There’s something very odd being treated like some sort of broken, delicate thing. Moreso when the ones doing the treating are people I’ve spent years fighting, sometimes killing. In a timeline where I’d never come to this world, the hero population hadn’t been properly culled. Kids ran and flew around outside, holding a snowball fight. I watched as a couple boys tossed snowballs at a girl, chasing her into an igloo. The igloo’s entrance closed. A block opened to reveal a barrel. Tank treads popped out of the sides of the igloo and it began to roll. With a fwoom, it fired a snowball that knocked one of the boys on his ass.
“Awful lot of snow for Cali,” I said to Forcelight. She pointed to a pole that poked out of the ground and reached up over all the buildings. A large disk on top generated snow. “Weather control seems like it’d be useful for more than just playing around at school.”
“I asked them about that. My friend, Venus, told me it only makes snow. Nowhere else wants it other than Hollywood. Everyone thinks snow is too much trouble.”
It was a festive place. Lights adorned the outside of the buildings. Even the statue of Oscar Romero in the courtyard had a red and white hat on it. We moved past a foyer and front hall with rugs and its own smaller Christmas trees decorated about, and to the noisy part of the main buildings. Formerly dead and hostile faces welcomed me when Forcelight ushered me through the door of the Master Academy’s California campus cafeteria, where children, teens, and a lot of adults milled about around a two-story Christmas tree.
Venus came bounding up, out of costume, to hug Forcelight. “You made it! Everything wrapped up in Washington?”
Forcelight nodded. “Yeah. Once the big domino was destroyed, the others fell like a house of cards. Checkmate.” Venus smiled at the joke and turned to me. Forcelight turned to introduce me. “This is Gecko. She was a huge help. She’s some sort of technopath, so she turned the big one off. Gecko, this is Venus.”
“That’s amazing. Nice to meet you,” my nemesis said as she shook my hand. I wonder if I could hit that in this continuity… I mean, is still cheating if it’s in a different timeline? The only example I can think of involved another universe, and I still don’t think I’m in one. I’m in the same one that’s been altered significantly.
“Charmed, dear Venus,” I said. “It’s quite the place you have here. The food smells delicious. I can’t wait to have something other than highway snacks and hospital food.”
“She was injured while saving Washington,” Forcelight volunteered. “She had someone who helped her with that. He fought alongside us. Put a pin it that for later. For now, go eat Gecko. Go on!”
Thus commenced an evening of feasting with my foes. I ate too much, I was flirted with, and I even got asked to dance by Sixgun. I killed him, too. Not tonight. I’m talking about in the old continuity. Tonight, he just tried to get in my new dress. There was no killing to worry about… until it got later.
My history with Christmas being what it is, I kept my guard up even as others drank and cavorted. That’s why I was paying attention when wine in a glass started rippling. Someone else, a man with pointy ears, looked up. “Something’s coming,” he said in a soft voice
He ran to go warn someone. I ran out to the yard to see what was the matter. It had become deserted as the night went on and the children were forced into beds to have nightmares about sugarplum fairies.
A giant robot with pincers for hands came to a halt outside. We’re talking a good thirty, maybe thirty-five feet tall. Very similar old-style Nazi design aesthetic, but with a visor for a windshield on the head and a pair of gun barrels poking out from underneath it like a nose. It didn’t come alone. I spotted others near its feet.
On the one hand, the upcoming fight would be none of my business and nothing’s going to be permanent over here once I give it a good editing. On the other, I wanted to punch something.
“Master Academy, come out and face your doom at the hands of Dr. Creeper and his Ho-Ho-Horrors!”
Huh. So that’s what he got up to over here. I zoomed in for a closer look at the Ho-Ho-Horrors themselves. The one that stood out the most was the gargantuan of a man covered in scars and medical staples. He had a pair of metal bolts from each neck, shot fire from a flamethrower with 8 openings. Another looked like a regular guy until he concentrated and grew into a white-furred ape-thing. Next to him stood a man in a pilgrim outfit with a face covered in a black mask with white eye holes. On the opposite side of the flamethrower-wielding Frankenstein’s monster rolled up a cylindrical robot with a facsimile for a metal head planted on top of the cylinder, which held several arms. One of the arms lit up with an electrical arc between two ends of it, while the others were an assortment of claws, drills, and at least one plunger.
Then the ninjas dropped down between us the Ho-Ho-Horrors and the school. They had the cloth head coverings like you’d expect, but with goggles and metal lower face guards. The rest of their costume was less “black pajamas” as the stereotype goes and more like winter camo with body armor and sheaths for swords and other weapons. “Also, I’ve hired the services of the Ronin-Go. They aren’t my usual minions, but these are the only ones I could find willing to work Christmas Eve.”
Yet another reason why most people don’t bother attacking on Christmas Eve: better shit to do than get into a fight with supervillains. Like getting into a fight with family.
By now, I wasn’t the only one looking at the group. I rushed to the front hall and grabbed some ornaments off the trees. Most of them were those stupid plastic non-breakable ones, but a few were the classic glass. I broke several of those up and laid them out on the floor, then waited by the welcome rug.
The door burst in and ninjas came through it, yelling and waving swords. I waited until I got a good sized group and pulled the rug out from under them. A half dozen of them found their legs no longer underneath them and a short drop to a granite floor welcoming instead. I tossed the rug back over them before they could get up and ran over the top of them to the next wave. A good four of them tried to swing at me at once from the same direction and ended up getting in each other’s way. “Should have come at me one at a time,” I said with a laugh and grabbed away their swords in each hand.
They looked to me, then two bent and fired grappling lines on either side, forming a little corridor of rope at about knee level. One of the others jumped over me, knocking down one of his lumpy friends under the rug, and whipped out a pair of sai. The other who hand’t so far done anything squeezed his hands. Long metal claws popped out of winter digital-camo colored gauntlets. “Hi-ya!” the ones on either side of me yelled. Because when you hire ninjas, you want the classic ninja experience.
“Hiya,” I said, then hocked a loogie onto the clawed-ones visor. I turned around to the one behind me. I planted all four swords I held in the floor rug, and in someone I was standing on, and used them to lever myself into a flip over that one. He turned quickly and barely managed to catch two of the blades with his sais. I grinned and winked at him as the other two swords cut his pants so they fell down his legs. “Ever been circumcised before?”
The ninjas on either side of this little rope corridor they hoped to restrict my movements with came at me but soon found themselves crunching over broken orbs and stars and such. The one in front of me turned to run and tripped through a combination of his pants being around his ankles and the fact that we were still on top of a welcome mat covering six of his now-irritated and potentially wounded friends. The one I’d spat in the face of flipped over him and landed on the pommel of one sword I held up when I figured out where he was coming down at. He fell to the floor moaning and cradling a nut that’d need to be popped out later.
A shot caught me in the chest and knocked me back until I fell off the rug. There in the doorway was the smoking old-time flintlock. And behind it stood the guy in the pilgrim costume and mask.
I coughed and felt for my wound. My hand came back bloody and holding a round metal ball that had flattened where it ran into the bulletproof subdermis of my body. Still hurt like I’d been hung by my figgin. Before I could stand, one of the ropes was cut by Sixgun and his Bowie knife. He twirled it into a sheath and looked to me. “You alright, ma’am?”
I coughed and nodded. He nodded back, then turned and squared up with the Pilgrim, throwing his coat back. “Howdy Pilgrim. That’s no way to treat a lady. Mayhap you have a shot with me instead?” The Pilgrim tossed aside his spent pistol and shifted another couple around to the front of his belt.
One of the ninjas that had hurt his feet on broken decorations fell over on one of the little Christmas trees out there, knocking off a big red bow that rolled lazily between the two gunfighters. After a moment, the Pilgrim drew. Sixgun was faster. He shot the pistol out of the Pilgrim’s hand, then popped him in the shoulder, spinning him around into the cold, dark night.
By now, fighting had erupted all over. Once I managed to get to my fight, I spotted the Were-Yeti tangling with a huge, half-man, half-sloth that I knew as the Human Sloth from my own experience. Forcelight, meanwhile, had destroyed the flamethrower of the Frankenstein and was trying to put him down before he could overpower her. I spotted cylindrical robot with the treads circle around behind her.
I jumped it and stuck my fingers to its head. “What are you doing?” it asked. “I am Qwanzaar! Release me at once. No, do not stick that in there. That is not where fingers goOO!” It voiced surprise as my nervous system joined with its computerized brain and stopped it.
“Okily Qwanzaar, you’re mine now,” I said. I looked up at the giant robot, which traded blows with a woman in a pink and black costume with butterfly wings on it. It managed to catch the Pink Pixie by a wing and tore it off, sending the heroine spinning. And I couldn’t do anything about it from the ground. Dr. Creeper’s robots were based on old analog Nazi designs meant to be worked with levers and buttons and no computer elements at all. Nothing about this big one suggested he’d upgraded that part of it.
Instead, I looked to its knees, then at a cluster of downed ninjas. It was easy to appropriate their grappling hooks and ropes, then hop back on top of Qwanzaar. Firing and latching on with a grappling hook didn’t take a lot of work either.
No, by far the worst part was waiting for Qwanzaar to slowly circle through the snow for longer than it would have taken to watch the entire opening of Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth scenes. Pink Pixie, then Forcelight, managed to keep the big guy distracted long enough, especially once they saw what I was doing. Creeper didn’t noticed I’d tied up his robot’s knees until he went to step back and it caught. “What is this?!” his voice boomed from the speaker just before the robot began to fall.
The robot knocked off the disk that made the snow as it fell onto it, then the chest began to poke upward where the pole underneath had stabbed into it and the fall damaged the chest plate from the inside. A piece of metal fell off the top of the robot’s head and a rotor popped out. The head pulled off and began to fly away.
Instead of going after it, Pink Pixie, Forcelight, and the other heroes worked on rounding up the remaining Ho-Ho-Horrors and Ronin-Go. They might have thought they had longer, but the escape pod head’s sides opened up to reveal wings and jet engines. The rotors fell off as it shot away with a sonic boom.
All in all, not a bad party.
Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hannukah, Io Saturnalia, and an early Joyous Kwanzaa, dear readers. Remember, so long as you’re still alive, doesn’t matter if they trap you in another world, you’ve still got a chance.
“…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.
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.” I looked up and saw 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.
“You did what?!” yelled Venus at me through the phone.
She interrupted me in the middle of proceeding over a bit of judicial housekeeping. One of my judges was taking kickbacks to imprison people. Unlike the Americans, we don’t give private prisons contracts that depend on them keeping a certain percentage of rooms occupied. This situation puzzled me as a result. Hu dropped me the details: he’d been taking bribes from gangs to give rivals longer sentences.
I pulled the guy aside for a chat, just the two of us, over drinks in one of the island’s many fine establishments of seductive delight. “I am honored by your presence, Empress,” he told me upon my approach to meet him at the entrance. “But I do not believe this is a respectable establishment.”
“Despite your profession, I wouldn’t judge the respectability of the workers herein if I were you.” I slipped my arm into his to guide him inside. I even paid the cover for him. I’m classy like that.
Inside, I guided us to a table next to the wall. A female Deep One with an epic rack sauntered over. “Get you something to drink, handsomelings?” she asked.
“Are those real?” I asked stopping myself short of groping the bouncy pair.
“Yeah. All natural. Touch if you want.” She jiggled them from side to side for me. “You know we mate with humans, don’tcha?”
I gave them a squeeze. “Filthy habit, laying down with those ugly humans.” I turned to the judge. “No offense.”
“Of course not, Empress,” he said, averting his gaze as I motorboated the amphibious fishwoman, raising a hand with a wad of cash from the judge’s wallet. She snatched it out of my hand and was happy to let me take as much time as I needed until I was pulled away by Venus’s call. I had to leave the judge getting a lap dance from a woman whose tattoos moved and changed.
That brings us back to Venus yelling “You did what?!” at me.
“What did I do?” I handed a bouncer some money and he ushered me through the door into the private rooms.
“You know what you did,” she responded.
“Yeah, I know what I did, but I don’t know if you know what I did. I’m not ‘fessing up to anything until it turns out you already know.”
“This is no time for jokes. You know what I mean,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “I swear to you, Venus, and you should know I wouldn’t lie about something like this… I never do only one thing you think is unforgivably wrong. If only you know where I stuck my face earlier, for instance. Let me know which horrible thing you’ve discovered and I’ll let you know what I think about it.”
“I know, I know, I let her live. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of being judge, jury, and executioner, it’s that many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Not many, but some. Maybe one in a billion if I’m being generous. Really, the ratio is heavily on the living people that deserve death side of the equation, but I didn’t indulge this time.”
“You raped her mind!”
I flopped down on a heart-shaped bed. “That’s being a little dramatic, isn’t it? How much of a mind could she possibly have?” She hung up at the worst possible moment. I’d just decided I liked the bed. They had really fluffy pillows.
Venus had kinda ruined the whole trip, so I headed back out, despondent, to find the judge enjoying the show and a beer. I slid into the seat next to him as the next girl came out. A cat screamed and the multicolor lights around the stage flickered. Rough, droning guitars began to play, a song I recognized as “It Took The Night To Believe”. A pale woman appeared on stage, her loose white dress not really working with the usual strip club aesthetic. She swayed and took a step forward, then the lights flashed off. When she reappeared, she was crab walking, showing off enough leg to see the garter for tips. Another flash, she was upright, her head twisted at an angle usually accompanied by a loud snapping sound and the cessation of life. The next flash left her spinning around the pole, arms twisted around and her mouth stretched unnaturally open. That’s when the dress came flying off, showing tattered lacy bra and panties.
I was in love, and soon short of cash. I even used some of my own money.
Sadly, this whole meeting was business, not pleasure. I dragged myself away after her dance and back to the judge. “I’m having fun, but you seem to be taking things a little too seriously. You gotta relax.”
He sighed. “It’s difficult to relax around one’s sovereign in a gentleman’s club.”
I shook my head and stood behind him, massaging his neck muscles. “Here, let me help you loosen up.”
“I’m not sure-” he started, until I slammed his head forward into the table, busting the bottle.
I grabbed his hair in one hand, the bottle of the broken bottle in another, and jammed the jagged glass into his neck. The blood sprayed into the air over a table dancing vampiress, as did the cash I threw out while yelling, “Make it rain!” The vamp ran her hands down her bloody breasts, mouth open wide in a hiss.
Venus got back to me about 6 AM locally, but I had the call routed through my brain. “Hello?”
“I’ve had time to cool off and get some sleep. We need to talk.”
“Sure, sure. Glad you don’t feel like yelling anymore.” It made it easier to keep from waking anyone on my bed up.
“You’re quiet. Are you breaking in somewhere?”
“No, I just don’t want to wake up the vampire.” Though, with her snoring…
“What are you doing with a vampire?”
I smirked. “Daisy chaining.”
“It’s like sixtynine, but I also had the fish woman and the onryo woman… I don’t think she’s really one, because I’m pretty sure those are ghosts, but I figured I’d ask her over breakfast. I make fantastic eggs, something you’d know if you were so lucky.”
She cleared her throat. “You’re trying to avoid the subject.”
“I’ve made my family safe from an enemy who is inexplicably good at finding me and who works for our enemy. Our enemy. She fooled you too. She’ll never be able to fool me again and it got us valuable information.”
“You don’t do that to people.”
“You don’t. I’m responsible for a nation. Millions of people rely on me for prosperity and safety. That means I know things they would hope never to find out about. When their lives are threatened, I eliminate the threats. When someone infects them with a disease that could kill them or take away their abilities, I’m the one who failed them. Turns out I have the perfect moral temperament for a world leader.”
She said, “You’ve gone full Nixon. You never go full Nixon.”
“This is morality, not legality. Remember how slavery used to be legal in your country? But seeing as I’m the Empress here, you don’t have any way to punish me anyway. All you can do is wake me up in the middle of some very lovely sleep and chastise me for invading Dame’s head.”
“It was despicable,” she said.
“Despicable and right aren’t necessarily incompatible. But, if it’s any consolation, tell her I’m sorry.”
“Wow. Oh my god, do you mean the nation of Ricca, is that what you mean?”
“No. I, Psycho Gecko, am sorry. I’ve gotten to know her more closely than anyone else. And whenever you remember she betrayed you too, and you get all pissed off, I want you to let her know that she may seek asylum here. There are advantages to being someone I know can’t act against me.” I felt the woman I was spooning with start to stir. Her dark hair twisted out of the way as her face looked back at me, almost completely turned around backwards. I pressed my lips to her for a kiss, my tongue dancing with what felt like a couple of tongues in her surprisingly roomy mouth.
Meanwhile, seeing as the call went through my brain, I just thought further responses to Venus that came out on her end as sound. “Geez this stripper’s hot.” As I said, my thoughts. “Anyway, I’m going to have to set up a formal meeting with you and Titan about our endgame. How’ve you been doing?”
“Surprised you’re thinking about how this all ends. Your tips were good. We found where they stored stolen artwork and other valuables in one. Another had a server farm we’re looking over. We took a few people into custody but we had to put them in the hidden cells. We can’t just beat up people guarding a building and insist the cops arrest them because of some conspiracy they’re tenuously connected to.”
“I have video evidence. And I ooooooh… sorry, real life stuff happening… and I followed that guy who was dead.” I squirmed as the Deep One stripper’s hands groped and fondled me fondly.
“The fact that you’re involved committing crimes in other countries makes it questionable. If that’s all we have, the cops will be useless.”
“Yeah, you might see if there’s a way to make them useful. Use some influence with politicians if you can to prep them for this going public. I’ll do what I can on my end, but Belgium’s of limited use as an ally in this regard.”
“You’re allies with Belgium?” she asked.
“We’re still in talks. Medical aid and technology exchange deal, but the Belgians are starting to waffle,” I told her.
“Anyone would if they had to put up with you using that joke as often as I’m sure you do.”
I started to answer, but instead I squealed like a stolen Ferrari in a getaway.
“You sound like you’re occupied with something else,” Venus said. “Let me go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up. Stay on the line. Hey, how husky can you talk?”
She hung up.
After eventually escaping my bedroom and fixing a lovely breakfast, I left the strippers pleasantly chatting with my wife, daughter, and ex-girlfriend who all showed up at the first sniff of food. I had a pretty damn important piece of info I needed to confirm with Max and Dr. Creeper over at the Science Institute in a conference call in my study.
“I’m sorry,” Max told me. “Without a vaccine, any cure is only a temporary reprieve from the disease.” He referred to the one that afflicted the brain with the condition that allowed superpowers of all sort to be disabled by the power collars.
Dr. Creeper’s faux-German accent came from the phone set between us. “Doctor Smith has failed to find a vaccination method. If subjects have a reaction, it is the severe one that risks death. Perhaps if ve could integrate the cure with the human body or nanites?”
“No can do on that,” Max said, shaking his head. “That’s now how it works.” He nodded to me, then over toward the minifridge. I nodded and he walked over to fetch us something to drink.
“You could just try!” Creeper said.
“Doc, if Max says he can’t do something with chemicals, that generally means it just can’t be done.” I waited a moment before remembering I could try to soften the blow. “But thanks for your zeal. The fact that you care so much is why I trust your people are doing their best.”
Max tapped me on the shoulder with a beer. Not my favorite, but it was a breakfast beer anyway. Seems like he’s been wanting me greased with alcohol a lot lately. I grabbed it and took a sip while he popped the top off his own. “Creeper, how are we on that shield generator project?”
“Ve vill be ready for a test soon. Do you anticipate needing it vithin the next veek?” he asked. Is it just me, or is he emphasizing his “w”s more than usual?
“Hopefully not. I just always like to have more weapons and gadgets in my arsenal. Never know when you’ll need to pull them out and surprise someone.” I said, whipping out a serrated rocket knife for emphasis to a man who couldn’t see anyway. Meanwhile, Max looked behind me, trying to find where it came from. “I want us prepared for the peace talks, because I’m going to make peace happen no matter who loses their head over it.”
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.”
Venus was kind enough to offer me the hospitality of the Master Academy while I waited on my ride. After everything that happened, we all agreed I needed access to as many showers and fresh clothes as possible. Plus, and she didn’t actually state this, I think she was worried about all the laughing I’d been doing. Couldn’t help myself. It kinda had to do with the intersection of Gecko and Tripura. She was so nice, and she was me.
Too bad she had to kill. I just can’t catch a break, even when I don’t know hardly anything. But she killed to save an entire city, except for that part when she murdered someone for being a dick to her. The ratio of assholes to innocents makes it clear how much better a person she was. I could try and argue something about tabula rasa, but most people have really weird ideas about that. Like, they think being born with genetic preferences that can change over time somehow means the mind is born with knowledge. You know, because we should really call a baby’s inborn preference for cinnamon at birth “knowledge”.
Eh, this Earth will grow out of that at some point, maybe realize that a stream bed’s curves determine what path the water travels, but it’s not a stream without the fluid.
This sounds nice, but part of the reason I was tittering to myself so much is my ability to recall the name of that thingy on the table that salt falls out of. A mind is a terrible thing to lose, and now I’ve got mine back. And so many things are being reevaluated that it’s caused me the legitimate giggles, and some instances of laughing to spite the alternative.
It disturbed everyone around Master Academy West. They sat me in a common room with, like dark woods and a tv and books all around. If it was a social spot, it wasn’t after I got there. So I kept staring off into space, comparing memories, reconciling things, and catching up on the news. Like, seriously evolutionary psychologists? A paper about why the Jews are genetically predisposed to dominate the world? No wonder the brownshirts are marching.
In the middle of sitting down, arms around my legs, laughing my head off to myself in a dark room with the lights turned off, I noticed a guy arguing with Venus. “How long is she staying here?”
That snapped me out of my thousand-yard stare. “Hey, stop assuming my-”
“She’s a criminal, a murderer, a- a- I don’t even know what she’s committed so many crimes. And she’s transphobic,” said the teen boy to Venus.
“I’m not transphobic. There are very few people I hate more than I hate almost every one of you damn humans,” I said.
The guy actually responded. “I don’t hear you dropping the N-word or any other racial slurs.” He walked into the room, staring at me. A bit androgynous and chubby, with a wide nose that almost makes me think it’d been smooshed as a kid.
I grabbed him and pulled him onto my lap, cradling him with four arms. “It’s ok there. Shh, shh, shh. Let me tell you a little story.”
“Gecko, let him go,” Venus said. I held up a finger.
“Just a quick story and he goes free unharmed, deal?” I asked.
From my lap came the teen, “I’d rather just go if I have any say in this.”
I patted him on the head. “Hush, Venus is speaking for you.”
“You promise not to harm anyone? This is just a story?” she asked.
I nodded a bunch. “I wouldn’t dare hurt the snuggly little Master Academy students here.” I gave the student a shake. The wind picked up in the room and blew some curtains a bit too much to be the AC. “It’s just a brief story of an assassin who learned how to use medical nanomachines to perform reconstructive surgery to alter the assassin’s looks. Colors were easy, adjusting flesh and cartilage as well. Muscles, harder, bones harder still. So many things were changed… face, hair color, eye color, even skin color. And in all that time, nobody who knew the assassin’s identity questioned anything about the assassin’s personality over the fact that the assassin changed appearances so often.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Venus spoke up.
I blew her a raspberry, then continued. “Then one day the assassin grows a bodacious pair of boobs and starts wearing skirts. Suddenly, everybody starts wondering if they should call the assassin something different over THIS change. THIS change was unusual. This change caused them to worry about the assassin’s mental state more than usual.” I chuckled at that part. “The assassin just changes and doesn’t think much of it. The assassin thinks it’s stupid to assume anything off about a person just because they want to be a woman.”
I pushed the teen off my lap. “Story time’s over kid. Now get out of here.”
The tean dusted himself off and looked at me. “Inside, what do you feel you are?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I’m always just me, no matter what.” I closed my eyes and sat back, hoping they’d get out of my long, beautiful hair.
Venus ushered the teen out, then turned to me. “Maybe it would help you with all your self-loathing. That can be a sign, you know.”
I waved dismissively. “Not all that important right now. But thanks for the tampons and the brief tutorial.” I opened an eye just to wink at her.
“I know about your self-loathing. Do us all a favor and find a version of yourself that’s happier. And just because changing sex isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s a small thing for someone to be made whole on this Earth, you douchecanoe.” Venus crossed her arms as she looked at me.
“If you hate me so much, if the world’s better off without me, why save me?” I asked her, leaning forward, and maybe squeezing the gals a bit for better viewing. She’s not immune to boobs. Hell, these days, the power of boobs reaches far beyond men to all sorts of genders. “Not like anyone there knew what was happening. You could have let me die.”
“We have this talk a lot, but I refuse to go through life believing the best way to solve my problems is to kill everyone,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, “But isn’t saving me a way of condoning my actions, especially when I kill people like The Claw?”
She shook her head. “Your choices are your choices, but I’ll always hold out hope for you, and I’ll always be here if you want to change. It’s never too late.”
Ugh. It’s like she’s got a psychic around to figure out the best way to annoy me. Oh, right, she’s fucking the only surviving psychic to be in my head. I was more than happy when the Psycho Flyer arrived with an honor guard of soldiers in power armor. We made quite the sight, Psycho Gecko walking up a ramp flanked by Riccan soldiers while a force of Master Academy heroes stood guard.
One long, long, long ass trip later that involved a stopover in Mu for refueling, the Flyer passed right over the military base and landed between the Palace Residence and the Directory Legislature building. The Directors were quite curious to see what all the hub bub was about, and were surprised when the soldiers lined up and I stepped out in my armor. Not a copy, or a replica. Not a Dudebot. Me and my armor.
One of the Directors was pushed by his comrades to come meet me. “Empress, we weren’t aware you were away. We have been denied news and prevented from an audience.” He quickly bowed.
My bow wasn’t so deep, but then I’m the Empress. “It was necessary, unfortunately. If it’s any consolation, I’ve missed y’all too and I’ll be more than happy to provide more information after I meet with my family.”
I maintained a properly dignified dictator-walk until I reached the stairs to the Palace Residence. That was when Qiang got loose and came running down the steps to meet me. I pulled my daughter up in a four-armed hug and carried her up to the top of the stairs where I pulled in Citra, my (politically-motivated) wife. Then Mix N’Max, Silver Shark, everyone I could grab. Even that friend of Qiang’s, Kayla, and her parents who I’ve banged.
I got the 411 inside while snuggling Qiang. Max had a whole presentation lined up, starting with the slide, “Infiltrators, Detainment and Punishment, A Play In Three Parts”
“You may be wondering what we did with Dame, the woman you informed us was made to look like you,” Max said. “First step, identification.” The first slide after the start showed photos of the crowd all photoshopped to wear different clothes. Sam Hain, Max’s assistant, looked very pretty in Citra’s dress. Another slide showed a picture of me labeled “fake” either hugging or kissing.
“Second step, capture,” Max said. The next slide showed Sam’s head pasted to the body of a black lingerie model, perhaps to make it obvious this isn’t Sam’s body. Then a cage falls on the fake me. Then there’s a trapdoor, followed by a picture of an alligator, a school of piranhas, and a train.
“This movie sucks,” I said. “The pacing’s terrible, the acting’s subpar, and what’s with this sound design? Nobody knows how to hold a boom?” Max, ever-present grin on his face, flashed me the middle finger.
I held up one of my own toward him, then made a circle with some fingers and moved it up and down around the middle finger.
“Ahem,” said Holly, the preppier of Max’s assistants. “I worked really hard on this, and would appreciate if you paid attention.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the punishment stuff. More photoshopping, along with stills from movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Passion Of The Christ. “Bottom line,” I asked once we reached the end, “Where is she?”
Max sighed and clicked on to a last slide that said, “TL;DR, she’s in the military base.”
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. I hugged Qiang to myself, then set her down. “I’ll be back in a bit, sweetest of hearts. Mommy has to go see the bad lady.”
And I did. The men, human and Deep One alike, were happy to have me back. They showed me down to a special room, one that’d be hard to find for anyone not familiar with the holding cells. Recently, I’d been the one sitting in a darkened room, with a circle of light. She knelt in the circle, arms and legs held to the floor. She was covered by a thin white dress, barely more than a scrap. I could practically see through it.
I stepped up and pulled out a can of spray cheese. “Wakey, wakey, dearest Dame.”
She looked up wearing a copy of my face. She started to say something, but I filled her mouth with cheese so cheap. I had to find the can in a flop house by the dock where sailors passing helped themselves to a high while they were on the island. “I don’t know how much they’re feeding you. I assume some food’s involved. Wow, I know how to put together a body shape, don’t I?”
She fought to get through the cheese. Since she had nothing to say, I kept on going. “This whole game of spy versus spy and who is better at planning and counterplanning, it’s just needlessly complicated and annoying. Never knowing who to trust… it’s just no fun. So today, I make you a promise. If you cooperate, I won’t kill you. Won’t order you killed or anything like that.”
“Your guards beat the shit out of me every day,” she growled through cheese.
I patted her on the head. “And they’ll stop now because you’re going to be my own personal project.”
Her eyes fluttered and she shook her head. “Whaaaaa-why is everything… doing that?” She looked all around.
I knelt and stroked my lookalike’s hair. “It’s just the nanites, dear. I made sure you only go the best cheese.” I held up the can and shook it, smiling under my mask as if she could see it. Then I sighed. “Not quite so fun knowing what’s going to happen.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, kneeling forward, trying to rest her head on the floor.
I rubbed her head sat beside her, moving her head into my lap as the nanites set to work. “I don’t like where your mind’s at, so I’m changing it. Making a few alterations where I can. Looks like you’ve got that little disease that can inhibit superpowers too, even if you use a gadget for your fun. I had a lot of time on my flight to review everything we know about Unity, the same drug they used to make me thing I wasn’t me. Same drug I bet you were trying to steal from Ricca when they first captured you. Neural pathways to access long-term and short-term memory. Funny thing is, it’s entirely possible to start using these nanites to replace parts of a brain with a, what do you call it, cybernetic alternative. There may be a few hiccups, but that’s why I’m trying this trick on you instead of someone I care about.” Here I felt a little bit of Tripura tug at me. Dame started to scream until I forced her to stop via well-placed nanites.
I leaned in to whisper to Dame. “You know, I felt so normal and innocent there thanks to what your people did to me. Then I get my memory back. All of it. Poor Tripura… but that time gave me so many wonderful ideas about how to deal with you, them, and any other problems that come up. Losing my mind has been incredibly refreshing; I highly recommend it.”
I stood up. “Don’t worry about screaming. You got a mouth, but you won’t be able to. New process like this, I told it to take it’s time. A couple of days and I’m sure whatever you’re feeling will go away. Or you’ll suffer brain damage. Either way, I’ll be back later to pick your brain.” I stopped and waved my hands, jazz hands style. “I’m thinking something old school, maybe wrinkly, but cute and… ya know, pink’s a great color.”
I giggled at her shaking her head and waved it off. “Oh, don’t worry about your silly opinions. I’ll replace those later.”
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”.
Venus and I finally had ourselves a ride willing to take us into L.A. We just had to put up with the back of a pickup truck on account of my smell. I was so happy, I hugged Venus. No, wait, allow me to correct that. I have such a creepy little crush on her, I hugged Venus. For her part, she allowed it and didn’t even act all mean to me once we got into the back of the truck and sat down on a tarp to keep from being burned by the metal.
Knowing our salvation was close at hand, it was easier to let ourselves talk, but I didn’t want to make it all about me. Years worth of blogging to another dimension teaches me I’m not afraid to do so, but I figure I talk enough about me around her when I’m properly myself. So instead, I started mentioning meals I’m going to cook when I get back. Cooking is a wholly under-utilized skill, and one that I enjoy for its crossover. After all, I get to use a knife, cut meat, stab things, poke things, set things on fire, even force my meat into people’s mouthes and squirt fluids around.
This time, it was hot sauces, detailing way of doing it, followed by Venus telling me, “I don’t like cooking. I’d rather curl up in the library and work through A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
I wanted to ask if that’s what the kids are calling it these days but I held my tongue. “What’s your favorite part of it?”
“There are a lot of good parts. I could relate to parts of the first one, but the second one, The Reptile Room, reminds me so much of the academy taking me in. It’s nice to find a family.”
We were alerted to something going wrong, or at least not continuing to go right, when the truck rounded a bend and slowed down. “Aw hell!” We heard from the driver’s open window. When we scrambled up to take a look at the road. We’d reached an area with a little bit of tree and sign cover that shielded the presence of a checkpoint.
“Speak of the Fire-Starters. It’s ICE. I don’t suppose you have any ID on you?” Venus asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. Once again, good way to control people. Kinda reminds me of that Christian organization that kidnaps kids and takes them to the Dominican Republic.”
“That’s a hell of a thing to remember now,” Venus said. “Alright, let me do the talking.”
The guys up ahead looked like they were dressed for war more than for hunting down immigrants outside a city. They went from approaching the truck casually to rifles raised when Venus hopped over the edge of the pickup. Even with her hands raised, they maintained a pretty hostile stance.
“Hands over your head! Identify yourself!” called one who seemed to be in charge.
“I’m the superhero called Venus!” she answered back.
“Oh yeah? Superhero? Don’t you normally wear costumes?” asked a guy who stepped out with a skull bandana. More skull bandanas. Are skulls scary? How can they be? They’re so happy, always smiling.
The one closest called back, “She’s that one with no powers.”
“Unless you can kill a person with a twitch of your finger, I’m more super than you now,” said another.
“This is a situation where I couldn’t wear my costume. A lot of things didn’t go right, and this gentleman here was helping me get back to L.A.”
I heard a gun cock behind me and turned to see another ICE agent who decided to chamber a shotgun shell for some reason. He had it pointed in my direction, too. “Sarge, we got another back here!” To me, he added, “Get out.”
I crawled out, falling on my back in a landing most bogus. It took me a few seconds to stand up and straighten out my dress.
“She’s my sidekick,” Venus said.
“She ‘s got four arms,” said the one closest to Venus.
“She’s a dark one, isn’t she?” asked one of them further back. “Doing some human trafficking?”
“Oh, yeah, did y’all ever find those kids y’all sold off?” I asked. The one behind me poked me in the back of the head with the barrel of his shotgun, pushing me along until I was standing beside Venus.
“Get this other asshole out of the truck. I want to see them all lined up,” said the guy in charge. Another ran up as Venus and I moved over. The driver heard everything and was getting out anyway, but this other one yanked him out, then to his feet as the guy fell.
I had a bad feeling about us being lined up.
“Come on, I’m a hero. We should be good,” Venus said.
“Uh huh. You stay put and keep your mouth shut while our consultant gets here,” said the Sarge.
The driver, whose hands were raised anyway, raised one a little higher. “They were walking by the side of the road. I was just giving someone a ride.”
“I bet you were. We take human trafficking very seriously.”
Venus tried to distract. “He picked us up within the state. There’s no way this falls under your jurisdiction. Why are you here instead of checking at the border. Any border, state or federal.”
“This looks like a job for ICE man, Mary Jane,” said the Sarge.
Altogether, I counted up nine of these guys. No, wait. Ten if you count the swaggering guy in the red and silver costume and a red domino mask. The fingerless black gloves didn’t quite match up. The matte-finished 1911s in hip holsters seemed especially un-super, and subtle for a guy in a costume. I got a match, though. Manhunter. Works a lot with the government because of his tracking powers. Literal tracking powers. DEA files state he can see a path people travel, able to follow it back to where they came from, or to where they’ve gone. They even have a pretty good idea how much he likes to skim off drug traffickers. The DEA has an equation to figure up people’s skimming from decades of experience.
Venus gestured to him. “Manhunter? It’s Venus, remember? We worked together that time. Tell these guys we’re legit.”
“I remember Venus,” he said, spitting some chew onto the road. “Total bitch. Accused me of pocketing evidence from a jewel theft.”
“Is this woman the superhero y’all are talking about?” asked Sarge.
“I’m not sure. She had a mask on. Emotions were running high from her false accusations. Messes with my memories.”
“I know how that feels,” I said. “Both the emotions and the memory issues. It’s like we’re oddly in sync.” I stepped toward him, transitioning from my hands up to curling fingers through my hair. “Hi, my name’s Tripura.”
“Somebody get this dirty Indian bitch away from me before I throw up. God, wash your cootch.” I stepped back into line as a couple of the guys advanced.
“I’ll have you know the formal term is Native American,” I said.
“You don’t look native. You don’t even smell human.” Manhunter pulled out one of his pistols and twirled it around. “You smell like a dead dog by the side of the road.”
Some of the ICE agents checked around. I got a bad feeling about all this.
“That reminds me of something…” I said, then looked over to Venus. “Hey, you still have those ear plugs in?”
“Ear plugs?” she asked, then reached for her ears. She stuck her fingers in there as I opened my mouth.
What I’d remembered was that frequency I so liked. I learned it from my imprisonment in The Cube, where it was used to induce paralysis in the human body. I figured out how to make my own enhanced vocal cords make that noise, and allow my own enhanced ears to block it out. I released a scream at that frequency and watched them fall. All of them, including our driver and Venus.
I ended it with a cough. “Now that I’ve cleared my throat, I think you’ll agree our papers are in order. So I’ll leave you guys to sleep this off.” I grabbed Venus and our driver, helped them into the back, and slid behind the driver’s seat. I cranked it up, looked at the ICE guys laying there in the road, and smiled. “Speed bump.”
I suppose I should feel bad. Not as bad as Manhunter felt when I drove over his crotch. “Oh wait,” I said to myself and put the car in reverse. I got out, stepped down onto Manhunter and another ICE agent, and began rifling through their pants for wallets. “Your money and your life. Oh, wait, you’re the guys who stopped us. Anyway…” I took the 1911s off the guy. Just in case.
Venus wasn’t happy with my little speed bump, but I didn’t get much of a chance to talk it over with her before the driver politely screamed at us to get out and leave him alone before he gets arrested for helping us. He was nice enough to drops us off in a suburb of the city where Venus insisted on separate rooms. Which got real contradictory when she called out to me asking “What the hell are you doing over there?”
“Jealous? Mmm, if you cleaned me off in that shower, then was as soft as this bed, you could help me make these noises, too.”
We were both interrupted by a concierge stopping by to bring the clothes I ordered. Manhunter skimmed on a lot more than drugs. He even had some gold teeth in there.
Venus didn’t talk to me much after that. A lot of bad history there, and I think she’s realized that even though I’m not me, I’m still me. But in the night, someone else did. The projection of the Denim Dude, the alien member of the Three Hares who has been helping me along as part of his own agenda. One moment he wants me caught, another he wants me out.
I heard “Wake up, Gecko,” and found him leering over me with the projection that looked human. “Good. I thought you should know the others have found you. They know Venus has you now. Now that everyone’s asleep, I wanted to let you know Centeotl’s got a plan. He’s genocidal at the best of times. Now, he wants to clear out the City of Angels and your girlfriend’s sad excuse for an X-Men school.”
“Is he here?” I asked, then yawned.
“Not yet, sweetheart.”
I sat up. “No rest for the wicked then. Good news is, if he’s paying attention to a city, he won’t see me coming.”
“He’s not even sure you are an enemy,” Denim Dude said.
I smiled. “Good. I’ll take a confused mass killer over one who knows to try and kill me any day.”
When I stepped out of the door, Denim Dude whistled. “Short shorts aren’t very tactical, are they?” Not even a comment on the plaid shirt? It’s literally a target on my back, and front, and sides underneath the extra arm holes.
I checked the pair of 1911s and slid them into the back pockets, which I’d cut the bottoms out of to better act as holsters. “Depends on the tactics. A shame we’re back to walkin’, but these boots were made for that. Now, I think I’ll have words with Centoetl.” And a big shame after all this running, I’m heading back just because a few million people’s lives are at stake. But, at least for now, I’m not as much like my real self as Venus thinks.
“Would any of those words be ‘die motherfucker, die?’” he asked with a smile.
“Eventually. But…” I looked back to the door of Venus’s room, where she slept, then off to the bright lights of Los Angeles even in the pre-dawn dark. “Probably anyone who knows the real me won’t fucking believe I’m doing this. But this guy’s definitely got the power to kill a whole city if he attacks.” Plus that debt I have to the Master Academy, not that I’d let Denim Dude in on that.
“Better follow the yellow brick road then,” Denim Dude said. He swept his arm out into the distance, a lighted path appearing in my view.
“Guess I’m the manhunter now,” I said as I started walking, picking a nice tune to accompany my journey toward that growing cloud in the distance that spread out and covered the air from the end of the path ahead of me. He was coming straight on, from the southeast, and at least I wouldn’t run into that particular group of assholes from ICE. I took out the guns and tried spinning them, familiarizing myself with the weight, sights, and mechanisms. And I spoke along to the music this time, so as not to drive off my guide. “A bullet is on its way. Tell the whole world that I’m comin’ home. Someone’s gonna need a grave.”