Tag Archives: Rejects

Crapulence 4

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“Listen, Carl, I know you’re worried. I’m just giving you all this time because I knew what I’d be doing to the city. Plus, I think it’s really much more healthy for Venus and I to work through our differences one-on-however many people she brings to catch me.” I grinned at Carl, resting my hand on his shoulder.

Brows furrowed, he shook my hand off, then reached past me to where the toilet paper hung in the cramped bathroom. “Boss, when I asked if there was a problem, I was asking why you were in my bathroom with me.”

“I understand that, Carl. Your bowels said one thing, but your eyes said something quite different. Anyway, let me just get a door between us now. It smells like somebody had chili last night.” With that, I quickly stepped outside the door and held it shut.

Carl started banging on it. “Aww, hell no. You can’t fart while I’m on the crapper and shut me up with it! What kind of chili did you eat, roadkill?””

Hehe. In a manner of speaking, that’s true. I drove through the wall of a store to get some of the ingredients. It took less time than killing the armed gang out front, which was already standing off with police. “You know what they say, Carl. When life gives you lemons, make lemon gas.”

“Ugh, I can taste them! I can taste the fucking lemons! I’m gonna be sick.” I stepped back and let him wrench open the bathroom door to breath in fresh air.

“So, now that I got you here, Carl, I just want you to know that I’ll be ok. I just have a little something going on right now where it’s best if y’all aren’t there. As soon as I’m done doing what I need to do, I’ll bring you and Moai in again for lots more fun and adventures,” I told him, knowing that my goals didn’t give that much chance of happening. “Where is Moai, anyway?”

Carl, having recovered from the smells I’d presented him, nodded further down the hallway to the kids’ rooms. “He’s looking after them. The ex barely trusts me here after all the help, but she likes having Moai around. Go figure. I get why you’re letting me have time. You really did a number on them, eh boss?”

“That I did, Carl. Something tells me it’ll be kinda hard to forget my impact after all this. Venus certainly will.”

Carl closed the door then, apparently having aired out the commode enough to his liking, but continued talking to me through the door. “I always sensed something about you two. You an’ her got something going on?”

I shook my head even though he couldn’t see it. “I killed her boyfriend twice and have been a pain in her ass now for more than a year. She’s all about law and order, I’m more of a power and chaos kinda guy. She refuses to kill. No need to elaborate there. There’s some sort of passion between us, but it’s safe to say she hates me. Anyway, man, I’m going to head out. I have things I need to do. Traps to finish setting up. That sort of thing. I’ll catch you later, ok?”

“Ok, boss. Stop by again. I’ll grill out if you give me a heads-up.”

I turned toward the end of the hall and called out, “Hey Moai!” The animate statue peeked out of one of the bedrooms, a tiny kid’s arm wrapped around him. I gave him a thumbs-up. “Take care. I’m heading out, but I’ll see y’all soon, I bet. We’ll be back on our feet in no time. Well, you know.”

Moai didn’t really have feet. He nodded slowly. I got the sense he didn’t want me to go, so I turned and left in short order. Carl’s ex-wife’s house was about fifteen minutes driving time away from my apartment building. Plenty of time to review the preparations I made. I couldn’t delay, or enough people would smell a health hazard and call down an investigation anyway.

So I made my way through the apartment building, ignoring the bodies and bloodstains. The spike plates were ready. The chainlaunchers oiled. Even the hooks hanging from the ceiling of the basement had been carefully set up. The one closest to this vintage electric chair even held a cooler full of drinks for me. There’s nothing like mixing a White Russian in a hellhouse, am I right?

There, surrounded by BDSM horror gear, I pulled on my armor, sat upon my executioner’s throne, and slid my helmet into place.

One short, scrambled phone call later, I let out a maniacal laugh. “Bwahahahaha! Hello there, my dear Venus.” I had dialed down the tone of my voice to sound deeper and more menacing just for the theme I adopted this time.

“Hello, this is the Master Academy operator. You’re calling for Venus?” The voice on the other end sounded far too cheery.

“Yes, she gave me this number in order to contact her. It’s very important. She may have mentioned it, perhaps?” I reached into the cooler on the chain next to me and pulled out a double chocolate oatmeal stout. I popped it open on the open mouth of the dead rat hanging above the cooler on the chain.

What? I couldn’t find a dead person in the building just the right size to serve as a bottle opener.

“Yes, you wouldn’t be calling in if that wasn’t the case, but Venus’s calls are being directed through the Master Academy because of the events in Empyreal City, where she’s currently active. Give me one moment and I’ll connect you. May I ask who’s calling?”

“The Great and Devious Psycho Gecko. Maybe you’ve heard of me from the news, movies, my work in porn, and as the name Venus calls out when she’s having wet dreams.” I tried for a drink of my stout, but the helmet got in the way. Still, any beer that doesn’t hit the tongue tastes better than any that does.

“Oh,” she spoke curtly. “I will get her on the phone for you. One moment. Burn in hell.” She spoke really that last sentence quickly enough I almost missed it.

After a few seconds, a familiar voice broke the silence. “Hello, Gecko.”

“Oh Boopsie, you knew you’d be hearing from me sooner or later…”

Venus arrived thirty minutes later. Her and a large group of agents cordoned off the area over the course of the next half hour while formulating some plan of attack. They even brought in a large black semi.

I hoped that when Venus came knocking, she’d share this same sense I had, that this was just between us. That’s what I got for being sentimental, I suppose. I’d even parked a lot of my gear in storage.

Hey, everyone has dumb moments. Mine just involve not having as many explosives at hand when surrounded by a city full of enemies. Yeah, that crossed my mind a lot as I felt the semi crash into a part of the building. Elsewhere, agents penetrated other rooms. They attempted to move both quickly and carefully. No doubt they had been warned about traps.

As I told Venus when I got her number, empathy can also be used to hurt. Or maim. Or kill. So when wary men with guns saw what looked like wounded people or crying babies in cribs, they attempted to render aid. And my cameras allowed me to see it all as it happened.

I peeked into one room in particular. The agents had come in through the fire escape and found themselves in a child’s room that featured a large clown statue in one corner, staring across at a baby’s crib. Crying noises issued from a lump under the blanket. One of the men reached out to touch it, prompting the clown statue to look up from the crib at him. Even as they opened fire on it, acid sprayed from its grinning mouth to fill the room.

In another apartment, kicking open the door to the hallway caused the previously-locked master bathroom door to slam open and a maniacally-grinning fox with very sharp teeth sprinted out toward the nearest agent.

Then there was the front entrance. That one tangled Venus up, briefly. A wrong step on a pressure plate shot a sharpened rod up through the floor and into the foot of the unfortunate agent. It didn’t go any better for them when they attempted to use the walls for leverage. Spike plates were versatile like that.

Just when they thought they were done with that, motion sensors activated the chainlaunchers. You know, just silently throwing chains with hooks in them at an area to try and pierce something and drag it in the direction the chains came from.

I couldn’t see anything where the semi crashed into the place, though. Whoever that was, they had to deal with a room full of pits and sharpened blades on pendulums.

To their credit, Venus and the FBI kept their heads about them. Once they encountered traps, they did their best to keep from being hit by the same type, usually with some very precise aiming. It also didn’t escape my notice that some of the agents stood out from the others.

Aside from Venus, others set themselves apart, usually by slipping ahead of the pack to spot traps for the others. Their outfits were tactical, too, but with less protection. It helped their mobility. I saw one of them on the roof pull out something that glowed crimson, then begin to transform into a bulky shellfish man. Hey, I remembered that guy! I whipped some loin at him the first time we met. Y’all know how much I love to whip some loin around.

Lobster Man wasn’t the only powered agent. Up on the fourth floor, wood tore off the furniture and walls around a woman and formed wings and sleek armor around her. In the main hall, an agent with a metal face mask and a maul smashed chains out of the air, causing electricity to arc between each struck chain and the floor.

Then another super upstaged them both. A transparent copy of himself ran down the hallway, triggering chains and spikes and even an exploding potted plant. I fought him before, too. None of the attacks hurt him; his transparent double snapped back to him having cleared a path.

The lack of information from the ground floor on the east wing, where the semi hit, worried me a little.

The traps did their job, though. They thinned the herd. That became important when they split up. Venus led one group to clear the rest of the first floor. The maul and doppelganger guy took a smaller group with them and came down to the basement.

I became invisible as doppelganger rushed ahead. When he didn’t trigger any traps, he snapped to the position of his translucent double. Imagine his surprise when I knocked his ass up through his teeth. Wait, no, that kind of punch would be a little on the impossible side to do literally. But I did drive my foot so hard up his ass that he’d be shitting up spinal column if he ever shit again. He crumpled to the ground, unable to pull off any more doppelganging.

His team only lost sight of him for a couple of seconds, then they were down amongst the swinging chains. Then, yes, I allowed them a glimpse of me. I sat in my electric chair, one hand on a switch.

“We need backup to the basement. He’s here and he’s armed!” The maul-wielding super agent spoke, alerting the others in the building. I grinned under my helmet and flipped the switch. A skinny, crooked finger of electricity arced between two chains in particular as they electrified…

Well, it was a bit awkward pulling off a similar trick as the guy with the maul, especially one he resisted. His squad, on the other hand, took defibrillation poorly. With them dead, I could shut down the chains and hit the invisibility again. I avoided the swift swings of the metal-faced man who tried to turn my chin into a home run and shoved a hook up his ass. When he turned to take my head off, I beat him upside his head with another hook. I’m glad I picked some heavy ones.

I went wild with them, knocking the agent’s mask off and making him look like quite the babyface. By that I mean ugly, deformed, and covered with blood.

That’s where Venus found me when she stepped through the door to the basement. Only I was ready for her. “Ah, Venus. I have such sights to show you!” I told her, raising my hands up. Over my armor, I projected bondage gear in homage to the horror series I had so emulated in this attack. In this case, I seemed to wear assless latex chaps and a chain between where the nipples would be on the metal chest of my armor. Oh, and my helmet appeared to be a gimp mask.

Looking back, perhaps Hellraiser may have been a bad choice to intimidate people.

“Gecko! Should I bother to ask you to surrender, or am I going to have to drag you out of here in chains?” She asked. She kept her eyes on me, but maneuvered around to keep the walls to her back as she approached.

“Chains? We’re a little beyond chains, Boopsie baby.” I backed off from the hamburger-looking remnants of the maul agent and took my place on the electric chair again.

“Save it. I’m not crossing that line with you. And you’re not crossing it with me.” Venus grabbed one chain, pulled herself up enough to make it to the next, and used them to rush me through the air. I grabbed for the switch but then was plunged into darkness when something roared from somewhere above us and the generator went out.

Venus hit me in the head with a glow stick. They were the sort that you bend and shake, but far more potent than normal. The green glow illuminated the entire basement. Only, I didn’t see Venus herself. I just heard chains rattle and the painful wheezing of agent metalface over there.

When I caught a glimpse of her, she stood out more for the motion. She dropped down on my from above, smacking the heels of her boots into the top of my head. The armor could only enhance the strength of my neck muscles so much. I stumbled forward, almost falling. She still didn’t land quite so gracefully herself, but hauled herself back to her feet using my own props.

Never taking her eyes off me, she tried to talk to me. “You really don’t have to do this, Gecko. There is help if you ask for it. It’s scary to put yourself at someone else’s mercy, but I’ll be there if you let me. You put me on a pedestal, right? You won’t kill me, because you want me to kill you. Maybe you can’t ever put on a costume to help people, but we, you and I, can get you started down forgiving yourself someday.”

At least she was smart enough not to relax around me. I rolled my eyes under my helmet. “Blah, blah, blah. I think I preferred you before you got me with that truth serum, you know. You were a self-righteous little do-gooding bitch, but at least you weren’t trying to be nice because there was some tragedy under the comedy of my life. Fuck you and your fair-weather offer. It doesn’t matter what you know now, I’m still the same guy who thinks slaughter is the best medicine.”

I went invisible again and charged her. Venus, clever girl that she was, swung from a chain to push me back with a kick. That’s when I realized another mistake I’d made in all this. These fucking chains. They made an intimidating prop, but I couldn’t move through them without having to push a couple out of the way and giving away my location.

“Alright, so that’ll save you for the moment,” I taunted. “You know, if you’re so adamant about sparing me, then I guess you aren’t the true hero I was looking for. You know what that makes you?”

“Someone who thinks you have more of a purpose in life than you do?” she asked, circling around.

“Expendable,” I answered. I released the Nasty Surprise mini chainsaw blade from under my left forearm and stabbed for her. She pulled a chain into the way and wrapped it around my wrist. She used the hook from another to help secure it there as I tried to twist and grab a hold of her. When that didn’t work, I braced myself for an attack. Nothing. She stepped over to check on the agent with the maul instead.

I pulled out my laser potato peeler, then, and went to work freeing myself.

“I’m not being nice to you because something bad happened to you, Gecko,” she said more quietly as she looked over the wounded man. “But you don’t even like what you’ve become, have you? Part of you thinks you need to be stopped. Let me stop you the right way.”

A combination of rage, enhanced strength, and weakened chains allowed me to pull free prematurely. I jumped, ready to slam my fist into the deluded Venus’s face. Y’all know how I often point out the value in getting to someone psychologically to force mistakes and gain an advantage over them?

Sincere or insincere, right or wrong, Venus had me on tilt again. I’ve had time to look back and see this as the turning point and as a goal she worked for. Venus grabbed the maul off the ground and swung for the fences. Even through my armor, I felt wind try to escape my lungs. Worse, the electrical effect of the giant hammer didn’t come from some power in the man’s body. It worked perfectly well with Venus hold it, and disrupted my armor just fine.

One, two, three strikes! Boom, another upside my head! I got an opening as she smashed the head into the back of my knee and forced me to kneel. Despite the blows loosening up my teeth and precious armor, I got a hold of a chicken grenade and beheaded the explosive poultry.

“Wait, Venus,” I said as I held up two empty hands. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“I don’t know, but you’re under arrest,” she said. Then the explosion from behind her and to her left hurled her into the wall behind me.

Sore, I stood and walked over. “Nope. Wrong answer. I would have accepted a lot of different ones, including ‘to help Gecko kill a hero’.” I tried to kick that damn hammer away from her, but it was heavy and my toe was not. So, after giving myself plenty more reason to cuss, I reach down and tossed it away. Then I grabbed the stunned Venus’s head. “I’m sorry you were such a failure, Venus. I could have saved us all so much more trouble.”

Then a blast of air knocked me into the wall right by Venus, loosening my grip on her. Before I could react, thin arms stretched out of pooled darkness where the glow stick couldn’t reach. They hauled me back from Venus where I could see a collection of characters that fit right in with the scary motif I set up.

Most men would have called them monsters. I used to call them allies. The Rejects. Headgame’s stretched limbs held me down. The air had come from Winsect. Plasma glowed under the clear skin of Ray X. Rattler, Bonedancer, Meltman, they were all there too.

“Wow, how are you guys? It’s been awhile.” I asked, a bit surprised to see them.

“We’re a little better,” Meltman said on the group’s behalf. “We just got a job capturing someone who betrayed us.”

“Yeah? Who did that?” I asked. Ray X pressed a hand to my chest, shorting out my armor with a crackling noise. I convulsed as well, the feeling of being zapped by him planting the suspicion that I may have crackled too.

Off to the side, Venus spoke up. “I can record things too, Gecko. You sent your friends into a trap and didn’t even try to warn them. You didn’t even try to help them. They’re not bad people, we found out. As much as you hate the society, we give people a chance if they want it.” She walked over, holding her ribs with one hand. “Gecko think about what I said here tonight. A part of you knows I’m right or you never would have put yourself in this situation.” Then, to the group of my former minions, “Thank you. Do you have him?”

Winsect almost sounded sad for someone betraying me. “I think we can get him, dear. You go get a medic.”

“Venus…” I started. She turned to me. “Come on, you may as well let me go. Nothing can hold me for long. Then I’ll be out all over again and the whole cycle will start over again. I think we’re destined to do again, you and I, because you won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness.”

She just shook her head. “Shut up, Gecko. If it saves at least one life then it wasn’t misplaced.”

So, yeah. There I was. Half-fried. My armor turned off by old allies I tried to help. My own ribs killing me, though I didn’t figure that one out until the adrenaline wore off.

Headgame and Rattler wrapped me up far too well for me to get away under my own strength. I struggled. I offered money. The full weight of what was happening didn’t really hit me until they tossed me into the back of the truck they’d arrived in over at the east wing, pieces of my broken armor coming off as they threw me in.

They just shut the incredibly thick door on me. I couldn’t feel a damn thing outside of that space they confined me in. No networks. No satellites. Nothing escaped those thick metal walls. Heck, I didn’t even have my gloves with me anymore. Headgame took those right off me. I could have popped off a chicken grenade, but I suspected it would do more to me than to this little cell of theirs.

That bitch had done it. She’d beaten me, just not in the way that even part of me had hoped for.

If I have any say in things, though, I’ll be out in no time. Somehow. Some way. Even if I have to hijack this extradimensional signal and find some way to crawl out through it. Hell, it’s a good thing I figured out how to send the information straight from myself well before now.

It’s my own fault. That’s what stings the worst. I wanted a nemesis and wouldn’t let it go. Well, now I’ve got one I really want to kill.

How will I get out? I’m sure I’ll think of something. They won’t keep me in this box too much longer, I’m sure of it. Maybe they’ll try to kill me, though I doubt it if Venus has any say in things. Maybe they’ll transfer me. Either way, they’ll slip up, and I will be free again.

Free, or die trying. Funny how that works.

Heh.

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Nemesis 9

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I’ll be honest with y’all, I’ve suffered a few upsets in my plan. After our little date, Venus ran off to go beat up a homeless man courtesy of a trick by me. I liked that one. I wanted to force her to do some of the same things someone like myself would. If I had more time, I would have found a way to hide some vague riddle inside a pregnant lady’s womb, with the only way to free it being a hard punch.

So I wanted to annoy Venus while making her commit to similar actions in the hopes that it would torment her. Part of that was the code. The clue she found in that homeless guy’s new jacket turned out to be a string of numbers from zero to twenty-five. I wrote that simple substitution to prepare her for a later code. It served no other purpose in this one except to conceal the second code I used. Once she translated every number to a letter, they appeared to be gibberish.

She probably mistook it for that idiotic ROT13 cipher, one of the most basic substitution ciphers ever. It’s a simple swap of the last letters of the alphabet with the first letters, and vice versa. I wanted to trip her up more than that, so I used a variation of the cipher where I rotated every letter a different amount depending on the letter before it. It took a little more effort, though an analyst needed the code for the first number. In this case, they only needed to count up the total number of letters to determine how far to shift the first letter.

One of my favorite characteristics of this version is that it threw off the letter combinations. English tends to put certain letters together all the time, like ee, oo, ll, er, th, ch, sh, and so on. Plus, most people use a limited pool of three-, two-, and one-letter words.

Long story belatedly made short, the code was a little harder but definitely not unbreakable. I knew she’d have the resources on her side to get through it with a little help.

What message did I put that much effort into? “You can make me break me wave to me and keep secrets safely deposited in me find me by Monday or boom”. Yes, I had to leave out punctuation. Some niceties had to be sacrificed to hurt the superhero.

It gave me manly giggles to think of forcing Venus to break into a bank to find it. You know how hard it would be to obtain a search warrant for every bank in Empyreal City? She had no legal way to get in and find it in time. Of course, she didn’t know the “boom” would be limited to only the safety deposit vault.

Even if she screwed up disarming it, I wanted her to survive that one. If that happened, I’d have forced her to sit in on another date with me to find out her next target.

While I gave Venus the runaround, not to be confused with giving her the reach-around, I had to have the Rejects help me out on the next target. I don’t recall the origins of running the gauntlet, but most usages I’ve heard involved a person facing multiple foes in quick succession. I planned to make Venus run a gauntlet through a haunted house against the Rejects. I intended to send her after a school bus next, but this is where the plan went to hell.

A three-story house Carl picked out worked perfectly when done up with false walls and passageways. Unfortunately, both F-Uhaul and Michelangelo cut me off from their services. Michelangelo said I “drew too much heat to do business with right now.”

Michelangelo never said that kind of thing. He sold to villains and heroes who hated each other. He did business with street gangs and organized crime. Same with F-Uhaul, though I doubted heroes used them. That meant something big. Federal government big. I haven’t been too politically active on this Earth, but I consider it government overreach for any Federal agency to try and capture me.

I’d bet they tracked me over the past year, but now I initiated another potential disaster for Empyreal City. They couldn’t have predicted what I did to New Orleans, and I didn’t even mean to cause the storms in Paradise City, but now I threatened the city I’d already given a major black eye to.

A quick search through traffic cameras near the local FBI station office showed increased traffic by government cars. They tend to paint them very distinctive colors. Sadly, FBI regulations don’t permit an on-duty vehicle to be painted dark purple with a bright red succubus on the hood

But screw those guys, I had a haunted house to fill with radioactive mutants.

Ten minutes after I sent the Rejects off, I got a call. I stopped welding a canister to spread some BZ from under a schoolbus so I could answer the call in my helmet.

“We need to talk, Gecko.”

“Boopsie! How’d you get this number?” I started running interference in case anyone tried to trace the signal. If anyone other than Venus tried to call in or triangulate my position, they’d find themselves dealing with the phone sex line 1-900-FAT-LOVE.

“You left your number on the messages when you called about going out. You’re lucky I found it. Those things you sent, do they kill people?” I pulled up traffic cameras outside the haunted house. I couldn’t get a clear view because no streets intersected near the house.

I began a search for wi-fi or Bluetooth-enabled devices near there as much as I was able. “They’re people, Venus. Just because they don’t look like most people you encounter doesn’t make them inhuman.”

“That’s real progressive of you, but I really need you to answer me. It could mean life or death for them.”

I couldn’t access anything around there. Worse, it wasn’t just a matter of having no power or a weak signal. It felt…crinkly. I couldn’t describe it to y’all very well since the English language wasn’t designed for technopaths in mind. Shakespeare made up the word “eyeball” but couldn’t even bother coming up with a word for when someone’s brain computer-based hacking gets jammed by the FBI. Lazy son of a bitch.

“What are you going to do, kill them?” I tried to stop the van or call the Rejects up, but neither worked; they were within the radius of the jammer.

“Here’s the situation: I’m here ahead of schedule. Your henchmen are walking into a trap set by the Feds. They’re going to die or they’re going to jail. Work with me. I don’t want anyone to get killed because you want to play with me.”

“Oh? And just what do you want me to do about all this?” Something didn’t feel right. I pulled up the view of the neighborhood around the house. There looked fairly calm for a city street in the middle of the day. And Venus really was the sort to minimize the amount of death going on. I doubted she’d let the Rejects walk into whatever the FBI had in store for them.

“When you show up somewhere, things get confusing. If you come here, we should be able to get them out.” Awww, she sounded so sincere.

“I get it, Venus baby. You want some more hot Gecko chocolate. You can’t live without me and your fly is practically unzipping itself due to slickness. Well, I’m not falling for your Venus fly trap. It’ll take more than that to get me to expose myself in public!” I mean, come on. The FBI jammed everything in or out of the place, but somehow Venus called me from within the zone to offer me a deal?

Just because I didn’t know exactly what was going on doesn’t mean I couldn’t tell a trap. Venus and the FBI were working together on this one

“I- listen, this is about helping people I thought you cared about a little. These are the same people you worked with in California.” As if that would convince me.

Still, this made a good new game. Maybe I could still get her to beat up the agents. “Well, I’m kinda busy right now. You ruined things by jumping ahead so quickly, you know. But I suppose the game can continue if you-“

“Shut up, Gecko. Shut your goddamn mouth. Maybe they aren’t your friends, but they’re your teammates. I’m not playing the game anymore. I’ve got friends. Friends like Dame. Remember that thief who helped us last year? The one with a knack for finding you? She’s not bad at getting into banks. The FBI isn’t bad at cracking codes. Altogether, we can beat you without playing along. Game over, Gecko. We’re coming for you.”

She ended the call. I scrambled my number so she couldn’t call back or trace it, then jumped up. “Yo! Carl, Moai! We need to load some stuff up!”

Carl ran downstairs. “Is there a problem?”

“We’re moving again, my good man. Grab the explosives and the Cheetos. Oh, and we’re going to need lots of string…”

Carl scratched his head. “Alright. You want me to call up the others, let them know where we’re going?”

“No, Carl. I’ve got that covered. It’s a shame, you know. This place had potential. On the plus side, it’s going to make a hell of a boom.”

I didn’t know if Venus really knew where I was. I didn’t know if she’d interrogate the Rejects when they were caught. I figured that no matter what she said and no matter how gung ho the Feds were, they weren’t going to shoot up my mutated acquaintances.

As for Big Top’s Restaurant, it did indeed make a great explosion. It started with Carl, Moai, and me, all wearing shades. I had my own, of course, and brought extras for Carl and Moai on this occasion. Carl had his own car stuffed with gear, while Moai sat behind the wheel of a pickup hauling the travel trailer behind it. We packed the trailer full, too.

Attached to the back of my car were multiple wires, because string would have been too flimsy. The wires ran through the restaurant and around the necks of dozens of spare chicken grenades lay trapped under various heavy objects.

“Alright, boys, let’s yank these cocks off and get out of the way while they blow.” I said through the radios of their trucks

Carl flinched, and I picked up what he said through his phone, “Boss, somehow you make blowing up a building sound wrong.”

I stomped on the gas, accelerating us and whipping the heads off the chickens. “Let’s do this. For those about to cock…we salute you!” It took a second before Moai and Carl started following my sudden departure, but they got clear in time as the entire restaurant went up in a great gout of flames. I soon pulled over to get out and enjoy the view. The others stopped, too, and Carl got out to join me. He held Spike Smooshyface in his hands. The puppy barked enthusiastically and gnawed on Carl’s watch. “Wow, you see that? Pretty, huh?”

Carl just stood there, looking at the scene and opening his mouth as if to speak, then closing it. He resembled a fish.

“Anyway, Carl, you said you had the perfect hideout spot in mind for us out of the real estate you purchased for us. Where did you have in mind?”

“Boss, I had a good apartment building with an old air raid bunker underneath it from the Cold War.” Carl had to shift Spike into one hand so he could lay his forehead in his palm.

I leaned on the car as I looked him over. “Carrrrrrl…”

He pointed across the street from Big Top’s Restaurant, to one of the many buildings that caught fire from the explosion. “I figured no one would look for us across the street from the place we just left.”

I looked between the burning wreckage of the Big Top and the soon-to-be wreckage of the buildings around it. I turned back to Carl. “Good thinking, buddy! I hope you had a runner-up too. Something with a little less fire.”

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Nemesis 7

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Annoying music. It sounded like a weak evil scheme, I’m sure. After all, turn off all radios and televisions and the scheme’s foiled, right? Well, sure. Except that was the other end I worked toward.

Disrupting people’s television schedules annoyed a great many people, provided they had satellite TV. And provided their cable provider received any signals to the city by satellite. And provided they used satellite internet to view videos or audio, too. There were other disruptions, as well. GPS and any institution that used satellites to send and receive data weren’t singing along to the tune, but my toys slowed and corrupted a lot of transfers.

Radios didn’t fare any better. Emergency services were hit the hardest, as I used to my advantage when escaping with the giant magnet. Police, firefighters, paramedics, animal control; I put an end to any services reliant on radio dispatches while they scrambled to find replacement methods. Plus, with the United Nations around, the various diplomats couldn’t communicate as easily with their home countries. Their bodyguards couldn’t coordinate, either. They could do little to advance international peace and harmony, so they may as well have gone home. Which reminds me: aircraft. Not easy to fly into, out of, or near a city without radio and satellite on your side. Boats had problems on approach, too. Not that they wanted to go out with the local weather service also shut down.

The city faced a major crisis, and then the rioting started up. In most cases, people from outside the city showed up because they perceived it to now be a lawless haven. You don’t see people loot their own community, but outsiders have no such qualms. They caused enough ruckus that nobody minded my crew and I heading out to do a little pre-planning.

“Easy now. Keep taking ‘er up.” I waved my arms, directing Larry as he worked the crane holding the electromagnet. As a building mover, I had little use for it. It served me much better hidden inside a sign that depicted the planet Earth.

“Excuse me!” called out the manager of the Grocery World store we were gathered in front of. “Can somebody tell me what you think you’re doing?”

I stepped forward and held out my hand with a smile. “Hey there, my man. Are you the manager?”

He nodded.

“Good, we’re the guys doing the sign work. Just a small renovation to help keep the image fresh in everyone’s minds. You know how it is.” I pointed back to the crane and the sign with my thumb.

The manager looked between the crane and me. “I didn’t hear anything about this.”

I shrugged and closed my mouth where I clenched my teeth, raising the opposite eyebrow, attempting to look apologetic or sheepish. “Things are hectic right now. It wasn’t on the schedule originally, but with everything going on, the main office thought we should get it done while we still could. Besides, if things keep up, people are going to need food to cook more than ever.”

The manager stepped close and lowered his voice. “Do you have the permits for this? I would have pulled them if I’d known you were going to do this, but you caught me offguard.”

I patted him on the shoulder. “That’s the other reason they sent us to do this now. If I don’t have the permits, who’s going to call the cops on me about it, huh?”

We shared a laugh, then I sent him back inside. From there, I turned to watch as Larry lifted the hidden magnet into place. Then Roberta plucked him out of his seat, climbed up the crane with him, and held him close enough to do the welding work with his fire breath. The protective and directive casing had been removed from the magnet, but we left it stable enough that it shouldn’t have any problems. Well, unless grocery stores got blown up. If the city got to that point, it wouldn’t need me and any contraptions I put together.

Once we put that bad boy in place, there was little to do but wait. As much of a problem as I presented to the city, I also made it difficult to get there in a hurry. That’s why it came as a surprise on Saturday when a cell phone that should have still been in California suddenly began playing Empyreal City’s favorite song. And if y’all have been paying attention, I wouldn’t have to tell you whose phone that was.

I knew Venus had been packing for the trip, I just didn’t expect her to pack her cell of all things. I suppose the suddenness of her appearance in the city made it sound less crazy. One minute the GPS put her in Los Angeles. Then, bam! Empyreal City.

Now, obviously a fellow like myself wouldn’t lie when calling out a hero, would I?

Alright, now that you’ve had a moment to stop all that guffawing, let’s continue.

At the time, I stood in my basement workspace. I’d been assembling my rubber chicken grenades and set some of the compounds involved back in my workshop refrigerator, right next to some marinating chicken teriyaki. I liked my marinade like my grenades: exploding with flavor.

I skipped over to my finished pile of grenades, about three feet high, and sat down on them. I reached over to a drying belt of my exploding throwing knives, pulled it into my lap, and stroked it like some sort of pet.

With Venus within the bounds of Empyreal City, I cut the music. Over on Venus’s end of things, I heard lots of murmuring. Then whatever the phone was packed into must have been spread wide open, because a man’s voice came through crystal clear.

“This is city hall, goddammit. This- this is my office! He bugged it? He was here?! He stood right here…don’t drink the whiskey! H-how else could he have known you were teleported in?”

Then Venus spoke up. “I think you can relax. He didn’t bug you.” Then, much closer to the phone, she said, “Hello Gecko.”

When I responded, I spoke through every device affected by my signal interceptors. The entire city answered back, “Hello Venus. How’s my fair Boopsie doing today?” I learned that pet name for when I spied on her in the past. Her boyfriend used to call her that before I killed him. He didn’t take dying well. It really tore him apart. He’s not 1/2048th the man he used to be. Mostly because he ended up in more pieces than that.

He was more liquid than solid by the end of things, so I may have reminded her of bad times.

“You don’t get to call me that, Gecko. Has anyone ever told you it’s creepy to spy on me like this?”

I kept our conversation between us from here on out. “Oh sure, try to tell a goat rapist what’s creepy.”

“What? A goat, wha?”

“Don’t interrupt me, Venus, or I’ll have to whip out my billy club. Yes, I spied on you, but if I hadn’t, that terrible racket would still be going on and emergency services would still be down. It was the only moral thing to do.”

“You don’t have morals.”

I tossed the knives to the side and reached down to stroke the cock between my legs. The rubber, very explosive cock. “You know, you’re right. You talked me into it. Let’s go put the music back on, Boopsie.”

“Wait. You have me here now. What’s this all about?”

“Maybe I just wanted to talk to you and see you again?” I pulled the chicken out of the pile so I could cuddle it close and nuzzle my cheek against it.

“I have no doubt that was your intention, asshole, but I’ve seen this play out before. You have some game you’ll want me to play before we have our big confrontation.”

“Boopsie boop, why mess with a classic? Yes, I do have something to help hold your interest. A weapon of my own making involving the same device I used to tear up the city so far. You’ve seen enough of my technology to know I can put together some terrible contraptions in my sleep. Think about how bad this one must be that I came up with it while awake and thinking of you.” I set my cute little killer chicken to the side, hungry enough to chew on it if I didn’t.

“Just tell me what I’m doing here.”

I stood up and grabbed my laser potato peeler off the table. I walked over to the fridge, pulled out a strip of chicken, and cooked it up with the laser’s lowest setting. Because I didn’t reapply the baste, it tasted a bit dry. “Alright. The first clue is: wear a nice dress. Second clue: get into the limo and-“

“I’m going to stop you right there, Gecko. We are never going on a date. Do you understand me? You won; you made me hate you. I know you have something in your head about me, but I want nothing to do with you, ever.”

“Oh,” I said, speaking softly. “Well…I guess that’s just how it is. In that case, I guess you can go back home. I mean, I don’t need you here either. Maybe there’s some other hero out there who will want to save the city from my nefarious plan to destroy it. I wouldn’t want to force you into this if you don’t feel like giving it a shot. I can always turn myself in to another hero if I lose.”

“Gecko…argh! You..I still hate you. I’m staying, but only because it’s my duty as a hero.”

I threw my hands up, peeler flying up and sticking into the ceiling. “Woohoo! Venus chooses to stay! Let’s get naked and party with balloon animals!”

“Focus, Gecko!”

“Right. Of course. We’ll party naked without balloon animals. That can be just as much a celebration if you don’t like balloon animals.”

“Focus on your scheme!”

“You’re a good evil motivator, Venus. Anyway, I’m going to bomb this city back to the stone age. Interpret that how you want to.

“It sounds brutal. More music?”

Ew, dirty hands. I slipped out a throwing knife to clean my fingernails. “Only the most authentic death metal in town, with a hint of grindcore and horrorcore.”

“What do I have to do to stop it?”

“Why, match wits with me, of course! Though some might feel that’s a difficult task considering they think my wits are scrambled like a bad egg.”

“If that were true, I wouldn’t be able to get inside your head.”

I took out some more of the knives and practiced juggling them. “Unless you’re crazy.”

“Or unless you aren’t.”

“Ow! You wound me. Or maybe it’s this knife I dropped into my thigh. How about we discuss this over dinner?”

“I would have to be crazy to do that.”

I pulled the knife out of my leg and tossed it into the wall next to various assembled components I hung up. “The first clue will be delivered to you on a silver platter. You should keep the phone. Otherwise I’ll have to find some other way to contact you when I have the place and time set up. What do you say, Booper scooper?”

“One condition: nobody tries to capture or kill the other person. If that’s all it is and I can get the clue from you, then yes. I will go out with you to save the city.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear from you, Boopsie. You know, if you try hard enough, you might actually have some fun.”

“Oh, and Gecko? We both know you have no intention of turning yourself in.”

“That may be, Venus, but if you do this right, you have a shot to take me down. See you later, Boopsie woopsie.”

After hanging up it was time, of course…to panic. Then, after I finished running a few laps around the outside of the Big Top and smacking my head into a dumpster, I sat down to focus on the only part of my scheme that left me clueless: how to have a date.

It occurred to me that I’d be more comfortable if she interrupted things to try and beat me up.

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Nemesis 6

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“How are you doing?” a female voice asked. “I bet you’re still sore from working out.”

“Yeah. I could use a massage.” answered Venus.

“Go on,” I said, leaning forward, licking my lips. Carl, Roberta, and Steve all looked at me from where I sat on the couch next to them.

Carl turned to Roberta. “Is he still listening to that wiretapped phone through his ear?”

Roberta nodded her eye stalk.

“Shh, shh!” I waved at them all to shush. I thought Venus’s friend said something, but I couldn’t hear if it was some sort of sexy affirmative.

All I heard was, “Come on, we’ll talk on the way.”

“Aww, I missed something. Let me go somewhere quieter.” I stood up.

“Try not to hog the bathroom too long, boss. The rest of us might have to go.” Carl stopped chewing on gum long enough to grin at me.

I gave him a salute with only my middle finger. “Right-o, my good minion.” I hadn’t planned to sit in the bathroom while possibly listening to Venus get a massage from another woman, but since they suggested it, I figured I might as well go in there. You know, in case I needed to take care of any bodily functions while Venus made whatever sounds she made while being massaged.

“You give a lot, don’t you?” asked the anonymous female companion of Venus.

“I have to. My body is all I can rely on out there.”

“Gosh, thanks for the vote of confidence.” Awww. Venus was right, but you don’t say that when you’re about to get a sensual massage from someone. Wait a minute, maybe she only likes guys. Awww. But I’m a guy! Woohoo! Still, no hot massage.

“You’re alright, kid.”

“Hey, my hair!”

“You just worked out. Everyone will understand.”

“I have friends who don’t know I have powers yet. I don’t want to explain to them why my hair was mussed up by the superhero Venus. What about you? I hardly ever hear of you going out into the regular world for anything but patrols.”

“I…don’t, not really. Not often. I barely know anyone who isn’t part of all this.”

“You don’t think that’s weird?” asked the newbie hero.

“I don’t know. It’s just my life. I’ve spent so much of it like this that it’s hard to imagine being normal, or having a real secret identity.”

“You need some time off. Hey, we’re here! Time to chow down.”

Whoa, ladies, ladies, what ever happened to playing coy and warming up a partner with strategic fondling?

Venus sounded just as enthusiastic. “Alright, I can’t wait to try the taco. Tacos are bitchin’.”

Over here in Empyreal City, someone knocked on the bathroom door. “Boss, are you still in there? I need the toilet, boss. I tried to fart and I think I…um…didn’t.”

I threw the door open, tossed my pants in his face, yelled “Go away, I’m in the middle of something!” and slammed the door.

Things got even more interesting as I listened in once more from across the country thanks to Venus’s compromised phone. She cooed in delight, “Ooh, I didn’t expect kielbasa. Big kielbasa.”

I decided then that as soon as I finished doing whatever I might be about to do, I’d look up transgendered young heroines in California. But later!

“Ugh, I hate sausage. And someone already took the cups of jello.”

Kinky.

“Relax, kid. There’s nothing wrong with having a slice of pie every now and then.”

Yeah, you tell her, Venus!

“You sound like my mother.”

Possibly kinky. I wanted to see where this went.

“I’m definitely not your mother.”

I liked where this went.

“Fine. I’m going to have a Coke to drink and I won’t eat my broccoli.” Eh…what?

“That’s fine with me. We can sit by that window. That way, no one’s around to watch you eat that taco.”

“Why would they watch me eat a taco?”

“Think about it…”

“Oh my gosh!”

Well it’s about time the innocent little teenybopper figured that one out! Still, it upset me quite a bit to realize I’d missed an invitation to have lunch earlier instead of an invitation to have a massage. It upset me so much, I kicked the toilet hard enough to knock it out of its setting. I hurt the fuck out of my toe, too.

When I came limping out of that bathroom, red-faced and pantless, Carl looked at me and asked, “Did you just…ya know…so hard you hurt yourself?”

I grunted and tucked one hand into the rim of my boxers. “It’s got a bit of recoil.”

“Aww, boss,” Carl looked into the bathroom and found the water leaking out from where I’d knocked over the toilet. “I got to use the Ladies Room and then we’ll have to fix that.”

For some reason, the Big Top Restaurant had bathrooms for only one person at a time. When we were done setting up the workshop, computers, and giant screen in the basement, we’d have to bring in someone to work on that. Maybe the guy who’d sculpted my throne in my old club. I heard he went to jail after doing something to his ex with the lasers I paid him with, but that’s hardly an obstacle. In fact, I’d be doing the jail a favor. If there were no criminals outside the lock-ups, there would be no reason to have jails to put them in. All that money would have been wasted.

Speaking of things being wasted, Carl and I had another project to worry about once he was done sorting out the plumbing problems he and the Men’s Room had. I know I said we perfected the electromagnet weapon before, but that turned out to be somewhat of a flawed initial assessment.

For my next trick, I needed to adjust lots of buildings in a relatively short amount of time. Flight would be ideal in terms of speed, but there were other impracticalities. For one thing, we had a really heavy magnet. Trust me, I knew about that problem. I had not forgotten that characteristic of the damn thing.

Other problems involved carrying enough power. That could have been solved by hooking myself and my power core into the machine. While I long ago told y’all to not worry about how I powered my armor and other bodily cybernetics, my run-in with the superhero super team Shieldwall almost a year ago let that cat out of the bag. Which was a shame, because I worked really hard getting that cat in the bag. I meant to toss a dog, snake, chimpanzee, and a corrupt politician in there with it. There goes my little Halloween prank on the White House, thank you very much! Now what am I going to light on fire and trick the President into stomping out?

Oh, and there was a law I’d be on the wrong side of if I flew the magnet around. Normally I don’t care for laws, but this one involved equal but opposite reactions and the fact that I’d be using a small, unstable aerial vehicle to tug on metal portions of large buildings affixed to the ground below.

Flying was out of the question. But I thought up a solution. It wasn’t rocket science, after all.

So as I drove out the next morning, unarmored and pantless, I thought to myself that I was wrong about the rocket science part. I spent the night designing and building a half dozen rockets that I attached to strong points of the exterior of the van in order to help us speed through the asphalt jungle named Empyreal City.

To get us in the mood for the task, I had Carl put on the classic Guns N’ Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle”. He drove, with Moai shoved into the passenger seat. I stayed in the back, stuck to the magnet by my anatomy rather than by fundamental forces of the universe. Unless someone out there wants to think of my anatomy as one of the fundamental forces of the universe. That’s a pretty good nickname for the fellow, actually.

Hey ladies, anyone want to feel my Strong Force? That’s not gluon your face, but that is pion mine.

While we busied ourselves with a little creative redecorating of Empyreal City, the Rejects scrambled throughout the city to reconfigure a few broadcast towers and satellite dishes for me. It involved little more than hooking up a simplified interface to just a couple of wires on each.

I had my reasons for controlling the airwaves.

While they set up the simplified signal interceptors for me, I unfolded the back of the van and went to town on the city. I didn’t hit the skyscrapers, but my targets were larger buildings of at least five stories. The first rocked the hell out of the van, too. I focused on a building, not piercings. Rebar and fittings and girders. Worse, they weren’t slummy old apartment buildings. Or they weren’t all slums, at least.

Realizing this wasn’t going to be as effective unless I got lucky like the first time at the piercing parlor, I pulled out my ace in the hole. I didn’t keep it in my hole, of course. That was merely an expression, this time. I asserted my incredibly attractive force and hit the rockets, pulling the weakened structure over. Then I reversed the magnet at full power, cut the rockets, and magnetically threw the van along the road.

Rinse and repeat.

Cops showed up to intercept me at the fifth building. Five of seventeen minimum that I needed. Funny thing about cop cars; they’re magnetic too. I turned on them and pulled one into the air, then reversed the force and embedded it in the car driving up right behind it. I tossed the third into the air so it went over the building. When I tugged on that building, the cop car smashed through it from the other side and helped knock it down.

Nifty way to do things. Buildings six, seven, and eight went down with more cops. Then they tried to keep their distance, but a passing bus helped me nail building nine. That line had commendable service. They helped me and they stopped right there in someone’s home.

By the time I finished, we were stopped in the middle of a four-way intersection. SWAT vans surrounded us. Damn SWAT. I should have known they’d show up. I had a reputation for being fly, but being fly tended to make people want to SWAT me.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember if bullets could be affected by magnets. Not that I worried about that. I had only one magnet and they had me surrounded.

One of them approached ahead of the others with a megaphone. “Pantless man, step away from the device or we will be forced to open fire. Repeat, we will open fire if you do not back away from your weapon and put on some pants.”

“Guys,” I spoke into my personal radio to the Rejects. “Did you get everything into place?”

They sounded off one by one, save for Rattler. Whether he had a brain or the giant millipede thing controlled his body, that fellow had a bit of a language problem. At least Headgame Zane translated for him. “Yes, we’re all set.”

“Good. You’ll want to turn this radio off now. Or not, I happen to like this one.”

I sent out a signal and the effects were immediate. The various officers, detectives, and patrolmen kept radios on their persons or nearby. That became problematic for them when my little interceptors, now spreading their influence throughout every radio and satellite signal in Empyreal City, began playing music. Loud music.

A little song I once tried to obtain the rights to. The wonderful ear worm, “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” that some people unfortunately labeled annoying.

The cops were too focused on protecting their poor, molested ear holes to accost us as we escaped.

Little did they know, the horror only just began. I intended to keep this song repeating non-stop until Venus herself arrived. I didn’t make my goal too difficult to understand, I think. Not after pulling down enough of the city to form the name “Venus” in destroyed buildings if viewed from above.

As the song says, “This is what I wanna do, let’s have some fun. One on one, just me and you. Boom, boom, boom, boom!! I want you in my room.”

And so Venus must face her fate, or Empyreal City will be destroyed…by annoying music.

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Nemesis 5

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After the grand electromagnet heist, things quieted down around the city. Nobody reported any sort of proof that the two were linked. As planned, college officials and police assumed Empyreal City State University pulled some sort of elaborate prank. They’ve been going over the ECSU campus with a fine-tooth comb, but they’ve also been entertaining other hypotheses.

I sent out the Rejects, Carl, and Moai to commit a few more Venus crimes, which also hid the connection. Carl had been eager to try out his newest mini-pistol. He and Ray X blasted a beauty salon apart. They got along real well too. According to Carl, Steve seems to remember being involved in some shady stuff in the past as well.

Another thing about this entire Venus mess: a lot of businesses with that as their name focused on beauty in some way. Dermatology, hair, dance. Roberta, aka Winsect, was particularly easy to manipulate into a rage over that. She did most of the work when I sent her and Moai off to take down a women’s gym.

About the only one’s who didn’t care were Tom the Rattler and Larry the Meltman. Tom never seemed to care about anything but trying to stay indoors and stay warm. Probably something to do with the giant evil millipede thingy in his head. I’ve suspected the bug’s calling the shots there. As for Larry, he enjoyed watching daytime TV and cuddling up with Spike Smooshyface. Spike didn’t mind. The pup chewed everything he could get his maw on.

At least I had F-Uhaul to help me out. They still delivered for Michelangelo, who happily provided me with what he could at a deeply-inflated black market price. I think I made him uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable than usual.

I felt like he knew something I didn’t. He still agreed to get me the chemicals I needed. It’s just that he seemed hesitant about everything, and now that I think about it, he acted surprised to see me.

Maybe chemicals set him on edge. Different people have different standards, but few folks, hero, civilian, or villain, would think to use mundane chemical weapons. Gimmicky chemical weapons get used all the time. Like with Mix N’Max. He’s crafted concoctions that could do just about anything. Aside from the Kingscrow drug trade, they tended to be single-use or limited run batches.

I’ve crossed a lot of lines. It wouldn’t be the first time someone wanted me for the criminal equivalent of a war crime. I’ve been accused of all sorts of things upon leaving the bathroom on burrito night.

You could add cyber stalking and invasion of privacy to my ever-growing list of charges, too. I didn’t spend this time just directing attacks by my cohort. I hunted down information on Venus.

I failed to find a way into whatever servers they had at the Master Academy. Instead, I relied on whatever dossiers, interviews, public speeches, and background checks I could pull. Anyone could have lied about the public information, but I figured on finding some kernel of truth within. The best lies are those that the person telling them believes as well. One way to further that while maintaining consistency is to grow a lie around a seed of truth.

My contact Harlon made finding this all immensely more easy. He was a fat executive for one of the major news networks. Vice president of this or president of that, I stopped keeping track. I didn’t kill him, helped him get promoted, and then saved him from a mugging once. That guy hadn’t been shown much companionship in his life to want to spend time with me. The meeting of our minds helped both of us, though. His network got some recordings and exclusives from an anonymous source in the super community. In return, they disseminated talking points that benefited my side of things. Being an agency concerned with reporting, they funneled information my way.

When Harlon’s news channel started speculating that a link existed between the electromagnet theft and the Venus attacks, they looked a little crazy to most people. Sometimes, crazy isn’t crazy. Sometimes, a crazy person just looks that way because they know a lot more about what’s going on.

In thanks for his cooperation, I sent him a fruit basket. He then called me up to tell me he didn’t appreciate a basket being delivered by a team of campy gay male strippers wearing little more than thongs and body glitter.

That Harlon, what a kidder.

There were puff pieces. You know, the sort of interviews that make a hero look good and nice for the kiddies. Interviews that sell toys. Entire transcripts about nothing but serving and protecting people. Venus mostly shied away from political talk. That didn’t mean she was shy, though. This blowhard on Harlon’s own network tried to draw her into a discussion about politics and began to use fancy insults when she refused. Words like “pinhead” and “bloviator”.

He came across more like a bully. Then, after the commercial break, his shirt and hair were a little disheveled and he behaved more politely.

There was so much to go through, I had to make use of a nifty little ability people with normal eyes don’t have. When my eyes were replaced on my world, the new pair came with many superior features, including a search ability. A secondary function of the facial recognition search was the ability to find a certain word in a document held up in front of me.

I checked transcripts for references to “past” or “history” or “family”. From there, I found an old interview from years ago. She had just taken down a troublesome villain: Matthias Darkstone, the Stellar Man. Afterwards, she sat down with investigative reporter Mei San Olivier.

When I found that, I shoved Larry out of the way and sent the digital file to the TV for viewing.

I’ll toss in some relevant pieces here.

Mei: “Were you nervous knowing you faced a man with inhuman abilities? He trapped Los Angeles under a night sky for sixteen hours, after all.”

Venus: “I’m not going to sound very heroic, but yes I was. That is, I was nervous. There is a major difference in pressure when you think about lives being at stake, but I never doubted my training. I trained along superhumans at the Master Academy. I grew up with them and I sparred with them. They don’t believe I’m not superhuman, hehe.”

She giggled then with a smile that scrunched her face up in a cute way. I realized I’d never seen her smile. Perhaps I just needed the right tools? Headgear of some sort, or some sort of chemical that freezes a face in a grin.

M: “What went through your mind when you beat the Stellar Man and had him in your custody? Did you have any hard feelings, did you feel any pity?”

The question caught Venus off guard. She sat up straighter but took a moment to mull the question over. She kept her mouth slightly open, tongue against the inside of her cheek. Then she blinked and looked back to Mei.

V: “Sorry, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t sure myself. Mostly I was glad. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s hard work fighting someone like that. I was so relieved he went down and I could cuff him. Then I worried he might escape me.”

M: “Oh no.” She said it with a laugh, leaning forward to pat Venus on the knee.

Venus laughed too. She seemed really young in the video. I called up stills of when I last encountered her and when I first encountered. She definitely aged over our run-ins. She held herself differently, too. Straighter and more stiff, even when she shouldn’t have for her fighting style.

Odd. In all our fights, I don’t remember shoving a stick up her ass.

Perhaps my newest project would dislodge it. You wouldn’t think a guy like me would want a big electromagnet. After all, they do such interesting things to computers. It would be like fighting a pyrokinetic while covered in gasoline. Or like a paraplegic taking up lap dancing.

Well, this is one lap dancer who isn’t afraid when things get hard, even if I had to bring Carl in on it to figure out how to transport the damn thing.

When we got that thing figured out, though, I think we had ourselves one heck of a menace to society.

So, tired of a day wasted on admiring Venus’s laugh and smile, I invited Larry and Spike Smooshyface along to test the thing out.

This involved a quick trip to a local piercing parlor in the van, which had been rebuilt and re-purposed. Remember how I said the Venus places tended to be linked to beauty? Venus Piercing kept that fine tradition alive. I would have given them credit for exploring less conventional ideas about beauty, but I also wanted to hurt somebody.

Larry skidded to a stop with the rear toward the outside of the stucco building, annoying everyone on the two-way street and earning us a chorus of horns. The nearest drivers stopped when the rear of the van folded away and the magnet emerged on a hydraulic arm. To protect and better direct it, I gave the magnet a casing and barrel.

Just because I stole the thing doesn’t mean I’m eager to get stuck to it.

The barrel also helped because of the enhancements I made to the design. Once again, there were benefits to having a head full of information from a more advanced planet.

I stood off to the side and activated the magnet. It drew from batteries filling the van to power itself as portions of the parlor’s building bent toward the magnet, then broke apart as various piercings flew free of whatever held them in and brought those construction nails and screws with them. I caught a glimpse of a Prince Albert covered with blood as it flew out.

That seemed painful, and I didn’t need all that sticking to my new toy, so I used the other nifty feature of it. One flip of a mental switch and the forces reversed themselves. Instead of attracting all that nice wonderful metal, those tiny bits were flung back with enough force to once again shoot through the exterior wall and speed back to where they belonged. Roughly. Very roughly. The kind of roughly that drew blood and cries of anguish.

I knew for a fact that whoever got that Prince Albert wasn’t going to let a little thing like having his piercing ripped off stop him from getting screwed.

I toyed with the place, swapping between attraction and repulsion, up until I saw the larger, five story building behind the parlor shake itself to collapsing.

Huh, you’d think a simple urban engineer would have thought to plan around magnet-wielding supervillains. This is what happens when you rely on engineers claiming it should stand up to attacks instead of testing it with real cataclysmic conditions.

Same for those piercings I yanked out and then violently returned to people. How dare that store sell defective piercings that couldn’t even stand up to some playful tugging?!

I fully intended on taking up my dissatisfaction with the management of that establishment, but then they were buried under a collapsing buildings. Ugh, some people will do anything to avoid hearing criticism.

Still, my test was a success. I had Larry crank that sucker and we sped out of there with the assistance of the repel setting and the cars behind us. Because sometimes you need to use the laws to your advantage, even if they’re a fundamental one in physics about equal and opposite reactions.

After so much time spent perfecting my magnet and reading up on Venus, I think I know what it takes to attract her to Empyreal City.

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Nemesis 4

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I never realized how many places in Empyreal City had Venus in their name. Neither did anyone on the news up until they reported on the string of crimes that have occurred recently while I sat watching on the sofa at the Big Top.

“The mysterious fire that claimed the New Venus Restaurant was just the first of an epidemic. Then a clinic specializing in beautifying people’s skin, Venus Treatments, was destroyed by a colorful group of mutated-looking humanoids with super powers.”

“Then a group of people attacked a dance studio. Reports say they just waltzed in, wrecked the place with pickaxes, and waltzed out. Police are still investigating a chemical weapon used at the crime that caused fog and oxygen deprivation in those nearby.”

That was fun. I’m not the most prolific of chemists, but I’ve learned a lot more than just which ones go boom by now. Just like when I first faced Venus in Memphis, I really enjoyed breaking out that knowledge again. The prep work became a minor problem, but I had a lot of helping hands. I still hadn’t contacted my old black market contact, Michelangelo. I’d been fairly loyal to Michelangelo’s House of Negotiable Goods ever since shaking him down for information one Christmas. Michelangelo would still be more than capable of getting me the other treat I had in mind.

The news segment on the Venus crimes ended with the camera panning over an intersection, the voice over saying, “Whatever the reason for this spate of attacks, police and heroes are hard at work solving the cases. We urge anyone whose business is named after the Roman goddess of love to practice caution.”

I switched off the TV and hopped up. “Typical speculation…I could be some crazy guy obsessed with astronomy. For all they know, I was planning to attack Uranus next.” I headed over to my nearest worktable, where Spike Smooshyface chewed on my saxophone.

“Shoo, go chew on something hallucinogenic or electrified.” I suppressed my urge to punt the little guy and set him on the floor. While I messed around recalibrating the sax, I called out to Roberta. “You got the floor plan?”

She perched on a bar stool in front of a movable podium with a computer on top. “Got it right here!” She chirruped, tapping a few keys. Images of Foley College, a local center for higher education, replaced a fascinating news piece on an upcoming cheese festival.

I couldn’t tell if that story was gouda or bad. I figured it was a queso bad scheduling. What’s that, y’all don’t appreciate the jokes? Were they too cheesy?

Back to Foley College. It existed prior, but the guys in charge renamed it in honor of a nigh-indestructible hero. He had no super strength or speed, and he could suffer all manor of minor injuries so long as they didn’t kill or permanently disable him. He dubbed himself “Wreck” and set about becoming a world-renowned humanitarian aid worker, entertainer, and children’s author.

The pictures showed a friendly but fenced-in campus. There were four entrances, with only two open on a regular basis. Entry required a keyfob or identification by a security guard at the main gate. The buildings had custom brick work. It looked more like decorative slabs of rock made up the exteriors. They looked like you could climb the outside of a building with just a little rock climbing experience.

I stepped out in front of them and pointed at the outer fence and checkpoints with the sax. “As y’all can see, the security here is incredible at keeping out overprotective parents and particularly frail old ladies. It may even stop a turtle with dementia.”

Carl raised his hand. “Boss, I don’t understand.”

I shook my head. “You’re right, Carl, I didn’t make it clear. The turtle has dementia. The security doesn’t somehow cause dementia in order to stop intruders. If it could, this would be serious business.”

“No, why are you putting this much effort into this? Normally we just bust in and take what we want.”

“Good point. Team, the reason why I had Roberta research this, and Larry print copies of the floor plan, and Tom collate…by the way, do a better job next time, Tom…is because college campuses are a supervillain’s worst nightmare. After all, it’s full of doctors and professors. How many times have you heard a superhero named ‘Professor This Guy’ or ‘Doctor So-And-So,’ huh? They didn’t all pass medical boards, and there are only so many jobs for a professional graduate student. Which brings us to the students. Superheroes go to high school all the time. It’s the story everyone’s heard. Teen gets powers. Teen practices powers. Teen, being immature and stupid, tries to protect people and right wrongs. Then what? Teen goes to college. Teen is away from adult supervision and can set his own hours around easy classes. Plus, everyone’s all idealistic in college. People learn that shit is going down in the world and they want to fix it, just like most people do who haven’t had their morality’s cherry popped like a drunk freshman at a Greek mixer. By the way, if you get a picture of a hero taking advantage of that, you have them by the balls for the statute of limitations. Any questions?”

Steve raised his hand, a bone glinting in the light. “Yeah, is this going to be on the final exam?”

I nodded and smacked my worktable with the sax. “Yes! My exams typically consist of a dozen essay questions and an interpretive dance segment. Now, back to the plan…”

We went in that night, Monday evening, with me in my armor for this one. There were no parties going on to distract potential student heroes, but their weekend hangovers and sleepless shenanigans gave us an opportunity. Plus, almost all the professors and doctors were gone at night.

Entry was easy. I faked our credentials by stopping at a nearby liquor store and mugging a guy who showed up to buy a keg of beer.

We had to park the van off to the side. The science center rested under a portion of the campus. The entrance rested at the bottom of a small amphitheater. Those at the top could just take stairs up a few steps and walk over the building. Maybe peer down in the middle of the area to see a small courtyard.

We all hid our appearance in trench coats and fedoras as we entered. Moai, Roberta the Winsect, and “Ray X” Steve climbed up to take their positions near the courtyard. We received a few looks, but one of the advantages of working a college over is that no one bats an eye at anything you wear. The three on top of the building took pulled parts of a simple pulley system out of their coats and began erecting it.

The rest of us went inside. They didn’t bother locking it, but we still ate up time spreading out to find our target: the college’s shiny new research six foot diameter, two ton electromagnet, as reported on by the school paper. I had plans for that bad boy.

We found it being fawned over by a pair of grad students.

“Carl, Headgame, these two didn’t see anything.” Carl advanced and Headgame lunged forward with stretchy arms. Once they had the two scared students well in hand, it turned out they really hadn’t seen anything.

“In fact, I wasn’t even here tonight. I was with my girlfriend. Yeah, that’s it!” I nodded to Carl, who released the captive collegiate. That guy scampered out to live up to his alibi. I turned to the other, still safely clutched in Headgame’s coils.

“I, uh, I…was washing my hair?” My eyes flicked to his hair. Short and buzzed. The scalp was visible He looked like a peach.

“Try again,” I told him. “Come on, you’re smart. Tell yourself something you can believe. Maybe something happy if you want. Trust me, it’s about to get sad for you around here.”

“I was with his girlfriend.” He nudged his chin towards his fellow fleeing student.

I waggled my hand in the air, then gave Headgame a thumbs-up. He let the inventive academic run off as well.

“Now then…” I turned to the magnet, which resembled an expensive Ferris wheel for dolls. “Let’s hope we don’t attract any attention.”

Carl and the Rejects groaned.

I joined in soon enough as it took me a good twenty minutes to get the thing out to the hallway next to the courtyard. Jumping is one thing. Punching through a human head is another. Carrying that heavy, delicate piece of shit without bending or wrecking it was quite another.

When I got to that hall, I set it down, then promptly collapsed.

“Somebody, break those windows,” I ordered between huffs and puffs.

“Which windows, boss?”

“Carl, dammit, the windows to the courtyard! I can’t point right now and I think my water just broke.”

“I always thought you were a man,” Larry the Meltman interrupted.

“Meltman, either my water broke or my organs are trying to escape to safety through my asshole.” I groaned and stood up as I heard Carl begin shattering the windows to the yard. He swung the butt of his new mini-pistol against it. Good guy. Firing the combination minigun and handgun would have made more noise than that. He even opened the glass door and busted it.

Then, for the last time, I had to heave that heavy son of a bitch up onto failing muscles and machines and carry it carefully out into the night. Luckily, Moai, Ray X, and Winsect were more than ready.

I had the others slide the harness onto the massive machine while I laid down on the cool earth, looking up at Moai above us. “Do it…and somebody go move that fucking van closer.”

“How are you doing down there?” Ray X called down.

“I think I pulled my everything!” I answered.

Steve gave a thumbs-up. “Don’t worry, we’ll have it up in a jiffy.”

With that, Moai jumped over the edge in his harness to serve as the counterweight. He raised the magnet off the ground easily. That made me all the more glad that any time I had to lift him, I did so with his momentum on my side. Mostly, I just took in the glorious sight of that magnet being raised by something else.

Then I realized I had a clear view of Moai as he began falling on me. The breaking feeling in my legs was even more clear, but it couldn’t compete with pain coming from my newly-flattened ball sack as he landed right on top of my little guys.

I didn’t mute my helmet in time and the screams broke all the rest of the nearby windows around the courtyard.

We did get the damn thing out of there, though. In no mood for games, I had Larry fetch the van, drive it down the amphitheater steps, and crash through the doors. Then Roberta tore a hole in the side so the magnet could ride in there with them. I didn’t have much say in that. I was too busy dealing with the pain of nanites piecing my crushed lower body back together. They didn’t return any urine to my bladder when they sealed it up, though. Then again, I don’t think there was any left in there by the time they set to work.

After all that, the team realized they couldn’t fit the magnet and me in there, so they did the only sensible thing: they strapped me to the roof in full armor as I healed. “Remember guys, leave the letters ‘ECSU’ around somewhere they can see.”

They didn’t tie me to the roof well enough with that pulley cord, I soon realized. They did donuts in a campus lawn to spell out the abbreviation of a nearby rival college and nearly lost me three times in the process. Still, at least the cover of a college prank would keep things low key for a short time.

I just had to lie back and heal. And I did, up until a couple of people at a red light shouted at the driver of our van.

“Hey man, what the hell is that thing?” One of them asked from the next lane.

Carl must have rolled down the window, because I heard him yell at them, “That guy on top? The hunting season for them just started. I bagged him when he came right up to me and asked too many questions.”

I moaned in pain loud enough for the guy asking to hear. “Ooh, help. My balls. They rolled off into the road a mile back. Help me, please. Go back and find them. They’re the ones that are all bloody and squished.”

The car next to us revved suddenly and took off, not even waiting for a green light first.

If I had paid them to help me, that’s when they would have been sacked. They were not on the ball. I know those jokes were painful, but don’t worry. I only had a pair of them.

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Nemesis 3

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On Friday, I took Carl and Moai out to eat at a restaurant. I planned to reconnect with them both while getting away from the Rejects, whose presence I increasingly resented. Especially their cheeriness. The latent misery reverberating off our waitress tasted better than the sirloin I shoved down my gullet.

“So you want to Venus to come after you, boss?” Carl asked while chowing down on his own chunk of cooked cow.

“Correctdiddly-doo, Carl. This is something I think I have to do. Something that, at the very least, will take my mind off a disturbing trend lately.” I cut off another slice of beef and held it in my mouth, mulling over the taste. Too much pepper, and marinade that hadn’t sank in. Overpriced, and yet another chef mistook spiciness for flavor. Some people just haven’t learned that sometimes subtlety can be more appetizing.

Then again, I’d probably eat teriyaki sauce on everything from cookies to boobs if I could get away with it.

“What kind of trend do you mean?”

“Oh, just that things have been more serious than they need to be lately. I think we could all use a nice period to let off some steam and blow things up.” I tried the garlic potatoes. Delicious. “Mmmm, these potatoes are fucking my face with flavor!”

A couple at a nearby table glanced over. I looked right back at them. “What? It’s all very tasteful. Don’t be so prudish about what you swallow. Especially you,” I said, pointing to the woman. She looked like she just licked a skunk’s backside. Her husband gave me a smile and a thumbs-up that disappeared as soon as his huffy wife turned around.

“Whatcha got in mind, boss?” Carl lowered his voice as he leaned closer to the table. His eyes swiveled around the room, keeping track of anyone coming too close. Moai leaned over the table as well, ignoring his glass of mineral water.

“Alright, so we all know, I’m here, and Venus is here.” I moved the salt and pepper shakers to opposite sides of the table. “I’m the salt, because people who know me realize I’m made up of poisonous and explosive elements.”

Moai and Carl nodded along.

“Ok, so as salt, I need to spread myself around so much that people need some of her to offset the taste of me in their mouth.” I flicked the salt over the table. “Now, of course you can have plenty of salt and see no need for pepper. After all, the Feds are going to get off their asses eventually. So I need to make it clear who I’m a-salting. To do that, I erase any pepper and anything similar to pepper that I find around here.”

“Boss, is this still a metaphor, or are you going to do stuff with real salt and pepper?” Carl asked, trying to shield his plate from my excessive saltiness.

“Don’t be silly, Carl. I have no beef with spices, save for fresh garlic. Let’s drop the metaphor. It’s not enough for me to do my thing around here. There’s always someone who will try to stop me. I need to do it in such a way that targets Venus even though she isn’t here. Nor does have any belongings or real estate here, so it’s not like I can bust her stuff.”

“Maybe you could spy on her. Maybe she has friends here?” Carl suggested.

“Not a bad idea. I’ll see what I can do about invading her privacy, too. But for now, we focus on the classic call-out.” I winked at him.

“What’s that, boss?”

“The classic call-out is a way that villains have often gotten the attention of heroes. While you can pull one off by attacking monuments or museums that have significance to a hero, a common form of it is to attack some place which shares the name of the hero. Some of the crimes appear innocuous or random until someone starts checking for similarities. Venus being a deity’s name, there’s all sorts of places that use it. There’s even a restaurant that goes by that name.”

Carl looked at me, then I saw his eyes light up in understanding. “Aww, boss, I’m not done eating yet.”

“Better get it to go, Carl.” I reached down under the table and whipped out my saxophone, yelling in Spanish, “Saxofón!” I raised it to my mouth and skipped over the rocket key on the instrument. Instead, I hit the button with a plume of flame on it.

My newest toy, a flamethrower built into the saxophone, did its job. By that, I mean it threw fire in a stream that set ablaze a the leftovers on one table and flash fried the ice cream set in front of the occupants for their desert.

I shuffled forward, ignoring the screams around me, and sung to the ceiling. “I’m never gonna dance again; these guilty feet have got no rhythm. Though it’s easy to pretend, I know you’re not a fool.” I cut to the sax part of the song then so I could incinerate fleeing patrons and waiters.

Sure, to everyone else, it sounded like roaring flames, the jingle-jangle of overturned dishes, and cried of anguish. But I heard a mournful sax from a song about a guy cheating and feeling bad about it.

The music was soon accompanied by the sounds of gunshots, then something cracking, and body tumbling to the floor. I turned to find Carl grabbing a gun off the floor next to a dazed host and a broken plate.

I danced over and motioned for Carl to move aside. One he stepped back, I leaned low and gave my would-be assailant’s head a full solo. Then I tossed the sax to Carl at my side. “Here, hold this for me, will ya? I need to use the restroom.”

At least that host couldn’t say I didn’t at least try to put him out. Actually, he really couldn’t say it. Pretty sure his tongue was cooked by that point. Still, it’s the thought that counts. Then again, I fried the brain too.

With the New Venus Restaurant burning down around us, we couldn’t really stick around. Unfortunately, none of us managed to snag a box for our food on the way out, so instead we drove into a delivery boy’s car and stole a half-dozen pizzas to bring back for everyone.

When we walked into the Big Top, there was Larry, watching a big screen TV on the wall from on top of a couch. The formerly-dusty place was spotless.

“Alright, just drop the pizzas wherever…heya Larry, anything exciting happen while we were gone?”

Larry munched on some chips as he watched Moai and Carl set down the stolen pizzas. “Gravity shut off in Russia for some reason. Nobody knows why, but due to a parliamentary loophole involving pigs, they were forced to legalize gay marriage there. Hey, how’d the flamethrower work?” He nodded to my sax.

“Very well, actually. Just had to rework the engines of the rocket part. It was a lot better than trying that Heatflasher again, too.” I checked around. Even the cobwebs were gone.

“Yeah, I been cleaning that some. What’s stuck in there? It’s like something was burnt to it.”

“That’s my arm. Or it was. Luckily the new one is a lot less burnt. It got a bit messy there, and that’s why the arm-mounted Heatflasher is not as practical as I’d like it to be. Speaking of cleaning, did y’all have someone come in? I didn’t think I left that number out for y’all.”

He waved a hand at me dismissively. “We got bored and cleaned the place up.”

“Where are the others, then? The basement? They’d be better, because I saw some rats down there, and we all know rats are ambush predators.”

“No, they went shopping for food and decorations to brighten the place up.”

I called a huddle with Moai and Carl. “See? They’re way too nice for most of this stuff. You’d think all the torture would have hardened them some. It’s almost- wait, let me check.” I turned away to address Larry again, “As far as decorations went, they didn’t happen to go shopping for stripper poles, did they?”

Larry shook his head.

I turned back to my minions. “It’s almost like they’re too nice. They didn’t even go out and start robbing anyone when they were bored.”

“Boss, I never robbed anyone because I was bored. I did it because I was poor,” Carl helpfully suggested.

“You’re right. They just need some tough love. Wait, shit, that’s why I said I’d take them in. We need to corrupt them.”

“Is this going to involve tequila, boss?” Carl wondered.

“Nope. But we should force them to help us. And I think I know how…”

Just then, the rest of the Rejects burst in carrying an assortment of chairs and food.

“Gecko! Carl! Moai! You got a package,” Roberta called out with gusto.

“Well, yeah, had it for awhile.” I raised my right leg and slapped the thigh. “Easy big fella. Oh, did you mean a delivery?”

“Yup! It’s from that Basford guy, too.”

Ethan Basford, the wealthy scion of a family that made a deal with magical beings long ago. They got a lot of magical artifacts and a questionable amount of power. My dealings with Ethan were complicated. Evil twin and dead family members kind of complicated. But he did pay me, so I had no particular reason to kill him.

Roberta shifted the various bags around in her arms, then held out a box, little smaller than a shoebox, wrapped in brown paper.

I took it from her. A note on top read “E. Basford”.

I hoped it wasn’t from Ethan’s dead brother Emilio. I opened the note. It read. “Don’t worry, this is Ethan Basford.” Whew. “Inside this package is a bonus for you: Three drops of pure truth. Get them into a person and they will be compelled to answer a statement as faithfully as possible. They will hold nothing back, not even from themselves. Do not imagine I give you this only out of thanks. It is like you; a doubled-edged sword.”

I tore the paper open and cut through the tape with my laser potato peeler. The inside was padded with plenty of bubble wrap. Ah, bubble wrap. That by itself would have been a bonus. This “liquid truth” of his turned out to be contained within yet another box. Why not? Rather than a third box, there was a small crystal decanter, also taped up.

The three drops of truth took up little volume. And I never realized truth was amber in color.

Still, a magical truth serum right that showed up when I planned to get my hands on someone and make them hate me?

Basford must have taken a liking to me after all.

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Nemesis 2

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Well, we made it.

To steal from a famous champion of the people: finally, Psycho Gecko has come back!…to Empyreal City. In stereotypical fashion, one of the first things I did upon entering the city was step out of the car and breathe deep. Coughing followed. Empyreal City needed a stick of deodorant.

We had stopped by Central Park to allow everyone proper space to stretch their legs. The Rejects ran around, drawing little attention. Empyreal City had long cultivated a reputation as the city that never gave a fuck. In this case, people mostly left them alone. No matter how deformed, no matter the claws, no matter the uncanny valley, it didn’t matter. So long as none of them had brown skin, cops wouldn’t stop them.

Roberta drew some looks. The first time a cop approached her, he soon found Tom standing behind him, rattling and skittering echoing forth from his odd head. The bad thing about people not paying attention to dangerous-looking things is that such recognition evolved as a survival trait. That cop survived, for instance. His underwear didn’t, but he did.

We were soon joined by a welcome face poking out the open window of a tan town car. “Hey boss! Glad to see you made it back! Who are your friends?”

I got a running start and jumped through the window. We both tumbled out the door on the opposite side of the car. I dragged my rescued minion to his feet in my embrace. People did stare at that. I quickly let go and brushed him off. “There you go, just helping you up after your unfortunate tumble there.” I glanced around to make sure people weren’t watching us anymore.

If only I had something to kill everyone in sight on the streets…Ah well.

Carl grinned. “It’s good to see you again, boss.”

“You too, but if anyone asks, that hug fell off the back of a truck.”

“The boss is stealing hugs, now, huh?”

I shrugged. “Hugs, panties, kisses…no offense, but I’m not kissing you. If you’re the sort for panties, though, I can get you some nice ones. Maybe Hello Kitty brand.”

“Aren’t those for kids?”

I gave him a light punch on the chest. “Hello Kitty is only for kids until you get to the panties. You pull down a woman’s pants and see ‘Hello Kitty’ staring you in the face, then it’s more like a street sign. ‘Now entering Pussyvania. Population: You.’ Might as well sell men’s boxers that have a picture of a rooster and say ‘Hi Cock’ on them.”

Moai bounced up next to us. “Hey buddy!” Carl said as he gave Moai a hug as well.

See, this is how villains lose street cred. Contrary to what a bunch of uptight religious assholes think, the only thing public displays of affection hurt is the reputation of murderious maniacs like myself.

Like with the Mafia, for instance. They’ve been involved in some shady shit throughout history. The way they hug and kiss all over each other out in public, you know they aren’t destroying the world anytime soon. The inverse, that people who never get any public nookie are going to crush the bones of everyone beneath their boots, hasn’t ever been true on its own. I just think it’s harder to make a credible threat to blow up a continent when the person you’re extorting can go, “Or what? You’re going to hug me until I give in? Smooch me to death?”

If I get like that, I guess I’ll need to kill even more people. Dammit! I hoped to reason myself out of this big group of companions.

Such companions were lined up on the other side of the town car. They knew Carl, but I’d last introduced them to him before they became active in crime. This time, I had new names to put to the faces.

“Carl, old buddy, I’m going to have to re-introduce you to some new partners in crime.”

So I gave Carl the rundown on the new names used by the Rejects out in the field. Zane the pinhead was now Headgame. He stretched. Shy Mika, with her limbs ending in bone spikes, now went by Bonedancer. Larry chose Meltman, probably because of the melted-looking parts of his appearance. We called Tom Rattler because of the rattling noise his shriveled-looking head makes, probably because of the giant millipede thing in there. Steve looked like a walking x-ray, hence why he’s Ray X. Finally, Roberta’s completely inhuman appearance led me to name her Winsect.

“And who is this? A shapeshifter?” Carl lifted up the puppy the Rejects got all on their own.

“No, that’s a dog. He’s their responsibility.” I nodded to the Rejects. “And in order to defuse a small civil war, his name is Spike Smooshyface.”

“What about that thing Moai’s carrying around half the time?” He brought Spike to his own face and cuddled it. Passer-by whipped out their phones for photos. I jumped behind the car to avoid being associated with cuteness.

Undeterred, Carl walked around to ask, “Hey boss, what are you doing?”

I jumped up. “Nothing, nothing at all. Certainly not plotting to murder any animals that are part of a conspiracy to make me seem cute.”

“Oh, right. So, what about Moai’s statue?” He pointed to where Moai bounced around with his little moving Venus statue balanced on his head.

“Dammit! Everyone’s too friendly around here, running around with friends and pets and all that. Carl,” I pointed to him ”I need a bomb.”

“I think that’s a bad idea the way you’re talkin’, boss.”

“See? People always think the worst of me. I complain about companions and all of a sudden no one wants to give me a bomb. It’s this kind of stigma that makes it difficult to connect with people.” I wiped an imaginary tear from my eye.

“Aw, boss, that’s not what I meant. I was just worried what you’d use it for. I can go help you pick up parts for it later on. I know you weren’t going to use it to blow up your new friends.”

“Aha!” I grabbed his head and shook it. Lightly. Not enough to hurt him. “See? The moment I have lots of people and animals around, you automatically assume I’m not going to blow them up. That’s why they’re hurting my rep. Get me away from these people! Say, don’t you have a base to show me?”

“Alright. Hop in and I’ll drive you, boss. I’m not sure how you’re gonna like it.” We both slid into his car and started off. Then I had him pull a u-turn and double back to the park so I could toss Spike Smooshyface out the window.

The new base turned out to be an interesting choice. A place like Empyreal City, all sorts of quirky buildings ended up abandoned over time as people lost profits and walked away. In my case, the building featured a large clown sign hanging over the front façade. People didn’t so much walk away from this place as run screaming, given this world’s unusual dislike of clown paint. The door read, “Big Top’s Restaurant”.

Part of the building near the front appeared to be some sort of display area. “What’s that for?” I asked.

“They used to have trinkets, displays, even a little freakshow. I thought maybe it’d work with the new guys.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not everyone takes ‘freak’ as a compliment. But, if we open this puppy up as a restaurant, they might like showing off for people.” I crossed my arms as I looked it over.

Carl shuddered. “You really don’t like that dog, do you?”

“I’m not liking all the new people. You were there. It’s hard just to keep up with the names. However, I really meant that if we make this a social place, it’ll be harder for people to go and raid it. Like last time, we can trade in on our status as oddities to cause the heroes no end of trouble. Or, even better, they can do that public stuff up here and I can plot doom from a basement. I won’t even have to deal with all the new people so much.”

“Hey there!”

I spun around and grabbed Carl, preparing to throw him at whoever called me out. Instead, I found a round face smiling out from the window of a car. Too many people were smiling lately.

“Geez, boss, no need to be so uptight. That’s just my ex.” Carl informed me as I set him down.

I raised an eyebrow. “Your ex-wife is here and you want me to calm down?”

“Carl,” said the ex. ”This must be your friend you were buying for. I brought the keys over for you.” She stepped out of the car, bringing with her keys and a folder. She offered her hand. “I’m Pam.”

I grinned and shook her hand. “So you’re the one I’ve heard about. I wasn’t aware y’all were doing this together.”

She giggled. “Oh honey, I’ve been in realty so long, I know all the ins and outs. Now, why don’t I show you in?”

I lagged behind Carl and put my arm around him as she went ahead of us to unlock the place. I pulled him close and whispered. “Carl, I don’t know if you know this, but I know a guy who likes killing people. Won’t even charge you anything. Special rate.”

“No,” he told me, pushing me away. We stood there, looking at each other a minute. Finally, he added, “That would be wrong.”

“Took you that long to come up with a reason and that’s all you got?”

He put his hand up next to his mouth to keep Pam from hearing anything, then said, “I’m getting on her good side this way. She used to say I would only get the kids over her dead body. Now she’s smiling at me.”

“Carl, you’re not giving enough credit to the ‘over her dead body’ part of that statement. I really think you should look into that more.”

“Boss, you just don’t like memorizing people’s names.”

“Here we are, gentlemen!” Pam said, turning back around to us. She showed us in to the new lair.

I walked in past Pam and looked around at the musty old place. Pam joined me at my side. “So, what do you think? Carl said you’d like it, but I think we can back out if it’s not your style.”

I put my arm around her then. “From here I shall conquer Venus. Laugh with me, Pam. Laugh! Mwahahahahahahaha!”

She gave in to the laugh for a moment, then stopped, confused. “Wait, you’re an astronaut?”

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High Crass Criminal 10

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After my enlightening visit with Venus and her two younger pals, I had a new accomplice on my side for when I marched on Emilio Basford. Sure, Venus distrusted me. She hated me. Some might even say she didn’t like me. But as much as Venus hated having anything to do with me, she needed to keep an eye on me while we rushed to get everything into place for saving the world.

That led to an interesting situation in the meanwhile. See, I didn’t trust her enough to stay at that fancy Master Academy with her and all her super-powered buddies. She needed me to lead her to Emilio Basford, but she might have decided to arrest me and hunt for him on her own. She didn’t find the alternative, staying at my place, to be any better. We had quite the conundrum on our hands.

In the end, the young’un Ball Boy presented us with a solution. He wouldn’t let go of the possibility of Venus and I being more than just mortal enemies. Still, his proposal that Venus and I “get a room” proved useful. We could keep an eye on each other while both being at risk.

We sprung for a hotel stay. Moai and the Rejects were in some of the rooms on one floor. Master Academy capes slept in other rooms on the floor.

For his quick thinking, Venus assigned Ball Boy to watch the outside from a car parked on the street. All night long.

I left my suit with Moai as part of the deal. I also submitted to a full search before entering the room. I requested a cavity search, but they felt that was unnecessary. They wouldn’t budge on that one, no matter how much I insisted I might have something hidden up there.

I didn’t know what to expect in that room with its two beds. A stern talking to. A search for what feelings might have led me to be a villain. Excessive flatulence. Instead, I barely got in there when Venus jabbed me in the neck with a needle. I reached for a needle of my own in my pants pocket, but she plucked the nanite syringe out of my hand as soon as I got it out.

“Dirty pool, old chap…” I said, stumbling toward a bed.

“I’ll be sleeping across the hall, I think. Goodnight Gecko,” she told me before I collapsed into sweet oblivion

I awoke to a civilian-dressed Venus yanking back the window blinds, bombarding me with bright sunlight. I tried to cover my eyes and found my left arm handcuffed to the bedpost. She turned to say, “Better get ready. We should start the day bright and early.”

“Do you say that to all men you handcuff to the bed?” I asked. My mouth was dry, like it had been subject to an orgy of cotton swabs.

Venus plucked a few strands of brown hair out of her face and tossed one of my own shoes at my crotch. “A shoe? Who throws a…wait a second. Did you undress m- awww.” I threw back the covers as I asked the question, only to find myself still dressed but for my shoes. Damn, that could have made for some interesting daydreams.

“You’d better get out of those soon or you’ll miss breakfast,” she told me before sauntering out of the room. Like that would happen. Not in any room with a pen in it.

I caught up with Venus, Tupsy-Turvy, that patriotic hero, Steve, and Larry in the elevator. Only between the room and the elevator, something happened to my clothes. The zipper on my pants was torn and my shirt looked like someone tried to tear it off me from the front. I’d even clawed at my chest for authenticity. So when I came rushing into that elevator, humming a jaunty tune to myself, and smiling at Venus, the others got an idea about what went on.

“Good morning, isn’t it, everyone?” I turned, smiled, and waved at the other occupants. The guy in the blue tights, a blue cape, red gloves, and white stars on his chest and head was Bright Star. He scowled beneath his beak-shaped visor. Larry gave me a thumbs-up. I think Steve smiled, but his lips are invisible. Topsy-Turvy’s reaction was best. I could have driven a truck into her mouth as far as it was open. Her eyes had a sort of amazed and amused gleam to them, too.

“Bastard,” Venus said out of the corner of her mouth, looking straight ahead.

“Amateur anesthesiologist,” I answered back. Hey, she could have killed me with that much sedative. Fostering the assumption that we were more than just enemies was the least I could do as far as revenge.

I included all that for you readers because it served a vital strategic purpose. It was funny. And it explained why Venus felt confident she wouldn’t be walking into a trap.

Around noon that same day, I couldn’t say I felt the same way. See, I had known the address of the man who hired me. After all, he couldn’t expect me to visit him at the site of the same fundraiser where we met. I just didn’t expect to see some old Victorian mansion with overgrown shrubs. The gate was some old iron affair with gargoyles on the pillars to either side. More gargoyles lined the walkway after, leading to a heavy door and a demonic door knocker.

Normally, I wouldn’t put much stock in a place looking haunted, but normally I don’t deal with a family meant to cause some form of apocalypse.

“A hundred bucks says there are suits of armor in one of the hallways,” I said to the group with me. The Rejects, Moai, and Ethan Basford joined me in this visit. A luchador outfit disguised Ethan. He filled out the bright green and blue of the singlet pretty well, and I couldn’t see any part of his face except his mouth. The mask featured little fake horns down the back of it and googly eyes above the one-way see-through patches that let him look out.

“Don’t take that bet,” said Ethan.

“What’s your sense of the place, Gecko?” asked Venus in my ear. I had given her a channel to talk to me on while I checked on this place. Unlike Venus and the hotel room, I knew I’d be fucked if I went in this place without protection.

“I smell offal,” I told her.

“That’s probably because you rushed out without showering this morning,” she responded. Then I heard the faint snickering of the rest of her team from that end.

“You know, Venus, I thought you preferred a bit of discretion. I mean, normally I know what you want, but…”

“Go to hell!”

I tried to ignore the yelling in my ear and scanned the door on our approach. To my regular sight, it was just a big, heavy door. Check an alternate vision mode, and it had unseen arcane designs in bodily fluids. “I’ll get back to you on that. Might wind up there before the day’s over.”

A butler answered my “shave and a haircut” knock. He looked as old and musty as the house itself, and silently led us to a trophy room of sorts. He left us there to admire the many dead animals gracing the walls and floor. There were so many stuffed heads on the wall, it looked like a crossover between The Lion King and the French Revolution.

“Mr. Gecko! You’ve worked out incredibly. How do you feel about world domination?” Emilio Basford’s voice boomed out as he stepped into the room, all smiles. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them, looking over my group. Virginia, the wife, followed after. I wondered if she knew she was banging her brother-in-law or not.

The Basford bastard proffered his hand and I shook it.

“Easy there, big fella. It’s just a little murder in your family. And, in retrospect, world domination’s not so bad. Just be careful picking a safe word.”

“This guy, huh?” Emilio laughed. He looked between his wife and I.

“Who is she?” asked Ethan, lowering his voice and speaking gruffly. Odd question, though. You’d think he’d recognize his own wife.

“This is my wife, Virginia, Mr…?”

I answered for Ethan. “This fine fellow is Luchazilla, master of the Kaiju crusher.” My explanation deflected Emilio’s questions, but Virginia narrowed her eyes as she looked at him.

“He brought one over. You bastard, you killed her and brought one over!” Ethan jumped on Emilio and throttled his brother.

Virginia laughed, but did nothing to help her husband, whichever man that was. “Hold up!” I called. I pulled Ethan off Emilio. “You can’t just kill this guy…that’s what I’m here for.”

“What?” asked Ethan. I brushed him off, then pushed him back into the Rejects.

As I stepped toward Emilio, who scrabbled back along a bearskin rug, I looked to Virginia. She just stood there, doing nothing to hinder me. I pulled Emilio to his feet. “Hey there, Emilio.”

“H-hey Gecko. Thanks for saving me. You know I have your money in the other room, right?”

I tilted my head to the side, keeping an eye on Virginia. I didn’t trust her. “Money? No, why would I be interested in money? I hear you have something bigger on the table. I hear there’s something about demons and destroying civilization. You know, you and yours ruling afterward. I got it about right?”

He nodded rapidly. “Yes! You want in? I’ll deal honestly with you this time. No small stuff. Power. You and I, we can rule this world.”

I nodded. “If I did, what then?”

Venus spoke up over her channel. “We’re moving in. You better not turn on us, Gecko.”

Emilio pointed to Ethan. “Just kill him like the others in the family. I found a way to bring over the things we made a deal with. They just need a human body.”

“Why are you doing this, Emilio? Don’t you care about your own family? What makes you think that everything will be better when it’s ashes and blood?!” Ethan lectured his twin from behind Moai.

Emilio gulped. I lifted him up high enough so he could respond over me. “If I had to choose between taking over myself or letting someone like this maniac rule, I’d rather be the one in control. You act like we have a choice, but the world is going to hell no matter what we do. The seas rise and boil, the plants die, mankind consumes itself.”

“Emilio, we were born better than that! We don’t have to give in to that temptation.”

“No we weren’t, Ethan. You didn’t make things worse, but you never made anything better.”

Virginia finally lost her patience and snapped her fingers. Emilio disappeared from my grip and appeared with his throat in her hand. She glared at him, eyes glowing with pale light. “You are being tricked. We must act, not talk.” She laughed and it echoed throughout the room. More quietly, she said, “Bring me their hearts.”

Around us, animal heads came to life. Wolves and hyenas growled. A lion roared over the mantle. The rug growled as well and snapped at Ethan’s feet. I heard clanking out in the hallway as suits of armor became mobile. Then I heard yelling, banging, and other sounds of fighting.

I left a hologram in my place and rushed toward them both. When I reappeared, I swept Emilio off to the side with a mighty blow that knocked him onto the grand horns of a snorting deer head on the wall. I followed it up by planting my laser potato peeler’s blade in the carotid artery of Virginia. She pulled it out like nothing and backhanded me, knocking me against a wall. A plaque with a taxidermied crab fell onto my lap. The reanimated crab pinched at me.

Virginia looked to Emilio, but there wasn’t much she could do. Not with an antler speared right through the man from back to front. The buxom blonde cried out in rage. She whirled around toward the rejects and swept her hand to the side, tossing Moai to the side by me. A miniature Venus De Milo sculpture fell onto his head and began writhing on him.

Writhing, I say to you. Writhing!

Virginia approached Ethan, her body changing. She grew taller, thicker. Amazonian, you might say. Her face and body looked every bit as carved as the little statue giving Moai a lap dance, with the effect enhanced somewhat by her hair going white and her skin going grey. What looked like a horn burst from her forehead and swept back over her head, then down low to form in to a split-ended tail. “You must serve me. Bring more of my family into yours. Then I will be yours as I was your brother’s.”

Showing great resolve, especially in light of the woman’s charm utterly disappearing, Ethan thrust his chin up and told her, “Never, you harridan. You corrupted my brother, but there’s nothing I want from you.”

I liked the little term of endearment he called her. Harridan.

Harridan continued to change as she approached Ethan. Headgame pulled him back to safety in arms that became thinner as they stretched. A hiss issued from Rattler’s head. Ray X lit up like a plasma globe. Before any of them got the chance to do anything, Moai and I leapt into action.

He charged at Harridan. I jumped in front of him, then hopped up and pushed off him with the aid of my jump enhancers. They hurtled me into Harridan, where I extended the Nasty Surprise mini chainsaw under my left forearm. Her head, severed from the rest of her, flopped to the ground. I rolled onto my feet next to it, then ducked as Moai collided with her and sent her body over my head. She crashed through the wall, into the hallway, and through another wall.

“It won’t be that easy,” Ethan said. From the sound of it, he was right. Someone let out a shriek so loud and intense that, even through my helmet, I thought the sound was in my head.

As it ended, I called up Venus, “Yo, Venus, you guys see her? The headless woman thingy, she’s one of those big Cthulhu people who wants to destroy stuff.”

“She’s not headless anymore. Whoa, she’s really ugly. And she’s growing. If you still want to walk out of town without interference from me, you’d better come give us a hand.”

I shut her off and purged the connection between us. Turning to Ethan, I asked, “Can she bring any more of her folks into this dimension?”

He shook his head. “That’s what we’re for. Even if she could, the ritual requires a dead body to inhabit temporarily.”

I pointed at Meltman. “Melty, go cremate Emilio.” He nodded and stepped toward the corpse, sucking in air to expel as flames.

Turning back to Ethan, I said, “You might want to lay low for a bit. The heroes can stop her, I’m sure, but they’re going to be really pissed and I think this is going to get destructive. They said she was getting bigger.”

As if to punctuate the statement, we heard an explosion from elsewhere in the manor. Everyone but Moai and I ducked. Looking up at me, Ethan asked, “You’re not going to stick around for your money?”

“Hell no. There’s plenty of ways you can pay me without me being here. Besides, you really think I’m going to give Venus a chance to turn on me again as soon as the threat’s over and the place is surrounded by cops?”

I pulled out a rubber chicken, swung it around like a nunchuk, then popped the head off it. I tossed it into the mouth of a fox head on the wall, which tried to chew on it. It blew the head and wall wide open.

Roberta scrambled over to the hole, reconning. “It looks like the billiard room.”

“Gods, man, that way’s closer to the exterior.” Ethan pointed to the side of the room where Meltman stood over Emilio’s ashes and a rapidly-growing fire.

I patted Ethan on the shoulder, “Fear not, then. We’ll be out of your hair in a minute. Well, you get the expression.”

With that, we extricated ourselves from the situation. I was right, the heroes could handle it. Granted, they wound up fighting a fifty foot woman with a head that resembled a horse’s head with tentacles, but I knew they were up to the task. As for me, I was up to evading the task force. No way would I allow Venus to take advantage of me after a fight wore me down.

Plus, there was another reason…

“We’re not heroes.” I told the Rejects again as we sped out of California in my car. We divided up between the car, trailer, and van, but I spoke to them all at the same time. “Heroes protect society. I saved the world the moment I killed Emilio Basford, so what are the heroes fighting for? Harridan’s already lost and they’re just rubbing it in some more. I mean, maybe I’d go to those lengths to humiliate someone, too, but I don’t set a very high standard for heroic behavior, now do I? By the way, kudos to whoever got this bobble head.”

Zane turned to me from the passenger seat. “Um, Gecko, that’s the little statue from the house.”

“What?”

The Venus De Milo bobble head on the dash was indeed the same undulating artwork from Basford Manor. “Dammit, Moai, we don’t need anymore pets!”

From the back seat, the puppy Spike Smooshyface barked his enthusiastic agreement.

Ok, maybe I could have let Harridan destroy a little bit of the world. Just enough to get rid of long car trips with puppies that lack bladder control. Urine? I didn’t know you were out!

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High Crass Criminal 8

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It was Tuesday.

There I was humming along to Quiet Riot’s cover of “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”, making my approach toward the Los Angeles County Jail: the current residence of the last Basford on my list. I’d been skipping around anyway, so why not go for the end of the list? It turned out that last fellow was awaiting trial for a variety of charges, including light treason. I didn’t even know such a charge existed. That’s like getting a DUI for riding a drunk horse.

It was composed of a couple of larger buildings with a smaller center for administration. The gang and I, minus Moai and Rattler, flew far overhead on what was supposed to be a skydiving trip. I brought my very unusual group along for a day of fun, relaxation, and jailbreaking. So far, I was the only one having anything to do with the fun and relaxation.

The others were nervous. Part of that was because of the plane flight, part was from the intention to break into jail, and another part of it was because I forgot the parachutes on the ground. Which was fine with me. I had perfect confidence in the mini rockets I’d attached to everyone’s footwear of choice.

It seemed dangerous, but it was really a much safer choice than letting them parachute. After all, you’re only supposed to do a tandem jump your first time and there weren’t enough of the crew left alive to do the jump with us. Or even to fly the plane.

I did that on purpose, too. I needed these guys to help me out and search the other building. Now that I knew magic compelled Venus to somehow show up and interrupt my criminal acts, I needed to search two very large buildings in a short amount of time. I couldn’t just let my minions chicken out of the jump at the last minute. They could either jump and trust in their rocket boots, or they could stay and crash.

Still, for some reason that decision took them way too long to make.

Roberta tapped me on the shoulder, her claw thumping off my armor. “Excuse me, but what if we get turned upside down and can’t get our feet underneath us?” She waved one leg, showing off the boot I’d fixed a rocket to and torn the toes off of so she could claw things.

“Then you splat into the earth, dying a horrible, lonely death. Your corpse will fester and decompositional gasses will erupt from your rectum. You will smell bad. But that’s a risk I’m willing for you to take.”

“That…doesn’t…sound… goo-“

“Too late, everyone out of the bus!” I grabbed her arm and pushed her out. I turned toward the others in my crew, who stood around gaping like someone just kicked their friend out a plane. What an overreaction. I merely pushed her out the plane. Huge difference.

The others ran as I tried to round them up. More than that, they scattered. So I did what anyone would do in that situation. I charged up the energy sheath around my right hand and punched a hole in the belly of the plane. Then I bowed and jumped out after Roberta. My 360 display showed all four of the laggards took to the open skies rather than sit around on a plane crashing even faster.

Unfortunately, Roberta had a head start on everybody in both jumping and losing her mind. She flailed her legs madly about the air.

I needed to catch up to her, but a small obstacle stood in my way. Physics. The Law of Gravity, I think. One of the few laws I have found difficult to break. I activated my rocket boots early and hurtled through the air, using short bursts to retain fuel while slowly catching up to Roberta. Finally, I grasped her claw and gave her a thumbs up. That calmed her down.

I held her hand until it was time to fire off her rockets. By then, she was oriented the right way for touchdown. I fired off her and my rockets. Hers were staggered to slow her down and drop her safely onto the roof of one of the jail’s towers. Mine kept me in the air long enough to see the others to safety while I flew over to my tower.

Well, I almost made it to my tower. Instead, mine ran out of juice, smashing me against the wall and, eventually, the asphalt exercise yard. Little did you know before today that when someone breaks their rear wide open due to a flight miscalculation, it’s called an asphalt. Doesn’t matter if you’re improvising a jailbreak; the earth’s mass just doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. What a masshole.

The others tore half their cell block tower apart by the time I turned my head around and everything mended. Alarms shrieked across the exercise yard. I checked over my suit’s systems as well. One of the good things about my armor is how hard it is to damage its capabilities. Another is that I get to run around with my balls free and clear while I commit crimes.

I charged up my arms with every intention of busting through the wall. They built ‘em solid, but very few things were ever made out of which I couldn’t tear a new one. Then I saw the door from the yard to the tower right next to me and all the grit and determination went out the door. I knocked the door off its hinges, though.

I heard surprisingly little noise aside from the alarms. Then again, the alarms were loud enough to make Hellen Keller sign “Shut the fuck up already!”

I stalked down the corridor, hoping to thin humanity’s near-infinite supply of dumbasses. How would I know they were dumbasses? For starters, they’d try to stop me. For fools like myself, that method has provided all the proof I’d ever need. Fool proof, you might call it.

The guards here were not as foolish as I had hoped. They had locked down the interior of the jail and kept their distance from me. It also meant they abandoned the prisoners to my attentions, whatever those may be.

“How we doin’ over there?” I radioed over to the other team.

Ray X answered me. “We met resistance initially. They’re no longer resisting. Now they have the jail on lockdown. We’re calling for Emilio Basford every time we reach living quarters. There’s been no luck, but a lot of people want to come along with us. That’s not surprising.”

“Just make sure whoever takes you up on being Emilio matches the description they gave us. A picture would have been easier, but you know these mages. Everything’s got to be a mystery, oooo, aaaah. Anyway, I’m in on this side now, so maybe I’ll catch him over here.”

“Right. We’ll see how it goes. Ray X out.”

“You know, Ray X, if you think about it, this is kinda fitting. A guy with a minority skin tone in a prison, having renamed himself and taken the last name X. You might see if your friends in the Nation of Islam can help you out. Pretend to be related to that Malcolm X guy.”

“Actually, Gecko, I’m of Asian ancestry. There’s so much messed up about what you just suggested that I can’t figure out if it offended me more about race or religion.”

“Maybe it’s because I hate everyone or because I don’t respect anyone, but I wasn’t thinking about it that way at all.”

I smiled as I made my way through a cafeteria area, scanning the prisoners. My HUD immediately dismissed most of them. The Basfords were of varying levels of intelligence and career ambition, but they were also as pasty as an Olympic bobsled team, excepting the Jamaicans.

I held out hope though. I believe in Jamaica.

“Is there an Emilio Basford in here? Rich, white collar type. Anyone know Emilio?”

It was a jail, though, not a prison. Few people took any real advantage of the chaos, and nobody gave up Emilio Basford’s whereabouts. My search proved fruitless until I got to the cell blocks. Then I found some fruit.

That’s unfair to say, actually. Steve, or Ray X as he renamed himself, would have a field day with my using that statement to describe walking in on a large, hairy fellow about to cornhole Emilio. I could tell it was the right cell by how familiar Emilio looked.

“Ahem,” I said as I peeked in their little dorm room. Emilio was bent over the bottom of a bunk bed, pants around his ankles. The other guy still hadn’t gotten his pants down, fortunately. “Is this a private function, or can anybody join in?”

“The hell are you?” asked the big guy with facial hair that would have made an American Civil War general proud. Probably a Confederate general, since we were in Los Angeles. Those Southern secessionists loved stars and bars.

“I’m here for that rat Basford right there.” I pointed to the man’s unwilling cellmate.

“Oh thank the gods you’re here,” the Basford said as he ran over and gave me a hug. “He was just about to do something horrible to me. I’ll give you anything: money, fame, the love of a beautiful woman.”

“Don’t offer me love with your pants down, buddy.” I told him.

The big guy stepped close, balling up his fists. “Now listen here-!”

He didn’t say much once I reached in and got rid of that pesky tongue of his. Mumbled a hell of a lot, though. I couldn’t make it out, but I believe he said a lot of cuss words.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Emilio as he hugged onto me. I pushed him away. Then I noticed something about his face and features. He looked a lot like my employer. Except he didn’t have hair or a beard. He didn’t have just the same vague family resemblance you always see. They looked like they were close in age.

“You know, you look a lot like the guy who hired me…”

“Emilio!” he declared, flaring in anger.

“That’s your name.” I projected a similar beard and hair onto Emilio. “Huh, spitting image.”

Emilio swiped at the images on his head. “No, Emilio is my brother’s name. My twin brother. That bastard swapped places with me. They locked me up thinking I was him. I don’t know why he sent you after me, but you can’t give me to him.”

I cleared the projection away and grabbed him by the arm. He hopped alongside me, pants still at his ankles. I called up the others. “I found him. Break off and rendezvous at the van with Moai and Rattler. We’ll be one heavy.”

“You have to let me go! I have money. I’m a big man in this world. I have connections with the vampires in Santa Monica!” He pleaded and pleaded until I backhanded him a couple of times.

“Relax,” I told the guy I just slapped. “I’m not handing you over to him. It’s probably the last thing I would do. Instead, you’re coming with me. Now either kick those pants off or pull them up. You’re slowing me down.”

Ethan Basford pulled up his pants. After a few seconds, I remembered that was his name. I had to review the conversation from when I met the honcho who hired me. This guy’s story seemed plausible, unless he had scrying abilities powered by anal rape. I hadn’t entirely discounted that.

Basford chose to pull his pants up. To each his own. “I knew he’d make a move. He sent you to kill me, didn’t he?”

I didn’t answer. I wanted to see where he went with this. Even if he turned out to be lying to me about everything, including being Ethan Basford, he probably had more answers than any other family member I could drag out of this.

“He said he was close to something. He taunted me with it when he replaced me.”

“The power?” I suggested.

“He wants it all to himself, but members of the Trust can’t kill each other. We can only act through intermediaries.”

“The Trust?” I tugged him along. Over the comms, I heard sounds of struggle.

“That’s what we were called at first. We are part of a line of practitioners stretching back 200 years, when the cabal first made their deal here. The lore says they were demons, but some of it has been exaggerated over time. We were gifted with greater magical ability and artifacts in order to help facilitate their arrival on our planet. The Trust would be spared. Then we would be left to rule what was left of everything.”

He slowed up while reminiscing, so I just tossed him over my shoulder. “Keep talking. It’s about time I got some answers about this whole mess. Like, what, all the others got wiped out?”

I caught him shaking his head in my display. “No. We’re like European royalty. The Trust intermarried to make sure the power wouldn’t spread too far beyond us, at least at first.”

“200 years…what, y’all couldn’t read the instructions to open the door?” I kicked out another door to the outside, ending up by the track out in the exercise yard again.

“It’s complicated. Most of us never wanted to destroy the world. We live the good life.”

I leapt. Advanced artificial musculature in my suit carried me to my destination in bounds beyond baseline humans. “Yo, guys, I’ve been hearing fighting. What’s going down?”

“Heroes.” It was Headgame, who I used to call Microencephalic Man. “This woman kicked Steve’s ass!” I heard a smacking sound. “Ow, I’m sorry. She kicked Ray X’s ass!” Another smacking sound, louder this time.

Then Meltman spoke up. “We got away, but they’re heading through the building into the other tower. Are you out?”

“I’m as free as a bird now, everyone. They just let you go?” I flapped my arms, and a screaming Ethan, as I fell to the ground. The pseudo muscles took some of the strain as weight reasserted itself, but my bones handled most of it.

“They said you were more important. Hey, did you kill the guy?”

Ethan squirmed at that.

“Nope, I got him here as a source of information. Get this, he’s the twin brother of the guy who hired us. Not only that, he says the other guy’s Emilio. Emilio swapped places with him to live his brother’s life while Ethan went to jail.”

Bonedancer added her two cents. “What about your contract? Isn’t that wrong for you to kill the guy who hired you?”

“Even if contracts and promises were sacred to me, what’s so wrong about killing Emilio Basford when that’s who I was hired to kill?”

And if the guy I carried out of jail to freedom turns out to be lying to me, what then? If I don’t like the story told to me about his attempts to cause an apocalypse, then he might just be Emilio Basford anyway.

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