I don’t know how much it fits my memories, but I have a rough idea of a lot of California being desert, especially to the southeast of Los Angeles. There were suburbs, that’s still a bit of a desert in its own way. And it was near one of those the clouds dipped to the ground.
I’d tried zooming in to figure out what that whole mess was since I got close enough for it to cover a lot of the sky for me. I know something like half the state’s on fire, but this stuff looked different. Things didn’t smell like someone was having a barbecue, either. Not even of people. Wow, I really know what that smells like. I want to say pork is involved?
I noticed something a lot weirder than that as I walked into this suburb, though. There was no movement among the carbon copy dwelling cutouts that made up the suburbs. Variations on a theme. The same style might have a bush in one spot and a tree in another. I thought there weren’t people at all, but then I noticed the dog. At first, it looked like just another part of the bush, until I saw the ear of corn. That seemed out of place, more so when I followed it down to the dog standing next to the bush, hidden under corn leaves. I took a closer look and found corn growing from a car, corn growing out the open window of a house. Even, it turned out, an ear peeking out from a baby carrier next to an affected woman standing in her driveway.
I really missed my environmentally sealed armor in that moment, even though I couldn’t remember it myself. Less than an hour later, I saw where a crowd of corn soldiers picked their way through the houses and cars. They’d walk up, grab a bunch of corn, and assemble it into a new soldier for their army.
I don’t really know how they noticed me. It’s not like they had eyes or noses, only ears. Regardless, they finally picked up on my presence. I waved at them. “Greetings. Take me to your leader.”
A sound went through them like a breeze through a corn field and they advanced on me. I held up my hands. “It’s ok, no need to grab me. I can get there myself. Just looking for this Centeotl guy.” I remembered the guy’s business card. It was a wrinkled, scorched mess, but I still had it and held it up for them. They stopped where they were upon “seeing” it and opened a path through the middle for me.
“About time I got some respect around here,” I said as I walked through.
From then on, I followed the road and a few corn soldiers to the big camp. The guards there didn’t just let me past when they saw their boss’s business card. These children of the corn escorted me along to where Centeotl stood. He wore dark brown slacks and no shoes. Shame, because while sneakers clash with slacks, they didn’t clash as much as the shirtless look and the body paint, and provide comfort for athletics. And his chest had thick lines of body paint at sharp angles, all in black. He sat sharpening a knife as I approached. Behind him sat a large, round pod of pale yellow material that spat a constant stream of something into the air, forming those ominous clouds.
“Heya, how are you Sam?” I asked.
He looked up at me. “Why did you come back?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know why she let me go exactly. Something about her getting a message that you were going to attack the city and her school.”
He studied my face, but I’ve recently become an expert on acting like I don’t know anything. It happened around the time I suddenly stopped knowing things.
“Who said that?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “No clue. We were walking along, my hands tied and all, when she started fighting the air. After a couple seconds, she looked at me and asked what was going on, how I was making holograms. She said it was a guy with a jean jacket and jeans and a bigass mohawk. Don’t know what she was talking about, but she held a conversation with whatever she heard. Then she just said ‘fuck it,’ and ditched me to get back there quicker.
“What is Barkiel interfering for?” Centeotl asked.
“Who?” I asked.
He pointed up to the sky. “One of the aliens you might know as visitors. He watches the world and tracks our interests. He agrees with me, as would anyone who has seen so much of humanity.”
“So he’s one of us, or at least on our side, but he’s acting against you. Is there… ok, so I haven’t spent much time around the visitors. What’s their deal? You know, is there any reason why they might want different things than the gods and their relatives?”
He waved me over to where a couple of corn soldiers dropped off a metal folding chair for me. I took a seat as he explained. “The gods of the east were already retreating from the world when the visitors crash landed. They heard of creators and gods of the forge, and sought them out to repair their ship. The world and the gods weren’t capable of fixing the vessel, so they were forced to send a message back to their people. They got an answer many years later, time enough for demigods to be born, grow old, and die. They were long-lived and their people would send someone to help, but they lived a great distance away in space and their people here were not important. I’ve had drinks with Barkiel and he said his government often ignores the needs of its people.”
He shifted looked at his knife. “Lookin’ sharp,” I commented.
He nodded and slid it into a sheath on his belt. “Their leader, Tetra, spoke with us and told us to be careful. Their government doesn’t care about their own people, but they are easily threatened by other species. If there were too many gods, if our powers spread inordinately, if our people advanced too fast, our planet could be treated as a threat.” Centeotl pointed at my shorts. “Are you hurt?”
I looked down at a drop of blood on the crotch of my short shorts and thought of how slowly I wished I could murder that guy who called himself Apollo and who claimed he reset my menstrual cycle. Because I’m not supposed to have a menstrual cycle.
I looked up and shrugged. “Just some maintenance I haven’t been able to get here lately.”
Centeotl screwed up his face. “Someone must have tampons you can take around here.” He waved to the houses around us.
I leaned back and crossed my legs over the other. “Yeah, sure, but this is interesting. I haven’t heard so many of these stories.”
“I’m not surprised. You must have been isolated for a long time to avoid the same fate as your pantheon.”
I let my face fall. “Um, can we not talk about that? It’s just wild. Sometimes, I wish I knew as little about it as the presidents and prime ministers.”
He chuckled. “The aliens warned us of computer records, but my favorite story is Operation Snow White. Scientology paid for itself when we discovered the United States had started to find evidence of our financial dealings. They were left with stories of aliens telling them to infiltrate the government, and we stole the documents they obtained about us and destroyed them.”
I clapped for him with all four hands. “Nice. Do you use cults often?”
“I don’t. Barkiel loves them. Did he tell you about that Applewhite man?”
I shook my head, but then the projection of the Denim Dude showed up between myself and Centeotl, standing where he could see each of us with just a turn of the head.
“Speak of the devil,” said Centeotl.
“Talking about me were you?” Denim Dude/Barkiel said, looking between us. “I’m so glad you two met.” He winked at me before turning his attention back to Centeotl.
“Tripura is returned to my custody. It’s a shame to come this far and back away, but I can’t justify an attack now,” Centeotl told him.
“Sure you can. She tricked Tripura and sent her back here to kill you,” Barkiel said, cocking his thumb my way.
I pretended to stretch, with two of my hands moving back behind me. Only the ones with all fingers, though. I pushed the safeties off.
“I hardly see how,” Centeotl said.
“Even if she wasn’t secretly Psycho Gecko in disguise, she still has a pair of guns with her,” Barkiel told him.
I pulled the 1911s and fired into him from the hips before raising one in both hand. I fired my eyes as well as the pistols. The recoil would have been worse for someone with standard human strength, especially one-handed and side by side where I can feel the pressure from each firearm firing. Between my strength and sitting feet from my target, that didn’t matter so much. I was looking him right in the eye with my laser eye, and that counts for something.
Centeotl slumped to the side, to the road, his body twitching. I looked down though to a pain in my chest where a sharpened knife stuck in me. I dropped the guns and reached for the knife, seeing how deep it was in. Deep enough to hurt like hell, turns out.
“Not too bad an assassination,” Barkiel said, looking at the corpse, then looked up to me. “You’ve got a problem there.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” I said. I grabbed the knife, counted to one, and pulled it out. I dropped it, not even caring, because it hurt just as damn much taking it out as it did going in, except with the extra feeling of my eye laser shooting into the wound at a lower power setting to fry the whole bloody mess.
I cut the laser as I started to cough, which caused more pain and some tearing from inside the wound. Then came more bleeding, more cauterizing, more pain. Then I tried standing. Want to guess what I felt then? It hurt like hell to breath, to stand, to walk. Barkiel’s presence didn’t help. “Good going, champ. You saved the day and stopped the corn army.”
I looked around to see the corn soldiers had indeed all crumbled. Then I took a moment to do what so few people do. I looked up and saw the clouds were still there. A glance at the big pod showed it had stopped, but I wondered how soon before it came down, or if it even had a real purpose it could still fulfill. Between that and the pain of walking, I figured it was as good a time as any to steal a car, even though I had to pull a stinky, sticky mess of a teen girl out from behind the wheel of the mini Cooper. Sure, I’d forgotten hotwiring a car, but that part’s unnecessary when someone leaves the key in the thing.
I didn’t bother paying attention to see if Barkiel had left or not. I was more concerned with getting the hell out of there, and he didn’t follow. All the corn made driving out of there difficult. Not easy to navigate a maize. Ha! I knew I had some corny puns left in me.
A funny thing happened on the way back, though. The sky fell. Before I’m accused of being a little cock, it was the clouds of whatever Centeotl had been pumping into the sky. I closed everything up as tight as could be and gunned it, now clear of all corn. But I wasn’t going to make it. I had to find shelter. So I gave the wheel a sharp turn, popped the tires as I jumped the front porch, and plowed through the front door. I continued on through a sofa and slid to a stop in the living room just as the opening of the Simpsons stopped playing on the flat screen hanging off the wall.
I sat there, waiting. And waiting. I reached for the door handle, hissing in pain, then remembered that somehow, for some reason, that stuff would fall just as soon as I opened the door and got out. It felt like a dumb enough action it would force laws of the universe to change in order to punish me. Twenty seconds after that, the stuff in the air fell with a dusty impact.Some got into the house, but the dust cloud dispersed before it got past the foyer.
The first cough didn’t hit until soon after I stopped the roads were no longer covered and I felt safe ditching that thing for that didn’t give off sparks when I drove. I had to stop at the next gas station and hack up blood to the confusion of everyone around. The coughing caused more pain, and I couldn’t stop myself putting a hand near my wound.
I felt a leaf poking out of it. It felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t breath in and something tickled my airway. It looked like I’d gone from being a plant in their organization to being a plant in a gas station parking lot. I opened the car door and tried to walk to a new car, but my foot caught on something. It caught on roots growing down through the concrete. I tripped over and fell there on all fours.
I heard the squealing of another car, then footsteps running closer. I looked up to see Venus there, reached up to her.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a protective case, like for glasses. When she opened it, she had a vial there surrounded by padding. She knelt and raised my chin up. “Even not being you, you ran off to kill someone anyway.”
I hacked out an “It’s what I do,” around bloody spittle. I felt things pushing inside me. Pushing around and pushing through.
“I know. I hoped to have a better you as long as possible. Forgive me, Gecko,” she said.
“Who I am, what I’ll be… why save me at all?” I asked. I felt an enormous pressure in my head and something start to grow and block my throat.
Venus tilted my head back and poured the nanites in. “It’s what I do.”
She held me as the nanites disassembled the mass growing inside me, as well as scar tissue and cauterized tissue. It killed the corn trying to grow out of my holes, and made me whole. And as I stayed there, I felt it all start flooding back. Every nightmare, every trauma, every time I had to sacrifice a part of myself to survive.
It was enough to break me once.
But with it came every success and accomplishment. Killing some of the biggest and baddest motherfuckers around. Every fond memory of friends and family. I can’t wait to see my daughter again. And every skill and resource I’ve been able to build up.
I’m not just the me who broke. I’m the me who shatters cities and makes buildings crumble. I’m the me who scares away people like Spinetingler and who destroys alien fleets. I’m the me who nearly killed a world.
And I’ll be enough to break the so-called “gods”.