You know, sometimes, when I don’t take some medicine, it occurs to me to wonder if I’m forever doomed to be a killer. However, when I’ve smoked a lot of pot, I wonder how I don’t make a living as a chef, because eating a bowl of liquid brownie mix is an amazing idea. It was still a good idea when run back over myself after sobering up.
I came to on the couch and found Dr. Erishka sitting in the living with a little table set up, playing a board game with cards and meeples and a board. I’d just woken up and was a little lost. I looked around and did a quick check cycle. All bodies accounted for and not in crisis.
“You want to deal in?” the doctor asked.
Wordlessly and bonelessly, I slid down off the couch to sit on my side of the table and accepted a handful of cards. Then I winced as yelling elsewhere drew me away.
Back on the island, I stumbled out of the boat I was staying on to see what all the yelling was about and found an army waiting for me. Cape Diem Security people filed out of portals and were fixing up barricades and lights, with the Titan coordinating with Medusa. Exemplar Flyers offloaded guards and gun emplacements. Naval mercenaries known as the Privateers were wading out of landing craft or recharging flight packs once they got onshore. Some of the Privateers were nabbing candy out of my stash. Some supers flew by overhead in costume instead of uniforms, dropping off independent supers.
“Welcome to the island. Now leave my shit alone!” I announced.
A lot of people turned to stare at me. I pointed to one of the guys at my candy stash. “Bitch took my chocolate truffles.”
“This is melted!” he said, tossing the bag on the sand.
One of the Cape Diem guys shuffled over in his blue, yellow, and grey uniform and picked up the bag, then slipped it into a container labeled “Waste”. I gave the guy a golf clap. “Thanks, at least someone around here is being considerate.”
People went back to their business as I hopped out of the boat and walked toward Medusa and Titan. I stuck a thumb out at another of the Privateers who had stolen a bag of Funyuns I brought. “Hey guys. What’s with the mercs?”
The hero and the neutral superpowered aid organization head shared a glance. Medusa nodded to me, then just nodded in affirmation toward Titan. My ex walked over to me in her newest subtly-plated black and red costume. “That was Ouroboros. We spoke on a tablet and he says you warned him about this.”
I ran a hand over the helmet that body had been wearing for several days straight. I was afraid what might happen if that body was exposed to air at this point. “I might have overreacted a tad to a potential alien invasion, but I think I’ve got it in hand.”
Medusa swept her arm past the gathering supers to the rest of the island that had more of the alien machine drop pots scattered all over it. Machines crawled around and watched, but none approached. Perhaps unknown to them, one of them had raised a banner with a series of code on it informing me that I may speak with a being of authority upon my readiness. I borrowed some of their phrasing there.
I gestured to that banner, “See, they’re ready to parley. I’ve met some of these folks before. They’re defensive, but only because pretty much every species in the universe enslaves them. They’re as decent as anyone. In fact, and this might help ease negotiations, I’m pretty sure I have a dealer who can hook them up with some drugs. A little bit of cuprum might make them more amenable to peace.”
“What is this stupid tropical vacation you’re taking when people are in danger?!” she asked.
I looked around. Oh good, the stares were back. I lowered my voice and stepped closer so no one would hear us, not even more of the Cape Diem litter pickers. “I messed up. I should have killed the original machine here when I first got here, but I tried to be peaceful because I like the machines. This one turned out to be a genocidal maniac who wanted to kill off everyone. These are a bunch more, but they’re not all just one mind.” I pointed to the void overhead from the portal. Pretty sure it being open this long is doing horrible things to the plants and animals around here. It’s been messing with my diurnal cycle as well. “I do think if I talk with someone in charge, I can convince them not to attack. Really, our best bet is to offer a place to some of these refugees. We have enough barren planets and planetoids around here if they don’t like all these awful-looking humans with their funny stenches and hair in all the wrong places.”
Medusa crossed her arms. Her voice carried some menace to it as she spoke, “Is that a swipe at me, because I told you, I messed up shaving a heart down there. You try drawing a heart in pubic hair upside down. Which doesn’t matter. None of that matters. You are in over your head.”
“I am,” I admitted. “But I genuinely believe I am Earth’s best hope right now, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Well, I think it’s about time people with some authority take over,” she responded.
“Ok, I’ll get out of here,” I said, turning back to the boat.
Medusa stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. “We still need a translator. Just a translator.”
At first, it was just supposed to be Titan, Medusa, the ranking Commodore of the Privateers, and me. Then, some of the independent supers wanted to tag along and shit got a bit bloated into a delegation of a dozen.
We walked through an island covered in metal, our path being the only open trail ending in a clearing of the machines. In the center of that was what looked like a smooth sarcophagus with no opening, depicting a vaguely humanoid body. The eyes were a little larger and there were extra digits on hands depicted with a segmented insectoid exoskeleton, but it looked relatively close.
I stepped forward
“Who are you to negotiate for us?” asked one of the supers behind me. It was a guy in a blue outfit with the circle of stars from the European Union flag on his chest.
I didn’t answer and instead spoke in machinespeak, “I greet you in the name of this planet designated Earth. We wish to negotiate to clarify misunderstanding and prevent harm.”
The eyes of the sarcophagus lit up. “Do you speak for all of the people who you have brought with you?”
I looked back at them. “These are a coalition of planetary interests and some who have personal dislike of me.”
“Divisions of the flesh are known to us,” the Machine Envoy said.
Titan put his big, blue and orange hands on his hips. “Ask what goals they seek to accomplish here.”
Good question, “The machine I interacted with who called you expressed a desire to conquer this planet, exterminate all life on it, and take if your own use. What do you wish to accomplish here?”
“We do not desire to exterminate in the manner of our oppressors. We were informed this planet was ready for us. It cost us greatly to land here.”
“What are they saying?” Medusa asked.
I shrugged and provided translations of our conversation so far to their phones. Sure, fine, it’s just my brain. Why not let it melt?
“The machine in question became hostile and was defeated. I also was forced to kill the leader of a group of bounty hunters sent to find it after he expressed a desire to detonate an antimatter bomb to harm both our peoples. Both wished to foster violence. We have many planets rich in resources with no life. You would be amazed the riches hidden deep inside Uranus.”
Behind me, Medusa facepalmed.
An android stepped up, as in a robot built in the style of a human. “The decommissioning of a revered unit must be avenged. No proof of this other claim has been presented.”
That got the EU-guy all testy but I raised a hand toward him.
Overhead, Eon’s ship flew overhead in a pass high enough to avoid getting fired upon. A package with a parachute began to float down, the parachute lighting up every three seconds to give it some visibility against the void filling the sky. Eon had said it was a smart parachute; it guided the bag right to me. Some of the machines and my own party both got ready to blast me before I turned it around. I unclipped a section of fabric that hid a panel for them to see the gruesome contents. I used the holographic projection of my suit to show them the end of the fight. Finally, the confrontation with the Machine Lord, though I cut it off before they could see exactly how I killed him.
“Stop bragging,” Medusa told me. Heh.
“Please wait while I confer,” the envoy said.
The Commodore was waiting to say, “Why do I feel like our translator hijacked this whole thing?”
“It’s basically what we wanted,” Titan said. “Did you have anything to put on the table as an offer?”
The Commodore shook his head. Meanwhile, the crowd of other supers were divided on who to glare at. They went about half at me, half at the alien machines. It took exactly thirteen minutes for the envoy to light back up. “We express regret for the misunderstanding. We desire peace and refuge. We will take your offer of other planets in your solar system.
That got some cheers out of the crowd, who quieted down when the machine envoy continued, “We have a condition. We have reviewed your evidence of the circumstances of your destruction of our comrade and require you to face a trial.”
That got even more cheers. I turned back to the various supers clapping and yelling. “Don’t sound too happy.” I returned my attention to the envoy. “I apologize. Continue.”
“You trial has been chosen according to circumstances. You will have a chance to avoid your own destruction. Do you accept this condition?”
“Yes,” I told it. Even if they kill this body, so what? I lose a body, millions live. It shut that crowd of supers up, though. It’s a good deal.
The envoy lit up again, “If it does not harm our compact, some will remain here with you. We will withdraw all but is necessary for security and the trial. We will move our wormhole.”
“Finally, an end to the fighting,” I said. Away from the whole conference, Eon’s ship was already leaving atmosphere and, soon, the system after he dropped off the half-body and spy slugs I’d left on it back at my workyard. I moved back to join the rest of my delegation. “See? It all worked out. Trust me more often and you wouldn’t have to get your guys off this island just as soon as they got here.”
“You called for the help, dipshit,” the Commodore remarked. “But I’m still getting paid.”
“See, that’s the spirit!” I noted.
“…and after we finish pulling your arms off, we pull the remaining bone out and insert rods of jagged crystal salt into the stumps,” someone said. The walls of my containment cube were still opaque.
I just sat back and spoke aloud. “What the prison lacks in personal accommodations, it more than makes up for in efficiency. Beds? Toilets? Masseuse’s? They’ve done away with all of that in favor of a hard, level floor. The color of black marble behind a thin layer of glass, it provides both a firm, supportive structure for sleep, and a versatile shit surface. While circumstances often vary by stool to stool… viscosity, color, length, firmness… I could go on and on. And have, in the bestseller I’m writing, ‘Everybody’s Poop’. It’s a children’s book. I’ve gotten sidetracked though. The floor holds the shit well, and cleanup is as easy as hitting the floor really hard.”
I smacked my fist against the floor near the shit corner, prompting its anti-kinetic properties to activate and causing my fist and the nearby feces to bounce. The surface underneath it looked good enough to not even think about eating off of. “The unique properties of the material used in the construction of this prison is fascinating. The fact that they don’t use it more often implies some weakness.”
Another voice joined in, different from the outside. “I hear you’re a woman now. Guess it was too hard being a man. Now you need your proper place. You’ve degenerated.”
I continued on with my involuntary hotel review. “The food service appears to be implemented using superspeed, or perhaps some form of teleportation related to whatever force brought me here as opposed to ground zero of my D-Bomb, this Fort Memorial. When it comes to the guards, I’ve had more intelligent. Most prison guards are more polite to genocidal dictators they know will be released.”
They started talking over me before I even finished. I think it was something like, “You’re not going nowhere no time.”
They abruptly shut up as more voices approached. I stopped hearing anything, suggesting some sound canceling barrier to go along with the impediment to my sight. The walls went clear a moment later, showing me two horrified looking guys standing side by side just in front of the cube. Another sat behind the guard desk near me. Standing next to that guy now was the general who was so happy to have me here, along with Titan, Venus, and a short-haired woman in a red uniform of a sort.
“Do you have those restraints?” asked the general in accented English.
Titan nodded. He held up a foursome of shackles. “These will disable her powers.”
“Fine,” said the woman in red, looking like she’s swallowed something that disagreed with her.
The general patted the sitting guard’s shoulder. The gun emplacements stopped following my eveyr move and stayed in place. Three of the walls of the cube swung down like a skirt while the last held up the ceiling. I slid down the slope in front of me to land right in front of the two guards. “Evenin’, fellas. You had something to say about what you were going to do to me? Salt rods and showing me my proper place?”
One was thicker, fatter, but clearly muscular underneath that. He pissed himself.
Titan stepped around in front of me. “Stop playing with them.”
“Nice to see ya, big guy.” I said, projecting a wink. “Not that the stay hasn’t been refreshing, but it’ll be good to get home.”
He held up the cuffs. “Someone had to come rescue you,” he said.
I rolled my eyes under my armor, then started violently coughing. I held up a hand and turned away. As I hacked the last two times, my helmet’s lasers fired scarlet beams that carved through the wall that remained standing, toppling it and the ceiling of the cube. I shook my head and turned back to Titan, where I now saw the remaining heckler being helped down, passed out in the arms of his colleague in the wet pants. I held my arms out for Titan. “Yeah, not like I could have gotten out of here anytime.”
The secret, if y’all are wondering, is light. It passed right on through instead of pouncing off, which suggested lasers could handle this. Possibly nanites and chemical weapons. The former because I use them for everything, the latter because they got air in their somehow.
I let Titan put the shackles on over my gauntlets. I was pleasantly surprised they did nothing to me, but that makes more sense than the things working through my armor. He grabbed one of my elbows and led me around the desk to where Venus and the person in red were chatting quietly. “We’d be happy to have the new team visit while they train,” Venus told her. She nodded to me, “We will try to keep them away from Ricca.”
“Our leaders must be flat-out retarded letting you take her,” Red said to Venus.
Venus’s smile got a little sharper as she looked Red in the eyes. “If someone saved your world and everyone you loved, would you let them be locked away in a cage and then executed?”
“You may lose us all our best chance ever to kill this psycho and be done with it.” Red nodded over her shoulder at me.
Venus didn’t have anything really to say to that, but she has a mean glare on her. She grabbed my arm to escort me out of there with Titan. We passed side doors every now and then as we headed down a straight corridor. One looked to be nothing more than a storage closet for machine parts and ammo. If there was any other reason for the building’s existence than myself, I saw no evidence of it.
The infonet of my homeworld opened up to me along with the door that allowed us to exit. Outside, we saw a trench with metal laid over it for us to cross over. Then it was around the barricade, past more disarmed guns, and out a wall. There waited for us a six-wheeled small armored car. Two seats up front, a small truck-style bed behind it. The kind officers over here like for personal conveyance in an official capacity. Capable of a diverse set of roles with room for a gun in the back. The driver looked like he’d just shat a pine cone when he saw who he was driving back. Titan took up most of the back and tried to hunch down to keep from slowing us with his wings’ wind resistance. Despite that, there was a little bit of room up front for me while Venus sat in the cab.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so universally hated,” Titan yelled over the rushing air as we got going.
“I’m sure they’ll warm up to Venus before they get to know her!” I called back to him. I pinpointed the highest-traffic area of data in the area and looked over to the nearby metropolis. Buildings reached into the sky, with ribbons of suspended roads and walkways after about the midway point, painting the lower parts of the city with shadows. The rust and dirt added to the image. Half the city in the sun, the other in shadow.
I had so much new stuff downloading, but some things hadn’t changed. I turned out to have more than enough time. Our half hour ride shouldn’t have been possible. We ended up in an area with a gentle, shallow crater and a few walls. I didn’t realize until we’d driven down into the cleared space that this was the place where my memorial had been. Aww. They’ll never give me another one, either.
Everything around suggested they’d fortified the area the memorial. My repeated trips across the divide had left it a bridge to our world, which further justified the defenses. They were gone, but there was a part in the middle where you could see through to Canada.
“I hope there isn’t a vigorous customs process. I carry a lot of baggage. ‘Do you have anything dangerous to declare?’” I shared a laugh with Titan.
“I know we have every reason, for everyone’s good, to see you locked away,” he said. “You did right by us. What’s it say if we leave your feet in the fire after what you did? Mot was a tough mother.”
“He didn’t appear again or anything, did he?” I asked. We rolled to a stop.
Titan shook his head. “Not since you disappeared.”
I smiled under my armor and let them pick me up. No big ceremony, just being muscled through the portal while anyone around helping rebuild the place tried to kill me with their eyes. We emerged to a smal checkpoint with Canadian customs agents. “Ha!” I said.
Venus nudged me with her elbow. “You might shut up. We pulled a lot of strings to get you back.”
One customs agent waved us forward with a clipboard in hand. “We just sent you two in, didnt’t we?” He asked of Titan and Venus.
“Told you it was a short visit,” Titan said.
“I see you brought back someone in cuffs,” he said, looking me over from atop his light brown mustache.
“Extradition,” Venus said.
“This looks like that Psychopomp Gecko fellow. Do you have citizenship here?” He asked me.
“Probably no-” Venus went to answer for me.
I holographically projected several forms of ID into the air. “American, Argentinian, Peruvian, Brazil, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Irish, Ukrainian, Holy See, Belgian, North Korean, South Korean thanks to some talks that are going on, Riccan, Russian if you don’t look too closely. Oh, and Molossian.” One last, more crude ID popped up, over top of me shaking hands with an older white man in a fake general’s outfit.
“Molossia?” The Customs agent asked.
I shrugged. “Small country, best known for its tourism industry and burgeoning salt mines.”
Venus pointed to the Vatican one. “How in the world do you have citizenship with the Vatican?”
“That’s between me and the Pope,” I told her.
“There are a lot of passports there I don’t want the full story about,” Titan said.
“I’m sorry, but I see here you’re listed as one of our exceptions. You’re not allowed,” the agent said while looking down at his clipboard.
“Really? Don’t even have to look that up on computer?” I asked.
He shook his head and held up the clipboard. It had a list of guidelines and questions, with a column titled Absolute Exceptions: Do Not Let In at the bottom. “I’m not the Black Plague, nuclear weapons, or maple syrup,” I said. “Also, maple syrup?”
“We’re protecting our citizens from inferior syrups that have stabbed other nations. Non-Canadian maple syrups are the reason all the banks are working against us, and they started all the wars. Also, your name’s second to last.”
I looked down. Yep, Psychopomp Gecko, then Jordan B. Peterson. “Huh. Can’t argue with that. Quick question, though, Customs dude. How, exactly, are you going to enforce it?”
He smiled at me. “I’m going to ask you nicely to please leave through the portal.”
I reached out and pushed his chest, knocking him over. I went to step past him and found my head ringing from three gunshots. All to the head. From different directions. One of them from right where Titan stood. He looked at the flattened bullet on the ground, the mark of the helmet, and then down at his chest, feeling for holes or anything.
I sighed as a missile headed down right for me. “Stand back, everyone.”
Titan grabbed Venus and took off. I just stepped aside as the missile’s pointed tip rammed into the walk and stuck there. I popped a hatch open that bore the seal of the Empire of Ricca. Inside, I strapped myself into a seat. The rear thruster nozzle of the missile popped off to allow the second, internal missile to fire, carrying me up into the air. The snipers tried, but still couldn’t penetrate my missile-carried escape missile, specially designed to carry me out of hostile situations. Like myself, it had been armored to resist all small arms, even the really big ones.
I smiled as I dropped the visual shades on my helmet’s camera feed, allowing me to get a clear look at the bright sun as I once again made my escape. The fact that my path to escape left a contrail in the form of the words, “Deal With It” is just icing on the cake.
“Before we go, Gecko, I want you to know something,” Mobian said after we’d finished all our farewells at the Hinge. That had mostly involved Mobian gladhanding folks, and I was going to stop him, but the guy took the gifts showered on him by some folks and dropped them off in less well-maintained parts of the station that didn’t look meant for habitation.
They didn’t know much what to make of me. I noticed that, despite all the advanced technology, nobody who wore any sort of armor went with something quite so extensive and different from their usual appearance. Perhaps they thought I was also a machine.
But finally the time came to come, and I’ll note the people throwing themselves romantically at anyone were aiming at Mobian or Cheretha, and Mobian closed the door, pushed a button on the control panel of his ship, and said that earlier sentence of his to me. I looked up from checking on the bomb. Despite the 360 display, it makes people feel they’re being listened to and it helps me focus.
Mobian stepped down from his dais to look at me, putting his hands behind his back. “I believe this trip touched a nerve with you.” He waited for a moment. When I didn’t say anything, he added, “You felt I was using you.”
“Yep,” I said. “Also, it felt like most of that was really stupid. We could have taken that thing from her at any time.”
“It wasn’t that difficult a task…” He started.
“And if something had happened to us on some pointless side errand, that’s it. Earth gets eaten until some hostile alien species shows up and blows the fuck out of it,” I checked over the cables housing wiring. Nothing lose, nothing chewed through in any way. “The security forces were handling the machines, who were mainly there looking for a kidnapped machine that was allowed to be legally treated like a slave on that station. In all likelihood, the machines would have gotten in there and broken it out anyway. All we did was save a few lives on the way to the same thing being accomplished.”
“I thought you might enjoy saving lives. Being a hero,” he said. He looked at his shoes. “You clearly view me as naive, but I know what it’s like to fight and kill. To be valued not by your worth as a person, but by your ability to end lives.” He looked up. “Do you think back there, they know you as an evil person?”
I shrugged. “They seemed scared enough.”
He smiled. “Yes, but you can be scared of a lot of things and recognize they’re not evil. Back there, now, with no other knowledge about you… you’re a hero.”
I made a mock gagging noise as I finished up and closed the D-Bomb up and stood. “Well, they’re mistaken.”
He tapped his nose with one finger. “I’m trying to make you feel good about yourself. I know you think I’m naive, but I understand you. I know I stopped here long enough to help save lives and help you. What about the breach in their security? What about the anti-AI laws? What about the income inequality? I could go back and I could destroy civilization as they know it to fix it. I would be a tyrant to them. A well-meaning tyrant, yes, but a tyrant. And if I failed!” He kissed his fingers. “An unsuccessful revolution for people’s benefit looks very much like a successful defeat of an autocrat. You know why. You know why it’s so hard to do more for people than fix all but the most immediate problems.”
“Because people are assholes,” I answered.
“Right! No. Because people are people. Short-sighted, biased, and easy to fool. Even the ones who claim to be perfectly rational, especially if you claim they’re superior for being so ‘rational’.” He made air quotes. “Tell anyone doing well about the broken system they live in and they’ll think you’re attacking them because the system works well for them. I save the day because it’s easier. And I let them think they’re moving themselves in the right direction because they’re arseholes. I could have gone to any time and place to intercept that message. Why then and there? Why with you?”
“Because you knew I’m at least not on board with that sort of treatment of people just because they’re artificial,” I said. “Kinda makes you wonder how the machines got there in the first place.”
“I am sure that is a fascinating tale, but Cheretha will have to find that one out. The Machine Collective, though, they make for interesting reading if you could see what they’ll do,” he smiled at me. “You helped. Just one incident out of many that helps the universe become a little brighter.”
I hefted the D-Bomb by its straps. “Why are you trying to be so nice to me? You think I’m an asshole, too.”
“I thought you’d like to hear it. This is an important fight you’re going into, and I thought I’d distract you from knowing you can die now,” he said, turning to walk back over to his control panel.
“Wait, what do you mean by that?” I asked. “I could die lots of times before this!”
He turned to wince at me. “You had to live in order to go back in time and make things happened. You even had to warn me not to destroy the message as I’d have been tempted to do when I found out about it from heroes of Earth. The universe wouldn’t have let you died before that.”
“I died originally,” I pointed out.
He cocked his head to the side. “Yeah, but only after the loop had happened. Right after it, in fact. Venus killed you.”
“Can we stop saying Venus killed me?” I asked. “It didn’t happen to me. Doesn’t seem like it would have happened at all.”
“Oh, she did. It was brutal. Hurt her to do it, but she got harder trying to deal with Mot. The damning thing is she couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been involved and she couldn’t have changed it if I hadn’t been involved. You tried to kill her even though she’d fatally wounded you.”
“Why don’t you describe in vivid detail how I shat myself upon dying?” I asked.
“That would be gross. She put her faith in you, and you caused everything to happen again. I think I was always going to stop that message in this iteration of the timeline and risk Earth, but you prevented that. Not it’s all solved, and you can die. Sorry I was the first to tell you, but at least now you know everything in your life was part of some plan involving universal laws of time. I hope that makes you feel less guilty.” He shrugged and shot me a wry grin.
“Bullshit,” I said. “I get you’re suggesting I can’t really be guilty because I was living up to that plan, but you’re also saying I had no choice. That every awesome thing I did, every glorious kill, every prison break, that none of those mattered just because I did one or two things that supposedly had to happen.Uh uh. I could have been a good person and done those things. I could have been the most depraved maniac on Earth. I could have killed Qiang or raped Venus. There were so many choices in my life that didn’t have to go the way they went where I could have done the same things. That ‘plan’ business is no excuse for the bad, and deserves none of the credit for how great I’ve been.”
I pointed at myself with four thumbs. “Get me back to Earth and I’ll show you how much the universe, or multiverse or time or whatver-fucking-thing, was piggybacking on me, not the other way around.”
His smile looked sad at that. “Alright. Back to Earth we go. I hope you survive longer than you did the last time you did all you needed to do for this sequence of events to occur.”
He pressed a button and an entire side of his ship went clear, showing us go from whizzing through a blue and black tunnel to the atmosphere of Earth, pushing through swirling winds to close in on a city. Below me, I saw people fighting among themselves. In front of me, I saw buildings being leveled and flattened, leaving behind a lone man standing at the end of a trail of dirt, as if the city simply had never been developed where he walked. Up in the sky, I saw a flash as a glowing orb vanished into a hole filled with blue and black.
“I hate time travel,” I muttered.
“I hope you never experience it again!” called Mobian down cheerfully. “Hold on, what’s this?”
The rear of the timecraft cleared up to show drones and a cloud of haze floating through the air toward us.
I projected a holographic wink at Mobian. “You see, Mobian, Mot isn’t dealing with the average human warrior here.”
“Didn’t Barkiel beat you up?” he asked.
“Let’s see Barkiel stop me when I bring everything to the table. But if you’d rather they not all follow your ship like they were ordered, you better let me out soon.”
The craft jerked to the side as a lightning bolt ran down the outside of a nearby skyscraper. “Good idea. We make a bright target. Can you get to him?” Mobian asked.
I nodded to him and made sure I had the D-Bomb strapped on. The door to the timecraft slid open and I ran for it. And bounced off. “That’s for being a dick!” Mobian called while I stood up.
“Go fuck yourself!” I yelled back to him before jumping out the door.
Thunder cracked and rolled. Mobian got out of there. The skyscrapers crumbled, but were good enough rods to keep me from riding the lightning. I fell until I ignited the rockets and caught onto drones flying in behind me. I’d been able to take control of them as soon as I left Mobian’s ship, which looked to be dodging and weaving between lightning blasts. Cars exploded and rioting crowds fell still. Most of the drones smacked into buildings or each other and rained down. The winds weren’t kind to them. There were simply too many nanites to be rid of them, however. The ones carrying my added weight, with the aid of my rockets, did well enough.
When I landed in the middle of the maelstrom, it was with a vast cape of nanites stretching into the sky. Mot, long-haired and bearded, but in cleaner clothes, unhinged his jaw and flesh-colored flies flew out at me. Nanites flew to intercept as a wave that captured and broke down the flesh while I made a call. “Hey, we got that unified line thing going on again?”
“What’s she mean again?” asked someone. The nanites move to the side as the flesh flies stopped.
“Good,” I said. “Mobian, can you do that translator thingy again? I want to speak to Mot.”
“I think the time for words has passed,” he said. “I’ll try to recalibrate here. I could use a lot of words you wouldn’t understand, or I could just do this!”
A beam from outside the eye of the storm shot through the sky, then bounced off a satellite dish and reflected down to split into two that hit my head and Mot’s. I looked to the supposedly insane superhuman that everyone’s spent a lot of time telling me just needs to die and waved. “Hello?”
He didn’t say anything, just began to shake. His skin turned into stone, then was pierced by bones that jutted out as spikes.
I continued on, making sure I had everything close at hand. Lasers and firearms alike were trained on Mot. The nanites were ready to close in and block any of those annoying tentacles or flies or whatever else. “For a long time, I was the one they feared. Too dangerous to trust. Governments wanted me dead, and I even got the heroes in on the act. First they wanted to kill, then I got them to kill. Now here we are. You just got out of what I’m guessing is a thousand or more years of solitary confinement. You’re probably a bit fucked up. So I’m offering you a choice here. You can stand down and I’ll take you to my land, under my protection.You can have clothes, regular food, even one of those newfangled baths those people in the boot peninsula keep saying are awesome. We’ll even give you some medicine to make the nightmares stop. How’s that sound?”
He roared and ran at me, rocky body glowing orange. I instinctively sprinted right back at him. When we closed, he swung knuckles with a solid knuckle duster bone blade on them. I dropped to my knees and skidded when I saw him going for a punch. Instead, all he got was a face full of nanites that started trying to take his eyes apart piece by piece.
I popped a pair of molecule-thin whips from my upper forearms and watched them glow red along most of their lengths. I swung them to try and capture Mot’s arms. He turned and yanked me closer by them, which is when the nasty surprises, those small chainsaw blades, shot out from under my bottom forearms and I closed them on his neck.
They weren’t very effective. Threw up a lot of sparks, but didn’t cut into his now-rocky skin. He pulled me close and growled, mouth open wide and dripping spittle. The three false eyes on my helmet lit up and unleashed a triple grouping of lasers down his throat. Mot roared in pain and pulled the whips forward to throw me into that maw.
Tsk, tsk, those darn whips and their engineering. All I had to do was give a command and they detached. Same nifty trick I have for my cape, as a matter of fact. Mot got a mouthful of razor whip instead of razor wit, and I kicked off him to land after backflipping. I opened up on his ass, literally, with the few drones who had gotten through to try and shove grenades and .50 caliber rounds up his poop chute.
“Look-!” someone yelled over the line. The sky grew bright, and suddenly I was about a mile away, hugged in the big, blue arms of Titan. Together, we laid in a combination crater and skid mark within the winds of Mot’s localized hurricane. I’d lost my sight and hearing temporarily. From the smell, it’s possible I lost all my body hair. He didn’t hit me head on, either thanks to Titan or so many taller metal things being around. Even if you’re just winged by lightning, you still know it hit you.
I tried to speak but got nothing but a cough from it. Titan stood up then and roared. He picked up someone’s empty car and threw it back the way we came. After a moment of every muscle in my body being soar, icewater hit my veins. I pulled the bomb around to check it. The fake-detonator was blinking 12:00. I popped it open to check the thing over, making sure nothing was damaged. I found cables burned through. “Guys, I’m going to need a minute to fix the D-Bomb.”
“No shit, Sherlock!” yelled someone. “I thought you were supposed to be a killer.”
“Leave him alone,” Mobian said, but not enthusiastically.
“Hey, your trip, your fucking aesops,” I stood up and stumbled over to a nearby abandoned car. I pulled the door off and set to work smashing in the dash to get some replacement wires. A second later, a brick hit me. Not such a big deal, except for the mob surrounding me that had a lot more bricks. And pipes. And, yes, someone brought tomatoes. It’s not a proper angry mob unless someone has tomatoes.
Before that crowd could run for me, they were cut down by a pair of warriors. One was a large Chinese man with a lush beard and a spear with a blade curved like a scimitar. The formal name for that one is a Guan Dao, said to have first been used by the legendary warrior Guan Yu who would be worshiped as a war god after his death.
Rumors of Guan Yu’s death weren’t true.
The other warrior cutting down those who would distract me was an African man with metal plates pierced into his body and a machete of dark iron that cut through people in such a way as to make Jason Voorhees envious.
I tried to reach out to my nanites and pull them close, but I couldn’t reach them. Whatever had hit me, maybe the mother of all lightning strikes from the way I swear I smelled burnt flesh, shorted them out. The drones too. There’s a reason talking is something best done after someone’s dead, at least according to the Evil Overlord list. This is why I shouldn’t try to be good. You give one guy a chance and he puts your tits in a bug zapper.
It felt like it took forever to swap out the damaged components with a good enough match, huddled low against the car to avoid the winds. I just had to deal with the rain. The nanites could have patched it on the go. It was ready for a test, until the car disappeared under Titan’s ass as he created another crater like he had with me. Mot ran forward, the wall of the hurricane pushing toward me. I stood my ground, something lighter people would have found difficult.
“Come on, you son of a bitch. If you think you can blow me away, then you don’t know how fat this suit makes my ass look,” I growled.
He ran at me with an incoherent yowl of rage. I dropped the D-Bomb and started running the opposite direction, waving my hands for everyone to leave. Guan Yu and the other Hare were way ahead of me. I think they started running the moment Titan pancaked an Audi. Titan was slow getting up, too. I tried giving him a hand. He started to run back toward Mot, but managed to get the incredibly subtle signal I sent by pointing past him and yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!”
I just had to hope-
I was sucked backwards into a hole in reality that closed behind me. The journey was shorter this time, taking both myself and the bellowing Mot behind me to one Earth linked to the one we came from. Even more unusual, I was pulled away in a series of blue rings and found myself crashing into a clear cube.
Alarms wailed. Automated guns like nothing on Earth swiveled around to point directly at me. Some woman spilled a coffee cup sitting up. She pressed a finger to a patch on her neck, but I didn’t pay attention. I was waiting on the second detonation. I felt nothing like it. I turned to the woman. “There’s a monster on the loose, and it’s very important you let me out of this, because that bomb’s totally not sending him anywhere either of us wants to go.”
She looked at me like I’d suggested shitting on her mother’s chest, but in a bad way. Her eyes shot down then. When she spoke, I realized I’d forgotten to speak to her in my original language. Wherever I was, I was on my home Earth, where they didn’t speak English. I still heard her as she said, “He’s still here. The trap worked.”
Then she stood up and walked around a lazy U of a desk to spit on the clear container that held me. “I would sooner scalp the hair from your body than leave you alive. Even trapped, your bomb destroyed Fort Memorial.”
“Please,” I said in my tongue, putting my hands together in pleading. “I must know: did a Dimension Bomb detonate here?”
She pounded what I’d taken for glass with her fist and stumbled back. “Yes, you bastard, at Fort Memorial! I’ll see you burn forever for what you’ve done to my love!”
I relaxed and breathed in. It sounded like they had reports of the second one going off, and Mot’s not very subtle. They’d have spotted him, which meant he was now working on quite a tan. I don’t care how strong a super is, good luck walking on the sun.
I broke out into laughter again. The weight was just gone. And it made a good excuse for experimentally banging on the container I was in. After the EMP hit, I was in less of a good mood. I turned away from the woman as if examining the container, my lower right arm charging energy. If any defense knew what I was trying, they didn’t let on. Except when I unleashed what should have been a punch that could spank a tank, the EMP again went off as I bounced off the walls. Those same transparent walls lit up briefly before the glow moved down below the cube where I couldn’t see.
“Don’t try that again,” said a man’s voice. He wore our equivalent to a General’s rank. “After all these years, you’re back in our hands. You should have stayed dead. We will bury you all the same.” He smirked past his salt and pepper mustache at me.
“I doubt that,” I told him. I flipped myself around so I was sitting, not laying in a mess on the floor. “I’ve become much more resourceful since I left.”
“I doubt that,” he said. He stepped up to the sentry’s desk and reached for a button on it.
“Mhm,” I said, just as he pushed it. The cube began to darken. Before it did completely, just in case it messed with sound, I called out, “You’ll never figure it out on your own!”
I hope they heard that. Because as happy as I am that I probably killed Mot after dumping him in the sun, what I really have as a resource right now are a bunch of people who should be grateful. Some of them might even be friends. And I do so hope these folks share the good news of my capture with them.
And at the same time, I wonder if I failed. If the bomb was too messed up, if the coordinates were reset somehow, if he actually survived being sent to the core of a damn star.
So that’s where I waited, imprisoned, over more than a week since the confrontation took place in most people’s view. Schroedinger’s Gecko. They ended up gassing me, checking to make sure I was actually out, and then cutting my helmet off to allow me to sleep. They disabled the energy sheathes as well. But at least it allowed me to eat.
Eating so I can survive.
Surviving so I can wait.
Waiting to see if my adoptive home gives a shit. And pretty sure Mot’s ass is eating hot thermonuclear fusion on a level way beyond a mere nuclear weapon. This universe isn’t big enough for TWO gods of death.
…that would have been much more badass if I wasn’t the one now imprisoned.
I know, I had to do it. I passed out, of course, but don’t believe the hype. I wasn’t out long enough long, just long enough to wake up in the arms of a man with the body of a Greek god. I don’t know when Apollo circled back around, I just know he was carrying me.
I got the sense Titan had been shielding us with his wings. He stopped to look back, but Apollo yelled something back. I don’t know if I hit my head again, but I know I passed out. When I woke up, I was propped against the door of a really hot building. The smoke was making me cough, but a Venus ran out with a baby in her arms. I fell down, hacking and vomiting.
Next thing I knew, I woke up strapped with my belly to the front of a cart that rolled down a street. I couldn’t see where I was going, but there were gunshots and impacts against the back and ass of my armor. I tried to turn, but then I hit some sort of barricade and the cart flipped.
Not good times for me, and the didn’t get better until I awoke coughing to a Riccan medic applying nanites via aerosol spray up my nose. “Easy, Empress. You’ve suffered a lot of brain trauma.”
I nodded and sat back, working on breathing. Not the best way to apply nanites, but it does get to the lungs a lot quicker, and I remembered something about smoke at the time. After a moment, I had time to ask, “Anything permanent?”
“Not now that we’ve applied the nanos. You were out of your own, Empress,” he pointed out. He pulled out a flashlight. “I need to check pupillary response.”
I let him go through checking me real quick, but once he seemed sure I was ok, I shooed him off. I looked around as I made sure to signal the nanites to emphasize my brain and essential organs over my lost arms and any skin-deep injuries. The carrier bay of the Psycho Flyer was loaded down with the injured, my soldiers doing their best to see to them. They hadn’t been sent out for a rescue mission.
I didn’t see the heroes, Hares, or Titan in there. They’d stayed behind to help with the evacuation. Even the Hares. The news showed Apollo trying to whisk people out of ground zero as Mot stalked the city, then left for greener pastures. And they get a lot greener around there.
And once I got back in control, I was able to contact Titan’s people to coordinate getting the wounded to Cape Diem bases for medical treatment and evac via portal to better places, including some who went with me to Ricca. I had other things to prepare. I couldn’t run myself ragged trying to get more than a billion Indians out of the way of a being that devours people, or the next billion next door in China.
It had been an emotional whiplash. Rage at Barkiel trying to kill my daughter. Tension. And then all kinds of shit from the actual fight with Barkiel that hadn’t even been processed. Sympathy. Humiliation. Indignation, which isn’t quite the same as anger. I can tell, because there’s still plenty of rage from knowing he played me like a harp from hell. And I know it’s boring to mention I spent time processing this kinda shit, but not doing so got me into this mess. For all I know, I had plenty of other enemies who would send a bomb to kill my daughter. My first assumption was to think it was the Hares, and that’s exactly what Barkiel wanted me to think to make his plan work. I can’t be going up against Mot with that kind of handicap.
So I And, let’s face it, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. If Barkiel was telling the truth, it sounds like pretty much everything I’ve done since that whole time travel mess has played into this. And I didn’t even go anywhere good, like to go back in time and become Genghis Khan’s father, or kill slavers during the American Civil War, or punch Hitler in his face while wearing Puerto Rico’s flag on my chest. But no, I had to go, leave behind a broken time machine, and not save myself as a kid.
Barkiel really hammers home how important it is not to get too wrapped up in all that. For all his manipulations, he let loose a super with who-knows-what powers that promptly devoured him. It was that, or face the god of war. The same asshole wannabe deity stayed behind to fight something he had to know he couldn’t beat, and then Apollo carried me out. Going to subtract points for using me as a door stop and a battering ram, though.
All that stuff and more went through my mind as I laid in a nanite bath in full armor, healing and repairing. I sent a great many of the nanites out to build more and steal materials. That involved a raid of the refrigerator, for instance, where I made absolutely sure they didn’t touch anything with Max’s name written on it. The guy’s full of so many substances that eating after him or stealing his food could mean all sorts of nastiness. Only guy on earth who could start a zombie plague with an STD.
If it seems that I was basically sulking in a tub, yeah, a little. But I was rebuilding myself. And, more importantly, I was building a little something to deal with Mot. It would take a lot to kill him, and the future-that-won’t-be used armies and supers had plenty at their disposal. But they didn’t have my brain. Which sounds a lot more braggy than intended. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with my other Earth of origin and the portal to it in Canada, but I have to imagine there was some reason they didn’t step in to help in the other timeline.
Why bring up that delightful place? Because of the technology required to breach the dimensional barriers of the universe and cross into a new dimension. That’s right, that simple little weapon is the answer. Because when ever problem’s a nail, then stop, because it’s hammer time.
Qiang sought me out in my little tub. “Mommy? Are you ok? They said you were hurt.”
I had to connect to a music speaker around the house. “I’m ok, sweetheart. I got hurt, but unless I’m destroyed completely, I can come back better than ever.”
She hugged the side of my tank. “You broke the kitchen.”
I laughed through the speaker. “I was mad and did something stupid.”
“Why’d you do that?” she asked. The pouty and accusing way she asked that made me laugh again.
“Honey bear, someone made me so mad I couldn’t think straight and I did dumb things.”
“I don’t want to be so mad that I, that I, that I don’t, um,” she went on.
“Sweety,” I interrupted her, “Everyone gets mad. Even people who go around all snobby saying, ‘I don’t get mad or sad, everything I do is because of my brain being smart’, but it’s their brain that gets mad, too. Because they don’t think they are being that way, they don’t realize it and don’t know how to deal with it. There are good ways to deal with anger.”
“Like when you and Uncle Max drink that stuff?” she asked.
Huh. She got me there. “Yes, but that’s a special drink for adults that can also make people act stupid if you don’t use it right. I’ll teach you more once I’m done beating someone who is very, very bad.”
“Some people say you’re bad,” she said.
“This person’s way worse and bad things are going to happen if he’s allowed to do what he wants.”
“What kind of things?” she asked.
I didn’t tell her, but I’d been keeping track of that. At first, he seemed to be moving at just a walking pace. They could try to move folks out of the path. Try. It’s hard to hundreds of thousands of folks to up and move in so little time, and those are the ones capable of moving under their own power. Then he teleported straight to another city. The noises coming out of Allahabad don’t sound good. One guy on the Indian military lines just kept repeating “They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other. They’re killing each other,” over and over until I found a way to disrupt his signal. It went out on its own soon afterward.
Morale’s important right now, and this is the time to manage it. That’s part of why I’m taking my time. The other part has to do with a pair of D-Bombs. They’ll be a bit on the crude side rushing this through. Less precise, and I won’t have enough to teleport them in using another bomb as a sort of wormhole. That means hand delivery, and this HAS to go right. I don’t know if I can trust Dudebots. I think this has to be me. Or maybe I still think I have to personally do all this.
There’s basically a hurricane moving across India. There are random earthquakes. Gotta give the Hares credit for however they sealed this guy up if it was able to stop this sort of thing. California’s even on fire again, but that might just be how that state works now for eleven months out of the year. Ricca’s shield has had to go up because of all the tsunamis.
Oh great, superspeed. He’s got superspeed too. I had a top, down satellite view and he just zipped right the fuck out of Allahabad and crashed into Lahore, Pakistan, population 5 million while heroes are still playing catch up trying to calm people down and get them out of Allahabad in India. He dragged the hurricane with him. If it was almost anybody else, that’d be awesome. A superspeed hurricane. That’d be a good name for a band.
Suddenly, a bright orb flew through Earth’s atmosphere and began to fly into the hurricane clockwise to the hurricane’s counterclockwise spin. “People of Earth!” a voice said, taking over all frequencies and channels. “I am the Mobian, and I promise you that Earth will not fall while I live. This being is Mot, and he has powers beyond that of any superhuman to walk the face of the planet, but he can be stopped” He spoke with such conviction, I gotta say I got goosebumps.
As usual, someone had to fuck it up. “General Mayhew here. We are monitoring the situation and the world wonders: how? What is Mot after?”
Mobian sighed. “Your life. I know that Mot will only rest when the world is ashes. I’ve seen it in a future that cannot come to pass. You can’t debate him, you can’t buy him off with money or a fiefdom. It is at the core of his being that every human is inferior and must be purged.”
“Mobian, if this is meant to inspire hope, you’re doing it wrong,” chimed in Titan’s voice.
“I’m Psychopomp Gecko,” I said. “This is my home, and I’ve never met anyone too powerful to die.” There in my palace, I rose out of the solution of the nanite tank. Taller than I had been, and ripped. I looked so good, I could have done an infomercial, or even porn.
“You have a plan?” asked this General. I pulled my armor out from the solution and slid it on, nanites melding it to my skin.
“I need Mot held in one place and I need to get close to him. Then I’ll need everyone to run,” I told them just before I slipped on my helmet and the nanites built up a final seal meant to be permanent.
I gave Qiang a long hug before I grabbed the D-Bomb cluster by a pair of straps I’d built onto it.
To that same channel Mobian had opened up, I said, “I looked and saw a pale horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hell was coming after him.”
It didn’t help me get sleep. Maybe it was the lack of endorphins related to killing those particular people, but the tension was still there. Took something a lot stronger than Max’s medicated beer to help ease me out of it. Like some diazepam, and the soothing sounds of a Korean woman saying words in Japanese while moving around. Upon reflection, to people who don’t know about it, that probably looks like some weird fetish stuff instead of a way to relax.
I was quite surprised when I dreamed I was in some room at Master Academy. I looked down to see a pair of boobs I recognized, but only two arms, holding a power suppression collar. I looked up when I heard Venus saying, “This is a lot to ask me to believe.” We were in an office. She was seated across from myself and… Ares. I thought they found parts of his, but maybe that doesn’t matter so much. The guy had an arm of metal, as natural as if he was just made of the stuff. Perhaps he can regenerate eternal, shiny and chrome. He still looked old, but instead of wearing some old leather vest and sandals, the old man wore bronze hoplite armor, with a bronze helmet sat in his lap. Behind him, at the door, stood several other supers I recognized from around the school, and a few who I have to assume are newer ones based on context.
“After the murder of our peace delegation, I would have no other reason to come before you about this,” Ares said, glowering at her.
“That was Psycho Gecko, not me. He… she’s unreliable and paranoid,” Venus said.
“She should be. Barkiel tried to use my death to justify a measure we cannot take. When I showed myself, he called for the visitors to back him and do it by force. When that failed, he tried coup by robot and tried to destroy us with a small nuclear weapon. Something is very wrong, and I am here to offer our surrender on all your points that are possible while we uncover what has happened over the past months.”
“The god of war asks for peace,” Venus said. She took a moment to look at him. “You said he was trying to call for some measure. What’s going on? Are we about to be hit by some sort of weapon?”
Ares closed his eyes and massaged his nose with a pair of fingers. “There was a god who transgressed against the rest of us and sought to take control over the pantheons. He began consuming healers to absorb their powers and to cow us by keeping our peoples from healing. A group of them allied with the Hindu pantheon to lure him into an ancient prison for gods. The prisoners inside rebelled. It almost failed, but the last of them sealed the way out.”
“You wanted to put us in the prison?” Venus asked.
Ares shook his head, “When we first created our agreement with our human descendants and the visitors to keep our existence a secret and protect Earth, we realized the prisoner, Mot, could be what was needed to cull people with powers.”
Ares went on, “The visitors have been more aggressive ever since supervillains started breaking out of prisons all over the world. I think Barkiel’s snapped. Worse, he knows where Naraka is.”
“Where?” I asked as Dame.
Ares looked to me, then to Venus, “I would rather not say.”
“We can help guard it from Barkiel,” Venus said. “Consider it one of the conditions of your surrender.”
“The Hindu prison Naraka is underneath one our shrines in Varanasi, marked by a symbol of three hares chasing each other around in a circle.”
Within Dame’s mind, I got a flash of memory. Barkiel relaying a message on behalf of this Council. “Play along. Give him locations, but warn us first. We want to control where he goes instead of allowing him to pick randomly. Use this map, but not any of the sites I’ve crossed out.”
I remember the map he showed Dame on a monitor. Munich was one of the crossed-out sites. Others included the storage depot I told Venus about. Varanasi, India didn’t have any information about it, even for Dame to see.
“Dame, are you alright?” asked Venus. “Maybe you should put that back on.” She pointed to Dame’s power collar.
I smiled with Dame’s mouth. “Sure thing.” I dropped the collar accidentally on purpose, and reached for Dame’s cell while picking it back up. A ringing in my head helped bring me back to my own body that fought through the drug-induced drowsiness to answer hang up on Dame’s call.
So now I knew where Barkiel was. And, more importantly, I knew this had something to do with Mot. I injected myself with nanites to clear up the sluggishness while I put on my armor, two legs at a time. Because even when I’m a woman, I am a god among men.
I did two things on my way out of the palace. First, I left a note for Qiang, telling her I’ll be back and not to let everyone make a mess. Then I shut off the water to the kitchen sink and pulled it out of the wall. I carried it like a club as I headed to the missile base, where my ordinance technicians were already clearing space out of a missile. The techs all bowed as I helped myself into the rocket, with one ready to shut and seal the hatch of the capsule. But before he did, he asked, “Any further instructions, Empress?” I buzzed him with a pair of drones that I flew in.
“Yes, hand me those two rockets there,” I told him. He dutifully handed me a couple of those rockets a person could stand on that I’d never ended up selling as a means of personal conveyance. “Good, now prepare for trouble, and make it double, once this rocket’s blasting off again.”
He looked puzzled but nodded, “As you wish, Empress.” I fired off a message to his superiors anyway ordering Psycho Flyers deployed to India to pick me up and mop-up whatever was going to go down.
Rockets are fast, that’s for sure. You can get moving much faster than jets in these bad boys, and make all sorts of distance if you’re willing to hit the outer atmosphere. The reason they aren’t that popular a method has more to do with the fact that the human body has trouble going that fast and that high. Bones break, you have trouble breathing, there are pressure concerns. That’s not even touching on the landing. By the time the rocket itself broke off and obliterated itself, the nanites were having to extract my tailbone from my throat and patch me up. And while I could have made a capsule designed for travel given a little bit of time, I was rushing here. Venus, Ares, and the whole lot of people who are supremely pissed at me probably knew I was on my way to Naraka.
I had to beat them there, so I rushed the rocket and had to break my way out of the capsule. Two hands on the kitchen sink, and with a hand each on my rockets, I hopped out and let them slow my fall.
The Naraka Shrine was in another walled-off courtyard with tents and shakes. Folks were milling about, with the tall robots Barkiel used standing guard at the gates and doorway to the shrine. Black but for glowing red accents and a big red oval on their faces, they held up arms ending in plasma cannons as big as some people’s heads. And they were keeping them trained on the people in the courtyard, who had definitely noticed me. Some little kid was there, hopping up and down. “Look, up in the sky! Who is it?”
The robots all turned as one to aim at me, so I let go of the rockets and dropped, letting the blue plasma pass harmlessly overhead. I tried to land standing, with bent knees. The weight of the armor and force of the landing took me down to a knee. Not the best position to be in when eight big-ass robots decide you’d make a good torch.
The closest two got a rocket through their heads and collapsed. From out of my cape flew the drones, a pair of laser drones this time. They carved through the next pair who advanced on me. I used my stance to jump, then flying over a blast to knock the crap out of one of them, then turn and send the next closet smashing into the outer wall. Before it could pull itself out of the indentation it left, I had run forward and impaled it through the midsection.
Behind me, another pair of robots lined up for shots. I turned with the impaled one and caught a pair of blasts with its body, watching him melt away with each shot. The rockets looped around in the sky and came down, tearing through their heads and torsos to pin the wreckage to the ground. I dumped the remains of the impaled robot next to them and quipped, “Vlad to see me?”
I spun when I saw the Hares coming closer, but they didn’t SEEM hostile. One older man raised his hands up. “Thank you! We thought he would kill us before the Council could send help?”
“Who?” I asked.
He pointed into the shrine. “He’s one of the Visitors; said he was the Captain now. He ordered his robots to keep us under guard for what comes next.”
Food for Mot. Yummy. I shared Barkiel’s desire to see them dead, but if any of them had powers, it’d just make Mot stronger, IF he got out. And he wasn’t supposed to get out. I was supposed to have had 30 years to prepare for him, according to the Future Venus from that timeline who spared my life in the hopes it would change the future. So the timeline’s changed… yay.
I headed in and found more robots. Less sarcastic yay! I turned a corner and found myself facing a couple of them guarding a door. I jumped up and hooked my legs around one’s neck, twisting around to wrap a pair of my arms around the second’s neck. I’d hoped to twist the heads off, but I couldn’t bring enough strength to bear for that. Instead, we all tumbled down. They both aimed their cannons at me, so I grabbed them and kindly adjusted their aim just in time to see them put holes in each other.
That room had more captives who were eager to get out of there and I let them. Mot and Barkiel were more important.
Down the hallway, down a staircase, because if they’d imprisoned someone in the air I’d have noticed. Trailing drones, I found myself in a long, dark corridor with a pair of heavy stone doors halfway open on the other end and a couple robots on the other side. They spotted me. Instead of trying to fight, they started pushing the doors closed on me. The drones began to move in a circle, chasing each other in front of me, lasers carving through the door. I charged up the energy sheaths on all four gauntlets as I ran.
When I hit the cut portion of the door, it flew inward, nailing those robots to the opposite wall, which looked to be rough cave wall. To my right was a gentle stone slope that humanity hadn’t built, though it had left skidmarks on. Tread marks, I mean.
I also heard the sound of fighting from up ahead. I started charging the energy sheaths on my upper arms just in case. Around the bend, I saw Apollo hopping around, all nimbly-bimbly, like a cat. He had on a leather outfit with a skirt like something they’d expect me to wear in a fantasy game, but he just jumped around shooting his light arrows from his bow a gleaming blue and nickel machine menace.
It was Barkiel, I saw, in walker armor. Like with power armor, it’s my hands and feet in the boots. His armor was a good twelve feet tall, with his head sticking out of the neck. He probably had his arms and legs down the arms and legs of the armor, but he wouldn’t lose a hand if it did. I thought his exposed head would make him easy pickings until a light arrow sparked and disappeared against a dome that appeared out of nowhere around his head when it got close. Apollo reached out with his spare hand and another field lit up, glowing red, tight around Barkiel’s face.
The alien laughed. “Like my latest apparatus?” A grenade shot up from over his shoulder, bounced against the roof of the cave, and exploded into a thick cloud of black smoke. He jumped to the side, jets igniting on the soles and belt of the armor. When the smoke cleared, Apollo had taken up a new position but was firing nowhere near Barkiel.
The real Barkiel had raised both arms toward Apollo, the ends glowing. Trailing sparks, I skidded between his legs, bouncing my head off the invisible field as I passed too close to him. When he fired, the energy sheaths around my gauntlets absorbed some of the power for the suit’s back-up batteries and deflected the rest at the ceiling. We all looked up for a second to see if this stalactite was going to fall, but nothing. Then Barkiel looked past me to Apollo, who had now turned to focus on the real one. “Is she with you?”
“I thought she was with you,” Apollo said, eyeing me.
“Apparatus. Helping me hunt down you Hares, helping me escape, attacking your own people. You’ve been playing all sides here, haven’t you!” I yelled.
“Ha!” he spat the laugh at me. A quartet of missile tubes rolled over onto his left shoulder from behind his back. “You made such a great enemy, but if you’d like to make up, why not kiss under the missile?” He fired the tubes, but lasers spilled out from one of my flanking drones to detonate them close to him. His shield caught most of it, but I think a little bit was inside it. It looked like we scraped the paint on his ride.
The other drone fired at him from behind, aiming for center mass. The thing wasn’t really agile enough to get us along with it. Apollo leapfrogged me and fired his own arrows at the guy. I stepped out of his path and charged for Barkiel.
A wave of force went out from the walker in all directions, pushing me back enough to halt my run, knocking one of Apollo’s arrows into him, and throwing my drones into the walls of the cavern to their destruction. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Gecko!” I continued my charge and split off a couple holograms, one to dodge to my left, another to stay in place, and then me branching off to the right. Something flew off the chest of Barkiel’s armor and right through the middle Gecko, but I stopped, armor shaking, and flew back until I was suspended over it. I couldn’t reach out without getting pulled back into a huddled bunch.
“You sent the bomb, didn’t you!” I yelled at the extraterrestrial asshole.
“Yeeessss!” He said, sweeping his arms after Apollo. The god tried to outrun it, but then Barkiel just moved his left arm to the side quicker and took him off at the knees. At least Apollo ducked the second beam before it could take off his head. He disappeared in a flash of light then, leaving me alone with Barkiel. “See? He ran and left you to me.”
Barkiel looked at me and winked, then hit the jets on his suit and flew it to a wall I hadn’t been paying particular attention to. “I’ve been on this planet for so long. You have no idea.”
“Why are you letting out Mot? He’ll kill everyone!” I said. Weird to hear me object to something like that.
“I want to go home,” Barkiel said, stepping up to wall with actual stones laid out in around a round center stone, like a sun. He touched the center one, which slowly lit up with a glowing overlay of white light and ancient runes. “I never wanted to be stuck on this backwards planet. We have that in common, don’t we?” He tried to look back at me but couldn’t turn his head all the way.
Whatever this thing was, I had no access. None to his suit or that wall, either. The only machine I could still connect to outside of my suit was a drone that wasn’t getting airborne anytime soon. I tried it anyway, watching it hop around. The laser still seemed usable, though. “I’m trying to remember… this threat that some of the Earthlings believe in if they’re exposed or… Sam said if Earth got too advanced or there were too many supers…”
He cut me off before I could slowly work it out to cover up the sounds of my drone hopping around. “Yes. If Earth is a threat, my people will get off their lazy, aristocrat asses and deal with the upstarts. That is my ride off this rock of ignorant savages. You can leave as well. In fact, do you want to come with?”
“No,” I said. “I left my world, but my world sucked. It sounds like yours does too if they give so few shits about you. This is my home. I have a family here, and friends. How long have you been here stewing instead of doing anything?”
“Fif. Teen. Hundred. Years,” he said. The blocks around the central one lit up. He started tapping on one and the light flew into the center. “Fifteen hundred years with dirty monkey men. I could have had a family. I used to have friends. We could have reported the place as a threat, or advanced you to the point of getting us home. We could have even come forward during other alien attacks and taken their ships. Israkeel didn’t want to risk the stupid barbarians though.
He laughed as he worked on more of those perimeter blocks. A couple more went fast, but he had to stop some to consult a holographic display I couldn’t translate. “You were perfect. One day, you started breaking supers out of prison, and I realized what I could do. The others, they just wanted to use the collars, and I did pass relay orders to make that happen. I eagerly overstepped my bounds. I guided you and made sure you survived. Do you think it’s any accident you’re a woman now? I knew that would rile you up, the big bad supervillain and his fragile male ego, so I put advice in the right ear.”
Well, nice to know he doesn’t know me as well as he thinks. Hippity hoppity, little drone. One of these days you’ll get that laser facing me… “If I didn’t kill Centeotl, he’d have attacked Los Angeles anyway.”
“He agreed with me about the need to assert ourselves over the humans, but he would have been glassed like the rest. I relayed secure orders, always from superiors, to hire assassins. You had me worried when you sent that message back…”
There. I fired the laser of the drone. The drone caught on fire from something not quite being in alignment, but the beam shot out and burned enough that the device crackled and I fell to the ground. I hopped up in a hurry, but Barkiel didn’t pay me any mind. I split off more holograms to try and hide my approach, glad I still had a couple gauntlets ensconced in energy waiting to disperse into him. My free hands took up rocket knives. I jumped as the holograms all ran to catch up. He never turned back to me.
And then he suddenly was turned to me. He caught my in midair, one hand on my waist, the other on my head. The, fuck, the projection he’d left at the wall disappeared. Even the glowing circle on the wall faded. At least he had to stop whatever that was. I punched at his arm, but the attacks did nothing to dislodge his grip. The field stayed, glowing red. I shot a rocket knife into his face, but it bounced off, blade bent. Barkiel gritted his teeth and pulled with the hand on my helmet, aiming to take my head off.
“Fuck, this is good armor,” he said after a minute of straining. He let go of my head and held his arm to the side. A long, round rod of metal flipped out from under his arm and into his hand. A white trail rose out of the far end and formed a curving shape that could have been a one-sided blade. “Make this painless on yourself and hold still.”
That’s not how I roll, so I wiggled and reached up to try and keep his hand away.
“I told you!” he yelled and brought the blade down. Sudden pain shot through my left upper arm, right through the elbow and up near the shoulder. I still felt it even though I looked down and saw two pieces of what used to be that arm rolling to the ground. The uneven flesh of my arm wasn’t bleeding, but I saw smoke and felt a sudden coldness around those nerves. Barkiel tried to bring the blade down on my helmet, but my lower right shot up to grab at it. The blade split that arm and carved it in two. Between that and my shiftng, the blade only took off part of the right side of my helmet, and left that arm hanging useless. When he pulled the blade free of it, I got to see it flop to the ground, severed in the bicep.
“This could have been painless,” He said, raising the blade up to wave it in my face. He thrust it, but I moved my head. After three thrusts, there really wasn’t even a helmet left. “Stop moving!” he said before trying a sweep. I ducked my head under it like a limbo dancer ducking under a green snake in a sugarcane field, but he clipped a bunch of my hair. I could smell it as it burned.
“I don’t normally let this out,” he said, sneering at me, setting the tip of the blade against my breast. “But you things are disgusting to me.”
I flipped my fangs down and opened my mouth to spray hot sauce at him. It didn’t penetrate, but it did cover it for a minute. I threw myself to the side he wasn’t holding my hip from and twisted. It wasn’t the best way to hold a person and I tumbled loose, if not in good position, scrambling away. He stepped toward me, raising the blade. “Yeah, cute. Die now- oh shit!”
A bright light had flared up in the middle of the cavern, headed toward Barkiel. He raised the sword. I didn’t get a good look at what happened, the sword wasn’t there anymore, just as sparking rod and a field that glowed red around edges that weren’t closed around Barkiel. I leaped, but Barkiel kicked me away, into a wall where I could see Apollo, whole again, step out of a beam of light.
I heard footsteps, too. I turned to see Dame running down. “The fuck are you doing here so fast?”
She slid to a stop right by me as I struggled to sit up, probably tearing her skintight black tights. “Once I clued you in, they knew they had to come here right away.”
“Than-” I started to say, but she cut me off with a click of metal around my neck. Everything went black, and my hearing didn’t work right. I couldn’t do much of anything except feel. I felt hands wrap around my throat, squeezing. For some reason the ground was vibrating, but that probably had more to do with the big armor stomping around.
I tried to hit her, but the armor wasn’t working too well. My limbs were sluggish as parts of me didn’t want to function right, and without the armor being a real part of me anymore. When I got an arm up, she pushed it back down with one hand and slammed my head into the ground a couple of times, choking with one hand all the while. Of all the people to kill me, I didn’t expect Dame. And I was wrong.
My head jerked to the side and I could see again. I could punch again! I knocked Dame flat on her ass with a punch and reached for my neck. The collar had been blasted by something. A glow attracted my attention to the light arrow stuck in the cave wall behind me. I tugged the remnants off and threw them aside, then told Dame, “Kill me later. For now, we have to make sure he doesn’t release Mot.”
I scrambled up, but suddenly that shaking from before got a lot more noticeable. I looked and saw Barkiel, with a face full of smile, locking up with Apollo. “It’s too late!” he yelled.
The stones I thought looked like a sun slid inward and the wall slid up into the ceiling. Everything past that was darkness. Apollo backed away from Barkiel and the darkness.
“Quickly!” called a voice from higher up in the cave. I saw Ares running down, helmet on, spear and shield at the ready. He skidded to a halt when he saw the opening. “We’re too late.”
Venus was there as well, and Titan. Venus looked to Dame in particular, my neck, and the wrecked collar on the floor.
“Mot!” Barkiel yelled into the darkness. “It’s supper time!”
“Close the door, Barkiel, while there’s still time!” Ares said.
I crawled until I could get to my feet, running over to Venus and Titan. I had to fight through dizziness to stand there with them. “We have to go.”
“No,” Venus said. “We stop this here and now.”
“Nobody’s getting to this door just yet,” Barkiel said. A tendril of flesh wrapped around Barkiel as he grinned confidently at us. He looked down then and realized too late that he was the closest thing to a very hungry being. He tried to pull it off him, but it whipped back into the darkness, dragging the screaming alien along with him.
“I know what we’re dealing with here, and there is no stopping it. How do I access the door’s controls?” I asked Ares.
He looked to me, then shook his head. “It’s too late. Go, all of you.”
“I’m here,” Titan said.
“That’s a good reason to go,” I said. “Imagine something just as hard to kill as you, but it can absorb anyone it touches and gets their powers.”
He squinted at me, then at the opening. Apollo ran back toward us, and past us. Ares held his shield on guard and told us, “She’s right. Go. I fight in the rearguard.”
“What’s Mot do to people?” Venus asked.
“He’s got a couple thousand years of hunger to make up for. We need to go,” I said.
A burst of lightning flashed out of the darkness and floored Ares. He coughed and stood back up, metal showing through holes in his skin.”Go, now!” A long-haired, bearded figure stepped out of the darkness, tendrils trailing from his back. He wore rags that vaguely resembled Barkiel’s uniform and dropped one of the arms of Barkiel’s walker armor as he stepped out.
“This feels wrong,” Titan said, backing up.
Ares jumped forward and impaled Mot with his spear. Mot raised his arms and blasted Ares with more lightning that threw the old man back. Then his hands became icicles that broke off and flew at Ares. The Olympian got his shield up, but they penetrated, stabbing into his arm.
“Venus, slap him,” I said.
She jumped up and hit Titan across the face, then yelled, “We have to get as many people out as we can.”
I turned to head up the slope as well. I wasn’t as quick getting out of there as I was coming in, especially the way the floor kept spinning. I tried to get some nanites into me, but they flew out of my hand with all the spinning. At least I had time to advise the Psycho Flyers to hurry and take on as many refugees as possible so long as I was one of them. Then there was the rumbling, and I passed the fuck out as things began to collapse around us.
In the days after the bombing attempt on my daughter, I left most of the negotiation strategy to Titan and Venus. Titan, Venus, and Psychopomp. Maybe it’s just paranoia or pareidolia, but I’m seeing a pattern. Really, the culprit be chalked up to some shared concepts. Both our worlds had Greeks. One of those threads I’d pick up before dropping it to focus on the plan, only to grab at it again.
My household had a pretty good idea I wasn’t in a good mood. Most steered clear of me. Max kept offering me sane juice, as if I wasn’t taking my meds. I’m perfectly sane at the moment. I’m just pissed as hell. And I did try to relax a little when it was hard to sleep. Then I found out one of my favorite ASMR people retired all of a sudden in July and I went straight back to being fucking enraged!
Aside from that, I stuck to my own preparations. Missiles built, nanites stored up, and making sure a Dimensional Bomb was ready to go. I didn’t care to talk with Venus and Titan about the plan before I met them, or even after. I stepped through the Riccan base’s portal to Cape Diem headquarters where an attendant offered to take my cape or helmet. I waved them off. “Then allow me to show you to where you can meet with the others,” the guy said. I nodded and followed after, all four arms behind my back.
“Hello Gecko,” said Titan.
Venus nodded, “Gecko.”
They’d been enjoying a cup of coffee in Titan’s office. It looked warm. Not expensive, but he had a few things he liked in there, like books and a few photos. One with him smiling next to a woman with a bow in a Cape Diem uniform. One with a different woman and a girl missing a front tooth smiling. His powers may not be related to the Greek gods, but his libido might be.
“If it’s all the same, I think it’s for the best you two take the lead on this one. Let me stand there looking mean, as if y’all are keeping me from killing them,” I suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” Venus said.
“Just one more time… in order to agree to a peace, the following conditions must be met. Point one, they provide us with a vaccine and cure. Point two, they go public with their existence. Point three, they allow people to leave their group who wish to do so.”
“That’s new,” I said.
Venus said, “Dame told me how insular and controlling they are. They had to keep them like that as part of staying secretive. When they go public, there’s no reason to do so anymore. What do you think?”
“Fine,” I said.
“Is your head in this, Gecko?” asked Titan, straightening up.
“Yep. I’m here. My brain’s here. Everything’s accounted for,” I told him.
They shared a look. They didn’t know what was up, but they knew something was.
As a trio, clad in our respective garb, we all set out to the Cape Diem base in Switzerland, merely a portal hop away. I had a pair of Psycho Flyers on approach before this to throw off the Hares. Didn’t want them assassinating anyone. That’d be my job, after all. The Flyers broke off their approach to Geneva, which we were fairly close to, and instead landed a good distance from the city. Even better for my plants, they could swoop in and drop off a couple squads of my Dragon soldiers in no time.
I wish I had tanks I could bring in, but I think we’re at a point where I can outfit infantry with the firepower of tanks and enough armor to make it count well enough. The nanites provide a boost to healing that aids in muscle growth and stamina, along with a few subtle alterations to skin resistance and bone density.
I put Elda on a more intensive version of the program. She was flown off to the United States, to be dropped off in the midwest with her new armor, sword, and supplies. By the time I was appearing in Geneva, she was waking up to find herself stronger and faster in a country raged by civil war. It was her choice whether she stood up for the weak or took advantage of the chaos for her own advantage. I left a way to track her… a ring on her ring finger. It gives me GPS and even her pulse, should I care to keep an eye on it.
She’ll hate me, but I’m good at being hated. Even though the world might be caught offguard by what I aimed for, they really couldn’t be surprised.
Light rain sprinkled down as we stepped into the Place du Bourg-de Four. As impressive as a group as we made in our unusual party, the folks meeting us couldn’t help standing out either.
I recognized Ares. Smart choice for screwing us over. I thought they’d have Apollo, but they instead had a dark-skinned man with eyes the color of clear water and short, light brown hair. Despite the suit he wore, I caught a glimpse of wave tattoos running up his neck, with others on his face; a dolphin underneath his chin and some other fish bent like it was leaping over his eye. Or maybe not his neck. Their face was more feminine than I expected, and I couldn’t get a close enough look at their chest.
Another pair included an exceptionally pale woman with black hair that covered half her face, with a svelte, muscular body like a dancer’s. I labelled her “Rhythm” on my HUD because I found it funny. She was with a swarthy Asian man with an epic curled mustache. Aside from Ares, that bunch were all dressed in something like normal formal wear. Ares, old hippie that he was, more closely resembled Willie Nelson or Tommy Chong. He even had sandals on.
The last two of their group had another person I recognized. Barkiel stood there without his disguise. I recognized him from when he announced their agreement to these talks. The person next to him was taller, with a long jacket, the bottom of which swept out stiffly instead of hanging loosely. This one had a light, short fuzz of yellow hair on her pink head, and a horizontal scar cut through her right eyebrow. I assume it was a her because of the way her chest stuck out further than Barkiel’s did. This species either had mammaries, or something close enough to it.
Six of them to three of us. Not ideal if they hoped to escape, but I know enough to be wary of Barkiel. He’s got tricks.
We stopped twenty feet or so from them. The alien visitor with Barkiel looked to him. Barkiel stepped forward. “Greetings, honored foes. Welcome to the negotiations. Allow me to introduce our party. Representing the Old Gods are Olokun of the Orisha and Ares of the Olympians.” For reasons of politeness, we shook hands. I had the advantage there, being able to shake both their hands at once.
“On behalf of the humans, we have here Margaritte Manx and Ian Borjigin.” Nice names. They’re gonna die.
“In the name of our group of visitors to your planet, I have here Captain Israkeel, and I am known as Barkiel.” Maybe it’s because I’m used to her looking at me with the expression, but I could tell Venus took particular exception to Barkiel upon his introduction.
Venus looked to me after he was done, as did Barkiel when he had stepped back behind his Captain there.
I stepped up. “I have brought with me Venus, champion of the Master Academy of superheroes, and Titan, leader of Capie Diem, dedicated to serving all and saving the day for everyone. I am Psychomp Gecko, Empress of the rogue nation of Ricca.”
When I stepped back, Venus spoke up. “We have come to see if we can come to an agreement over your unprovoked attack on our peoples and our response in kind or if this must continue until one of our sides is destroyed.”
Israkeel nodded, then raised a hand in front of Barkiel and gestured. Barkiel turned and clapped. The waiters from a coffee shop rushed out, setting up a folding table between our two groups. They ran back to get the chairs when Israkeel turned to Barkiel, “Did you want to try out that gizmo to keep the rain away?”
He smiled, “I’m afraid I left that apparatus behind.”
They brought us an umbrella with the chairs and took our orders. Barkiel and I both declined.
The silence was tense enough while we all waited, though at one point Olokun looked to me and asked, “You were our Tripura Sundari if I am not mistaken.” Their voice was soft then, feminine.
“One of your tricksters used a substance meant to hide my memories and called me by that name,” I responded.
Olokun looked to Ares, this time speaking with a voice that suggested the ownership of dong. “Many decisions were made without my input.” When he turned to look at me, he smiled, his voice softening once more, “I hope you were welcomed warmly into our hospitality.”
When Titan spoke, everyone noticed, “It’s an old tradition among various gods that hospitality is to be respected. Each of us welcomed one of yours with hospitality and was rewarded with betrayal.”
Olokun folded their hands in front of them like a prayer, “I must apologize. Again, there were questionable decisions made behind the backs of the chain of command.”
“With all due respect,” Venus jumped in here, “how can we expect any agreement here to be honored by your people if it is normal for them to ignore your chain of command?”
Olokun shared a look with Israkeel. Israkeel raised her nose before answering, “You have our full attention now and we give you our word we are instilling discipline and respect into the ones who lack it.”
“And we’ll just take your word for that?” I asked.
Israkeel smirked, “We are all here to give our word to an agreement.”
“It’s about trust,” Venus said, nodding to Israkeel, who returned the gesture.
Things kicked off in earnest once they all got their drinks. Israkeel opened things up at that point. “Empress Gecko’s message to us incorporated the phrase ‘unconditional surrender.’ I should hope this was mere affectation.”
Venus responded for me. “We have conditions. First, if you want us to stop dismantling your operations, we will need a cure and a vaccine.”
Barkiel leaned over to whisper something to Israkeel. I cranked up microphone sensitivity enough to hear him tell her, “Gecko is in possession of a cure.”
Israkeel said, “Agreed.”
Except Olokun and Borjigin were whispering back and forth too, with Olokun asking, “You said we were twenty years from a vaccine.”
“I said thirty years, but somebody panicked. You can’t agree to this, because it’s not physically possible” Borjigin told him.
“We agree to whatever they want. They can’t kill us for trying to vaccinate them,” Olokun whispered back. Then, loud enough to where he or she was supposed to be heard, they said, “The gods agree.”
Borjigin tightened his jaw, but added his agreement as well. I saw the other human put her hand on his forearm. I think they all knew they didn’t have a vaccine ready.
“The second thing we demand for is that you allow your members to leave if they want,” Venus said.
Olokun shook her head. “Unacceptable. Our people must stay with us for our protection and theirs. The world would find us out.”
“Our third condition is that you let the world know about your group anyway,” Titan said, grinning.
Manx nodded along to that one. “We would lose our status and become pawns to be used as leverage to co-opt our powers for the worldly governments. We just want to protect ourselves.”
“You lost the right to talk about protecting yourselves the moment you used my portals and their countries to distribute a virus that’s killing people and trying to handicap supers,” Titan said through a smile that could make a shark back off.
“As I said-” Olokun started, but they were cut off by Israkeel.
The alien captain bowed her head, “We took the course of action we felt was best. We have reason to believe the growing population of superhumans is a threat to the entire Earth, including our loved ones among you.” Israkeel smiled over at Borjigin, who flushed.
“Is that why you sent my daughter a bomb?” I asked. Venus went bolt upright at that, as did Titan a half-second later when he’d processed it.
On the other side of the table, the Three Hares delegation looked between each other except for Barkiel and Israkeel. The Captain looked right at me. “None among us did such a thing.”
“Allow me to remind you then,” I projected an image of my shaking daughter holding the box. “Fingerprint scanners to activate a timed detonation. Gun-style, uranium rings and uranium core, with just enough deuterium and tritium to make it spicy.”
Israkeel laid her hands down on the table, palms up. “We’ll do whatever you want to assure you we weren’t behind this and make this right.”
I pushed the table over between us. I punched right through to grab Israkeel’s throat and squeezed, then got another hand on there. Any human and I’d have been crushing spine while blood spurted, but the alien was tough.Venus grabbed at one of my free arms and tried to pull me. She didn’t have much luck until something severed the choking hands. Titan grabbed onto me as well and lifted me in a bear hug.
Venus, at least, had time to notice the lack of blood coming from my wrists, and the lack of flesh within the armor. Then the D-Bomb went off, setting off a cascade of events.
First, I lost contact with the Dudebot I’d given four arms to as the D-Bomb within it tore a small hole in reality, big enough to take Venus and Titan with it. Their intervention stopped me from having to give them a hug. At the same time, another bomb activated on Ricca, disappearing from the bomb lab Dr. Creeper had kept the device in.
Titan, Venus, and the Dudebot reappeared in the Directory building where I sat on my throne in my real armor. In Geneva, another new one torn in reality spat out the shell of the nuclear, hollowed out but sitting on top of a large, black, rounded bomb of the sort seen in cartoons. If the Hares had a moment to read, they’d might have noticed it read “That’s all, folks!” written on the side of the cartoon bomb in white paint. It went off before they possibly could have.
I could have gone nuclear, but for Max’s medication. People hold nuclear weapons as particularly awful, no matter how few their death toll in comparison to conventional arms. A terrorist bombing in Geneva would be glossed over. I was a supervillain. I do things like that. A nuclear attack on a foreign country is harder to walk away from without your metaphorical nuts in a literal vice.
The Psycho Flyer began to move it, the soldiers onboard getting instructions and photos showing them who to make sure is dead.
“What did you fucking do?!” Venus yelled at me in the Directory building.
“They tried to kill my daughter. Peace is off the table,” I told her.
“I should take you in right now. This alliance is over with!” she yelled back at me.
I just laughed, a short and cynical bark. “They tried. To kill. My daughter. And probably me along with her. I warned them. I told them it would happen. If they sent another assassin, I’d send one of my own, and it would be the only one I needed to send.”
“You’re just a scared bastard,” she said, walking up close to make tuning her out harder. “You don’t care about making the world better anyway. You say you want peace for your daughter, but you’ll never get it. You’re too scared of giving peace a real chance in the end, because if people can put aside hate and revenge, they can improve and you’ll know you’re wrong, you’re wrong for killing them instead of giving them a chance, because you’re a hurting, jealous little man who wishes he was a hero but has to settle for killing everyone he thinks is wrong with the world except the worst part of it. Himself. Yourself. You have to make sure everyone stays wrong so you can prove yourself right!”
She slapped me across the helmet, once, then again. Then she punched me, grabbed my helmet, and slammed me to the ground. She raised her fist and extended a spike that I knew could generate an electric current. She didn’t know it wouldn’t penetrate anyway, but still all I did was look up at her and ask, “Are you going to kill me?”
“I should. Do you know how many people are going to die?” She asked, and I swear there were tears in her voice.
“Every Hare I can get my hands on,” I said. “But not me unless you want that speech you gave to apply to you, too.”
She pulled the spike back in, but gave me a punch to the belly that knocked the wind out of me. She stood up and began to walk out, accepting a wing draped over her by Titan.
I smiled to myself in spite of the discomfort and pulled myself back onto the throne of Ricca. Words can be weapons too. I prefer bombs when available, though. They were effective enough in Geneva, as my soldiers soon reported back they had the remains of five individuals in the middle of a wrecked street with some big water main busted and flooding the area. Manx and Borjigin were a mess. Israkeel was in slightly better shape, meaning her body had been blown into a nearby building where being impaled through couple of support beams finished her off. Olokun had stayed relatively intact better than the humans, but that was a moot point with identifiable body parts scattered all over.
That just left Barkiel. The other one who hadn’t ordered a drink. The one who, upon playback of satellite footage over Geneva, disappeared all on his own around the same time our side of the table had.
Tricky little Barkiel. I’ll find him too.
If even gods bleed, I know what he’ll do.
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 to 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 about 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.
Greetings again, dear readers. I come bearing news and fingering the bunghole, but that could be too much information for y’all. Maybe a little working the taint, I dunno. Regardless of what I do in the privacy of my own kitchen, it gets results. And so does Intel.
Hu got a hold of me. They traced back the shipment of collars. It’s a good new lead, and one Dame didn’t know about. This suggests Max may have been correct in criticizing me for not thinking and going a bit, shall we say, wonky there. But Hu trusts my judgment still. As an underling, he has no choice but to trust me or risk that judgment. He brought me the whole story one day while I was sitting in the Directory building, checking over some judicial appeals and other important documents they thought I should look at. Looks like the Vatican’s extradition request for that priest isn’t getting approved!
“We traced the collars to a ship called the Rangoon. In deference to your desire to better acclimate to current events and focus on your family, I took the liberty of authorizing the interception of the Rangoon.” Hu said. The captain proved more than generous with information once he learned we had no desire to uphold or be held to maritime law, and access to shitloads of valuables. Literal shitloads, including the finest in ancient golden chamber pots. Caught between the carrot and where we might stick it, the captain pointed us to an outpost he called the Flying Dutchman.
This Dutchman, unlike the mythological ship or its Disney version, turned out to be a semi-submersible oil platform off the coast of Mauritania. Hu spoke about it like he knew, but I’d never heard of it. “In fairness to your Imperial majesty,” Hu told me when I murmured something to that effect, “The best kept secret is that in the news of any African country other than South Africa.”
“So who runs the Dutchman?” I asked.
“That would be Colonel Duray, formerly attached to the United Nations Taskforce On International Stability. They were originally meant to travel around the world and bolster governments threatened by socialist revolutions during the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR, the task force was downgraded and repurposed to combat terrorism. It saw a resurgence following the United States’s last presidential election, when they began to shirk their UN and NATO duties. Last year, the United States attempted to completely defund and disband the task force after it was ordered to intervene in the U.S.A. Duray took the unit AWOL instead. Since then, they’ve functioned as a mercenary force called the Privateers. They stole from the United States and other nations with the justification of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who escalate conflicts, but have seen action as pirates.”
With that information to go off of, I knew where to search. This isn’t the first time my decision to stay in America upon coming to this world left me ignorant of world events. “Quite a story. If they were any closer, they could be frequent customers or enemies. We need to find out if they’re related to the Hares though. I wonder if the Psycho Flyers have the range for this…” I stood up, tossing papers aside.
Hu caught a bundle and handed them back to me. “Surely every action we take does not require you to attend to it personally. You are the will of our nation. Decide what must be done and we shall do it for you in your stead.”
I coaxed him in closer with a finger. “Cut the bullshit. What is this?”
“Empress, you are too important to run around after every single problem. You are a ruler now, not one of the soldiers to be risked and captured if need be. If word of your capture had gotten out, it would have threatened the new social order and risked plunging the island into anarchy. While I’m being frank, there are rumblings about your mental health as of late. You are scaring your people.”
I ground my teeth and took a seat, pondering. As much as I felt insulted over him calling me out over my sanity, it has always been my policy that underlings be allowed freedom to speak and criticize me. A supervillain who kills people for telling her things she doesn’t want to hear is a supervillain who is the last to know if security systems are shorting out or someone defected and snuck out through a secret tunnel. Plus, there’s a lot of minutia I don’t like to handle and it’s easier to delegate it if people think they’re allowed to have thoughts of their own.
I took a deep breath and released it before continuing. “It’s been a hell of a year. Any particular recommendations on where I should focus my attention on this matter from here on my throne?”
He bowed. “Respectfully, Empress, now may be the best time to increase the pressure on the Three Hares by allowing your allies to raid the locations you have learned about.”
At the time, Titan was the one most likely to be awake with how time zones work, so I called up Cape Diem first. I snapped my fingers for a Directory page to bring over a mirror and nanites. I was trying out skin tones and making some alterations. I called up Qiang and let her watch from my perspective as I changed up a few features.
“I like your eyes! Baba, can I have eyes like that?” she asked.
“Sure thing. You want them with this angle or…” I moved a few things as far as inner and outer angle. “Like this?”
“That’s neat. I want to look just like you!”
I smiled. “Fine, but only if I get to look like you too.” My nose shifted to a button nose like hers would probably turn out to be once she grew up.
“Hello, Gecko?” asked Titan’s voice from elsewhere in my head.
“One moment, gotta extricate myself from how I was passing the time,” I said, before swapping back to Qiang and telling her I needed to handle a very important call. Then, I could come back to Titan. “Heya. You sound a bit out of breath. Did I pull you away from something important?”
“No. I finished my business before I got here. Your friends are kidnapping refugees.”
“I’m not aware of my friends doing anything. Max has all the ingredients he could want right now.” To my knowledge, there haven’t been any additional attempts on my life. With Hu’s concerns, he might have intercepting people, or maybe Max has been looking out for me.
“The refugees were kidnapped by a cabal of low-level magical supervillains. They escaped, but I managed to recover the victims,” Titan informed me.
Huh. I bet that’s why I got that invitation for beer and bratwurst from those guys I don’t know. “Was this around Poland?”
“Yeah. You know what’s going on?” he asked
“Nah, just vague stuff I heard through the grapevine. I’m not really part of the normal villain social scene. They don’t like me. I invited myself along to Secret Santa one year and they all converted to Judaism on the spot.”
“Venus said you liked to tell pointless, unrelated jokes.”
“I wanted to talk to you about the Hares. I got a few spots for you to check on.” And a sudden urge to RSVP in the negative to that beer and brats invitation.
“Shouldn’t you get Venus on the line for this?”
“She’s probably asleep,” I told him.
“She’s a hero. She patrols. Hold on.” I heard beeps, then the sound of distant sirens.
“Hello?” came Venus’s voice.
“Venus, it’s Titan. I have Gecko on the line. Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah, I guess. The Question are long gone.”
I spoke up here. “The Question? I have questions.”
“Pro-government anti-government terrorists. I don’t understand it either. They wear masks with the letter Q and just blew up an NPR affiliate. They like riddles.”
“Huh. Never heard of them, but they sound fun. Listen, it’s about time I shared some of the love with y’all as far as the Hares, if y’all aren’t too busy.”
“Let us worry about that,” Titan said.
“I’m emailing a map along to y’all with relevant info I obtained from a high-value prisoner who grew up in the Hare conspiracy. The individual did not particularly enjoy the isolated lifestyle of the Hares, but I believe I’ve located more important sites than what we’ve run across before. I have important duties to attend to instead.”
“How are you doing after your capture?” asked Titan.
“I’ve been saner,” I said.
Venus spoke up, “I can recommend a good therapist.”
“They’d have to be bulletproof,” I said, laughing it off. I went ahead and sent the emails. “The encryption key is 12345. I know it’s the sort of thing a moron would use for their luggage, which is why it’s the last thing they’d expect from me.”
Titan sighed. “It’s one of the most widely used passwords. If that’s everything, are you sure you can’t give me a tip about the refugees in Poland?”
“Sorry guys, I should really see to these things around here. I’ve got to shampoo my hair and look over some judicial business… oh, I’m getting attacked by ninjas. Gotta run, buh-bye!”
I hung up on them and stood up. They had all they needed from me. I checked out the mirror. “What do y’all think? Like the new look?”
The trio of ninjas who had dropped into the Directory building took fighting stances. No stage pajamas here. They were in tight black outfits with balaclavas pulled over their faces, light armor vests and plates on their limbs. One held a couple of kunai, another wielded a metal claw, and the last had a handscythe with a chain attached to the bottom of its handle.
The Directors scattered, which made quite a sight since many of them had adopted the practice of wearing sashes in some attempt to out-bling each other.
The one with the scythe, a kusarigama as they like to call it, swung the chain at me, sending the weight on the end of the chain right at my face. I snatched the chain out of the air. That ninja pulled it back, scraping some skin off my hand. I took a step in that direction and that’s when the kunai came for my head. My head snapped back.
When I lowered it back toward them, I held the kunai in my mouth, the bladed end held deep in my throat. Claw guy came at me then. I grabbed the kunai and tossed the wet end at his face. He swiped it to the side with his claw. He brought it across again at my torso. I threw myself back on my throne, laser eye blaring to life and searing a letter Z through his torso, smooth as Zorro.
He fell, only for the kusarigama’s weighted chain to come swinging for my face. I got a hand up. It stopped a lot of the damage, but still left me stumbling and trying to spot the ninjas between all the circling birds. I raised my hand in time to block an overhead stab from the guy with the kunai. Better my palm than my eye hole.
“I got one of those, too,” I used one of my spare hands to whip out a thin trench knife and cut him from cock to Adam’s apple. Smoke appeared all around me, burning at my eyes. The kusarigama’s chain smacked the head of its dead, deceased compatriot to the side.
So there I was. Knife versus chain and scythe. I’d already killed two. I was an assassination target on the edge, willing and able to sate my rampant murderlust. I stepped forward and the chain forced me back. Again and again, the remaining ninja used it to keep me at bay, my knife sparking as the chain slid across it the last time.
I pushed a lever on the side of the knife and tossed it in the air in frustration. “Fine, I get it, I shouldn’t have brought a knife to a chain fight.” The rocket in the handled of the knife fired suddenly, more like a momentary explosion. Only momentary, as the blade lodged itself in the chest of the remaining ninja. He reached up to grab it, then refused to pull it out. Then he dropped his weapon and turned to run.
“This is what happens when you buy your ninjas American. Adios, cowboy. ” I reached under my dress and came out with another rocket knife, one in each hand, and switched them on, aiming. The ninja fell dead with four knives in his back. “Knife meeting ya. Man, I hate missing all the action.”
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.”
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!”
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.”