led to expect.”
I motioned to the whole place. “Oh, just wondering how I could possibly have gotten so far without having heard of this place.”
Colburn’s fingers came together, tip to tip in an apologetic gesture. “One does not obtain an invitation by threatening to blow up the world. As I said, this is about the importance of good breeding in families of leisure.”
“Do you have much of a selection?” I asked, wondering how I was going to shut all this down. Destroying it was one thing; rescuing kids was another.
“We have hundreds of fit stock for you to peruse,” he said, snapping his fingers in the direction of a waiter. The waiter brought over what appeared to be a menu at first. Instead of a wine selection, there were lists of features: sex, ethnicity, skin color, hair type, body type, powers.
I turned and went to put a fist through his chest and pull out his lungs. Colburn, suit and all, turned black with white specks dotting him. My fist bang into him, but couldn’t penetrate. “Attacking us, Empress Gecko? Our hospitality is not to be violated.”
I pulled my hand back, but it caught in midair and began to pull toward him, along with my body. The room seemed like it sped up, and my arm stretched unnaturally long before I fell into Colburn. I fell out in a bedroom with a selection of fetish gear laying around. Standing in front of me was the teen boy from the fight. A voice came out of nowhere. “Boy, freeze her.”
“I’m here to get you out,” I told him.
He shook his head and pointed to the collar around his neck. “There’s no getting out with this bomb strapped to my neck.” He held up his hands toward me.
I turned invisible by instinct and began to charge my gauntlets. The ice advanced on all sides, even freezing my feet and closing off the ceiling from me. I lashed out at the ice, but it was replaced faster than I could break it. It closed over me, thick, restricting, until I couldn’t move.
I reached out with my mind, looking for something to help me out of this situation. I ended up connecting to a call being made. “Mr. Meecer, she disappointed us. Yes, just as small-minded as to be expected of new blood. Mmm, but isn’t it delicious to know we have such fine new breeding stock? One of the most famous villains in the world, and an Empress.”
“A rare treat,” came the response. “No one touches her before I arrive,” said the man I’d been looking for to kill.
Well, looks like I may have found my target after all, just as soon as I get out of this ice. If anyone expects me to warm up to the idea of sex slavery, guess again. If there’s anything I am at the moment, it’s a major frigid bitch.
A thankful one as well. Psychsaur texted me an update an hour later. “Police raided your hotel room. We’re safe at a friend’s.”
“Good. Keep her safe. Am captured, will deal with target. Side note: good thing I no longer have testes to freeze.”
Now that I’ve got a couple days to think, time to run through possible bomb collar frequencies. Then, when Meecer shows, I either set things off or disable them before busting out. All according to my mysterious plan that totally involved me getting caught. Yep. That’s how it’ll look when the story gets out on this end, at least.
Some might reasonably ask how I can trust Venus, now Medusa, to run around on my island and elsewhere. I know this for a few reasons, one of which being Mix N’Max, my old amigo, has provided that perspective. He called me up while I waited for Meecer’s people to get back to me, video chatting with me while Qiang was zonked out. I sat there listening to my ASMR, getting an audio-only ear massage from a woman wearing dish gloves while I scrubbed away at my child’s armor. I put it on pause when I saw he was trying to talk to me.
“Hey there, Maxxy,” I greeted him.
“Hi Gecko. Are you having fun over there?” He asked. He was standing in my living room, in front of the giant monitor that doubled as a TV in his poofy white shirt. Without his jacket, it didn’t stand out so much from his pale skin, but at least his red lips broke up the image.
I shrugged to myself. He couldn’t see anything more from me than a floating head because the call was coming from INSIDE THE BRAIN. “Eh, could be better. This guy’s not very punctual. I as good as left him a note saying, ‘call me’ and he’s taking his sweet time getting around to it. It’s a very rude way to react to someone who stole his ego painting.”
“Do you know what Venus is up to?” he asked.
“She prefers Medusa now. She’s supposed to be figuring out who tried to kill me when we were on that other world.” Ugh, dried dog drool with food gravy still in it. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
“She’s talking with the Justice Rangers. A lot. I’m not sure you should be trusting her. I asked Sam and Holly if they’d keep an eye on her.” He crossed his arms. Behind him, Sam Hayne walked into the camera view briefly, eating a bowl of cereal. She’d gone spiky and bright orange with her hair now. Max’s punk assistant gave a little wave, then stepped back off screen.
“Oh yeah? Anything interesting happen?” How does a girl lose this much hair in her helmet and not go bald?
“They had a girls’ night out. Medusa invited the Pink Ranger along. Sam doesn’t trust them.”
Sam called from offscreen, “That’s right!”
I shrugged again. “Sam doesn’t trust me.”
“That’s also right!” Sam added.
“Guys, I get it, I do. You think I trust her? I have no idea what she sees in me, how she can actually have any feelings for me after all we’ve been through against one another. I’m half-convinced this is all an elaborate plan of hers to get back at me by making me paranoid while getting some good sex from me.”
Holly rose from the bottom of the image, eating popcorn from a bowl. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Tell me more!”
“I didn’t know you were that way, Holly.” I said, eyeing her. She had long blonde hair with pink highlights now.
Max shooed her out of the frame. “She’s not. She’s just a fan.”
“Mhm!” Holly said just before leaving the call to just Max and myself.
The image I projected showed my eyeroll. “I completely understand the concern and it isn’t without justification. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m choosing to take the W on this one and trust her. It’s good to know I’ve got a friend like you who is looking out for me, though, and I’m sure if she does try anything, you will be part of the way I pull through it.”
“Get a room, you two!” called Sam.
I pretended to narrow my eyes. “Max, just how attached are you to having two assistants?”
“It’s getting to be a hassle to feed both of them,” he smiled.
“I’ll eat Holly then,” Sam said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Wow, they’re both like that. And all this time I thought Max was taking his work home with him…”
He laughed it off. “Try to enjoy your vacation, your evil majesty.” He gave the last three words a cheesy emphasis. He’d have to be careful not to take that tone publicly. Lots of people take that Empress thing seriously.
His comment about vacationing gave me an idea. When I finished with Qiang’s armor, I set it aside and started poking her. “Hey, wake up. Wakey, wakey. It’s morning.”
My drowsy little pumpkin stirred. “Huh?”
“I’m tired of waiting. Let’s hit an amusement park.”
We had a load of fun. We went to the front of all the lines. They tried to keep Qiang off a few rides, but she had these extending stilt things in her boots to raise her up in case I thought she needed to reach stuff higher up. Then she found a water pistol and pretended it was a real weapon. The park people bought it.
Our trip back was just a hop and a skip back with our armors on. Well, a few more than just one hop and skip, but y’all get the point. When we reached the street our little house we were staying in was on, I noticed an extra car on the street. A real nice one. And a window shade was drawn that hadn’t been before. “You stay back,” I told Qiang. “And stay hidden. You notice anyone sneaking up on me, or on you, you let me know immediately, got it?”
She nodded and ducked behind a car.
It’s about time they found us. I wasn’t even subtle, renting it under the name Psycho Gecko. Maybe he thought I’d have gone for a hotel suite, but I wanted to change things up this time. A small two bedroom in a nice neighborhood lacked room service, but it had a certain charm, and an ability to sneak up on where you stay that’s better than a hotel. There, you don’t know until you’re either inside or in the confined hallway just outside. Here, I have a whole street, with cars to duck behind. I left Qiang ducking behind one.
When I stepped out, a ripple swept across my armor. The coloring of my chest was replaced by the landscape on the opposite side of me, adjusted to counteract distortions. Holographic emitters worked with the armor’s own color-changing abilities to render me invisible. I stepped lightly in the less cumbersome armor and made a circuit of the house before going in.
A man in an expensive dark blue suit waited in the living room, the sun glinting off his dusky, bald head. His backup laid in a pile by the back door. As a courtesy, I left them alive, with complimentary ball gags so they wouldn’t talk. I grabbed myself a drink from the kitchen and stepped up beside the guy, leaning on the chair and turning visible. He jumped as I appeared. “Hello there, visitor. May I interest you in a frosty beverage?”
I stuck the straw against he fanged “mouth” on the outside of the helmet and played a slurping sound.
The man stood up and backed off, hands coming up just a little. He covered by grabbing his suit jacket and buttoning it up. “I don’t believe I will, madam Gecko.”
I gave a little wave with one lower hand. “Oh, please. Just call me the Great and Devious Empress Psychopomp Gecko. Madam Gecko was my mother. Heck of a brothel owner, that one.”
The man looked at a loss as to how seriously to take this statement. I giggled and set the drink aside. “I take it you’re a decently-paid, if expendable, goon here on behalf of a certain wealthy client?”
“Actually, I’m a private investigator on retainer for that wealthy client. I suppose that makes me expendable enough.” He smiled at that. “Lucky for me, I’m not here for a fight. My employer asked me to see what we can do to persuade you to return a possession with sentimental value. We thought it best to simply ask, rather than go to all the trouble of a fight.” He flashed a winning smile.
“Aww, look at you, trying to lube me up like that. It’s a good thing you’re not looking to fight, though, because those guys you brought were a pushover. What was it, just five?” I pointed toward the backdoor, outside of which they were all incapacitated.
The man winced. “Will it help my chances if I say I didn’t want to bring them along?”
I held a hand up parallel to the ground and wobbled it. “Eh. You’re right, it’s a fortuitous day for you. I wasn’t hoping to get into a fight either. I fully intend to see about a deal with you and your boss about the possession in question, which you no doubt already tried to find.”
The man motioned to a couch nearby. “Please, may I sit?” I nodded; he sat. “If we’re both in agreement that this is a time to deal, not a time to kill, then please help me understand what my resourceful client may do for you?”
“I’m aware that your client takes human resources very seriously. You know, let’s stop beating around the bush. I know your boss beats around some trafficked bush.”
“This is about the drugs, then,” the man said.
I shook my head. “I actually meant the parties with special entertainment for those invited. Just men and women enjoying some company and some fucking.”
The man’s face went still, but the smile no longer reached his eyes. “Oh. That is a more complicated subject.”
“I’ll bet it is.”
“I will have to confer with my client before I can make this deal. I hope you understand, this isn’t something I can do from here.” He slowly reached into his pocket and produced a cheap flip phone that he tossed to me. I caught it. “I’ll contact you with his answer.”
“That’s fine. Go talk to whoever you need to in person. I’ll be here with the painting,” I waved him off.
He started to go, then sighed, and started for the backdoor. “Let me get them before I go.”
“Oh please, I’d hate to throw them in the recycling,” I said.
I didn’t get confirmation until the next day, via text. “You are in. Seattle. 5/20. We will find you.” I set the phone aside and went back to examining the day’s paper, where a section on local events showed a memento picture from a ride.
“Son of a… Qiang, dear, come look at this. They said they couldn’t give us the picture because of someone showing more than they were supposed to.” There we were, strapped into seats, our arms up in the air. With our helmets on, you couldn’t see our screaming faces. You could see those of the other riders, their eyes fixed on us as we plunged down a steep incline.
The headline read, “So Much Fun, It’s Criminal!”
A hero asked me a favor. Psychsaur arrived here on the island, direct from Los Angeles. The reptilian, feathered hero is one of the few I’m happy to see, and the feeling is mutual. She gets me a bit better than most, thanks to the telepathy and the mind reading. I worry sometimes that my positive outlook toward her may be the result of even more tampering she’s done to my mind. She’s messed around in there in the past. I don’t exactly like that she did it without asking, especially in regards to some problems I hadn’t been ready to address at the time, but it’s done. And she was one of the first heroes to really get me.
She walked into the tent that served as my temporary throne room while everything was being rebuilt. Two capital buildings and throne rooms since I’ve been Empress isn’t a good track record. I don’t like buying new furniture every year. I wouldn’t have even bothered with concept of a throne room just yet, but I need a way for things to come to me officially without letting everyone into the residence.
I was playing with my daughter, because she’s still not leaving me alone too much since I got back from the other dimension. Today’s lesson: chainsaw juggling. Just kidding. That’s one of the things I’m gonna get a tutor to handle. No lesson today, just videogames. The dastardly duo of PsychoGecko and Noobmaster69. I don’t know where she got the 69 part. I teach my daughter to use only the most refined language.
I sat there, my brain plugged in for voice chat. “I don’t care who the fuck you are, you’re talkin’ to mama bear now. You’re sore? Fly your ass on over here, we’ll see how sore you’ll be. I don’t care, I got an extra pair, and the only ass they’re going up is yours before I pull your tonsils out through your sphincter. Go cry to your mommy, you alcoholic asswipe.”
Next to me, Qiang giggled and kept shooting at someone.
“That’s one way to greet a guest,” I heard a feminine voice call out. Psychsaur walked in from the shadows on the outside of the room. Gotta get better lighting in here.
“Psychsaur!” I dropped my controller and hopped up. Qiang was too busy at the time with the game and pause buttons are incompatible with multiplayer.
The hero smiled as she approached. “You’re camping in style now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just a temporary matter until we rebuild everything and then they spend half the time gilding it all. I’ve got ideas on where to take the gold from, actually, but that’s a whole other thing. What are you doing here? You know, so soon after we were all on the same flying ship together.”
“I had to stop elsewhere first. I’m here for a favor, but I brought money,” she checked around and found some place better to sit than the cushions my kid and I were using. We both took a seat at a nearby table brought in for formal business.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Before I say this, I want you to know I thought about this a lot. I see it as a way of improving myself and fixing a defect that impedes me and prevents me from doing what I want to do in life. There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding body issues and disabilities, and I see this as the latter. It doesn’t indicate I see my condition as a sign of immorality or that it makes me less of a person. But it doesn’t let me be the person I want to be.” She fixed me with a look. I got the feeling this preamble came from experience.
I could sympathize. I have an extra pair of arms and boobs I wasn’t born with. “You, like most people, were born with an unfortunate defect: you’re not me. It severely hampers how awesome you can be.”
She made a drawn out “Heh” sound and looked to the side. “I want you to make me look like a regular human.” She fixed her eyes on my face, watching.
My reaction was more like, “Kind of a shame. You’re so pretty.” The scales, the feathers, they work. Not in a sexual way, not since she really went and mind melded with me, but they’re pretty features. The fact that they aren’t human ones isn’t that big an issue for me. It obviously is for her. “Sure. Got any particular person you want to look like?”
She brightened up and smiled. “Sure!” We talked it over for a bit, before she confessed, “I didn’t know how you were going to react. Thank you for not giving me shit.”
“Who am I to tell you you can’t do what you think improves yourself?” I reached up and ran one of my lower pair of arms through my hair.
And so the three of us set out for my workshop. I’d gone ahead and taken part of the basement level under the old Palace Grounds for personal maker space. That way, I didn’t have more giant vats of nanites laying on the floor of the living room. There was a small armory as well, with remaining pieces of past armors, as well as a copy of my current iteration. On one wall was the armor closet, assembling an upgrade. It was partially visible.
“Is that a shell?” Psychsaur asked as we made our way to a nearby nanite submersion tank.
I nodded. “Of a sorts. It’s a bit of a departure from some of how I’ve done armor before now. Instead of modular armor or a bunch of layers, I’m building it all in. I’m aiming to create a fully integrated and sustainable suit of power armor. No nanoweave with armor plates on top of it or embedded in it, with nanite quilt or exoskeletal muscle layers below. For starters, having an exoskeleton underneath stuff is just bad grammar. But I think there’s reason to believe I can make armor that provides superior protection with no loss of dexterity. Aside from the damn rockets. Haven’t figured out a way to incorporate them.”
Sad, that. I like having elbow rockets. There’s nothing like opening up an intercontinental ballistic can of whoopass on someone’s face.
I directed her to a square tub on the floor with a hand scanner attached. I touched my hand to it and a hologram appeared overhead, showing what we were aiming for with her looks. She looked past it, to a much larger block taking up most of the back of the space. “Make the hair a little darker. Hey, what’s that?”
“Oh. Working on something bigger, with a very different philosophy than the other armor. I prefer the integrated version, but you never know when you’re going to need some power behind your punches.”
“Hulkbuster, got it. That’s good… do you think it’ll work?” she wondered, setting a hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged. “I’ll do my very best to make sure it does. If it doesn’t, we can always change it later.”
Feels nice to do something for a friend, and it gave me time to metaphorically pick her brain. She could hear me from inside the tank, unless she turned on the TV or sound system. “So… do you know anything about a man named Erin Meecer?”
“Who?” she asked. Qiang snuck up and nearly hit me with a hammer.
“What’s this do?” My adorable daughter asked.
“Anybody you hit with it is disintegrated into a pile of ash and never comes back,” I told her. I pulled the hammer away.
“Really?” she asked, unsure of herself and looking from the hammer to where she almost smacked me.
I tossed the hammer aside, “Nope. But you shouldn’t mess with whatever’s laying around in here. You keep doing it, you won’t go with me to America.”
She hopped up and down. “Yay, am I going back to the Academy?”
I looked to where Psychsaur was being changed. “What’s going on out there?”
“I’m trying to find out what you know before my daughter and I visit the U.S. To impart a little karma on someone.”
Sadly, she didn’t know anything about the guy. Erin Meecer. Rich. Part owner of various companies, including a car company. Probably done all the same bad things anybody does who gets paid thousands of times more than their employees do for less work. Not really the sort of thing to disgust Medusa when she was Venus. Nope, this one has to do with private parties with kidnapped people, boys and girls both, helping to entertain guests.
“Mommy, do you hate rich people?” Qiang asked me as we flew into the country.
Psychsaur, seated nearby, smiled. We were kinda on my, uh, private plane. And Psychsaur didn’t look too bad. Not quite as unique without the scales and feathers. She reached up and rubbed her nose, getting used to it still.
I stuck out my tongue at the heroine before I answered. “When someone poor or powerless gets into trouble, they have more than enough people ready to make them pay. Not always, but since they don’t usually do it just once, there’s always a chance. But sometimes bad people do bad things and people don’t stop them because they have a lot of money or are important. I’m one of those people, too.”
“No you’re not!” she squealed as she hugged me.
“D’aww… you wanna help me break into a place?”
But Gecko, why would you take your daughter to go break into the house of a sex trafficking pimp bastard? He was out of town. I figured we wouldn’t find anything here. A guy like that has a lot of properties I could waste time looking through, but I thought I’d go about this the direct way. That’s why I busted through the door of a mansion in rural California on a hill overlooking the vineyard. The alarm sounded and tried to put out a call. I stuck a Psycho Gecko bobblehead on a table by the door. They’re cute. A bobbing head, then a pair of arms in my older, more iconic armor holding bobbing, decapitated heads. I built in a signal jammer in the base to make sure nobody radioed or used that pesky internet to get a signal out. I even showed Qiang how to cut the phone lines.
“Doggies!” Qiang said when a pair of Dobermans came checking the door.
“Honeybun, is your armor on tight?” I asked.
She ran forward and squealed with delight as one of the dogs tried to bite her arm. She tugged her arm free easily and tried to pet it. “Yes, mommy!”
“Don’t let them hurt you, dear,” I told her. I started in, but paused to see how she handled the dogs. They went for her arms and tried to drag her down. The couldn’t get the best grip on her armor, which was designed to handle worse than dog bites, and it had the strength to help her get up. Plus, it had the same tight seal to allow it to survive a chemical attack as my own. The dogs can’t get through unless she lets them through.
So with the alarm being nothing but loud noises and the guard dogs thoroughly distracted, I headed in. I kicked in a few doors, grabbed a few small, valuable trinkets. I wasn’t here for major theft, or even burning it down like I would prefer. Qiang loves the flamethrower, but this was about sending a different sort of message. It required a slow burn, some might say. Like me. I’m saying it. I didn’t get to use a damn flamenwerffer. Instead, I tried to find anything that might have particular personal value. A trophy or plaque of some meaning, perhaps.
In his living room, I found an eleven foot by six foot painting of Meecer wearing a lion’s skin and wrestling with a dragon.
I was taking it down when a man in a suit arrived, swaggering around the corner. He wore a pair of glowing red glasses and knuckle dusters. “So you’re the asshole waking me up?” He clapped his hands and the light came on.
Where before my armor looked like power armor, this guard got a look at armor that looked like dark grey skin, with no gaps. On the chest, four tendrils, like two uppercase omega symbols, one inside the other, stretched downward, colored a dark orange against the grey, one not meant to show up as garish in the shadows. The same orange colored my fists, knees, and spine. The helmet featured a grinning maw of fangs underneath a triangle of eyes that contained lasers. The helmet had its own “hair” in the form of a pair of horns that cling to the helmet as one piece and curl downward along either side of the face, ending in a pair of spheres: my take on a jester’s cap. This armor lacked the cape of my prior version. But instead of metal plates or nanoweave, it appeared more like a thick skin or soft shell.
“Who the hell ARE you?” asked the man who stumbled up on me.
I let the helmet do the grinning and raised my lower pair of hands. Glowing orange nails extended from the fingertips. “I’m Psycho Gecko. Tell your boss I want to talk.”
He raised his fists in a boxer’s stance for a second. I took a step toward him and he lowered them. “What am I doing… you don’t look like that guy, but I don’t make enough. Take what you want… just make it look like I put up a fight?”
I nodded and walked over. His shirt ended up shredded and I tossed him through a wall, but I didn’t hit a stud on the way through. He’d survive, probably end up with a nice scar that, if leveraged well, could really help his reputation. He’d be one of the few to survive a fight with Psycho Gecko. I’d say he should pray I don’t find out he was a part of Meecer’s side business, but he wouldn’t want to bring gods into this. They’s so squishy.
I carried out a big ol’ painting past Qiang, who had picked up one of the dogs overhead and was spinning it around in a circle. The other one was hopping around, trying to reach for the spinning dog. “That thing’s gonna spew,” I warned as I stepped outside and out of the blast radius.
Her giggles turned to a gasp, then crying. “Momma! He puked on me!”
“Looks like we learned something tonight. Come on, kiddo, let’s get back to the hotel and get you cleaned up.” I giggled a little bit, with the sound turned off, as she walked out of the house covered in a disgusting tax mixture. Aww. “At least you don’t have to smell it or wear it.”
Now then, I just have to wait until I get a call from Meecer or one of his associates. Sure, a hero might have trouble infiltrating whatever he’s doing and getting some proof of what’s going on, but I’m no hero. He has absolutely no reason to fear me going to the police or the FBI with what I find. He just has to fear going to the grave.
When I first got home, Qiang, my dear daughter, clung to me. When I went to bed, she clung to me. When I woke up, she clung to me. When I took a shower, when I ate breakfast, when I set my machines to build a replacement armor. I had to enlist Buzzkill bodyguards to finally pull her away long enough to see to her schooling, though I didn’t want to. If every there was a learning curve to master, it’s the one that comes with her being the heir to a supervillain’s empire.
With the nation militarized and under alert to deal with the threats of extradimensional invaders, my government was able to limp along. They deferred to Qiang and Citra, my political wife, as much as possible, but we’re lucky no one cared that much to ask who was running the country while I wasn’t around and what authority their decisions rested on. They might have said Qiang, who was a vocal advocate of Ricca continuing to aid the heroes and other countries while I was away, but there should have been a regent with a better understanding of the circumstances.
A failing on my part. I already have an idea to rectify it, but after spending time sorting out an important piece of business.
“It wasn’t one thing. Maybe it should have been. It’s easy to know what’s right when you first start out. If there’s a hoodlum who snatches a purse, you stop them. A pedant would say there’s nuance there, but not really. You get experienced at it and you can handle bigger thefts and fights. I was so proud of the first headlines about arresting carjackers and robbers. One morning, I’m having my coffee to warm me up after a cold shower. I bumped a bruise on my arm and scatter the newspaper. I was on the front page for stopping the Privateers from stealing a microchip from a Defense Department lab in the city, but I was reading about murders and carjackings no one stopped.”
I reached out and put a hand on Medusa’s shoulder. We sat on a couch at the Riccan Institute of Science. We were waiting for the doctors to get done with Dame. I’d taken a huge risk the first time I messed with Dame’s brain because I didn’t care that much if she lived or died. Medusa would rather she live, so I had brain experts and nanosurgeons do the job right. The nanosurgeons use holograms and Homo Machina physiology to closely manipulate regenerative nanomachines to handle jobs that Riccan doctors think are too risky or delicate for machine thinking alone. I think it’s bollocks, but I handed the job over for them to do their way. They know a hell of a lot more about brains than I do.
Medusa wanted to wait on her. Dame had been her friend. I wanted to wait with Medusa, and we decided it was time for a talk.
My nemesis-turned-girlfriend continued, “I wondered how many people were going to be killed by the chip I saved. Maybe more than if the Privateers took it. That was a scary thought for me to have. Mercenaries and pirates might be more responsible with it than law-abiding companies and my own government. Law-abiding doesn’t mean they’re right. The Privateers were wrong and would hurt people with it, so why wasn’t it wrong when the private company does it?”
“We still keep criminals in those basement cells where we kept you. Mender wanted you to be our assassin off the books. And he was wrong to think that, but it means I’m not the only one seeing this.” She went quiet for awhile. “He used to tell me, sometimes, to drop investigations. I had reason to suspect this guy, a rich man, of things. He was a philanthropist. I wonder if the money he gave to charity eased the guilt of what he did or if he used it to fish for victims. I wanted to move in, stop it, capture him, and turn him over to the police. Mender…” She shook her head.
“He told you not to bother?” I suggested. I shifted so I was laying with my head next to her, running a hand absentmindedly down her leg. I like touching her just because. She shifted so her bare feet were over to the opposite side, so I just laid there.
She patted my head from behind. “He did, and he showed me an article from ten years ago. A woman was arrested for making false police reports. She was a private detective. Her business license was revoked. She was evicted. Then he showed me another, about a local superhero. Villains hunted her down and beat her to within an inch of her life. She once worked with the FBI. Mender wanted me to know there was no one who would legally do anything about it. The best result would be him threatening us.”
Her hands lazed over my back, her nails lightly scratching me through my dress. “I threatened to go after him off the books. Mender asked me what would happen to the academy once the FBI snoops on us in retaliation. He had to protect his students. He’s just as selective as the cops. That morning, years later, I think about how I’m not stopping the clear-cut crime. I never found the time to go after him. I’m not stopping the really big crime. I’m just doing enough to maintain the status quo and anyone it doesn’t work for is screwed. I had to get out, but I couldn’t do this on my own.”
“Mmm… I thought you had lots of hero friends.”
She sighed. “They all knew the Academy and I didn’t feel like I could trust them. I needed help.”
“Of all people, you trust me?” I asked, rolling over. I had to see he face on this one.
She laughed. “To let me be a villain so I can fight the good fight? Yeah, I can trust you for that.”
“I dunno… maybe I can’t trust you. After all, you’re so off your rocker, you picked me for a girlfriend.” I winked up at her.
“Stop it,” she leaned down and kissed my forehead. “You’re better than you think you are and you’re getting better. I think I’ve been a good influence on you.”
“You think you knocked sense into me so you’d try smacking it in a different way?” I asked.
She looked away from me with a smile on her face and lightly shook her head. “I think you’re fine and you can be endearing when you aren’t trying to drive someone away. I’ve watched a lot of Gecko because of my job.”
I scooted up to rest my head on her thigh, propping me up a little to look away from her. I didn’t say anything for about ten seconds, so she added, “Be honest with me, ok?”
“I just don’t see why anyone would love me unless they were in a fucked up situation. I killed your boyfriend that time. I’ve tried to kill you before. How do you forget that?”
She reached down and took my hand. “You don’t. Maybe you learn to forgive it.”
I held her hand, ran my fingers over her palm. “I dunno how you do it.”
“You dropped your attempted murder investigation quick.” She intertwined her fingers with mine.
“I wanted to come home and be with my family. That reminds me, Qiang and I made you a present.” I held out my hand and activated the little homing drone. About the size of a small flashlight, it zipped along toward me, carrying a small box. I untied the drone from it and held it up to Medusa.
I’d worked hard on it in my workshop, with Qiang at my side. If not for me forcing her to go to school (and assigning guards to make sure she stays), she’d still be with me. Can’t blame the rugrat. So she was there with me, both of us in power armor, as I swung a great hammer overhead, pounding out a hunk of metal Above me, robotic tendrils spread out and turned downward, great lasers refining my design. When I was done, I backed away. The tendrils grabbed a see-through case and set it up around my creation. An arm lowered itself, no thicker around than a pencil and opened up. Arms small enough to have an arm wrestling competition with a mosquito spread out and latched onto the gift, holding it up in midair. Qiang and I unleashed our barbaric yawps into a receiver that amplified the sound and the box reflected it inward on itself. The box shook as sound waves slammed into the metal and refined it further, helping to distribute the carbon and forge a strong piece.
Medusa held it up. “Is it a keychain?” she asked of the small piece of metal in her hand. “How sweet of Qiang.”
Hey, I put a lot of work into that bracelet. I said watched her reaction to it, the way her eyes shone looking at it. I think she was fucking with me. She slid it on and looked down at it, then smiled a brilliant smile up at me. “I love it.”
After a brief kiss, she had to point out, “I didn’t get anything for you in exchange.”
Lightbulb. Exchange… “You did a lot for me on the ship. The way you stood up to Warman really meant a lot to me. But if we’re talking exchanges, you just gave me an idea.”
“I’m not swapping bodies with you through a transceiver like Dame has,” Medusa said.
I grinned. “Way to ruin Christmas for me early, but no. I was just thinking about a fun time you could give me, involving your rich asshole and whatever nasty business he’s up to.”
“That’s my problem to deal with,” she said. “You’re already doing this for Dame even when you don’t want to.”
I grimaced. “I do have something you could do for me instead, but I don’t want to. You’re here to forge your own path and do your own thing, and it’s a little close to what you did before. What I… I don’t want us… I’m trying to figure out how to say this. I don’t want our relationship to be about what we do for one another like some kind of business deal. I want to help you, and I don’t want you to think it’s about getting things in return”
She bit her lower lip, then ordered me to “Sit up.” I did so and let her pull me onto her lap. “What are you thinking?”
The way I sat there, with her hands on me, what I was thinking isn’t fit to print. Mmm, the taut muscles under her skin… “I handle the bad guy who got away, you find the person who tried to murder me?”
She smiled and kissed me again.
The opening of the doors interrupted us. One of the surgeons walked in and bowed. “Empress, good news.”
It was a little blow to the ego how quickly Medusa set me aside to go run and check on her friend who, apparently, had made a full recovery. I didn’t care to interrupt. I’m the last person Dame ever wants to see in her life.
Instead, I sent off a message to Queen Beetrice, the bee-woman in charge of North Korea. I made sure it was a formal electronic invite. Perhaps it would have been less rude to call, but I knew the kind of high-pitched sounds she makes when she’s happy. It’s entirely possible that every dog in Asia heard her reaction to a formal invitation to brunch with me to discuss an important matter of state.
Like it or not, as childish as I see her quite often, she’s proven to be damn competent. If anything happens to me before Qiang comes of age, she’ll make a fine regent.
Sometimes, I spend too much time in front of a mirror. It’s not vanity, not exactly. I used to really avoid it. I used to avoid the mirror for a long time. I wasn’t happy with what I saw there unless I wore my armor. Sometimes, people need masks to be who they really are, and sometimes people need them to keep from seeing what they are without one. I used to see someone I wanted to kill, interspersed with who I could be. A flicker of imagining what a bit of makeup would do, or thinking of what a lack of hair in the right place would do. Or worse changes. Ideas that burrowed into me because of a teacher once, and again thanks to Venus’s tenacity.
This time, I was waiting while she ran and got my medicine. Maybe being off kilter like I am helps deal with some pretty fucked-up situations. I’ve tended to think of it as an advantage, but the danger sense kicked in at Qiang’s birthday party. I was trying an appetizer and everything just became more focused and… there. It’s like when the bullets start flying but you know where everything is, but I only felt like someone was after me. Qiang came running up to me and lunged to meet her, but I was able to recognize her enough to turn it into a hug. She loved the clowns I got. Good girl. This world discriminates against clowns too much as-is.
And they’re sexy as hell.
But at that moment, I was looking around, tense. “I want to learn to juggle and do balloon animals like he did!” she insisted. I patted Qiang on the back and kissed her head. Venus came up and patted her as well.
“That sounds great! I’m sure your mom will teach you all she knows, but I need to speak to her, alright?”
Qiang wiggled free of my hug and jumped up and down, clapping. Then she saw one of her school friends and ran off to that part of the palace courtyard to go play or something. I dunno, we had bouncy things all around.
Venus held her hands up, looking at me. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
I checked around. “I just need my medicine.” I said, looking around. “It’s like they want to kill me, but no one is.” I laughed and added, “At the moment.”
Venus put her arm around me and guided me to a bathroom, then went to go get my meds from Max. And just me, looking in the mirror at a pretty face with runny eyeshadow, wondering if that’s even me. If this is just me playing pretend. If I’m too fucked up to know what I am. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m just a warped, sick man who hates the sight of himself.
I smashed the mirror. It didn’t even have the decency to cut my skin. Be a hero? No, never. I’ve made sure of that. I shouldn’t be saving the world. It’d be so much better if I molded it. Wash clean the corruption and all the people who aren’t the madmen. Because a madman’s a loner. If it’s a group of them, a government of them, then they aren’t madmen. Mass delusions are perfectly acceptable. I could use all this chaos to my advantage. Let this invader wreck the powers that be for me, so I can swoop in and set a new order.
Nice sentiment. It disappeared when the door swung open and my nemesis stood there. The woman I thought would kill me. My perfect hero, who let me down again and again. The grin fell off my face. When did it get there?
I hugged onto her. She hugged me back. She stroked my hair. “You’re ok. You’re safe. I will not hurt you.”
Even though I’ve lost a damn limb to this woman before, I believed her. She held up a glass of water and a couple of caplets. “I’m not sure I want to take them now,” I said. “I can do so much. They’re so corrupt out there and I can fix it. You can too. You were going to save political prisoners. You have to hate what they did to your country.”
She nodded. “I do. I didn’t want to defend that anymore. I want to make the world a better place.” She looked me deep in my eyes. She set the water and caplets down on the counter by the sink, then grabbed a towel to dab at my eyes. I let her clean me up. “Your head is not in a good place to do that right.”
“No, it’s cool. There are so many possibilities I hadn’t thought about. I could fake evidence of traitors. Let them bomb the biggest threats to the stone age. All it takes to improve the world is to remove the bad ones from it.”
She shook her head. “You would leave the good ones to die. You’d kill them too, to get the bad ones. Look at you. Look what can happen to good people having a bad life.” She picked up my pills again and held them up for me. “This is what you asked me to get you. You know you need them.”
I closed my eyes and sighed, then held open my mouth for them. It’s a good thing Max’s stuff kicks in really quick. That left me in considerably better mental state to give my daughter more presents, like a beautiful Damascus steel shortsword. I went with more of a straight, thin jian design. It works better with what I’ve taught her, though I plan on having her tutored by people a lot better than me. She needs to know more than 1,001 ways to aim for the crotch. Way 322: turn your back to the enemy and stab between your legs so as to miss your own junk.
I was going to give her a large birdasaur, but it died.
The party was a welcome distraction. It helped ease tensions on the island, which was especially good for the refugees. A lot of free nations are taking in people. As much effort as boats are for people, Riccan waters are known to be safe. Deep Ones make awesome marines.
I have no problem giving them bread and circuses. Keep them fed, and keep reminding them their life hasn’t become fight, flight, or freeze.
Even the villains are feeling it. Ouroboros has the drinks and shows flowing at his casino in for the villains who are having difficulties with everything. It’s something of a safe zone. He’s announced on VillainNet that he’s using the weather control devices around the city defensively. He’s not that theatrical of a guy, but you’d never know that from the video of him holding a fucking hammer while it zaps the bastard child of a triceratops and a hedgehog. If it were me, I’d add a fake beard.
The day after Qiang’s birthday party, Ouroboros dropped me a message about needing some help. Someone showed up at the casino, a villain from Tallahassee named Carnivore. “Tallahassee is occupied. They have separated out everyone with powers. They’re being held separately and experimented on.” He attached an aerial image of the place, a hospital, with scribbled annotations. Guards here, a fence around the whole thing. Carnivore’s typed-out notes said they were being drugged. His heroic rival, a man named Snakecharmer, resisted whatever they gave him enough to grab Carnivore and try to escape.
“He dragged me through half the hospital until I could move on my own. At the last gate, he drew off the guards so I could get away and tell everyone. Said I was in no shape to fight. He took a sword to the back so I could get away. Why would he do that?”
A lot harder for a hero to run away and get help. Who would he get? Ouroboros arranges for the guy to get medical treatment and as many joints as he wants to clear his head, but he can’t go see to anyone.
This looks like a job for Psychopomp Gecko. I suppose it’s a decent enough reason to waive my “no breaking you out” rule.
Security matched what Carnivore had to say. The remote-controlled cameras of the closest Dudebot around took it all from behind a projection of the environment around it. A fence around the place, with eight-person patrols marching along it. Raiders, the guys with a facial hair fetish and pale, segmented armor, handled the perimeter. A foursome of robotmen stood in the parking lot relatively near the entrance of the hospital. There were more over by the parking garage that I could see. I headed off after one of the patrols in that direction.
I stalked up behind the rear two, wishing I could move faster. The heavier armor isn’t optimal for moving as stealthily. I tapped the one on the right on his right shoulder. When he turned to look, I punched through the left one’s throat. When the other turned toward me, I put my fist through his mouth.
The rest of the unit turned around at the sound of dropping bodies. They drew their swords all together. I grabbed the heads of the ones who had just been in front before that turn and smashed them together hard enough to send bits flying. The remaining four turned to that, which is when I grabbed the arms of the ones in back and pulled their swords into the backs of their friends. I took the wounded mens’ swords then, one in each hand, and lopped off their heads. The ones behind them pulled their swords out and might have raised a cry of alarm if I hadn’t tipped over the headless guys so that the blood sprayed into their faces.
I impaled one of them on a sword. Right up through the taint. I picked up the other and beat him down onto his friend until the impaled one’s back was bent back at a broken angle and left my unwilling weapon impaled on the same sword still embedded in his friend. Then came the boring work of carrying them all off to dump behind some bushes before the next patrol arrived.
I did a pretty good job thinning things out before I headed inside, looking for the fifth floor. It was quiet. Not too quiet. The fluorescents and air vents made plenty on their own without people there to hide it with coughing and talking. I didn’t see anyone though. I wouldn’t until I made it to floor five, when I heard the sound of loud pumping. The door to the pump noise was left open, so I let myself in.
It had been several rooms until someone knocked the walls down. Now, it held tum a bunch of people in tubes, clear tubes with people squeezed in with pale green fluid. Some wore regular, everyday clothes while others had costumes on . I’d say it was two dozen, easy, and probably way more than should have been in a place like Tallahassee.
Standing in front of them was a man in a white suit. Next to him and slightly behind, a woman in a black lab coat scribbled notes as the man dictated. I got closer, enough to hear him finish, “You got that last part, Cupernia? The measurements are precise. If you have a question, ask now.”
“Are they did?” I asked, a hologram of myself appearing behind them. The man turned and reached into the white jacket he wore over a sky blue turtleneck and pulled out a ray gun with a bulging body and a thin barrel with a large fin on the end as a sight. He fired it through the hologram. I grabbed the gun away from him with one hand and lifted him aloft with the other. “More importantly, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here?”
“C- Cupernia,” he said.
The woman next to me flexed and grew larger, punching me through a wall. Considering how far she had to hit me to make that happen, that was a hell of a punch. Good thing the Dudebot can’t feel it. When I recovered, I looked at the man in my hands. He went through a wall without armor. He was missing the top half of his head.
Cupernia came walking in, a bulging muscle woman. She glared at her dead boss, then picked up a piece of the wall I’d gone through. She raised it over head. I launched the Dudebot toward her and rolled beneath her legs a she slammed the wall down on the floor. I turned and raised the ray gun I’d taken, squeezing the trigger. The bent device sparked once, that’s it. Cupernia smirked, then fell when the floor opened up from her careful attempt to smoosh me.
I tossed aside the dead body and the broken ray gun to see what other weapons I could harness when the big bad assistant came back for me. Oh look, a room full of supers. I began to smash open tubes. “Bring out your dead! Up and at’em, Atom Ant!”
They were lethargic, slow to stand up. I didn’t know how long I had until Cupernia got back up there. I had to think of something. Luckily I had plenty of sleeves to pull tricks out of. When Cupernia peeked in the room, she saw me standing in the middle of a good dozen supers all standing and eyeing her. I held out my hand and gave her the “bring it” gesture. “Still want to stay and play?”
She ducked out of the door. I heard a crash that sounded like an external wall. I had to let the holograms that hid the recovering, blinking supers who couldn’t stand on their own yet. That changed by the time the robotmen stomped their way out of the elevator and were promptly sprayed with lava from a vengeful captive villain.
Snakecharmer wasn’t with them, though. Carnivore seemed to figure that out fairly soon after we all arrived at Ouroboros’s casino. The others, heroes included, had a pint in celebration. Carnivore had one in mourning for the hero that saved his life.
Ugh, terrible. See how horrible war is? Heroes saving villains, villains saving heroes. It’s like cats and dogs living together. It’s just not right.
With the destruction of the Directory building, it’s a good thing we still had the tent originally used instead. Just had to bulldoze some rubble out of the way, haul in the half-melted remains of my throne, and we were good to go. We packed this one with communications equipment and monitors, to keep anyone in there informed of the situation. There weren’t so many of us sticking around to watch events at the moment. The Rangers had insisted they help guard Ricca, a message they communicated through Venus. I think she realized the volatility of the situation, so she stayed with me.
I wanted to go help out, but my underlings made the case that I shouldn’t go out and risk my life. Me, going out and risking my life for others? Preposterous. People would get a warped impression of me if that happened. Arachnoid, Shark, Rhino, and Raptor accompanied my forces over to the Korean peninsula to aid Beetrice and her Buzzkills. A lot of the intricacies of strategy and tactics were out of my hands. I have military officers for that sort of thing. That’s why I had the freedom to slaughter at my own discretion. The people trained to direct people did so, and I killed folks. They’re handling the situation in Korea better than I can.
That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. I stayed active instead. Intel was working over our prisoners, except the big birdasaur. That thing had a negative reaction to Max’s anesthesia. Something about the size of the heart. It ended up comatose and brain dead. “Would you like me to put it down for you?” he asked me as he showed me the cage we had it secured in.
“No, no… I can do that myself,” I told him. I stepped up to the cage. “You’re an ugly son of a bitch and you smell like rotting fish carcasses. We’re an island. We have a fishing industry here, and you still stink. Do you just roll around in the things? Do you fuck fish? Is it their sexy gaping mouths and glassy eyes that does it for you? You a fish-fucking egg-sucking dinosaur?”
Max put his hands around my shoulder. “That’s enough. I’ll put it out of its misery.”
“Put it out of my misery. Its face is killin’ me, Max.” He nodded along as he guided me away. The next time I saw him, at the command tent, he had a fancy feathered coat with him like he’d raided Elton John’s closet.
Note to self: see about selling Elton John a dinobird feather coat if he survives the invasion.
“How’s the war?” Max asked.
I shrugged. “Too much border to try and secure, especially with how useless border protection is. They can come in by air or sea that easily. Instead, Beetrice’s forces are divided up in either a defensive group to handle incursions from the north, and an offensive group coordinating with the South Koreans to push the invaders toward the DMZ.” I pointed to a map which showed most of the two countries in green. Red marked enemy concentrations. As they’d gotten closer to the DMZ, the two main concentrations in either Korea began to pull toward the western shore.
The Missile Command folks were on the edge of their seat. It was a three-way joint taskforce ready to deploy nuclear assets right down the damn barrel of gunships if any more showed up. Ricca wasn’t the only place where the invaders had decided to be sore losers. With a little bit more time for us to see what was happening, the invaders were withdrawing from most countries they couldn’t achieve a quick victory. They teleported in, caused chaos for a bit with some quick destruction, and were either defeated or left to consolidate with victorious groups or aiding the fighting in countries they found it more important to fight for. Withdrawal tended to be accompanied by the arrival of a gunship to blast concentrated defenders or important cities before disappearing.
In the case of Iran, it turned out the exterior was pretty well capable of standing up to a nuclear attack, but one shot right up the pipe did the trick. I didn’t think they had the ability to make that work, but I suspect they’ve got their own homo machina by now. The High Technolutionary, who I worked with to figure out how to transform folks into the same offshoot of humanity I belong to, is still out there somewhere.
The Koreans let the invaders withdraw, easing up. Most of them took to the water instead of the air. A pair of gunships came this time, facing each other but adjusting their aim to fire past the other. They were making the shot more difficult on us, especially because most tend to go off upon close enough proximity. This kind of shot is way more exact for a missile to make. For all their furious activity leading up to it, Missile Command was incredibly calm in making quick calculations and calling out orders. I suppose most of the work had already been done by then. In the end, North Korea launched a nuclear missile into South Korea, and South Korea into North Korea, destroying the gunships.
As soon as it was done, Missile Command broke out the beer and the cheery girl group pop music. My military are suckers for some bunch called Mamamoo. Let them have their fun. They’ll be helping deal with the liberation of our Belgian allies soon enough.
I called up Beetrice first. “Congratulations on victory, honeybee.”
She laughed. “We owe a lot to the South Koreans. I think this war might secure further reconciliation. It will be a difficult process because we are loyal to you, Empress.”
“Something to figure out through the rebuilding process. What’s the damage? We got plenty of nanites, and Cape Diem might be able to spare some people. With the bulk of the fighting over, we can get more medical personnel in. We’re mostly stabilized on our end.” I sat forward in my deformed throne.
“Pyongyang has two of those flying machines downed in it. They destroyed every hospital they came across. The agricultural expansion was going so well, but the fields are trashed. Anything you can give us would be appreciated, but I will make any aid you give us available to the South Koreans,” she told me.
“Deal,” I told her. I suppose I should be more conniving of an evil ruler, but I hardly think this is a situation for settling petty grudges that aren’t mine.
Emphasis on “that aren’t mine.” For a lot of leaders at this point, there’s not a lot they can do as individuals to contribute to the war effort. Most of it boils down to making sure the people fighting can do what they need to, or keeping morale up. Most leaders aren’t one of the world’s best assassins. A lot of these breakaway factions some of the other countries have are likely to crumble with a sudden loss of leadership. We send in an swarm of Buzzkills or a Psycho Flyer, it could look like the government’s beholden to me. Sometimes knives are superior to guns.
Thing is, the Rangers want to stay on my ass. Sure, they break off in one or twos to go assist other countries, but there’s always some of them here. I don’t think Pink’s ever left. I had a pretty good idea how to get around that problem when I left the command center to have lunch with Venus and Qiang. Just the three of us, sitting around, eating food, my daughter and I getting into a chopstick fight. “Obi-Wan lied. I am your father.”
“Nooooo!” she yelled, letting herself flop to her back on the carpet. She laid there like that, not moving.
I poked her belly with a chopstick. “Well, she’s dead. Guess I get all her stuff now.”
“Nuh uh!” she sat up and tried to fake a glare.
“Are you finished eating?” Venus asked. When Qiang nodded, my nemesis added, “Isn’t it time to get back to school then?”
“Mooooom…” she begged, looking at Venus. Venus giggled and ruffled her hair. Qiang turned to me then, “Do I have to?”
“School’s important, dearheart. Lots of fun things to learn. There’s a story behind everything.” I helped her straighten her hair out, then ruffled it for her again. She did a better glare this time.
“Fine!” she huffed and put her helmet back on. The ability to leap small buildings in a single bound and run faster than normal help with a lunchtime commute.
When she was gone, I scooted over to sit beside Venus and sat my bowl down. “She’s adorable,” Venus said. “You should tell her I’m not Citra. We have to be honest that I’m not her mother.”
“Citra isn’t either. Wouldn’t be surprised if Qiang knows. Mmm, but I need a nap.” I laid my head in her lap and looked up into her face. Her not objecting is still wild.
“I have places I need to go too.” She didn’t push me away though. “Promise me we’ll talk about it later.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I wonder if I should use her pet name. I learned it way back from her interactions with her boyfriend at the time, The Human Sloth. I’ve killed him twice, which is one reason I don’t think she’s over her hatred of me. And I really ought to check on Psychsaur. The scaly psychic heroine and I made a real connection when she was playing around in my head for awhile there, then she started dating Venus. Now Venus is over here, trying to be a conscience I can snuggle with.
Over in Georgia, a Riccan agent delivered a weapons shipment to Tbilisi. The President of Georgia, unperturbed by the devastation in the country, got into an armored SUV with his personal security detail. The SUV stalled, and shut off. Cursing, the driver popped the hood and got out to check on it. A drone flew into his open door. Someone in the rear popped a door open and threw the President out just before the drone detonated. The one at the hood was knocked off his feet and slow to stand back up. The President tried to crawl and call for help.
My Dudebot appeared in front of him, holding the severed arm of an invader robotman. “Who are you?” the man asked.
“I’m an awesomesauce enema. This is gonna get messy.”
I punched the arm through the President’s spine and neck. A couple of bullets ricocheted off my robot double’s armor from the surviving bodyguard. I jumped over the President’s corpse and shoved the robot arm through the man’s chest. The Dudebot’s invisibility measures activated again, letting it blend in and leaving the appearance that a man who intended to side with the invaders had instead been murdered by them. I’m sympathetic with their desire for revenge, but I’m pretty sure they could just help themselves to Russian-occupied lands at the moment without turning on everyone else.
Over in Georgia, meanwhile, a bunch of separatists with Punisher patches on their department-store camo jackets met with a Riccan agent who assured them this shipment of weapons could keep the tax man from ever treading on them again. The agent had backed a truck with a large crate in it right up to the gate of their compound. They raised their ARs and fired into the air, whooping. One of them with an exceptionally big cross around his neck even added a, “God bless you, son.”
The agent unscrewed the crate and pulled the lid off, then dove behind the truck off the bed of the truck to hide away from them. The Dudebot inside jumped out, taking the head off the one with the cross with its Nasty Surprise minisaw. I jumped and spinkicked the head into the face of one of his buddies, who dropped his gun. I grabbed one out of the hands of a nearby man, spun it upside down, and ran it through is stomach. “Time for a shishkebob!” I lifted him up and pointed him toward one of his palls who was shooting at me, jabbing it through him next. “And a shiskeRandy.” And on through another one. “ShishkeDaryl.”
The whole compound scrambled to investigate what was going on while my agent drove off. All I had to do was keep the Dudebot hidden with the help of its active camo and wait until I found the self-styles commander of the bunch, who went from hiding in the rear to marching in front when he realized all the fighting had stopped. The bunch not being particularly careful with their arm, all I had to do was slip the safety off one guy’s rifle, point it squarely at the commander, and squeeze the trigger. The shot the soldier, too. They almost found out I was there from all the bullets flying, but I got out of the way and let the paranoia take over. When I left, the survivors were all pointing firearms at one another.
I awoke in Venus’s arms. I once heard a man say that a power nap is when you sleep on someone who is weaker than you. I prefer to think it’s what happens when I kill a bunch of people while catching some Zs. There’s a war on. I’m just being efficient.
You could cut the tension as the invasion day approached, but most people were saving their knives for the invaders. We got most of the civilians rounded up. The old geothermal power plant had space, as did the tunnels for the underground high speed rail. Others took shelter in old black sites. Anyone who wished to leave the island was allowed. I’d have pushed for a general evacuation, but there’s really no telling where all will be hit. That’s the same reason I didn’t recall all my agents or my wife. Informing us of the invasion ahead of time may be of questionable strategy, but it created a lot of uncertainty and confusion that can work against us in the initial strike.
Those who wanted to fight were given the opportunity for that as well. The training kept my soldiers ready and helped them focus. We could always use the manpower. Beetrice didn’t stay, but at least we have VelocityRaptor back, mostly healed from that business in Africa. He failed to kill Velociraptor. We’ve also still got Silver Shark, who decided to take up position near the beach with the Deep One militia. Bronze Rhino, another Claw creation, was pulled out of his homestead in the wilderness and sobered up to help defend the city. We needed him to fight, and his alcohol for Molotovs.
So the clocks tick-tocked away, bringing us closer and closer to a clash. I finished doing what I could to my armor. Plenty of integrated nanite-holding quilt on the inner layer, spiked blades on knees and elbows, and as many chicken grenades and explosive throwing knives as I could pack.
Venus watched me as I worked in my study. “Are you ready?”
I laughed. “Is anybody truly ready?”
“Did you have one of Max’s brownies he’s passing around? You shouldn’t have dulled reactions right now,” she said.
I shook my head and turned to look at her, “I am fully in control of my own faculties. Razor sharp, you might say.”
“You look tense.” She walked over and ran her hands through my hair. “How do you feel?”
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. “A little tense and excited. You?”
“The same. The big fights don’t announce when they’re coming. I had the Academy send me my exoskeleton through Cape Diem. Don’t worry, I repainted it in my new colors.” She stopped running my head and I reached up to hold her hand.
We stayed like that for several seconds, then I smiled and made the situation worse with singing. “It’s an emergency, call the police, you left me and abandoned the lease.” The guitar, bass, and drums started up when I put on the actual song to cover up my disastrous singing voice.
Venus giggled, then started dancing when I stood up. I heard a squeal from the doorway to find Qiang dancing there to “Gave You Everything” by The Interrupters. I pulled Venus over so I could grab Qiang and lift her up. Further down the hall, Sam rocked out, then hopped on something and played an imaginary guitar.
It was just stupid fun to music. It was right. It was what we needed and it broke the tension. And it was just in time, because pretty much everything we were using to detect an incursion went off at once. I didn’t know whether to expect a portal or a craft of some sort. We got both, but the portals were temporary and the craft were floating and flying. The things in the sky had hull like ship with a narrow angle. Could have been some sort of floating battleship or destroyer for all I know ship designations. The ones in the water were wider and more round, like if someone made a circular aircraft carrier and loaded the deck with guns.
Some of those ended up cut into pieces when the barrier went up. Explosions rippled across it from where the flying ships had fired already. Some were inside the dome of the shield already when it went up.
I dropped everything and began to suit up, sending out an address while I did so. “People of Ricca, the invasion is incoming. Stay in the shelters unless they’re compromised. If possible, we will evacuate you to areas of the world not under attack. I will not leave you. I’ll keep fighting. You might doubt me as a benevolent leader. Honestly, I don’t think any good leader can be a good person. Ha! By that metric, I’d be an excellent leader. Don’t trust me because of morality. Trust me to be a monster unleashed on your enemies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set a new world record for most bowels perforated with a single fist.”
This is why people hire speechwriters. More competent speakers give these events a certain gravitas.
I flexed my armor and reached for my helmet. Qiang held it up for me, in a smaller, less spiky version of my armor. She didn’t have her helmet on either and smiled at me. Mindful of the spikes, I grabbed her for a hug. “I love you.”
“Love you too, mommy,” she said, setting it on my head. It sealed into place and she walked over to the desk where I’d left my helmet, grabbing her knife and helmet.
“I want you underground, staying safe,” I told her. “And keep your armor on.”
“Yes mama!” she yelled, running off with her helmet past Venus. The heroine rested against the doorway, a smile visible underneath the chrome visor obscuring most of her face.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“Yeah. Time to fight the good fight,” she said, as if that line wasn’t designed to make my eyes roll.
Sam and Holly stayed behind, so it was just the three of us setting out from the palace: Max, Venus, and Gecko. Max twirled a syringe gun in one hand, a spray gun in the other, careful of the bandoleer full of smoke grenades. Venus scanned the area and pulled out a staff that extended. I called over a larger drone that attached underneath the armored battery pack on my back, adding a large pair of lasers designed for heavy use hanging off each side of me, and a stand on my shoulder on which a pair of my normal-sized drones settled with their smaller beam weapons.
Out in the waters, Silver Shark and the Deep One marines had capsized a trio of the invading ships, which shot a lot of empty buildings on the waterfront. Some of those inside tried to swim to shore despite segmented armor, but I had more Deep Ones than they had exceptional swimmers.
The seafaring ships outside the barrier had pressed against it. They were glowing some orange color and slowly easing through. I contacted my submarine, who assured me they had everything in hand. The message came through about the time I saw the explosions tear through the ships. My admiral figured that the natural compliment to a shield around the island is a minefield around the shield. There weren’t many living invaders left to argue the efficacy of that.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t even get to use my armor when white portals began to swallow the battleship aircraft outside the shield. New white portals opened in the air over the water, spitting them back out. They began to adjust targets.
The Intercept team was on it with surface-to-air missiles and drones. The first shots of the battlecraft crashed into the Directory building and probably wrecked my favorite chair. They turned to adjust aim once the first of our missiles began to blow holes in them. My guys focused on three of these things equally for way too long before concentrating fire on the closest. Whatever kept the battlecraft afloat in the air didn’t compensate for the hits and it rocked back and forth until something gave out and it crashed into the water. The other two focused on the military base. Note to self: when rebuilding the military base, include its own shield. Same for the new Directory building and the Palace.
The next craft to go down was dissected in a fucking grid pattern by laser drones. It was beautiful. It swung and dipped, just barely missing the remaining battlecraft. Gotta give them points for trying. That craft ended up smacking into shallower water, part of the hull crumpling on the beach.
The invaders changed tactics. Four portals began to open up at ground level and stayed open for thirty seconds. “Anyone left at Intercept who sees where these things are coming in?” I asked over my command channel.
“Affirmative, Empress. Intercept Field Unit is deployed. We have eyes on rifts and are passing the locations on, triaging per your orders.”
All are equal under the Empress, but some places are more equal than others. The base’s capabilities are reduced, but we need the power plant and the shield. We need the people in the shelters if they threaten any of them.
After that, more opened. I wasn’t paying so much attention to those, because one of those first sets of portals opened right in front of my group. The ones most eager to die were a bunch of guys who must have interrupted their beard-growing contest to get killed being the most prominent group. There were a few others mixed in. It was a pretty diverse bunch.
I giggled and began to dance, pumping out the next song on my murder playlist, Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage. I spun and slid onto my knees, hands in the air, waving like I just didn’t care, while the heavy lasers and the laser drones I personally commanded went to town on them. The first wave just died. Whatever segmented armor they had wasn’t that good at handling light. Some of the ones to survive were grey guys in tights and vests. A small blossom of light appeared where they were hit. Max tossed one of his grenades and hid behind me. They didn’t come out the other side of the thick blue smoke that spread all over the edge of the courtyard. The stream of enemies came around the sides, but something did walk out of the smoke. I caught a glimpse in between mowing down their buddies.
There were three clunky robots. Heavy metal plating and bolts on the torso chest, head, arms, and legs. It had a thick support connecting the chest to the legs, but didn’t bother with all those delicious parts of living critters. These were some old school robots, staring out at us through slots in their heads that glowed with red lights. Venus stepped up in front of myself and Max. She held her staff in her right hand, angled to avoid the metal spike she extended from the gauntlet. Electricity arced from it, then up along the staff which she swept over the robots. Ball lighting flew forth, throwing off smaller tendrils on its way into the middle of the robots. The others who got too close didn’t take it any better than the miraculous metal men did.
We were barely done with that group when another portal opened behind us. The future corpses who ran out of that one included some in old wool outfits and flintlocks, of all things. I held out a hand and gestured for them to bring it. Venus grabbed my arm and tugged me to the side when one of them fired at me, with Max diving behind me. Behind me, a person-sized hole appeared in the wall around the courtyard.
I targeted the flintlock shooters first after that. Max ducked beneath my legs to fire into the crowd with his gun and called out, “Thanks Venus!”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, a bit grumbly. Ugh, my nemesis I’m in love with saved my life. Time to go write in my diary about how unfair my life is and how I’m so embarrassed I’m just gonna DIE. Wait, is this not the teen drama portion of the narrative? Oh, right, I was murdering folks.
Intercept contacted me for an update after we’d finished with that bunch. “Empress, we have reports of dinosaurs loose in the city. The food growers are under siege and summoned a giant demon plant for assistance. Additionally, VelocityRaptor has responded. The Institute is under attack as well. Dr. Creeper, Bronze Rhino, and Arachnoid are defending. All fronts are holding. The sea battle is over. Silver Shark is bringing the Deep Ones ashore to flank the enemy.”
“Anywhere look like it could stand some reinforcement?” I asked.
“The skeleton crew at the water treatment plant reported an attack. We have dispatched a Flyer and squad to take it back, but we are low on available manpower.”
“I thought we told them to evacuate with the rest…” I looked to Venus and Max. “We’re heading to the water treatment plant to expel some waste. Don’t let them touch the water there if you want to keep them down for good.”
Venus nodded, but I caught something moving toward us out of the corner of my eye. By the time I turned to look, one of those grey fucks was right up in my face, pushing me. The wall we passed through stunned me a bit. You know, like they do. Wrecked my big drone, I think. The grey speedster let me go and I crashed through another wall, and another, and into a small refrigerator in someone’s kitchen. The family left a pot on the stove and rice in a bag nearby. And a superspeedster coming through a hole to stop right in front of me and punch the crap out of my armor. He grabbed my throat. I tried to put a spike through his eye, but he dodged it. I sent a straight at his gut, but he was elsewhere the moment it would have hit. I brought my arm down on his elbow and instead he was choking me with his other hand.
I looked him in his blank eyes and raised my arms. “Really dude?” I asked, despite the tightening grip that threatened to shut off my air supply. But you know what’s faster than super speed most of the time? Light. Guess who has a laser built into her helmet? This bitch. I fired the trio of lasers in my helmet into his eyes and face, for just a moment. The speedy fucker clutched his head.
I laughed my ass off and grabbed him. I pulled open the refrigerator door and pulled him in, smashing the door against his head. He stumbled back away, pushing at me. I caught a beer before it fell out and smashed it over his cranium. I put my heel into his crotch, grabbed him, and threw him against the stovetop. I didn’t need to be a speedster to stick the pot on his head and hit the lasers again. I fried his noggin in the pot. I’d have done it slow, but he was fast. Now he’s a past tense person.
I stepped out, checking on the situation. Venus and Max were on their way to the water treatment plant. I figured I could rendezvous with them, or I could turn right and see why it was suddenly a shady day. I looked, and there stood a sixteen foot tall bird staring down at me with hungry eyes. It opened its beak and roared, showing off a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth.
Command channel time. “I might kill this one, but if we happen to have a spare giant dino bird after this is all over with, I would be happy to have a new pet.” Its beaky maw snatched me up. “This one wants to play already!” It tried to chew me. I put my hands up and stopped it, then stood up on its tongue. I cut the comms channel and addressed the bird directly. “You need to remain calm and stop trying to eat me, or this relationship is never going to work. And it can work! Just look at how things turned out with Venus! All I had to do was change my life, kill fewer people, medicate, have a kid, take responsibility for a bunch of people I don’t know, set up rules for supervillains, and save the world like a dozen times.”
More crap for the diary, in between talking about who I have a crush on and what I want my prom dress to look like, like ohmigosh.
I punched the top of the birdasaur’s mouth. It opened wider and tried again. This time, it caught an elbow blade. It roared and shook its head. I fell out. I hopped up on the birdasaur’s beak and stared it in the eye. “Hey there, critter. I’m your new best friend. I’m gonna hug you and clean up after you and ride you to slaughter my enemies.”
The bird shook its head, then smashed me into the side of the building. I pulled myself up and flipped around to sit on its neck. It hopped and flapped its tiny arms, trying to get rid of me. It rolled over in the street. I don’t crush so easy. I stayed on and gave a “Yippee-ki-yay!” when we came up.
On the street below us, scaly emu things ran along, hissing and growling. I pointed down at them. “Chow down!”
The birdasaur tried to shake me off, but it knew a meal when it saw it. It snatched one up for a meal. At the end of the street, a group of the bearded soldiers and grey men stepped out. They swiped at the emus to chase them off. A soldier raised his sword to point at me. One of the grey men stepped up and raised his hands. A purple ray shot from his hands and singed the feathers on my mount.
I laughed. “Kill, my pretty! Slaughter every last one of them and feast on their bones!” It didn’t seem to need much encouragement after those pitiful attempts to shoot me. It ran into them and started biting. I even hopped down to go after that one grey guy. “That all you got? I killed a guy with super speed earlier. I’ve seen some of your buddies fly and take missiles. ‘Sup?”
He tried shooting me and all the blast did was leave a dark mark on my armor. He tried again and still did nothing. A raider sung at me from the side. I caught the blade and pulled it free from his hands, flipped it around to take the grip, and shoved it through his mouth. I grabbed the blade again and pulled it free, then kicked the body up into the air where my new pet chomped on it. When I turned back to the grey guy who shot at me, he was running. I jumped over him to land in his way. He skidded short and raised his hands in front of his face. “Please-!”
I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over. “I like it when they beg. You want me to like you? Beg more. Tell me things.” I laughed and grabbed him. “Why are you so weak when some of you things are so strong?”
“We are clones,” it told me. It shook as the birdasaur roared.
I slapped its face. “Don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. You’re clones, right?”
“We are made. Some of us have strong powers. If we are loyal and strong, we are promoted to serve the masters. If not, we serve with the vassals from the provinces.”
I brushed off his tights. “There you go. Good guy, telling me things.” I punched him and knocked him out. I saw a car nearby and carried him over. He fit pretty well into the trunk. My new pet roared at me, read for another go, but then squad of robotmen rounded the corner. I yelled back, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran for them. They raised their arms and shot bolts of molten metal at me. I could feel that, whatever it was. I could also turn invisible, and did so. Shooting like that didn’t make the birdasaur happy, and it couldn’t even eat these ones.
I watched it have fun with them from a rooftop nearby. I glanced up to look around, seeing Psycho Flyers all about. Some of them fired down on hotspots, like one over by the water treatment plant. “This is the Empress. Status update?”
“The portals have stopped, your eminence. The enemy is divided, but most large groups are breaking off to concentrate on the shield building.”
“Reinforce the building as best you can to make sure it doesn’t fall. Let them gather,” I said. I hate that kind of wait. The Institute, farm, and water treatment detachments never made it to the rally point because they got fed pavement with some serious velocity with the help of my guys. The Deep Ones and soldiers used the big gathering to start clearing sections of the city. The weird dino-bird things were the main trouble there. It’s like someone opened up portals to an alternate dinosaur era and let the wildlife run through.
And then, with more than a thousand people banging away at the power plant’s gates, water rose from manholes and drains outside of it. The army might have taken it for a minor inconvenience until the itching started. Being taken apart piece by piece will do that to you. Some tried even harder to break in, but the Psycho Flyers massed to drop my people in there and to concentrate firepower on that front. The ones who tried to run found out hard that is when your feet are falling apart. Whoops, then they fell into the water.
I guided my new feathered friend as best as I could to watch, making sure the nanites knew not to eat this one. Sure, it still tried to fight me and throw me into things, but I think we were getting used to one another. It was a good enough place to watch as the invaders found out that I am quite literally the master of this island.
When the screaming was over, I called up Max. “I got a big boy for you to tranquilize. Or girl. I don’t know how to sex a bird.”
“Come now,” Max said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I was drunk that time,” I reminded him.
“Hey, butting in here, what’s going on?” asked Venus. “Did we win?”
I added Command to the line. “Well, did we win?”
The voice on the other line gave a rundown. “The enemy is no longer a coherent force at anything but the squad level. The city has been 24% cleared. The portals are stopped, the craft are in retreat. The Battle of Ricca appears to be over.”
I clapped my hands. “Very good. I’m guessing, not everyone was as lucky?”
“The United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were all invaded by significantly larger forces of differing effectiveness. In addition, the United States and Russia are fighting traitors. There are other nations fighting, including North Korea. Some have surrendered. We are assembling a list of others who repelled their invasions.”
“There’s your answer then, Venus,” I told her. “Today, Ricca. Tomorrow… the world!”
My ambition blinded me. It lit up the sky, though Intercept broke in with and explained things differently. “Large rift opening outside the dome.”
The image I saw was basically a giant gun with engines on it to keep it afloat. And maybe something loose in the water way behind it, but the big weapon might just do it for me here. The huge barrel pointed at us glowed, then shot what looked like a miniature sun at our shield.
“Brace your sphincters, everyone,” I told announced.
The energy blast blinded us as it approached, even though the tinting functionality on my helmet’s display. It struck the shield and lashed out like it was releasing solar flares. The shield went red in a ripple that rolled out from that point, audibly crackling loud enough to drown out even the communication device sealed to my head. The shield and the sun both disappeared at once.
“Casualties at the power plant!” I heard someone call out. “Evacuate and triage!”
I didn’t tell them not to bother. I patted the birdasaur and pulled at its neck feathers until its head turned in the right direction and it began to run for the gun. “Status on our D-bomb stockpile?”
Creeper answered, “It appears an infiltrator reached Bomb Storage with an incendiary device. We have no functional D-Bombs.”
“I’m moving to intercept,” I announced.
“That’s crazy,” Venus said.
“Looks like I’m perfect for it,” I told her. I saw the gun’s barrel glowing again. I knew perfectly well I’d never make it, and never be able to do anything to it. But when there’s nothing left but death, might as well let it know you’re not afraid of it.
I had regrets, though. Plenty, including for my daughter.
A beam from high in the sky struck the rear of the gun, pushing the barrel upward. The enormous energy blast it fired went well overhead, but close enough we felt the heat. I couldn’t tell if it was going to angle back to Earth and make someone’s day infinitely more shitty, but it missed us. The gunship began to slowly turn to face whatever hit it.
A blue satellite with a barrel of its own in between a trio of large solar panel arms lowered from the sky. Below it, a yellow aircraft carrier carried a humongous green tank. A pink submarine broke the surface with a jump, and a red fighter jet soared overheard.
“Oh no,” I said.
The aircraft carrier rose up like it was flipping forward. The tank backed up it while its deck split apart. The tank reached the end and fitting onto it. A fore section of the carrier bent at a 90 degree angle as it finished becoming a pair of legs attached to a green tank torso. The sub leaped into the air again, splitting apart. One half attached to the upper left of the tank. The other caught on the upper right and swiveled around. The jet flew up and curved back down, aimed at the rear of the tank. It somehow slowed, the fighter shifting to reveal a metal face as it slid into the rear of the tank, slotted in. Finally, the satellite. The giant robot reached for the tank’s cannon. The cannon split off easily, as did the barrel of the satellite as it came down. The satellite attached to the back of the robot, two of its panels forming wings that hung down behind it. The other panel arm broke off and attached to the barrel that had come undone from the satellite, then that section fitted into the end of the tank’s cannon to form a sort of sword.
“Venus, what did you do?” I asked.
“I asked them for help, like you said,” she informed me, a hunt of smugness in her voice.
The gunship fired again, this time trying to destroy the Justice Rangers. The robot batted it away with its sword, then raised it high. The sword glowed as bright as the sun. The robot went into a stance like it was taking a step to sprint toward it. The robot flew along the surface of the water, kicking up a spray of water to either side as it closed on the gunship, then past it. The sword stopped and the robot straightened up, standing in the shallow water by the beach. Behind it, the gunship fell apart into halves that exploded.
I was saved by the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers.
Just because I have an assload of heroes on my island, eyeing my ass, doesn’t mean I’m going to play nice.
It helps that there are all kinds of celebrations going on. I try to do outreach, but I am woefully ignorant about all the holidays over here. They’re gearing up for another big celebration, and one of my Directors I kept around has been running around trying to get things ready for the Lunar New Year, which is especially a big deal among the Chinese population of Ricca. With the Year Of The Pig on the way, they’re organizing a massive parade, with some “God Of Fortune” character, dancers, pop girl groups, and dragons. Between my temporary erasure from the timeline, spending time with my family after my return, and all the kidnapping in the United States, it’s hard to keep track of it all. It’s a good thing I pay people to handle some of it for me.
It’s been a good way to keep the heroes’ attention away from me specifically, though I’m sure they’re trying to spy on me. I know, because my spies spying on them told me so, as confirmed by the spies spying on my spies. That one with all the Hawaiian shirts leads me to suspect at least some of the heroes are taking their visit as seriously as it deserves. If I aided that by quietly directing a visiting C-pop girl group to stay in that area and rehearse there, well, it’s on their end to stay vigilant. I’m not doing the heroes’ job for them.
It has been more difficult keeping Medusa away from them. I didn’t set her up in the palace with me and the rest of the family. Maybe it’s because I don’t like her. I think it’s about time I built for guests what my current home was to me: luxurious guest housing. Until then, she’s staying at a safehouse. It’s harder to keep a constant eye on her that way. That means sticking some undercover Security personnel on her. It also meant getting a call from my Security guys that they had moved in and stopped Medusa from beating the crap out of my Director of the Interior.
I was disappointed, so very disappointed, in the Director. I don’t know what he was doing recruiting dancers at a strip club. That’s his business and it’ll probably be a hell of a parade. With him, I just expected better than to get tangled up with someone who appears to be one of the world’s foremost superheroes that his Empress is apparently going to marry. Almost makes me regret how good our medical care is that he won’t even get a scar to remember that decision by.
I’m fine with the Security officers, though. They got a bonus.
But then there’s Medusa. Hungover, horny, frustratingly beautiful Medusa who can’t even beat up a couple of guys in power armor at the same time. She just refuses to be what I want her to be. I have to wonder if it’s me. Am I holding her to too high a standard? Is it somehow wrong to force someone to be their good doppelganger in violation of a lifetime of instinct? Is my obsession with Venus blinding me to the true, but different, potential of her evil double from another dimension?
Nah. The problem’s obviously not me. The problem’s never me. I should have Max up my dosage of whatever he gives me for the PTSD and the other stuff just for considering it.
When she woke up on my couch, her beautiful face drooling all over the cushion, I greeted her with some breakfast spring rolls: scrambled eggs and sausage rolled up in paper-thin lumpia wrapper and fried until light brown on both sides.
She jerked awake from her snores and pulled a pillow over her head. “Oof,” she said before I shoved a roll in her mouth. She sat up then and tried to hit me with the pillow while reaching for the breakfast roll. I pushed the pillow and her hand aside and pulled her into my lap to continue feeding her breakfast while strokin her hair.
She tried to say something around the food in her mouth. I couldn’t make it out over all the muffled noises, so instead I leaned down and whispered, “There, there. Eat up.”
She humored me for one roll before sitting up and backing away from me, then jumping up from the drool she just got on herself. I snorted. “Aren’t bodily liquids the best?”
She wiped at her pants. “What was that?”
“Drool. Don’t worry, it’s yours,” I told her.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better… gimme another of those,” she held out her hand for a roll, so I provided.
“I think you and I haven’t gotten on very well,” I told her.
She didn’t bother to swallow before answering, “You think? You have a hard-on for me, but you’re dumping me in some apartment. When you do want me around, it’s to try and teach me to be Venus. Oh, and your cops beat me up when I tried to have fun.”
Ok, so there’s a chance the problem might have something to do with me, too.
“I think I’m still getting the hang of leadership,” I told her.
She pointed her half-eaten breakfast roll at me, “I don’t want leadership.”
I leaned back and pondered. Medusa sat herself across my lap, helping herself to another roll and my attention in the process. I looked into her eyes, raising an eyebrow as she ate. “You’re too controlled,” she said at last.
I tried not to laugh hard enough for everyone on the island to hear. But, being a wise dictator, I was at least willing to hear her out. When I calmed down, and she’d finished her current roll, she leaned close, chest pressed to mine, and asked, “What would you do if you didn’t have that stick up your ass?”
A couple hours later, I was the middle spoon between Citra and Medusa and reaching over Medusa for the plate of breakfast rolls on the nightstand. Medusa turned to me with a smile. “Mmm, got anything else in mind?”
“Actually…” I said, taking a bite. “Why don’t we go steal something together?”
Citra actually helped us pick out the target. It was fun just shopping around. Targets ranged from tourist traps (such as the Great Wall of China, Maine), to the culturally and historically significant (the cuneiform tablet of the world’s oldest beer recipe), money (the Lost Bitcoin Exchange) and the technologically significant (a prototype anti-gravity car developed by Ferrari).
That last one intrigued me. The latest I or my guys know is that, outside of a few mad scientists with unreliable designs who don’t keep blueprints for fear of others replicating it, are still way behind figuring out anti-gravity. By now, there’s plenty of leftover alien technology after all the invasions, but understanding is a huge limit to recreating it. Imagine if people in the Middle Ages acquired an atomic bomb: they could probably figure out how to use it, possibly even without killing themselves, but could they ever make a new one? Did they even know how to think in order to study it? Could they safely dismantle it? Even if they understood it, what about the tools and processes needed to recreate the materials involved?
Medusa’s desire spoke to a more base one. “Fuck me, I want a flying car!”
I sent her off to a costume tailor in the city to get dressed for success while I researched how best to nab this lovely new aeromobile.
Ferrari finished a public demonstration couple of weeks ago, meaning we’d missed the most dramatic time to grab it. Amazingly, when I reached out to Intel Chief Pagan, he had some a useful message to pass on to me. Someone within Ferrari had reached out to Ricca through our Vatican City consulate offering to provide pass codes and radio frequencies to defeat security at the big demonstration, as well as an unassuming email address to contact to confirm our participation. He had no reason to believe it would interest me more than anything else, and we aren’t prioritizing “stealing cool shit” as a country, so I hadn’t been told.
Even though the demo had come and gone, I sent the address a message. “Give me a location and the car disappears.”
The recipient got back to me within the hour, pointing me to Malta International Airport, the only airport on the Isle of Malta. It surprised me, though. Fort St. Ferrari looms over the city of Birgu on the island. It serves as the fortified repository of Ferrari’s most important research, prototypes, and trade secrets. Plus, the on-site test track features some bitchin’ views for photo ops.
It was a little disappointing that we weren’t just busting in there to take it, but Medusa’s maybe not up to that just yet. I didn’t let her know. Upon her return with a garment bag, I instead swept her up into a cuddle and a kiss. “Good news,” I told her upon breaking the kiss. “No need to spend all day hunting it down. I know exactly where we strike. Plenty of time for more fun…”
She winked. “Maybe later. I’m fucking hungry.”
I guess she’d worked up an appetite. And then some gas. Despite that, she was more than happy to hang out with my daughter when Qiang got in from school. With Medusa looking just like Venus, my kid seemed to get on just fine thinking a teacher from her friend’s school had taken a liking to me.
So it was that the day of the Lunar New Year arrived, and yet we were zipping off through the sky at the inhumanly early hour of 10 AM, Riccan Standard Time. That’s the island’s name for that time zone and any others can go to hell.
The Psycho Flyer came in low and camouflaged, dropping Medusa and I off just outside the airport. We hopped the out fence easily enough and approached tight to a hangar. “They must have been letting someone have a private test,” I guessed as we waited. We’d gotten there early, but only by about ten minutes. One reliable thing about pretty much any other air travel in the world besides my Flyers is that airplanes are late all the time but never early.
We stayed there, Medusa enjoying the weather and myself enjoying Medusa’s outfit. It looked remarkably like Venus’s, but with a different grouping of colors. Instead of the white, gold, and pink of Venus, Medusa wore black, silver, and amber. Venus had swapped to a powered and armored exoskeleton in those same colors some time back, but this outfit looked like pants and a jacket with armored plates in the fabric. Venus’s mask covered her face and even her nose; Medusa’s did all that with wild swirls at the top where all three colors repeated in stripes like the warning coloration of some snakes.
Our anonymous turncoat had provided the details of the plane flying in our experimental flying car. I smiled under my armor and pulled open the door of the little plane, then turned and held out a hand for Medusa. “I’m going to need you to trust me a bit.”
Medusa looked between myself in this small prop craft and the cargo plane coming in for a landing. She hesitated long enough that I began pumping the chorus from the song Umbrella out of my suit’s speakers. With Rihanna assuring her, “Said I’ll always be your friend, took an oath that I’ma stick it out ’til the end,” Medusa blushed, smiled, and took my hand. I pulled her in, busted into the dash, and started that baby up without the key.
The target plane had landed by then, going right by us. It began to taxi around in the direction of a semi truck with a bare trailer on the back. The black horse of the Ferrari logo reared up from the door of the truck. We passed in front of it, my bottom left hand taking the wheel so the top left could give them the bird. Have I mentioned I’m petty? I feel that might have come up once or twice.
Medusa reached over and grabbed my forearm as we headed right for the plane. Seeing us, the pilot tried to turn. We headed right for that low-sitting belly, turning to meet it. Just before impact, I grabbed Medusa and put myself between her and the oncoming collision.
The propeller on our own vehicle made a pretty good attempt at stabbing me in the back, the traitorous son of a gun. Quantifying the pain is also kinda tough. There was the propeller, the engine, the wall of the cargo plane. It all blended together, but Medusa took it much better than I did.
That’s probably why she was so quick to stand up and catch her breath. My 360 display told me there were other people around, most of them down as well. A half dozen, but I still doubted Medusa’s ability. My lungs told me to slow the fuck down and pull them up out of prostate. I tried sitting up and quickly slammed myself back to the floor. My back had decided to clock out early. So, knowing I was going to hate myself, I activated the spinal transceiver meant to keep me going in the event of paralysis.
Nobody could hear me yell when I forced myself to stand, but they might have seen me free a syringe from my belt and free a glove to quickly push the nanomachines and saline into my body. I shaved a glove back on and turned to see someone in coveralls falling. Medusa stomped on the foot of a man in security business casual: trousers, dress shoes, button-up shirt, tie, and holster capable of carrying a holster. She grabbed the gun, dodged a punch, dropped the magazine, ejected the round in the chamber, and beat him in the eye with it. He raised his hands to shield his sensitive, jelly-filled light sensors and she rewarded that caution with a spinning kick that knocked him to the ground.
Another guy in coveralls jumped her from behind. She flipped him over her, then grabbed his head and put him in a hold until he passed out. If anyone else around us was capable of fighting, they didn’t bother trying. I grunted to myself with every step toward the rear of the plane. Medusa ran on ahead, either into a separate room or just around a bunch of wrecked metal caused by our unique boarding action.
I walked after. Step after step, grunt after grunt. One guy in khakis and a polo shirt grabbed a big monkey wrench. Maybe he thought he was sneaky. I turned and caught his arm in midswing. I gave him a few slams into the wall, floor, and ceiling before tugging the tool out of the other tool’s hands and jamming it into his neck. It didn’t take many turns to unscrew his head, but by then I heard the sound of a car engine cranking. I pushed myself through the pain to reach the bay proper and found Medusa behind the wheel of a sleek crimson Ferrari with a low body and four glowing rounded stands in place of wheels.
“Checkit out!” Medusa called, “It makes engine noises still!”
I hobbled over, raised the passenger door that opened up, and settled myself into the front seat. Medusa reached across and patted my arm. With a wink, she flipped a switch and the car rose into the air. Spinning the wheel brought us around to face the rear of the plane and what had once been a functional door. She pushed up on the wheel, moving the steering column forward and bursting out through the door. It dented the hood a bit, too. “That’ll buff out,” she said.
“That’s ok,” I assured her. “I like big buffs and I cannot lie. Now get us home. The only pigs I want to see are the ones in the parade celebrating the Year of the Pig.”
“Oink, oink!” she said, punching the accelerator. The car shuddered and hung in the air.
I opened a channel to the Psycho Flyer. “Hey guys? We need a tow. I think I know why they needed the plane.” I pulled my helmet off then and freed my hair. In front of us, the Psycho Flyer decloaked and began to ease back around us. “Just one thing left to steal.”
She turned toward me. “What’s that?”