Tag Archives: The Titan

Hare-Brained 6

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I feel like I’ve finally found an occupation that fits my contempt for human life and the whims of the little people’s lives. But seeing as I’m not a god (don’t tell anyone I’m not, dear reader), I’ll settle on enjoying being a sovereign instead. Getting the courts figured out is a difficult thing, but I think I killed enough people to make it work. I just kinda, sorta, maybe had to make an executive decision to take back all power related to the courts. Had to rearrange some things, make a few more judges, that sort of thing. I’m trying to give people a fair shot in a post-authoritarian society, but the only people with experience are the people who used to work for the last authoritarian regime.

It helps that I’ve been unusually focused lately. I dunno, it’s like I’m getting into a new swing after my imprisonment. Fixing things that need fixing, reprimanding Directors, and working on some special projects. I think the shield generator project is going to work out, but I’m also wondering about a better system of high speed transit to and from the island. A mag lev bridge is too unwieldy a public works project right now, but I’m considering gauss transportation.

I was talking it over with Max the other day. Load passengers up in an appropriate container and use electromagnetic forces to hurl the container at high speed across the ocean. I was trying to work out the appropriate velocities over some more beers Max brought over and just kinda lost interest. Seemed a bit farfetched and dangerous. I put it aside to figure out some new laws I was rubber stamping. And writing. If the Directory’s going to screw up so much, I’ll just have to take over all that. For fuck’s sake, one of these guys made a list of prohibited names of men divorced women are allowed to date all because of his marriage going south. I’m not going have my Security guys waste time arresting women for screwing every Tom, Dick, or Xue who comes along after they divorce.

But, hey, I made it up to them by sending the Directors home for a holiday. They’ll be fine. Makes it easier for me to handle peace treaties and all that, too. I find myself sympathizing with Simon Bolivar’s advocacy of a military dictatorship to walk a people toward democracy because they had no experience with self-rule.

It seems as though the Hares might be working at the problem from the other end. A militarized hierarchy that handles most of the important stuff, but has a problem with volunteers and possibly resources because everybody’s so independent. The aliens do their thing, the various pantheons and other groups do theirs. It’s entirely possible the regular ones on the ground don’t even know about the power collars. Dame didn’t, before all this. If I have to go public in some way, that might help me splinter them. But if it that was such simple leverage, why didn’t anyone in the group try it already?

It bugs me. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve got a trump card hidden to deal with that.

In the hopes of finding that out, I managed to get a bit of time to talk with Titan. It wasn’t easy, though. I ended up dropping in with a Dudebot where Titan was busy clearing some mines away. It was a stretch of land in one of the Stans where someone had decided they didn’t want some tribe or another moving up into their country and dropped a bunch of mines that have also been taking off the legs and destroying the vehicles of pretty much everyone moving through. Hold a gun to my head and I still wouldn’t tell you I cared which Stan it was. The one that really likes that rapper Eminem, maybe? Anyway, Titan was there stomping through, trying to cause as many vibrations and step on as many mines as possible.

While moved from the south, I approached from the north to find a bunch of guys in sandy camo sitting around on trucks. “Let him, “ one was saying to another who checked out the scene through binoculars. “We’ll set more tonight. He won’t be back for months.”

“Not worried about saying that where he might hear?” I asked via the Dudebot. They all turned to point their rifles at the remote-controlled robotic copy of my armor.

“We’re an authorized military checkpoint. We’re allowed to be here,” said whoever I took to be the ranking officer of the dozen men all aiming at me.

Another Dudebot seemingly de-cloaked nearby. The group swung their rifles around, then back to the first one. “Mmm, but if you were publicly using mines, you wouldn’t be letting them destroy those, would you?”

The leader raised his voice. “Somebody has to protect our people, even if the worms who call themselves our leaders will not! Identify yourself and step back!”

For Titan’s sake, I made sure to record on my end. “I’m Psycho Gecko.”

Disappointingly, the leader signaled “Retreat!” They all hopped in their trucks and began speeding off, kicking up dust. I could have gone after them, but I was having a pretty chill day. Sittin’ around in my granny panties, breaking open another of these six packs Max brought me, farting whenever I felt like it.

The soldiers weren’t too far off when I caught sight of Titan on approach. The guy’s wings shouldn’t lift him, but I guess that’s the benefit of being insanely strong. On the other hand, he’s going to have a hell of a time trying to get a colonoscopy done.

He landed near me, folding his wings up and doublechecking the discs he held onto. “Psychopomp. This is a surprise. You didn’t kill them?” he nodded toward the trucks trying their hardest to blow out their engines escaping.

“I dunno, felt like letting them go for some reason. Of course, I only announced myself so no one could connect you to their deaths when I sent in video. I really oughta go kill them, though. Otherwise, they’re going to drop more mines as soon as you’re gone.” I pointed a thumb back toward the areas where Titan had been having a blast.

He stared after the retreating soldiers, the sun gleaming on the sweaty blue and orange skin of his exposed arms. “Thanks for the consideration. I’m sure it’ll be handled.” He turned and checked back to where they’d been stopped, then looked to me. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“Just a chat. Some questions I wanted to ask you,” I told him.

He nodded. “I got a minute if these don’t blow first.” He hefted the discs he had stacked up.

“Mines?” I asked.

“Duds,” he answered. “Or probably duds. You never know with mines. They sit out in the wild and degrade. You could walk on an old mine with nothing happening, then something slots in just right and blammo.”

Or some are just designed to allow two or three activations before going off, but he doesn’t need to hear about Riccan products, especially ones that count as war crimes moreso than regular minefields. “Yeah, I know how that works. I really don’t mean to take up much of your time, so this can wait until you’re finished.”

He shook his head. “Since you’ve been spotted here, that means I’m confronting a potential threat to my operations. Looks bad to let you sit around watching.”

The Dudebot shrugged on my command. “Ok, fine. Titan, considering your name and powers that seem to live up to it, I need to ask how you came across those powers.”

“Name and… ? Is this because the Hares think they’re gods? They went after my people too. If I was working for them, they wouldn’t have needed a sleeper agent. Those storage depots wouldn’t have had mysterious accidents.” He glared down at me. It was probably hard to stare down a robot with three camera “eyes” arranged in a triangle, but he gave it a go. “It’s possible the people who gave me powers were related to the Hares, but I don’t know.”

I waited for a moment, letting the Dudebot rock on its heels until Titan continued: “I’m not telling you my origin story. You wouldn’t be able to verify anything and if I were a Hare, I’d just be lying to you. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

He had a point there, so I figured I’d move on to Plan B. “Just curious what our endgame is. Figured we’d all have a talk on it. I know you wanted some revenge against them, but I somehow doubt you want to kill them all like I might be inclined to do.”

“I want the disease done away with completely,” he said. “They created an unstoppable disease. It’s already hurt a lot of people. We could be facing a global pandemic if it mutates. I want to hurt them for using my portal network, except then I have to call it restitution.”

“So revenge is a part of it, good. Gotta be honest, I’m not sure if talking with them is going to work out, and it’s not like we can just hand them all over to governments who don’t even know they exist. There’s not really a way to contain any of them.”

“What about the Academy?” Titan asked. He grabbed one of the mines separately and began messing around with it. It was a delicate job that he somehow managed despite the large fingers.

“I broke out of there and I didn’t even have the ability to turn any doorway into a portal to another place. I’ve already been trying to get people to notice them, but I think we have to force them to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, but Venus and I are talking a space prison,” Titan said.

I hopped up and down, clapping. “That sounds awesome! On every level except practical, that’s cool shit. Let me know if you figure anything out and I’m just going to keep on having my guys wreck their shit until they set up a time and place for the meeting.”

“Let us know, and feel free to send along more tips like the last one,” he said, waving to me as I jumped away with the Dudebot. I left the bot hidden a few countries away, in Egypt. The tomb’s already been looted, but they do not want to open that particular stone box and risk the Dudebot’s curse.

Also neat, turns out I didn’t have to do anything about those guys. I kept an eye on the news for that region out of curiosity, and it turns out the minefield wasn’t completely cleared away. An army unit was moving along that highway for some reason when it was caught by mines in an area that suggests the field extends further than government officials previously indicated. Titan apologized and vowed to keep someone around there clearing it all up until they can be absolutely sure.

And then the news came down. Hu called me up with news from some negotiations with the Privateers, those former UN counter-insurgency guys who set up a base off Africa, and they believe they’ve narrowed it down to a city in the Iberian Peninsula. That’s Spain, or Portugal, but nobody’s cared about Portugal since the 1700s.

I almost ran after it myself until Max brought me this mixed drink with a little umbrella in it and I got distracted for awhile. By the time I got back around to thinking of it, I guess I’d sent orders for a team of elite operatives to go in, figure out where all this was coming from, and blow it up with an Earth-shattering kaboom. Hu had a copy of the signed orders in case I doubted them.

Which is odd, because I don’t really sign orders. As many a dictator has done throughout history, I prefer not to leave a record definitively proving my connection to anything. So I think maybe it’s ok for me to sit this one out, seeing as I need to have a chat with my Intel liaison and my friend about how my diet appears to be affecting my job performance.

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Hare-Brained 3

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Greetings again, dear readers. I come bearing news and fingering the bunghole, but that could be too much information for y’all. Maybe a little working the taint, I dunno. Regardless of what I do in the privacy of my own kitchen, it gets results. And so does Intel.

Hu got a hold of me. They traced back the shipment of collars. It’s a good new lead, and one Dame didn’t know about. This suggests Max may have been correct in criticizing me for not thinking and going a bit, shall we say, wonky there. But Hu trusts my judgment still. As an underling, he has no choice but to trust me or risk that judgment. He brought me the whole story one day while I was sitting in the Directory building, checking over some judicial appeals and other important documents they thought I should look at. Looks like the Vatican’s extradition request for that priest isn’t getting approved!

“We traced the collars to a ship called the Rangoon. In deference to your desire to better acclimate to current events and focus on your family, I took the liberty of authorizing the interception of the Rangoon.” Hu said. The captain proved more than generous with information once he learned we had no desire to uphold or be held to maritime law, and access to shitloads of valuables. Literal shitloads, including the finest in ancient golden chamber pots. Caught between the carrot and where we might stick it, the captain pointed us to an outpost he called the Flying Dutchman.

This Dutchman, unlike the mythological ship or its Disney version, turned out to be a semi-submersible oil platform off the coast of Mauritania. Hu spoke about it like he knew, but I’d never heard of it. “In fairness to your Imperial majesty,” Hu told me when I murmured something to that effect, “The best kept secret is that in the news of any African country other than South Africa.”

“So who runs the Dutchman?” I asked.

“That would be Colonel Duray, formerly attached to the United Nations Taskforce On International Stability. They were originally meant to travel around the world and bolster governments threatened by socialist revolutions during the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR, the task force was downgraded and repurposed to combat terrorism. It saw a resurgence following the United States’s last presidential election, when they began to shirk their UN and NATO duties. Last year, the United States attempted to completely defund and disband the task force after it was ordered to intervene in the U.S.A. Duray took the unit AWOL instead. Since then, they’ve functioned as a mercenary force called the Privateers. They stole from the United States and other nations with the justification of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who escalate conflicts, but have seen action as pirates.”

With that information to go off of, I knew where to search. This isn’t the first time my decision to stay in America upon coming to this world left me ignorant of world events. “Quite a story. If they were any closer, they could be frequent customers or enemies. We need to find out if they’re related to the Hares though. I wonder if the Psycho Flyers have the range for this…” I stood up, tossing papers aside.

Hu caught a bundle and handed them back to me. “Surely every action we take does not require you to attend to it personally. You are the will of our nation. Decide what must be done and we shall do it for you in your stead.”

I coaxed him in closer with a finger. “Cut the bullshit. What is this?”

“Empress, you are too important to run around after every single problem. You are a ruler now, not one of the soldiers to be risked and captured if need be. If word of your capture had gotten out, it would have threatened the new social order and risked plunging the island into anarchy. While I’m being frank, there are rumblings about your mental health as of late. You are scaring your people.”

I ground my teeth and took a seat, pondering. As much as I felt insulted over him calling me out over my sanity, it has always been my policy that underlings be allowed freedom to speak and criticize me. A supervillain who kills people for telling her things she doesn’t want to hear is a supervillain who is the last to know if security systems are shorting out or someone defected and snuck out through a secret tunnel. Plus, there’s a lot of minutia I don’t like to handle and it’s easier to delegate it if people think they’re allowed to have thoughts of their own.

I took a deep breath and released it before continuing. “It’s been a hell of a year. Any particular recommendations on where I should focus my attention on this matter from here on my throne?”

He bowed. “Respectfully, Empress, now may be the best time to increase the pressure on the Three Hares by allowing your allies to raid the locations you have learned about.”

At the time, Titan was the one most likely to be awake with how time zones work, so I called up Cape Diem first. I snapped my fingers for a Directory page to bring over a mirror and nanites. I was trying out skin tones and making some alterations. I called up Qiang and let her watch from my perspective as I changed up a few features.

“I like your eyes! Baba, can I have eyes like that?” she asked.

“Sure thing. You want them with this angle or…” I moved a few things as far as inner and outer angle. “Like this?”

“That’s neat. I want to look just like you!”

I smiled. “Fine, but only if I get to look like you too.” My nose shifted to a button nose like hers would probably turn out to be once she grew up.

“Hello, Gecko?” asked Titan’s voice from elsewhere in my head.

“One moment, gotta extricate myself from how I was passing the time,” I said, before swapping back to Qiang and telling her I needed to handle a very important call. Then, I could come back to Titan. “Heya. You sound a bit out of breath. Did I pull you away from something important?”

“No. I finished my business before I got here. Your friends are kidnapping refugees.”

“I’m not aware of my friends doing anything. Max has all the ingredients he could want right now.” To my knowledge, there haven’t been any additional attempts on my life. With Hu’s concerns, he might have intercepting people, or maybe Max has been looking out for me.

“The refugees were kidnapped by a cabal of low-level magical supervillains. They escaped, but I managed to recover the victims,” Titan informed me.

Huh. I bet that’s why I got that invitation for beer and bratwurst from those guys I don’t know. “Was this around Poland?”

“Yeah. You know what’s going on?” he asked

“Nah, just vague stuff I heard through the grapevine. I’m not really part of the normal villain social scene. They don’t like me. I invited myself along to Secret Santa one year and they all converted to Judaism on the spot.”

“Venus said you liked to tell pointless, unrelated jokes.”

“I wanted to talk to you about the Hares. I got a few spots for you to check on.” And a sudden urge to RSVP in the negative to that beer and brats invitation.

“Shouldn’t you get Venus on the line for this?”

“She’s probably asleep,” I told him.

“She’s a hero. She patrols. Hold on.” I heard beeps, then the sound of distant sirens.

“Hello?” came Venus’s voice.

“Venus, it’s Titan. I have Gecko on the line. Do you have a minute?”

“Yeah, I guess. The Question are long gone.”

I spoke up here. “The Question? I have questions.”

“Pro-government anti-government terrorists. I don’t understand it either. They wear masks with the letter Q and just blew up an NPR affiliate. They like riddles.”

“Huh. Never heard of them, but they sound fun. Listen, it’s about time I shared some of the love with y’all as far as the Hares, if y’all aren’t too busy.”

“Let us worry about that,” Titan said.

“I’m emailing a map along to y’all with relevant info I obtained from a high-value prisoner who grew up in the Hare conspiracy. The individual did not particularly enjoy the isolated lifestyle of the Hares, but I believe I’ve located more important sites than what we’ve run across before. I have important duties to attend to instead.”

“How are you doing after your capture?” asked Titan.

“I’ve been saner,” I said.

Venus spoke up, “I can recommend a good therapist.”

“They’d have to be bulletproof,” I said, laughing it off. I went ahead and sent the emails. “The encryption key is 12345. I know it’s the sort of thing a moron would use for their luggage, which is why it’s the last thing they’d expect from me.”

Titan sighed. “It’s one of the most widely used passwords. If that’s everything, are you sure you can’t give me a tip about the refugees in Poland?”

“Sorry guys, I should really see to these things around here. I’ve got to shampoo my hair and look over some judicial business… oh, I’m getting attacked by ninjas. Gotta run, buh-bye!”

I hung up on them and stood up. They had all they needed from me. I checked out the mirror. “What do y’all think? Like the new look?”

The trio of ninjas who had dropped into the Directory building took fighting stances. No stage pajamas here. They were in tight black outfits with balaclavas pulled over their faces, light armor vests and plates on their limbs. One held a couple of kunai, another wielded a metal claw, and the last had a handscythe with a chain attached to the bottom of its handle.

The Directors scattered, which made quite a sight since many of them had adopted the practice of wearing sashes in some attempt to out-bling each other.

The one with the scythe, a kusarigama as they like to call it, swung the chain at me, sending the weight on the end of the chain right at my face. I snatched the chain out of the air. That ninja pulled it back, scraping some skin off my hand. I took a step in that direction and that’s when the kunai came for my head. My head snapped back.

When I lowered it back toward them, I held the kunai in my mouth, the bladed end held deep in my throat. Claw guy came at me then. I grabbed the kunai and tosses the wet end at his face. He swiped it to the side with his claw. He brought it across again at my torso. I threw myself back on my throne, laser eye blaring to life and searing a letter Z through his torso, smooth as Zorro.

He fell, only for the kusarigama’s weighted chain to come swinging for my face. I got a hand up. It stopped a lot of the damage, but still left me stumbling and trying to spot the ninjas between all the circling birds. I raised my hand in time to block an overhead stab from the guy with the kunai. Better my palm than my eye hole.

“I got one of those, too,” I used one of my spare hands to whip out a thin trench knife and cut him from cock to Adam’s apple. Smoke appeared all around me, burning at my eyes. The kusarigama’s chain smacked the head of its dead, deceased compatriot to the side.

So there I was. Knife versus chain and scythe. I’d already killed two. I was an assassination target on the edge, willing and able to sate my rampant murderlust. I stepped forward and the chain forced me back. Again and again, the remaining ninja used it to keep me at bay, my knife sparking as the chain slid across it the last time.

I pushed a lever on the side of the knife and tossed it in the air in frustration. “Fine, I get it, I shouldn’t have brought a knife to a chain fight.” The rocket in the handled of the knife fired suddenly, more like a momentary explosion. Only momentary, as the blade lodged itself in the chest of the remaining ninja. He reached up to grab it, then refused to pull it out. Then he dropped his weapon and turned to run.

“This is what happens when you buy your ninjas American. Adios, cowboy. ” I reached under my dress and came out with another rocket knife, one in each hand, and switched them on, aiming. The ninja fell dead with four knives in his back. “Knife meeting ya. Man, I hate missing all the action.”

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Down With A Sickness 6

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Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?

We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.

Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.

Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.

It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.

Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.

There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.

Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.

“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.

“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.

Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”

“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.

I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.

Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.

“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.

“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”

Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”

There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.

I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.

“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”

“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.

“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.

“I said I got it,” I told her.

She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”

I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”

She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”

I cringed back a little. “Why?”

“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”

I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.

She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”

“This is something you have to do?”

I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”

I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.

The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.

That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”

Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”

“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”

“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”

Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.

“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”

“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.

“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”

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Down With A Sickness 5

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The trail had fits of stopping and starting, but never for long. Never long enough for the guy who took Psychsaur and Max to sleep. They’d zipped over to India from the portal, but didn’t stop there. They managed to get from there into Pakistan in amazingly little time. When I showed it to Titan, shortly after he and Venus joined me on Ricca, he informed me Cape Diem didn’t have a base there. “They stole our portals. Maybe they built something to hack into our network. Either way, this is unacceptable.”

We’d set up at the residence. It wasn’t considered neutral ground the same way the Cape Diem compound was, but it was a hell of a lot more private and better protected, even with that new hole in the wall of the living room. Everything had mostly turned out ok from that event. Our assailant, the blonde multiplier, hadn’t gone after Qiang at all, and neither did she charge him with a knife or anything. I think I’m raising a girl smarter than I am, but it doesn’t make anyone feel any better about a home being partially blown up.

It was easier for us to coordinate and control information Each of our organizations’ are looking into the attack in their own way, chasing leads, studying bodies and wreckage. Well, the bodies are on my end. It’s a bit inefficient, but cross-organizational cooperation’s going to have to wait.

“They didn’t take anyone for you?” I asked Titan for confirmation.

He shook his head. “No. He killed someone. Hurt others.”

“He took knowledge from you, but he took our friends,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Venus said. “You said Max made a cure?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s just not enough, and it can’t be replicated.”

Venus paced around the office, looking at the monitors of our setup. “Psychsaur found him. Her powers let her do that. He avoided her until he was ready to do this.”

I looked between them. “I thought Psychsaur was supposed to cover Cape Diem first?”

Titan nodded to Venus, “She convinced me otherwise. It’s a good thing, too.”

“How’s that?” Venus asked.

Titan scratched his chin. “If she was at Cape Diem when this happened, the mole at Master Academy wouldn’t have been exposed.”

“Do we know who he is?” I asked. “Because on my end, he was just Funhouse the Clown, aka Ricardo Milhouse.”

Venus said, “He told us he found out his little brother had superpowers and was fighting crime at night. He was concerned and wanted him trained. He told us his name was Rick Houser. He brought a kid in. God, we had to lock up a teen to find out how deep he’s into this.”

“Richard Milford Holmes,” said Titan, tapping away at the computer and bringing up some of the Cape Diem files. “Twenty-eight. No powers, but a lot of enthusiasm to join us. He’s shown an eagerness to do the shit work even when offered duties more in line with what we expect. A lot of people join up to do something grand to help the world. It’s a good attitude, there’s a lot of more ugly work to it than people want. Except him. He was staying under the radar the entire time. Ten months.” He glared down at the table. Venus patted his arm.

“He hasn’t stopped at all until now,” I pointed out, bringing up the map where they’d finally been stopped. “So maybe he’s where he needs to go, or it’s a trap. A trap would be a bad idea for them.”

“Unless they take our powers with that collar,” Titan reminded us.

That was when Venus walked over to stand beside me. “What powers? This is all training and equipment.”

Venus and I had to take a moment to suit up, each of us in bulky armor. Hers was her current generation of power armor with the face taken up mostly by a golden chrome visor. Mine was based on the suit I’d stolen from her future version, but with additional armor plating and strength-enhancing pseudomuscles added to resemble my heavy armor. I was just as agile as ever, in armor far more durable. After all, nobody said the added armor plates couldn’t be the same material as the less-bulky version.

Titan remained his giant blue and orange self, with a pair of wings sticking out the back of his Cape Diem uniform.

On our way out, I gave Qiang a hug, smiled at Silver Shark checking on a burn along her arm, and politely squeezed by Sam and Holly trying to bar our way. “’Scuse me, gotta go save Mix N’Max, just the three of us, no additional help involved.” I picked up Sam with both sets of arms and set her to the side. I turned to find Holly taking her place, so I skipped around her.

“We’re coming!” Sam called after me as I pushed through the doors. Titan and Venus followed, with Max’s assistants coming after.

“You two aren’t villains,” I called back as we walked to a Psycho Flyer parked in front of the palace.

“You don’t know what he means to us!” called Holly.

“Do you trust them?” Titan asked me.

“They’re loyal to Max above all else. They’d never see him harmed or kidnapped in any way,” I answered. “But I doubt they have anything to bring to the table on this other than potential hostages if things go wrong.” I stopped to look at the assistants. “Leave this to us.”

“We are not useless,” Sam said. She pulled out a glass bottle with a simple oval label and “The Cure” written in Max’s handwriting. “Take us or we destroy it.”

I looked up the ramp of the flyer where Titan and Venus had stopped. They looked to me, eyebrows raised. Well, I assume Venus’s were raised under the helmet. I pointed to Sam and Holly. “Nothing about them threatening the cure?”

“It’s your aircraft,” Titan pointed out.

“I’m not saving your asses if you get in trouble,” I said, turning and walking up the ramp. I heard them clatter along after me.

They probably would have regretted it if they knew the flight was so long. I had the flyer loaded up for it, though. Toilets, toiletries, an in-flight meal, and a selection of movies to watch.

“Air Force One, Airplane!, Sully… what are you trying to tell us here, Gecko?” asked Holly as she stepped up into the cockpit.

I created a pair of holographic sunglasses in my lower right arm. “I think my meaning should be quite…” I lifted the hologram into place where my eyes would be through my helmet. “…plane to see.”

“Oh god, I’m going to be sick,” Holly called out from the back of the flyer.

“It wasn’t that bad!” I called back.

Sam winced and looked back. “I better get to her. Flying can be iffy for her.”

I shrugged as she left. “It was y ‘all’s decision to come.”

When we got to where we were going, the nanites indicated that Max and Psychsaur were still there. And where we were going turned out to be a small, decrepit Buddhist temple on top of a hill. I invited Venus and Titan into the cockpit to look down on it. “That’s a pretty cunning way to hide a lair,” I told them. “Anyone who breaks in looks like their sacrilegious. On the plus side, we have plenty of room if there are any religious artifacts left. Gold, sufficiently old stonework, even bones will do.”

“We’re here for your friends, not bones,” rumbled Titan. “I guess you better get in there since you’re the quietest somehow.”

“Okily dokily.” I stood up from the controls and the flyer dropped for like half a second. In the back, Holly vomited. I hope paper bags were involved.

“You fucking psycho!”

“Asshole!”

“Prick!”

“BLUURRRGH!”

The reactions I get. I held up my hands. “It’s fine. I got it remotely anyway. Just decided that if y’all are going to ask the guy flying the thing to get off it, shit might happen.”

“You could land,” Venus growled.

“I’d rather not risk being stranded in Pakistan. Nobody should.”

I landed harder than is preferred for stealth, but at least I was invisible. When I got to the door to the place, I found was in better shape than its appearance would lead people to believe. A quick scan through multiple spectrums didn’t reveal anything. No lasers, no wires, any of that.

I called down a quartet of drones from the trapdoor of the Psycho Flyer. They assembled on their way down, forming a platform big and strong enough to hold me in the heavier armor. I hopped on top as it passed through the doorway. I wasn’t going to get caught by pressure plates this time.

I had a line open to the Flyer cockpit, Venus, and Titan, so it wasn’t long before I heard Venus ask, “Found anything yet?”

“Lots of wood and tiles. Not even any valuables. Not one piece of art, either, except this little thing.” I spotted this decoration built into the base of the altar. Three rabbits, two running one way in a circle, the third another. But that was because the third one was broken, flipped around. There weren’t even any other doors anywhere. No way down to a hidden basement. So I flipped the third rabbit around and clicked it into place.

Behind me, tiles slid out of place along the floor, revealing a circular stairwell down that had to be hell to get hostages down. It also had no room for flying. “I got a way down. Go ahead and get down here. I don’t see anything up top. Y’all should be able to hop or fly to the stairs.”

I headed down and found my way through a rusty metal door, and from there to a circular room with a floor made up of rounded stones. There, I saw a quartet of dead Funhouse. No sign of Max or Psychsaur. But there were two other corridors from there. It was easier to figure out where to go when I heard retching. It’s been a vomit kind of day. “Funhouse was dead when I got here. I think I hear someone. Going to see if I find our peeps.”

I snuck my way on down the corridor when I heard Titan and Venus behind me, coughing. “What’s that smell?” Titan asked.

“They’re discolored,” Venus said from back there, too.

I found Max and Psychsaur locked in a pair of old time cells. Stone walls, a barred door, and a whole lot of hacking going on. I dropped the hologram. “Hey guys. Here I come to save the day.”

“Gas,” Max hacked up. “They killed him.”

Psychsaur added, “It got here.”

I pulled out a couple of syringes. “Venus, got a couple patients here. Some sort of poisoning. If y’all are still alive, I’m guessing it’s dispersed and stuff.” Metal bars and all, it wasn’t even a matter of hacking. I tore the lock off Max’s cell. The alarm started up then.

“I got activity down this corridor!” Titan called out. Then, the world blew the fuck up. But we didn’t go with it. There was a booming roar that tried to kill my eardrums. It got hot as fuck. Wasn’t as bright as I expected. After everything settled to mere shaking, I popped open Psychsaur’s cell, too, and grabbed them up. It’s a lot easier carrying people with extra arms.

I found Venus in the middle chamber, where a pedestal now stood in the center. Titan barred access to the other corridor almost completely. He stepped away slowly, grimacing “Any bomb you can walk away from is a good bomb.”

“You good?” I asked.

He nodded. “I’ve taken bigger.”

I nodded toward Venus. “That’s what she said.”

“She is busy downloading files off this computer while it self-deletes,” Venus said, a USB from her suit plugged into something on the pedestal.

All in all, a successful rescue. We got our friends. We got the collars off without damaging them overly much. And we got some files to sift through about what we’re dealing with, starting with the final message left in the system from a voice that sounded like dozens overlaid on one another.

“We had greater plans for you. You were to observe and report only. You are one piece of a vast apparatus. Our plan could never be stopped by one man with a cure. Ricca was the first, followed by Moscow, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Empyreal City. All within the first week. Thank you for listening obediently while the gas circulates. Your obedience is no longer required. You are no longer a piece in our apparatus.”

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Down With A Sickness 4

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Leave it to Max to figure things out. His methods aren’t exactly science, though he argues otherwise. That’s why he’s not my preferred way of curing this thing. My guys can mass produce a cure, probably. Anything he comes up with, he’s the only one who can make more, through whatever processes he uses.

Still, his lab was safely tucked away in one of the many rooms in the palace residence while I tossed fake stuff in spare building we had over near the graveyard. That has an added bonus of being more convincing if the person we’re after is someone familiar with the island, plus the growers who operate out of the tombs will be more than happy to sell all kinds of stuff to relax people if they come looking. I made sure to pick a building at least far enough away that explosives wouldn’t screw with their operation. Probably. I also warned them that they probably want to cook any meth in the daytime until this gets cleared up.

I know, breaking in at night. How cliché, but most people don’t live where they work. Yet. Now if I’m done turning into a socialist dictator, I had a mouse to catch in my trap. And I like traps. There’s something about letting someone walk into their own doom that appeals to me, much like the concept of a deal with the devil. It’s like when the drunk old man warns the counselors not to go up to Camp Crystal Lake. Or when the drunk old man warns the tourist to get out of Innsmouth. Or when the drunk old man warns you that the woman on the sidewalk gives people an itch. I think what I’m saying here is that if I’m going full-on cliché, I need a drunk old man.

It was too late, though. I’d been camping out in the place and didn’t have time to shop for an old drunk when the motion detectors went off. It was a simple but ingenious system. The walls were rigged to detect vibrations, but the actual motion detectors were at all the doors. I watched as someone tripped them, moving swiftly but quietly through the small former store. He came to the room underneath me, one of the ones done up to look like it was in business for Mix N’Max. The figure bent down to examine the obvious bear trap on the floor, then jumped over it. The motion detector, set on the wall at stomach height, detected him and activated the second bear trap. The one on the ceiling. It clamped down with a satisfying and juicy squish.

He cried out, because this wasn’t an instant kill or anything. Just a large, jagged, metal trap that tried to get its jaws to meet just under the guy’s rib cage. I’m not saying he couldn’t die as a result of this. I’m just saying it’d take awhile.

A second guy dove between his friend’s dangling legs and over the first bear trap, which was less expected. But that’s why we have backups, like solid steel doors to slide into place, locking everyone inside whatever rooms they were in. There were other sensors going off, too, which spoke to a much larger infiltration than I’d expected. I stepped out of the corner from where I waited, staying invisible because I don’t resort to dramatics all the time. The lights rose, revealing identical men in front of me. Not just the same clothes and my usual “all humans look alike” view, but the exact same faces. I just figured it was identical twins until the cameras in the other rooms with motion showed the exact same thing. Identical septuplets spies? Talk about 007.

The guy looked familiar, too. Big forehead. The hair’s an obvious blonde dye job. Ah, and my ID program got a hit. Last time I saw this guy, he was dancing in the dunking booth while wearing clown makeup. “Seven of you clowns?” I asked.

The one who was free looked around the room and let loose a chuckle before blurring and splitting into two, then four, then eight. “As many as I need to deal with a problem.”

“I don’t know how many copies you can make,” I said as I dropped the invisibility. His clones? Extras? Whatever they were, they were crowding in enough that they’d have found me anyway. “but I know you don’t have enough to stop me whoopin’ your ass. This is my house.”

They surrounded me, and all spoke at once. “Right now, it’s looking like more of a funhouse. Let’s have some fun.”

Silly rabbit. He thought this was going to be some sort of fair fight, when it’s really a rigged carnival game. His powers must have extended to mere copies, because they went down like regular humans. I charged one of them and punched through him, and the one behind him, and into a third one. I smashed them against the wall, grabbed an organ out of the last guy in that bunch, and pulled out to burst it over the head of another one coming at me from behind. He stumbled back, but another came for me. I grabbed his shoulders with three arms and his chin with the fourth. He screamed as his skull came up, at least until he gave a pop and part of the spine came loose too. By then, the guy who got beamed by a kidney cleared his eyes enough for me to beat him to death with his own skull.

One moment, just realized I needed to put that accomplishment on a list somewhere. Beat a man to death with his own skull. Question is, do I count the consistency with physics as a plus or a minus?

Considering I have four thumbs and don’t give a fuck, a lot of dead bodies started piling up. He probably thought he could just concentrate one or two of them on reinforcements until I grabbed a pair and started swinging them, knocking the remainder on their asses. And one onto the floor-based bear trap, which clamped down on him.

“Looking pretty fun for me right now,” I said.

One of them grinned at me. “A shame we couldn’t play longer,” he said. He pulled his shirt up and tugged out a detonator. I quickly cranked the power of my leg armor’s pseudomuscles up and jumped through the roof, catching a nice big fireball up the ass because I didn’t bother to angle anything. The whole damn building blew up, and not even because of my stuff. I mean, yeah, I prepped explosives. I wasn’t going to use them with me inside the place.

I’m not entirely sure if my legs broke from the jump, from the landing, or from both. I just knew they broke sometime in all this. It took me a minute after landing to stand up and start pulling hot debris away to see if any had happened to be taken alive. As could be expected, I got a call in short order, from Silver Shark. “Gecko!”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Big-ass explosion, though.”

“Us too, fuckface! The Aryan brotherhood just broke in here. One of them grabbed Max and hightailed it. The others are fighting and blowing up.”

“Grabbed Max? These guys are pushovers.” Despite that, this was no time to argue. If he’d grabbed Max somehow, then he was moving him. I jumped to the top of a nearby building, heading for the docks while I pulled open the satellite view and focused it in on the area surrounding the palace and Directory building. “I’ll get him,” I said before dropping the call. I adjusted course for the Cape Diem compound and tried calling up Cape Diem.

I had a direct line to Titan, at least. It’d have to do. I’d rather have the number of the guy working the portals. He could still get an order through to trap the military truck with the canvas-covered back. “Titan, Gecko. Our mole’s trying to pull someone into his hill through your portal.”

I heard growling. “I’m elsewhere, but my people are on it. I just found out a mole on our end is barricaded in the central portal hub with the controls and passcodes. Hold on.”

There was a beep, then I heard Venus’s voice come through. “Titan, this is Venus. I found the mole. He’s running for the Cape Diem portal and he’s kidnapped Psychsaur. She couldn’t use her powers. He had some collar on her. He might have more for you.”

“That must be how he could get the upper hand on Max,” I said. I reached out, trying to access the nanites. He had to have been exposed to the water supply at some point during his time here, right? Fuck, somehow this guy didn’t bother washing his hands the entire goddamn time.

“Gecko?” Venus asked.

“Hold on, I got a kidnapping to stop on this end, too.” I’d hopped from rooftop to rooftop paused to pull out a drone from behind my back and throw it. I reoriented it and flew it ahead of me, trying to catch a truck that must have had its pedal welded to the medal. And me with throwing explosives. The drone flew after it. I jumped along. And it was a disorienting experience. Hard to aim, but I did. I raked the rear of the truck, lower down, with machine gun fire. The rear left tire popped and went flat. The truck wobbled. It hid some sort of debris and began to turn onto its side.

The canvas rear burst open and a motorcycle flew out, carrying one of those blonde fuckers and Max on the back, something around his neck. He had to have been tied there or something. The cycle burst through the gate into the Cape Diem compound and headed right for the tent surrounding the portal. I chased after, unable to shoot becaue of my friend.

People scattered out of the way, some in regular clothes, some in the soft white and blue of Cape Diem personnel. The motorcycle disappeared into the tent, and I landed outside it a second later, popping something. I limped in after them and saw the portal flash and close, leaving me alone with a team of confused Cape Diem portal technicians.

“Gecko, you copy?” Titan asked. “You were breathing hard and growling, then you got all quiet.”

“They got away,” I said, realizing I still needed to breathe.

“Damn! Same here,” Venus said.

“My people just retook the portal room. It’s empty. Something’s in the system. I have techs on it. Good people. One of them’s like Gecko. We’ll find out where they went.”

I stood there, flexing my fingers, pulling up as much of a view of the world as mankind’s satellite network could give me. Not like I’d get lucky and somehow run across the exact tiny spot where he was and be able to recognize him and whatever other copies of his were working. “Unfortunately, he somehow managed to avoid getting any nanites in his system while he was here. Or he found a way to clear them out. Otherwise, I’d… Oh, right.”

“What?” asked Venus.

“Nanites in the drinking water. I put them there to keep everyone healthy, which is how I knew something was up when someone got sick and stayed sick. This guy didn’t have any in him, which is why I couldn’t stop him earlier. But Psychsaur and Max both have them in their system. I can track them.”

Venus spoke up. “This is going to sound bad, but we should wait until they stop running.”

“Find them in their lair,” Titan said.

“Yeah, and then clean them out, hopefully before they can do whatever they need to do to flush them out. I’ll and order them into the hard to reach places.”

“I recommend we keep this under our hats,” Titan said. “I want to make sure this is the last mole in my organization.”

“Agreed,” Venus said.

I cracked my neck and turned with a flourish of my cape, ignoring Cape Diem people running around, trying to calm everything down. “Eh, I’d say I doubt there are any more, but this isn’t looking like a good day for me. Looks like it’s just the three of us, then.” Despite all that, I did trust Dr. Creeper to not be a mole. I had him send a team to the ambush building to see if they could scrounge up anything like what the clown had on Max and Psychsaur.

I had to delegate. After all, my house, with my kid in it, had just been attacked. Just another thing to save up for when I get my hands on someone.

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Down With A Sickness 3

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“…and the dastardly do-gooder who captured him and recovered the stolen Viking relics is said to have remarked, ‘There’s Norway you’re pulling this one off, Man-Opener!’ Folks, your old pal Outlaw X is going to break from the program to tell you about one of our latest sponsors. I’m sure you’re all aware of that crazy cat named Psycho Gecko, Emperor of Ricca after the Claw’s unfortunate demise. Inter-villain squabbles can be a real bummer, so that’s why I carry the new RA32 pulse blaster. The latest handcannon from Riccan Arms uses photons and gluons and more -ons than you can shake a stick at. I don’t know how it works, I just know it can light up your enemies like the Fourth of July and fold into the shape of a large flashlight so the missus won’t find out where you go at night. Riccan Arms is the innovation you desire in a package your enemies fear. Pick one up today…”

The labs set up a forward outpost of a sort in order to easily access the outside. The Claw had the place set up the old way for information security. At this point, I’d be grateful if random people on the street downloaded enough of the work on the infection to give us a hand with it. It also let me listen in on Outlaw X, the premiere radio station for villains. I never kept up with it as much as I cared. Even they hadn’t quite gotten wind yet of the Riccan lockdown, courtesy of stockpiles we had off the island and a comprehensive decon protocol the guys came up with on a hunch.

The bacteria spreads quickly, so my guys decided to see what the transmission tells us. A few days outside a human body and they die. They collected a few to see what the dead ones could teach us. Vulnerabilities, but also a chance at a vaccine. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone uninfected except the Deep Ones. Not all Deep Ones, though. It took some probing questions, but it turns out the purebred ones just don’t get infected. The bacteria just don’t recognize their brains as targets. It’s the ones with some human in their ancestry that end up infected. Deep Ones, eh? Close enough to mate with humans, like homo machina, but far enough away that they can’t be infected by this, unlike homo machina.

I figured out this was a handy thing, though, so I made inquiries through the Drone Division to see if elders and other Deep Ones community leaders could find me some able-bodied seapeople. I also sent along money and high-end moisturizing cream as incentives. A couple Deep Ones insisted on holding out for more. Specifically, they wanted to make sure their people’s work on behalf of mine wouldn’t be forgotten. They’d seen the way Americans were throwing away the lives of Puerto Ricans and concentrating immigrants in camps. They’d even begun a process of investigating citizens to decide if they should end up in the camps as “citizenship cheaters”. I told the guys working for me to inform those holdouts that I remain committed to seeing to the welfare of all Riccans, humans, Deep Ones, and homo machina alike, and would gladly honor those who help to save my people in their hour of need.

Lofty language, sure, but a lot more inspiring than sending them an answer of, “Fuck, man, sure, whatever.”

Luckily, the Chinese were making another shipment to the U.S. The Deep Ones were more than capable of capturing the ship. A science team donned hazmat suits and went onboard to find the people being sent over to the States. They went deep into debt to afford the chance at a better life, probably without realizing how bad the U.S. has gotten. Or things are just shitty enough in rural China that they’ll risk moving to a country where Nazis are still a major demographic.

The Deep Ones had to tackle one dumbass scientist who thought it’d be a good time to attempt taking his hood off. He got chewed out so many times up the ladder before I heard about it, Dr. Creeper told me he had to turn down the man’s request for seppuku. Which is an especially odd request for a Filipino, but Ricca’s something of a melting pot. Just the other day, people celebrated some holiday and I never got around to figuring out why they had dog balloons fighting with bird balloons.

In the end, they maintained quarantine and kept the people clean enough for experimentation. Because, as some upper-class white guy once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. You can tell, because you don’t hear too many poor people, or oppressed folks arguing that some people need to get the shaft for the greater good. So as a white guy, I had no problem ordering captured Chinese people to be used for experiments to save my people. Well, a white guy in the body of an Asian woman.

Once the exterior’s open to being changed like clothes, racism and sexism make about as much sense as being a fashion snob. Plus, a supervillain should always be on the lookout for downtrodden people. Think about it; police hostility to oppressed people means a lack of trust and gang organization. So you go in, you have people who area already disinclined to inform on you to the cops, and you can recruit in groups. Plus, you can buy a lot of loyalty sending them to school for subjects like mechanical engineering. They learn a trade, you get someone to help maintain the robot army. You know why you don’t see shadowy cabal of Jews taking over the world? Because nobody gave them a chance, dammit.

Enough, brain! Get on point, or I will poke you with things!

Work on a vaccine stalled when it came to using dead cells. They didn’t suddenly spring to life and create a full infection, which is great, but they also didn’t elicit an immune response. So while that’s a setback for vaccinations, it means we can safely ship weapons and equipment with no trouble. It has helped keep things under wraps.

With the science guys hard at work, I had a call to make. And since I had Psychsaur talking to Venus for me, that means it was Titan’s blue and orange mug that appeared on my giant screen at home. “Titan.”

“Psycho Gecko,” he acknowledged. “Any luck on a cure so far?”

I shook my head. “No. We had an idea for a vaccine, but it didn’t pan out. On the plus side, materials are safe to spread around after a few days. Maybe not anything from a refrigerator. We’ll see on that part.We’ll get you nanites for detection purposes, though.”

He rubbed his chin. “Is that safe? You said the bacteria eats nanites.”

I waved it off. “It’s fine. They tested to make sure, but it only seems to attack nanites that attack it and derive all their nutrition from hosts. The solution the nanites are in is more about preserving them from moisture and air, and the bacteria die off just as easily.”

“Thank god for the little things,” he said, pun probably not intended from his complete lack of reaction. “How are your people holding up?”

“It seems to be limited to the hundreds. If this were any other population, with less general health, I suspect we’d see more. What about your folks?”

“We’ve had four with the adverse reaction that we know about. Six other attempted to break quarantine. I have someone investigating.”

“Thank you,” I told him. “I peg the heroes, personally.”

“Not your own?” he asked. I mean, technically yes and no, that time my wife made herself look like Venus…

“Anyone infected could have spread it from the airport or docks as soon as they arrived, or from anywhere else. It’d have gotten everyone anyway. That’s what they made it for.”

Titan shook his head. “That assumes Patient Zero knows anything about it. He or she could have been ordered to let it out at a social function or in your vicinity. You could be collateral damage to a different target.”

“I think we can assume the target was me. It’s able to bond to homo machina and resist my nanites and it first appeared on my island as far as anyone knows. Not like the symptoms are unique, though. We’ll stick a pin in that for later.”

“With the CDC,” he interjected.

“Right. Those guys, if they even still exist these days. I just don’t think they’d risk someone getting caught ahead of time with this when all they have to do is release it anywhere on the island, so I think this person’s first opportunity was the party. That means someone who came in, either with the Master Academy group or with your people. But I will have recent arrivals looked into by my pervasive peace force. I might loosen the restrictions on brutality.”

“I emphasize efficiency of brutality,” Titan said, glowing eyes giving off just the faintest hint of disapproval.

I cocked my head to the side. “You wouldn’t believe the level of pissed I’m on. I think you’d better hope the perpetrator is found by someone other than me.”

“You are allowing the heroes to investigate their own,” he pointed out.

“I don’t trust Venus to investigate. I need you to get Psychsaur over there for me.” I’d hinted that Qiang might want to play with the reptilian superhuman quite a bit. Get her real sympathetic to what I’m fighting for. I don’t have to trust Venus to find out of if the heroes are behind this. I just have to trust a mindreader who likes my daughter.

“See if she’ll help me first and you have a deal.”

I nodded. “That is, of course, up to her. I’ll see if I can make it happen. Heroes, villains, and neutrals all aligned. Someone clearly wasn’t satisfied with the small size of their asshole.”

“Some things just aren’t done,” he said. “Standards don’t make you weak. Maintaining them shows a strength that means more than most understand. There are things you simply don’t do to people or children. Even your nanite scheme was a bluff in the end. The better for you that it was.”

Ehh, maybe I won’t tell him I was prevented from killing a huge chunk of the world with nanites that time.

I’m not telling lots of people lots of things. Like how I haven’t told even those in my science team that Mix N’Max has set up a little lab right in my own home to come up with his own concoction to cure this thing. It’d be about useless if it takes too long or if he somehow has to do one at a time. And then, once we’ve got a usable cure, it somehow slips out that he’s got lab space elsewhere and is working on this very thing. Sure would be interesting to see if anyone tries to break in and sabotage efforts.

Then, I play Whack-A-Mole.

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Break It, Bought It 7

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I didn’t just rush into the situation with Good Doctor blindly. That would just make it easy for him. No, I had to use that steaming pile of think gunk in my head here. The coordinates he gave me were for this artificial island made by the United States right after World War II and gradually abandoned as necessity allowed. Satellites confirmed he was there, along with a boat, and Citra. I even got to see when he burned the boat he arrived on. I could have rushed in there, but I took the time to pimp my own ride to the island. I don’t get many opportunities to have a custom-equipped speedboat. I expect it’ll come in handy. I’m not even supposed to leave the island.

Under Imperial decree, I confiscated a speedboat. I installed armor. I gave it a pair of small mines. I strapped machine guns to it, and a rocket launcher. Darn near blew myself up with that. This whole Doc thing had me on edge, even if he only took Citra. I didn’t want more of this shit, with friends turning on me and plans within plans. Who does, right?

But it’ll pass. One way or another. Doc will die, Citra might die, even I might die, but it will end one way or another. I won’t be so quick to say I just want it to end no matter what, because I’m still fond of living. Even if there aren’t any omnipotent gods out there, I’ve been the devil of a deal enough times to know to be careful what I ask for. That’s probably what got me listening to “Poor Unfortunate Souls” while I worked. Don’t let Ursula fool y’all. Her deal was particularly wicked.

But enough aquatic antics with mermaids. You can never get further than blowjob base with them, anyway.

Now, unlike my armor, I did add a self-destruct sequence to this one. It seemed handy if I needed to ram something and explode prematurely. I swear, baby, it never happens. Don’t worry, I have protection. It can’t explode until after the ejector seat has fired off well away. Ejector seats are fun, if you can get one. Mine comes with its own parachute, and the seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. There’s also a bag that goes over the face in case of emergency, like if I bring a really ugly person with a nice body back to the boat.

The day seemed stormy, and not from the weather. Seemed like a lot of the Assembly people were stopping by. I had let some of them in on it, not yet having learned all the various councils and committees they were working on. It was more a matter of letting them know they might have to bail me out. I told them they might have to print up some new money, and if I was on it, give me a nice hat. I’m thinking a bowler.

One of them even wore a fancy sash across his chest when he stopped by. “My Emperor,” he said while bowing in the Japanese fashion.

I returned it. “Got this baby almost ready to go. No paint job, though. When I get back, I’ll have to see about it. I’m thinking flames and a dark knight riding a unicorn. What do you think?”

“I wanted to tell you that the entire Assembly supports you in the return of Lady Citra. The treaty has disseminated throughout the Assembly and we want you to know that we will not reveal your absence. If anyone claims to see you off the island, we will say otherwise.”

“Thanks. Nice to have a little support, even if I’m leaving y’all in a bind.” I held out a hand. He took it, and bowed his head against it. I grabbed his hair and gave him a handshake on the head. “Close enough.”

Qiang ran over before I cast off, drawing my egress out even further. “Hey there, kiddo,” I said, wondering where Silver Shark was. The cyborg woman was supposed to be watching her and keeping her well away from here. Yeah, she’s alive, and almost good as new. Still a bit tender herself, but between Ricca’s nanotech medical care and all the modifications made, she pulled through. Guess it was too much to hope she could wrangle a kid, though. “What are you doing away from Silver Shark?”

“I snuck away!” she said, hopping up into the boat. “I swapped shirts with another girl when she wasn’t looking and ran away.”

Aww. She’s learning. And taking her clothes off in public. I’d be so proud of her if I didn’t want her far away from this boat so she didn’t smuggle herself onboard. “Smart, though you won’t always be able to do that. Listen, daddy needs you to stay here and try to be a good girl, ok?”

“Don’t go, daddy!” she pouted up at me. No enemy on Earth could attack me like the face of my daughter.

I hugged her, feeling her slowly connect to my armor as well to keep her from doing anything to it. She didn’t seem to understand it enough to power me down or accidentally screw up the strength multipliers on the exoskeleton. “I have to. He won’t stop, and he’ll hurt Citra and more. And if I don’t show up there, he’ll come back and try a different way I won’t see coming.”

“Can’t I go with you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Nope. I brought you with me before because I didn’t know where he was and I wanted you close in case I had to protect you. I know where he is now, and that you’ll be safe here. I can stop him from reaching you.”

“What if he hurts you?” she asked.

“If he does, he might leave you alone. Don’t worry. I’m coming back.”

She didn’t believe me. Just hugged onto me, crying, yelling “Don’t go!” It’s a good thing I have experience being heartless. I picked her up, gently tied her up to a pole on the pier, and shoved off. I did see Silver Shark running up after her as I left, so I waved at her before cranking the Geckoboat up and speeding off into the horizon.

I don’t know if the island had a name other than whatever secret base name the military gave it. Talk about people not afraid of sunk cost. I can respect that.

I called the satellites back up as I approached. It didn’t look like he’d put any defenses in place. He just left Citra sitting outside on the ground about a hundred yards from a shed. She did some wiggling that convinced me she was still alive. Hear that, ladies? Taking the hint yet? Show some damn effort in bed!

No mines, no guard sharks, no trained seals, not even a belligerent mutated sea bass. It was almost insultingly easy. I swooped around and came up alongside the island and dropped anchor on the concrete. If it happened to slide off, I figured I’d hear the plop in the water. I climbed aboard and kept my eyes open for any sneakiness. Nothing. Aside from Citra, there were waves in the water and the bobbing of the boat. That’s it. I focused on the sheds and other abandoned building entrances, but it turned out to be unnecessary. I approached the tied-up girl completely unmolested, which isn’t a word normally used in situations involving bound and gagged females.

I pulled the gag out first, and quickly. Gagged people always have something important to tell you, like “Look out! They’re right behind you!”

“Look out!” she yelled, voice cracking and croaking. Fucking called it, right? “He’s taking the boat!”

I spun around. Good Doctor, his outfit wet and glistening from the sea, finished slicing through the anchor line and waved us goodbye before hitting the accelerator.

“That bastard,” I said.

“He’s stranded us. He’s going back to the island,” Citra said.

I turned to look at her and finish tearing off the ropes that bound her. “Conserve your water.” In my head, I connected to my poor, new boat and activated the ejector seat. Good Doctor shot into the air, clinging to the seat as the parachute deployed. So much for hoping he’d have been left in it so I could just hit the self-destruct. I helped Citra stand up and regain her feet all while watching Doc figure out how to direct the chute and seat back to land. “You’ll want to hide now. I’m going to have to murder a friend.”

She didn’t argue with me. She stumbled away, trying to find somewhere to hide. I approached the edge of the island where the seat looked to come a little bit short. Indeed, Doc jumped out of it and landed on the edge as the seat itself plopped into the water.

“Clever,” I said to him. “Lure me here, head back, and finish what you couldn’t before.”

He stood up. I couldn’t see his eyes through the visor on his black leather helmet, but I could feel his hatred. “You did not react the way I anticipated to protecting that girl. Rumors say you have a daughter.”

“Jealous?” I asked. He took up a scalpel in his right hand and a punch knife in his left.

“Saddened. I take no joy in what I must do to you,” he said, his voice warping slightly to the tone I often heard when he slipped into his murderous state of mind.

“I’ve seen you take plenty of joy in it. Didn’t think you were the type to go after a man’s daughter. Have you truly become no better than I?” I stepped forward, hands open and palms to him, leaning forward just slightly over my front foot.

“We are, both of us, monsters, but I did what I did to provide a life for my daughter. She was the one thing that justified my actions. The one thing I could live with myself for. Now she is ashes, and I will see anything you care about rendered as such.”

“This really the hill you wanna die on, Doc?” I asked, noting the tension in his body. I knew what his answer would be, but I also knew it didn’t matter. He was never leaving this island alive.

He threw his scalpel at me. I deflected easily, then saw as the hand he pulled back from the throw tossed pellets at the ground between us. Black smoke blossomed forth. I paced a little back and forth, trying to see around it, even calling upon the satellite view. He was inside the cloud. I rushed in and whirled around, my cape helping blow it away. I pulled it close as an emergency warning appeared on my HUD. One of my batteries had been stabbed.

I pulled my cape in close, but not before the other battery reported physical damage. “You lost your glowing heart. You can only last so long.” he called in that smooth British voice of his. I did have power in the capacitors, but he was right. Once that’s loose, this armor of mine becomes much less useful. Then it’s just a matter of pulling my helmet off.

I growled as I jumped high into the air, then grinned as I looked down at the smoke cloud below me. I grabbed my cape as I dropped like a stone. When I crashed back into the cement, the air cushion under my cape blew the smoke out from around me, revealing Doc and kinda breaking something in one of my knees. I grabbed him by his leg and pulled him down to the ground under me, where all it took was one super strong punch to cave in his face. I put a hole through where his heart should be for good measure there. Watching, panting through the pain, I saw his body in its death throes.

“Dammit, you fucking fuckhead!” I called, pounding at the remains of his chest with the bottoms of my fists one last time, trying to avoid getting raindrops in my mouth. Small weather front in my helmet is all. I sat back then under the bright, sunny sky. “Other people thought you could live with yourself just fine,” I said to no one. I thought back, trying to see if anything could have stopped all this. It all comes down to Forcelight and her death. Just a casualty in the crossfire, though one who I was glad to see go because of her power. It was a hard train of thought to follow when something in my knee was screaming for attention as well.

That was the state Citra found me in, putting a hand on my shoulder and shaking me. “Get up. You’re alive, right?”

I brushed her off and turned to look at her. She backed away, paling. With a swallow, she asked, “How do we get off the island?”

Oh, right. That. Heh. Cunning asshole did a good job on this trap. In addition to leaving me here so he could go back and do what he would on Ricca, I was now out where anyone could get me. I wonder if he knew that I was only allowed to run free if I stuck to the island. A bit too late to ask him now.

I laughed at that one. Even if I wanted to risk jumping to my boat, which I didn’t bother exploding, my knee has decided it is now jelly. The kind of jelly with fruit in it, except the fruit are bone shards and strips of torn ligament.

A shadow crossed in front of the sun and brought a flapping sound. I looked up to see the Titan descending on wings further across than he was tall. “You shouldn’t be here, giant blue dude.”

He settled on the ground more gently than I did, that’s for sure. “My people saw the message carved on your friend. I still owed you a debt.”

“Well, aren’t you just a beautiful deus ex machina,” I said.

“I think it would be a stantibus celsior ex machina, but I never learned Latin,” he said. He picked me up easily and carried me under one arm. Citra didn’t object to getting out of there. “Click your heels together and say ‘there’s no place like home.’”

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Break It, Bought It 6

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It’s been a rough couple of days. I had doubts soon after starting my search, because it seemed so bizarre that he didn’t try to kill me. He wants it, so why didn’t he do it? I mean, I killed his daughter, so why wouldn’t he go for the kill? He’d never been one to just send threats when he could go in for the kill. My first instinct was to double check all the footage of The Claw’s death and make absolutely sure. I even begrudgingly called Beetrice, though I had to put up with a nigh-unbearable squealing as she realized it was me. The thumbs-ups from the Buzzkills on the island didn’t alleviate my annoyance.

Not only had The Claw been confirmed dead, they locked his remains in a lead coffin and were preparing to launch him into space over in Russia. Yeah, probably after they examine his remains a bunch of times hoping to make their own Claw.

So that just left me with a former friend uncharacteristically targeting my daughter. He’s wanted to kill me, just me, ever since finding out I murdered his daughter. And therein lay the problem. I killed his daughter. He threatened mine. That’s the fucked up thing about letting yourself care about someone, too. When I realized that, I actually found myself wishing he’d go after me instead.

I suppose it’s not that weird, though. I’ve often preferred people to try and kill me. Except, I guess I feel a bit less like dying nowadays. And a bit less willing to martyr someone else upon the altar of my own safety. Rather than focus on confusing feelings, I figured I’d focus on the ones I know all about: homicide and avoiding being its victim.

It’s not like I had an army to swarm the island. I had a few Buzzkills and a couple squads of guys who used to be police or military. I could barely field a football team, let alone scour the entire island. I had only myself to rely on, and that also meant keeping Qiang with me. Anyone I left her with would likely be killed.

I know Good Doctor doesn’t seem that intimidating. A little older now, his power is x-ray vision, except without x-rays. It’s just the ability to see through things up to a certain depth. Pretty good little trick if you’re trying to hide something for obvious reasons, and because he has brains enough to check in places he can’t see through. He’s got a canny power, he’s smart, and he’s willing to kill.

Humanity is quite a bipolar animal, and I mean that in the same sense as including myself this time around. Simultaneously incredibly fragile and difficult to kill, humans are also ill-equipped psychologically to murder each other, and yet do so with ease over the littlest of reasons. Look at skin color. Some people are killed for having a shade of skin achievable by their murderer staying outside in the sun a few minutes. Despite the numerous horrible wars humanity has gone through, it was only relatively recently on this Earth that people learned to train soldiers to ignore humanity and become better killers. Too many in the World Wars weren’t shooting at people intentionally.

There are few times when superheroes are willing to kill, and few have gone through with it. Or had, up until this business with The Claw. I could actually take credit for corrupting them, I suppose, but his crimes were quite severe. Between him and the alien invasion, we might be looking at a time when far more of the heroes are comfortable taking life as a solution. There used to be unwritten rules. Villains don’t kill heroes, heroes don’t kill villains.

Doc is more than comfortable breaking those rules. He’s killed several other superpowered people before. Worse, he was doing it for a good reason. I can get distracted, or go easy on someone, or let them live on a whim. Someone who thinks they have a good reason is already prepared to force themselves to do what must be done.

So, now it should be clear why I’m worried about him. But what have I done about it? After confirming that announcements of the Claw’s demise weren’t premature, I warned Citra and Silver Shark that they needed to get off the island. I’m not entirely sure I want to put all my egg-layers in one basket, and I’d prefer being there to defend Qiang myself, so I kept her around.

I checked over my armor, too. It’s a strength, and also a weakness. I couldn’t help but think of the Oligarch, grand old supervillain of the Master Academy, who kept his armor out of enemy hands by installing a self-destruct sequence. I turned it on while he wore the thing.

I don’t include that function in my armor, which explains why life-support and power armor technology has advanced in recent years. Instead, I now have big batteries to rely on and an exoskeleton built into it that exerts enough force to break my own bones. It took more time than I wanted to spend making sure he hadn’t left any surprises for me there. A poisoned needle in my pants, a blade in a biceps, a cut wire in the crotch, a pile of shit in my boots.

Only once I was sure to be clean did I run off with Qiang. Despite the reason behind our search, it was fun jumping with her. She liked seeing the world from so high up and knowing it was with me. One stop, she asked me, “Daddy, can I jump like you?”

I patted her hair and said, “I’ll teach you how some day once we’re done finding this man.”

“I don’t want to see him!” she said, pouting.

“Are you scared?” I asked, sitting down so I could talk to her on her level. She nodded. “I get that. Big guy, a grown-up, who could hurt you. He already snuck into your room, like a monster in the night.” She nodded again. I reached out and pulled her knife out from where she had it hidden on her. “Monsters don’t like being stabbed, and neither do men. You can always stab a monster. Now, show me how you stab.”

She ran through some techniques I’d taught her, with me gently correcting her. After ten minutes of quick practice, she was giggling and adding little flourishes for fun. With her mind off Doc being some bogeyman for her, I stood up and we resumed our search. The first spot that took us to was the Cape Diem camp. I didn’t wait at the edges this time. I headed right for the medical tent, keeping Qiang close enough to hide under my cape for some protection. I had my eyes on point, overclocked, ready to identify Doc in a seconds. No dice.

Several doctors looked up, many showing signs of superpowers. “What is going on here?!” demanded what looked to be a short nurse with bark-like skin.

“I am Emperor Gecko of Ricca. I demand Good Doctor be brought before me.” I kept my eyes on a swivel, making damn sure no one snuck up using my helmet’s 360 display.

A buzzing from behind me accompanied the arrival of that drone with the hologram projection. “You have demands of us?” the translucent androgyne asked.

I turned, making sure to keep Qiang behind me. “Where is the Titan?”

“Away on other business. I am in command of this camp as of the current time,” answered the hologram.

“Fine, let’s find a corner to discuss this in away from everyone’s eyes,” I said, toning down my voice.

The hologram zipped on over to what could have been a storage shed, especially with a door big enough to allow Titan entrance. The sign on the door read “Administration,” in various languages. “What is this and why do you need Good Doctor?” asked the hologram. I didn’t answer for a moment as I cleared everything for Qiang’s entrance. “And who is she?”

“This is my daughter, Qiang. And this occurred Sunday,” I projected a hologram of what my eye had seen in her room, with Good Doctor stepping in, threatening her, and then leaving his message on the wall. “You’re on the short list of groups I expect could have brought Good Doctor here, since we’re not seeing a lot of other traffic to the island.”

The hologram froze, a projected belt appearing that read “One moment, please.” When it started back up, it said, “The Good Doctor joined our organization soon after our arrival on the island. Upon completion of certification, he asked for and was given assignment here due to his surgical abilities. Records show he went missing on the day in question. His actions do not represent Cape Diem policy in any way.”

I raised a hand. “I figured. Your famous neutrality has withstood worse dictators than me. I don’t want to have to call it into question publicly. I just want him found and delivered to me so he doesn’t harm my daughter. This isn’t about making Cape Diem my armor or anything like that. This is just about bringing Good Doctor before me, and this will have been made right.”

“I will communicate your request to the Director of Operations with the highest priority. Cape Diem would like to apologize for the actions of the Good Doctor in violating our neutrality.” The hologram almost sounded contrite. It had to know they’d be in some shit. A lot of people would see that neutrality as a restriction on an organization to act against oppression, but it also served as the shield allowing them to help people even in countries otherwise hostile to any foreign intervention.

It took half an hour before the hologram directed me over to a large circular metal framework. One moment, I saw right through it. The next, I saw the Titan standing in a large room. He stepped through and unfurled his wings, then came to stand in front of me. “Emperor Gecko, I would like to convey my sincerest apologies for the actions of this rogue agent in violation of our neutrality. The Security Division is coming through now and they will help you find him. There are a lot of men and women who come to us to escape their past, and this threatens that deal.”

With my blessing, they spread out. I briefly entertained the thought that this might be some ploy to take over the island, but that’d be it for these guys. No more Cape Diem. Best to keep my paranoia on a leash in that circumstance.

With them safely swarming out, I found Qiang tugging on my cape. “What about the train?”

“Train?” I asked, trying to figure out what she meant. Oh, the maglev. The one underground. Underneath the palace. That’d be a handy place to hide a person. “Right, the maglev.” It seemed perfect. While the Cape Diem supers spread out looking for their former colleague, I carried Qiang to the palace and set to work finding the way down. It turned out to be below some light rubble in the same crater that housed the legislature. If I hadn’t been down there already, I likely wouldn’t have noticed it at all. And the fact that it didn’t have that much blocking the entrance suggested Qiang had been right. We both slipped down there, Qiang using some of those lessons I gave her to pad almost as silently as myself down there.

We didn’t have to go too far to find MRE wrappers and more. I swear, he left that pile right in the middle of the way down just so I’d step in it. Ugh, going to take forever to clean that out from under my boot. And yet, no Doc. Nothing in the platform, and the doors to the rest of the track were firmly shut.

The hologram found us on our way up, the drone not having to worry about stepping in any slick, stinky piles left by my old friend. “Emperor Gecko, there is a situation.”

The hologram intendant led me to where they were dragging Silver Shark out of the water. She was missing a foot, a fin, and she had a scalpel jammed through her throat. More than that, she had coordinates carved on her back with the note, “Come alone or the girl dies.”

I mean, I could bring people along. It’s only Citra. He didn’t even get Qiang. Maybe he expected to send her off the island. See, it’s those paternal instincts why my kid’s still alive and his is dead. But soon, oh so soon, I’ll have to arrange a reunion for them. Because I am going to find him, and I’ll find him a grave man.

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Break It, Bought It 4

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I’ve finally uncovered the geothermal plant that used to power the island nation of Ricca. The records at the Institute of Science led me to a mundane-seeming shoe store. The first hint had to be the name. “Gary’s Shoes,” is a bit unusual in a melting pot island of the entirety of Asia, but we do have the occasional Suparman among the names around here. I looked at the place, and doublechecked the address in the files I downloaded. Other than some dried, broken eggs smeared on the display window.

I waved over a work gang. Not prisoners, by the way. See, some of the people at the National Constituent Assembly were workers around here who formed protective gangs to see to their neighborhoods’ safety. Blue collar guys. Just the sort of folks I need heading down there to look in on the place, with a smattering of some other types I’ve seen milling about. The Institute had files on some of the military for potential testing purposes. They wanted to enhance loyal soldiers. Disloyal soldiers could also be used for other reasons.

These guys didn’t want to be exposed to mob justice. I didn’t want them there either, so long as they weren’t the type to go shave the skin off people’s feet and electrocute them. There’d be grudges involved that could mess with all this. It wasn’t easy to pick all this out, though. The high military command center had been in the part of the palace that I sent off into the ether, and I’ve found that the military barracks didn’t keep detailed records of who was torturing people. In retrospect, most of regimes don’t do that for this sort of reason.

So we had to work on trust. Trust, body cameras with a live view, and microexplosives. Because, as Al Capone once put so famously, “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.”

But more than kind words and guns, people like food. I’ve been looking into that. When the island lost power, a hell of a lot of food couldn’t be kept. Add onto that the collapse of social order and no peacekeeping force, and things got rough.

I stopped by Cape Diem to get a better look at their side of the operations. The food kitchen is one thing. I’ve seen some cyborgs there, and other types who come up as Riccan military, but I’m not going in there to drag them out. I got my ass kicked bad enough by the Claw, and I think Titan’s still tougher than him. I survived the Claw. I wouldn’t even call that one a victim. I just arranged the circumstances for him to lose even harder.

Before I go in there, I’ll see if he can meet with me about talking to any of them.

They’re giving out food for people to take home. In fact, it seems like they’re doing that more than they’re feeding people now. Last time I looked, the situation was reversed. Having power changes everything. Doesn’t keep the broken record from sounding any less annoying.

As I watched, the Titan flew back into the camp, carrying a huge liquid storage tank on his back. Other flying superhumans arrived with him, carrying people, hoses, axes. One of them rushed someone over to a tent decorated with all sorts of symbols denoting its medical usage.I tracked the direction they came from with some “TV satellites” who only sell those channels to the CIA. They had been firefighting.

I owe these guys a lot, so I slid on up to the border of their camp and waited. After several minutes and one failed game of HUD Solitaire, Titan approached. Big guy. Andre the Giant would have to look up to him. Bulging with muscle behind skin a dark blue, except where orange showed through around the eyes, fists, and some parts of the wings. The fiery eyes made it hard to look them in the eyes.

He brought a little drone with him that projected a see-through hologram of an androgynous person lacking most details.

“Emperor Psycho Gecko,” said Titan.

I nodded. “Titan. And while the Emperor part is nice, it’s not strictly required. In fact, seeing how well y’all have done organizing here, I had a proposal for you.”

One offer of an emperor-ship and long, uncomfortable round of laughter later, Titan calmed down and looked to me. “I appreciate the offer, but no thank you.”

I waved it off. “Think nothing of it.” Bastards. “But I owe you a debt of gratitude for all you’ve done for the island. Don’t take it badly if I’m trying to get make y’all useless for here, but I’d like to set up something where we help you out with land or other resources once you’re done helping out.” I offered a hand. Titan shook it. Some press people from Ricca’s propaganda office took photos from in hiding nearby.

They had been in the Institute’s directory, too. Something about microchips and implanted cameras. I swear, cybernetics are to Ricca as guns are to the United States. The right to bear metal arms, or a third arm, or even a metal laser scorpion tail.

“I”m especially glad to see you picking up the slack for us while I get stuff organized. That person brought back earlier, any idea how they’re doing?” I asked.

Titan cocked his head thoughtfully. “He should pull through. We have a fine medical team, including an amazing surgeon who just joined us. If you’d like, I can send an adviser over to wherever you’re governing from now to help coordinate with you.”

I projected a Cheshire grin on the outside of my helmet. “Fantastic.”

“He turned to the hologram person and said, “I think we wanted to start with making sure the food is actually getting to market. We’re just having trouble negotiating with the people at the Imperial Agriculture Mall. They don’t trust us, but you’re the leader. Have you stopped by there?”

“I hadn’t,” I admitted. I was trying to find actual farmers, and hadn’t known what to make of the place. It looked too corporate and clean, talking about the most advanced farming techniques in the world. You know, bullshit. Propaganda. Something the old North Korea would build to give visitors pamphlets about how they had real farming just like the big boy countries, meanwhile half the people look like they caught Anorexia Plague.

That little meeting inspired me to see them after all.

The Mall lived up to its name in appearance from the outside. I knocked on the door and found it shoved open with a half dozen double barrel shotguns shoved out against various parts of my body. “Easy there,” I said. “And whoever’s holding that one real low, I’d appreciate you not attempting to feminize me. Not that you could.” That last comment caused someone to cock a gun loudly for a threat. What still bothers me is that none of these guns had pump action.

A man’s voice called out, hinting at age. “Who is it? We don’t want any solicitors! You see the sign?” One of the shotguns edged toward the side. I turned and saw a sign, written in Ricca’s pidgin. “Private Property: Trespassers make great fertilizer.”

“I’m the Emperor,” I said.

“Emperor?” asked the voice from inside. “What Emperor?”

“Of Ricca. You know, this country you’re in?”

“Oh, that Emperor.” The door opened and out stepped an older Caucasian man in a set of overalls and a straw hat. “Howdy there, Emperor. My name’s Old Man Hoodless, but you can just call me Old Man.” He grabbed for my hand and shook it enthusiastically. “This is some mighty impressive armor, son. Mighty impressive. Come on in and meet the family!”

It was a lot to take in. The “family” turned out to be people of all ages and colors, dressed in simple clothes. Some of the guys had really long hair. A pair of young women had flowers in their hair. Another one had a tie dye shirt on. “Hippies?” I asked. The one with the tie dye raised her eyebrow and a gun that pointed upward at the ceiling. “Not quite hippies,” I added.

“I’m Tideflower Rainbowheart,” said one of the young women, stepping forward. “We welcome you with this laurel and hardy expression of love from Gaia and the Spirit of Humanity.”

I took it and threw it on top of my helmet while browsing lists of cults. “Nice to meet y’all. It’s nice to finally get over here, but we hope soon to have it where y’all won’t be aiming guns every which way to fight off bandits or anything. The island is slowly coming back to order.”

Old Man Hoodless put a hand on my shoulder. “Mighty fine armor, boy, but we ain’t armed on account of bandits. We got to protect ourselves from them damn puth varmints! We heard chatter from our spy they’re launching a unilateral attack.”

Puth…no, PUTH. People for the Unethical Treatment of Humans. Militant offshoot of PETA that kills people’s pets and farm animals. Unlike PETA, they also kill plants, since they’re smart enough to do math and communicate by sound, figuring that humanity will be better off once it has nothing to eat. Since they don’t want to be hypocrites, they also murder people so they won’t slowly starve to death in pain because all their food is gone.

From outside, I heard an explosion. Old Man Hoodless raised his gun. “Okey dokey, let’s bust a cap in these PUTHies!”

The family scrambled to their positions, opening up small windows to fire out.

I raised my hands. “Please, people, there has to be some peaceful way to resolve this!”

Everyone looked at me until I started laughing at my own joke. Then I turned, reopened the door to go out, and instead fell underneath the pounce of a lion. Its fangs glanced off my helmet before it lowered its maw to my throat. I grabbed its jaws before they could close on my neck. While it wouldn’t be penetrating my armor anytime soon, a lion could easily crush a human windpipe with its mouth. A Gecko’s armor, though, can tear the jaw off a lion. I opened its mouth so wide, its head came off. Then I wore that as a hat as I stepped outside.

A helicopter had landed in front of the compound, moving its floodlight over me to highlight me and mess with my vision. My armor and eyes collaborated to dampen my light sensitivity so I wasn’t blinded. A half dozen men and women had spread out, aiming guns at the place. Something about the light made them seem eerie for a moment, faceless men with guns, until one of them shouted and broke the spell. “You monster! You murdered one of nature’s most majestic creatures!”

“You brought it to a fight!” I yelled right back. “But if you like animals, I got a chicken for ya!” I pulled out a chicken grenade, tore its head off, and tossed both into the helicopter. I don’t know if the ones who jumped on my cock thought they could save it or because they instinctively figured out what it was, but they weren’t fast enough. The helicopter went up, along with four of the attackers.

The others didn’t let that stop them. Once we all managed to get back to our feet, the remaining four raised their guns. Three of them were immediately blasted off their feet by the Family. The last one pointed at me and sent a flock of hummingbirds after me before his head exploded courtesy of Old Man Hoodless’s complementary buckshot sampler.

The hummingbirds swarmed me and tried to find an opening to peck me, but I grabbed my cape and used it to gather them all up around me. I stopped, dropped, and rolled around, crushing the angry, pointy little birds under my body.

“Good job, I reckon,” said Old Man Hoodless as he helped me up. He brushed off my shoulder, then turned to everyone. “It’s safe to come out now. Let’s give thanks to the great spirit of humanity for this blessed day!” The rest of the Family stepped outside and joined hands in a circle to sing with me in the middle.

“For a bunch of hippie-like people, you’re not that concerned about the loss of life?” I asked once they’d finished and the Old Man showed me in. He had most of the others run off to gather up the corpses while a little girl ran ahead of us to go fetch tea.

“We’re not hippies,” Old Man Hoodless insisted, then swung a door open out of the lobby area and into an elevator with clear sides. It shot up to show me their Mall.

The area of the mall would be large enough for a conventional farm the size of, well, a mall. This wasn’t just farmland under a roof. It was like a parking garage of crops. One floor might be wheat, the ceiling a set of UV lights mimicking sunlight. Next, corn, or rice, or an orchard. Drones flew about, tracking everything. I saw a floor where they flitted about the trees, removing applies in swarms and delivering them to a basket.

They even had layers with animals like cows, chickens, and goats, even sharing their environment with a few plants they wouldn’t mess with. More of this Family were shoveling shit and transferring it to other layers.

“My Family believes in old-fashioned values of hard work and returning to the land,” said Old Man Hoodless. “As well as communal childrearing, communal property, and communal bathrooms.”

“Any problems with people sharing bathrooms with someone they’re attracted to?” I asked.

He scoffed. “People are shitting in there, gotdangit! It’s no place to fall in love.”

“I’m surprised you’re using drones,” I said. “Returning to the land and old-fashioned hard work, ya know…”

“That’s fool talk. Just because we’re returning to the land doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Technology and science are a gift from the Spirit of Humanity, sent to help lead us to a self-made promised land on Earth. We spread the good food, then the good news. I like to think it works better. You think the Amish could put together an operation like this?” He pointed through the window at members of his Family shearing several llamas.

“Clearly not,” I said. Almost as if in response, the elevator quickly returned to floor level, where the door opened to reveal the young girl from before holding a cup of tea for myself and a mason jar of it for Old Man Hoodless.

Hoodless grinned as he took his from her. “Ah, my youngest here knows her way around the kitchen.”

“Your daughter’s a lovely girl,” I said as a meaningless compliment, but Old Man Hoodless shook his head.

“My youngest wife. We accept that the Spirit of Humanity doesn’t want us to deny ourselves as many lovers as we wish to take. The last guy who talked to us from the guvmint used to threaten us over it.” He squinted at me.

I shrugged. “Hey, so long as it’s consensual, I don’t care who you’re nailing. Just not the animals, please. As this one vampire once said, ‘If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.’”

“Hot damn!” Old Man Hoodless clapped me on the shoulder, his hand lingering a little longer than I’d have preferred. “I can’t wait to tell my husband!”

Seeing as I’m not so much into old men who like touching me, I changed the subject. “You’ve been growing a lot here. Did you lose it when the island lost power?” I held the tea up to my helmet and activated a new function I’d added. A straw extended down into the cup, though an interior filter system tested it first for anything harmful.

He took a big sip of his. “Naw. We got backup generators and big freezers. Been keeping everything stored up, waiting for things to get better. We had ta run off all sorts of folks wantin’ what we got. We didn’t want to send it to market only to get shot up without enough people keepin’ the peace. We had so many bodies for the soil, we had to hang some of them up in the freezers.”

Analysis complete: just tea. “Well, I’m the new law in town. The new Emperor. And I’m happy to help y’all spread the good food to the people of my island. And if anyone thinks to gorge themselves, well…” I looked up to see some of the Family wheeling the wheelbarrows over toward the elevator.

Old Man Hoodless held his arm out. “Pardon us. As Gaia feeds humanity, so too does humanity feed Gaia.”

I nodded to him and stepped out. “I think we’ll get along. I also enjoy the occasional bit of farming. Sadly, with all the idiots I’ve planted, none have grown into a dumbass tree, and none have had a green thumb I could rip off to replace mine.” I turned back to him after we’d let the cultists and the bodies hit whatever floor they were going to and swapped hands with the tea. I went for a handshake. “I’ll supply the murder, the guards, and the market. You supply the food. How’s that for a deal with the devil?”

Old Man Hoodless grinned and took my hand, shaking it firmly. “Provided you’re as blind to our religious freedom and recruitment as the last feller, I think it’s mighty fine. Yessir, mighty fine indeed. A’course, we’ll remember the man who made our holy mission possible when we join with Gaia and the Spirit of Humanity.”

And once again, the day is saved, as I officially team up with a murderous cult to protect the proud nation of Ricca. On the other hand, I think I’ll hold off on taking Qiang to see all the animals. I’d really hate to have to kill my main food growers. I’d do it, but I would not be happy. Welcome to Ricca; enjoy food fresh off the cult corpse pile.

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Deep Cover Mudskipper 8

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Now, while it may be everyone’s dream to live in a palace with their two beautiful Asian servants and their kidnapped Asian daughter, but getting into that position creates several problems. Might raise a few questions about myself and race, too. Nonetheless, it simply wasn’t going to work for long. The power was off and order had collapsed on the island.

For most people, that wasn’t such a big deal. Your average person is more concerned with living their life, paying the bills, and eating their dinner. Except the biggest employer just fled the island, I cut the power, and any criminal elements on the island are running around, fully aware they can get away with murder. Well, unless the Dimension Rangers get them, but what are they going to do about it? They’re used to killing monsters and mutants. It’s a bit harder to justify cutting someone in half when they’re a toaster thief just trying to support their son Daquan.

The boss is gone. Now most people don’t have jobs, and those that do won’t for long because most of their customers don’t have jobs or they can’t do them without electricity. People are afraid to go out unless they’re in armed mobs, and that mistrust means killing people over misunderstandings that used to be part of everyday life. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that was my pack of cookies. Please don’t lynch me.”

I don’t even know where they get their food here. If they imported most of it, this place is all going to starve. If they grew it somewhere around here, they need to get gas into trucks from storage to get it where people can eat it.

In short, I kinda fucked an entire island over.

I think any militaries interested in getting back at Ricca realized something was up, too. They didn’t open up on the place as wildly as one might have expected. Instead, a day after I forced the Claw and his people to retreat, people showed up to offer aid. It’s a little hard to get good information without being there myself, so I can’t tell if the first to show up were the Yakuza or Cape Diem. Cape Diem is an international aid organization run by the Titan. He takes heroes and villains alike, doesn’t mess with politics or crime, and instead focuses having people with powers help those around the world who are in much worse situations than your average Gotham City. As for the Yakuza, it wouldn’t be the first time they provided aid after a disaster to ingratiate themselves with a populace. The arrival of either group might be an attempt by international forces to establish a beachhead.

Soon after they arrived, there was a brief clash. The Dimension Rangers attacked the Cape Diem camp, maybe looking to get one of the villains taking refuge there. Ricca left plenty of people with superpowers and cybernetics behind, and not all had their brains washed with the Unity drug.

I was out keeping track of things, having already confiscated all the supplies I needed from the residence wing of the palace. A group of five young men and women approached in color-coordinated clothing, looking all around as a telekinetic in the Cape Diem uniform planted a perimeter fence in the ground. They looked to the food tables, pointing to someone in the middle of a bunch of kids and old people. “Ranger Dimensional Enforcement Team, Go!” they called out. A blast of light engulfed them. The light dissipated to reveal them in armor that could be confused with spandex. As they posed, the ground exploded behind them and destroyed a part of the fence the telekinetic had just put down.

All the people eating noticed the explosions and fled, while more uniformed Cape Diem personnel ran up. These guys had a band across their chests and arms that read “Security” in multiple languages. Before they could step in, something flying overhead cast a shadow over the land. A large man landed, the ground shaking under his boots. He stood up, tall as a semi and built like one to boot, with dark blue skin highlighted by orange, especially where bone showed through on his wings.

“First warning: do not attack my people,” he said, eyes glowing.

The red one spoke up. “You aren’t going to hide the unjust forever. That man is thief, and almost a murderer!” He pointed to the now-abandoned tables.

“A warzone is the wrong place to discriminate against people for what they have to do to survive. Stand down now and leave now. You only get one pass.”

The Rangers posed, then weapons appeared in their hands. They charged, but Titan swept his wings forward and knocked them all over. He jumped forward, grabbed each of them by the leg, and threw them to the other side of the island. I guess he was serious about giving them a warning. On the one hand, it’d be fun to see him sent after the Riccan government in North Korea, but I managed to pull this one out pretty well.

I didn’t have much time to worry about that. While the main action is going to be in North Korea now, I expect we’ll get plenty of people showing up here to loot the place. Thar be science in them thar hills!

I returned to my section of the palace to see the younger of my two lady servants running back to the main bedroom. Curious, I fingered the water bottle on my belt and followed.

It was Qiang, sick in bed. And not just regular sick. Blood from multiple holes sick. The older servant kept her eyes on Qiang as she tried to smear more and more of the local nanite jelly onto her. “It isn’t working!” she yelled

I pushed them both out of the way, pulled off my gauntlets, and pressed my hands against Qiang and the jelly. She whimpered as I asked went in for diagnostic. The data being shared across the nanites showed a massive viral infection, and a foreign object the size of a pinky finger just below her heart. I reached down and pulled off one of the bottles of my nanites and poured that into her mouth, making sure they dug into her. These were more highly concentrated than what the Riccans normally used, and better programmed for delicate work. I diverted some to keep her stabilized and fighting whatever this was.

Over the course of the next couple of minutes, the majority of the additional nanites examined the object and pushed it to the surface. I tore open Qiang’s shirt just before they opened her skin, pushed it out, and closed it up again without a scar. It was hollow, with a nub right next to the opening. When I cracked that open, the nub turned out to be there just to prevent me or my daughter from connecting to the small system inside, which was a simple remote opening system. Something sends a signal, and it pops open. That’s it.

“Traitorous bastards,” I said, aware of the irony. “They left a little something in case I turned on them.” I took a swallow of my other bottle of nanites and sent them to look all over for a similar foreign device, starting in the same area. They almost immediately found infection by a similar virus already. Lethargy, too. And I’d gotten really damn sweaty. “I think I need a lie down too,” I said, settling on the bed next to Qiang with my armor on. It really wasn’t the time to leave it off.

I caught the virus relatively early, but the thing was designed to hit hard and fast. I still ended up in bed there next to Qiang for almost a day, with a bit of light hemorrhaging. Just like treason, even a little bit is still enough to cause major problems.

The servants stayed by us, bringing food and dealing with all the smells. I don’t know why, but I’m going to find them something large and golden to keep for that. Maybe gemstone-encrusted. Regardless, I owe them for looking after myself and Qiang. I certainly owed them their lives. I tried to tell them. “You don’t have to stay with us. The Empire is gone.”

The older one looked to the younger one, who bowed her head. Then the older one put her hand on the chest of my armor and leaned down. “My lord has been good to us. I know what happens to women with no place to go in a lawless land and what you did not do to us. If we leave, who will protect my daughter?” She turned to look back at the younger one and held her hand out. The young lady moved forward and took it. “Her father left us behind when the Emperor evacuated. Do you want revenge for what he has done to you and your daughter?”

I nodded. Her smile was thin as she looked into my eyes. “You will need us to deliver news of your death.” Hard to argue with that, especially when I was busy trying not to shit my pants and hoping Qiang would still pull through. Then she added, “My daughter will need an ambitious husband. Our lives are the playthings of heaven no more.” That raised my eyebrow, though she patted me on the head and left to go get some more soup, leaving me in the room with her blushing daughter and an awkward silence.

The next morning, the younger one was tending to us, giving Qiang a sponge bath, when I heard crashing from the outside. The older maid ran in and locked the door behind her. She ran around the bed just before a scooter broke through the door. Seriously? They really skimped on the craftsmanship in this place. The guy wearing the moped stopped it and a couple more people joined him. All of them wore denim jackets. The one on the left had a top knot and pulled out a katana. The one on the right raised a spray can to spray his pompadour, then pulled out a lighter. The one who busted down my bedroom door sported a mohawk made of Tesla coils sticking out of his head.

I bent over Qiang to grab my gauntlets and slide them on. “What do we have here?” asked the scooter rider as he looked everyone over. I think he asked it first to be intimidating, then he noticed me there. “One of the nobles who left us to fend for ourselves?” I put up my gauntleted dukes, but he laughed and said, “You brought fists to a lightning fight.” Electricity crackled up his coils and then arced at me.

I caught it with my gauntlets, the instantly charging them. I jumped right at him, a punch to his torso turning him into a giant splatter of red. Noticing I’d gotten between his buddies, I ducked. The pompadour goon sprayed flames over my back and screamed as the one with the top knot caught him with a slice of the katana.

“Ooh, a swing and a miss,” I said. I stood and yanked the katana out of top knot’s hands, then threw him out of the room. Pompadour was too busy putting pressure on a wound in his shoulder when I picked him up and carried him back out. “We didn’t start the fire,” I sang, badly. He raised the can toward my face along the way, but I bit his hand and he dropped it. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning.” I then tossed him on top of the rolling, screaming friend of his and pinned him there with the katana, sticking them together. “Shishkebab’s almost done!” I called back to the room.

“Dad?” called out a voice I hadn’t heard except in whimpers for the past day. I made it to the bed again in an instant, hugging Qiang to me. “What happened?”

“You got sick, then I got sick, then some bad people broke in. Then they got very sick.” I paused, hearing the screams still coming from the other room. “Very sick. But we’re both a lot better now.” I looked over the two servants. “And we’re going to be leaving here soon, when you’re feeling better.”

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“North Korea. Daddy’s going to teach you how to assassinate people.”

And while all air transport is gone, I know some of the other nobles of the Riccan Empire have to have their own boats. I don’t even need a yacht. Just enough to take me, a kid, and enough food and water to make it there. “But first, I’m going to need get clean.”

I drew my own damn bath and peeled my armor off there, dumping it aside to be cleaned later. The door opened behind me and someone stepped in, someone heavier than Qiang. “You know, we can drop the whole ‘my lord’ business. I don’t need someone to wash me.” When arms wrapped around my chest, I sighed. “And you don’t have to do all that because your mother wants to hitch your wagon to mine.”

I turned to find it was the more muscular one looking up at me with a smile. “I have needs of my own.” She shoved me back, where I tripped over the edge of the jacuzzi and fell into the water. As she stepped up to the edge of it herself and began to undo her clothes, she added, “She can have you when I am finished.”

I left that bathroom feeling less clean, actually. And I left the island feeling slightly less fucked. But only slightly.

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