Tag Archives: Venus

The Empyreal March 7

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And I thought this was going to be hard. No, I really thought it’d take more to get the military to back the fuck off. Thing was, it wasn’t the reporter showing that the soldiers were rescued and being taken care of, nor that innocent people were hurt or killed in the attack. It wasn’t the illegality of the soldiers being in the city in the first place. It wasn’t the lack of reinforcements. It wasn’t all sorts of things that were so easy to predict.

Nope, it was the incompetency of the Commander-in-Chief. It’s amazing. I’m not meaning to make all this political, but he’s the one inserting himself into everything and failing. Apparently the idiot went and watched the clip of the video in the middle of some hotel restaurant and it leaked out. I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they can’t even. They chose this over me. They fucking chose THIS over me.

Worse, it totally stopped me from being able to hold out. I just… seriously? I had it all planned out. I’d let things deteriorate, push to get my connectivity restored, and push for having my recovery improved with nanites. Maybe have something dramatic happen, wake up to an attack so I can singlehandedly save the day. It would have made a great music video.

Seriously, though, this just seems like stupid way for things that to end. I mean, the military’s still around. When the school’s scouts came back, they just burst into the cafeteria talking about how the military’s pulled back to Central Park. A cheer went up among everyone.

Well, almost everyone. I caught a distinct glare from Good Doctor, who sat beside Elita the Warrior Woman. She didn’t look too friendly either at that moment. I checked my food, a plate of some of the worst meat loaf I’ve ever stuffed into any hole on my body. It probably wasn’t poisoned, but just because neither Elita nor Good Doctor tend to use it.

Good Doctor’s power makes him deviously competent at finding weak points. Armor, both natural and artificial, as well as all the various weaknesses of a human body. Got an old knee injury that acts up? He’s your guy.

Elita’s the muscle. Big, strong, and with the ability to level a building if she’s mad. Unlike me, that’s without using explosives. There are ways to work around that, but it’d be a very bad thing to let her get her hands on you. There are multiple parts of her body she could use to snap me like a twig, some of them more fun than the rest. Then again, no body part’s that fun if it’s breaking you in half. I’ve never had my spine snapped in an amusing and entertaining way. That’ll have to go on the bucket list.

It’s entirely possible they’ve decided my usefulness is at an end. The same thought crossed my mind when I passed by Psychsaur walking with Victor Mender. Minotaur stepped behind them, holding a clipboard and chewing on the eraser of a pencil.

This was a bad time to have things so readily on my mind. I walked away briskly, wondering if it made any difference at this point. But am I just paranoid and schizophrenic, or did Psychsaur watch me leave?

Down in my little prison cell room, I started packing what I could carry. I slid into my armor and wished the place had a few more exits. They might kill me. It’s really the only option left. If they try and hold me, I’ll keep trying to escape. Things will get worse. That, or they’ll have to stick me in a situation that’ll cause a major deterioration of my mental state. And considering my brain at the moment, that also means they’ll never let me go. Or if they do, I’ll be some shambling old Alzheimer’s victim threatening people while pissing myself.

So I put on my armor. I strapped my chickens onto my belt. I packed my half-rebuilt laser potato peeler, its single blade with a gap in the middle still not sharpened enough to my liking. I wrecked my armor-printing machine. I loaded up spare materials and tools in a handy little bag and opened the door.

“Going somewhere?” asked Good Doctor from behind Elita the Warrior Woman, who did a great job of blocking off the hall.

“Ah, my old buddy. Now, I know what you’re thinking: should I kill Gecko? I can point you to a website with several answers to that question that may surprise you.”

“Why do you persist, even now, in claiming I am your friend?” He shook his head, glaring at me from under slicked-back hair. He liked to do that before “operating,” if he had a choice. In one hand, he held one of his scalpels. In the other, his mask, a sort of leather helmet that encompassed a visor area and a lower face covering.

I sighed. “It’s how I’ve thought of you. A wayward friend. You were ashamed of what you were, but you were still a friend.”

“You know why I did it. She meant the world to me. Then you…” He looked down, then lifted his mask over his face.

I nodded. “Yeah, I did. Maybe someone else would have eventually. You knew what she was. There are many risks, and you used to be one of them. I did what I chose to do, but so did she. She could have walked away at any point.”

“Could you?” he asked, his voice somewhat muffled now.

I pondered the question for a moment. “Huh. Point to you then. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise how it all ended. I hate that I did that to you, but I have to think about my life. I don’t have the luxury of imagining that my death serves some greater purpose to the world than long-overdue justice.”

“That works for me,” Elita finally spoke up. “You did so much to the world, I don’t know why the Academy left you alive.”

I shrugged. “I owe them a debt for saving me, I guess. A debt they intend to call in. But yeah, bad things goes down when I start believing in higher causes. That’s part of why I miss just going around doing my own random shit.”

She clenched a very painful-looking fist. “Got any fancy websites for me before I pound you?”

Under my helmet, my eyebrow rose. So many things I could do with that one. I just had to settle with. “Yeah. Www.gofuckyourself.com.” I opened my mouth and let loose a piercing banshee scream in a tony designed to paralyze the human body upon being heard. A gift from my time in the Cube. They used it to keep inmates under control when being handled or moved. I replicated it.

Both former villains went down, allowing my to hop over them and head up into the school itself.

There, I actually found another group headed by my way. Minotaur, Mender, Venus, and Psychsaur. Venus was even in her power armor, all shiny with its heavy plates. I didn’t know how many of them it would take to whoop my ass, but I knew how many they were gonna use.

“Please,” I thought. I turned to head down the opposite direction of the hallway but felt my body lock up

“Sorry,” I felt in my mind. “Why?”

“I must be made whole,” I thought back. I tried speaking and told the approaching heroes. “I’ll go. I’ll leave.”

“I am afraid I cannot let you do that,” said Mender’s computerized voice. “You brought an attack down on my children. You have been a menace to us despite our leniency. Remove your armor now. It is not as though you can leave.”

Someone must not have found out Psychsaur cozied up to me.

I screamed again. Psychsaur tried to cut me off, and it stopped me for a moment, but that was a moment when her own body became like jelly. It actually worked. I could move again, while Minotaur and Psychsaur crumbled. That just left Venus and Mender. Easy.

A pair of cannons rose from the back of Mender’s wheelchair even as Venus stepped forward. “You can’t win.”

“Ya know, I didn’t even want to fight right now. Can’t you just let me go? Are your morals that set in stone?” I asked.

“Some things can’t be compromised,” she responded. She jumped forward, over the downed bodies of her colleagues. She punched with enough force to break bones. I caught it easily. The left hand came forward in another punch, and I caught it as well. A metal spike shot forward but didn’t penetrate my gauntlet. My HUD reported a power surge. My gauntlets fed incoming excess energy to my suit’s batteries. “Lets get you out of that armor and back in your cell.”

“Oh, look, that ECM trick.” I jumped up kicked her in the chest, letting go of her fists to send her stumbling back to fall over her stirring friends. I turned and ran, dodging a lightning bolt and catching another with my gauntlet.

This time, there was no telekinetic force catching me, and the rest of the students didn’t get involved as I fled the school and into the city. I found a building that’s unoccupied above the first floor due to damage. Hell, I escaped at all! I guess I should have realized it when Psychsaur had to lock me down on her own. Or maybe I should have realized sooner that I even could make myself escape. It’s confusing. What did I know and when did I know it? It must have been when she gave me the ability to cuss and hurt people again.

That’s it, Psychsaur doesn’t die even if she was the one behind Mecha Gecko!

So now I rebuild. Get myself a proper lab going again, build up my own supply of nanites. Maybe take over the city. The Ukrainians had to run and hide, so that probably put a damper on their big money-makers. The military’s going to be on its way out. The Master Academy is a bit defensive, and I already know these newbie heroes couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

And I do have an agenda. I was serious about owing the Master Academy a debt. Despite my actions, I still hold to that. So first, I make Empyreal City great again. That includes making it a bit safer for them. And I kinda like this place. I think I’ll keep it around, and that means finding a way to encourage people to not completely abandon this city, blown up and disaster-prone as it is. I mean, it’s really been hammered a lot lately.

I’m not quite sure how to do that as a villain. I’m sure as shit not doing it as a hero. But I have a feeling I’m going to have one hell of a fun time figuring it out. I mean, that’s just a given when one of your first decisions is whether or not to assassinate multiple world leaders. I guess it depends on how big a bounty they’ll put on my head when I expose myself to the world.

Now, do I shave the pubes completely, or maybe leave it in some sort of heart shape?

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The Empyreal March 6

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Believe it or not, I did think this through. I feel the need to clarify that, considering the school is now under a siege. This current President doesn’t understand subtlety. At this point, I suspect he doesn’t know the meaning of most words in the dictionary. There’s a rumor going around that he can’t actually read, which is at least somewhat consistent with reports that he often just ignores the speeches written out for him.

It didn’t start as a siege so much, actually. The early morning following Valentine’s Day, alarms started going off all over the place, even as I was taking a post-intimacy walk. The Walk of Shame, some call it. I don’t know why they call it that, anyway. I just got laid. Should be the Walk of Standing Ovations. The Academy Award for Best Supporting Fucker for his work in the documentary “Against The Wall: A Deeper Exploration of Her Pink Floyd.”

Or, if the audience isn’t so lucky, the walk of pelting people with rocks. Some people really don’t like to be reminded that other people have someone else.

Nevertheless, I was on the stairwell down when the alarms started going off. I rushed down to find a window and check out what was happening when I heard the discharge of firearms. They tend to have a fiery discharge and leave someone with a sharp burning sensation, quite unlike myself. That doesn’t mean someone outside wasn’t getting fucked, and I was trying to make sense of who it was.

Some of our refugees were trading shots with a group of soldiers. Not a full-on war front, but a group like you’d send in to assassinate someone. Which was stupid. A compound this large, you don’t just send in one team. At the very least, you’d have multiple helicopters to provide support.

That’s when the choppers flew up. I didn’t get a good look in the darkness, but they thumped closer and provided cover fire that sounded like it killed a lot of unarmed civilians. They weren’t all armed, but some naturally felt the need to go around with weapons in case they needed to murder each other. In this case, it worked out a bit and gave us an early warning sign.

So much of an early warning sign, in fact, that somebody activated the school’s defenses. I noticed something rise out of the top of a stone pillar off in the darkness. There were several in the wall around the school. It must have been a rocket launcher of some sort based on the rocket it launched that shot into one of the choppers. It actually took a couple of hits before it crashed, landing on campus. The other one tried to pull out, and then crashed outside school grounds after taking multiple shots from multiple pillars.

Supers were rushing all over the place, and not necessarily in the best state of dress, either. But they were up and running. And I had an idea. I grabbed a couple of them who I didn’t recognize. “Come here, we need medics and doctors and shit.”

“But we aren’t-!” They didn’t answer so much as I pulled them out and we headed out through a door into the back. We ran toward the downed chopper.

“I’m not killing any soldiers!” shouted one of the ones following me.

“That’s the point!” I said. Yes, we were running to help them. We made it to the wreckage. It’s dangerous to just pull stuff off people or pull them out of vehicles in that kind of situation unless you’re a trained emergency responder. On the plus side, I’ve been the cause of so many similar injuries and crashes that I have a pretty good knowledge of what to watch for. And, it turns out, these guys have some basic training for handling all that.

Between the three of us, we managed to pull a few soldiers free and alive. Others had been thrown clear and were knocked out or otherwise so easily injured to be subdued without much problem. In the end, we had a half dozen of them in various stages of distress laid out nearby. I was watching over them as well while the others rushed in to get more manpower to see to the wounded. There was a lot of need for it, though by the time I had a moment to rest on it, I no longer heard gunshots. That could mean something bad, but what I knew of the school’s size and the student body’s capabilities suggested otherwise.

They all just groaned as I searched them over for any information, weapons, or hidden equipment. That included headsets with camera linkups. A quick glance in one showed they had drones and satellite views of the school. The night was alight with chatter, too. They were in retreat, wondering if reinforcements were coming in from the city so they could get their lost guys. Navy guys, from the jargon they used. Not all branches of the military call the same things the same things. Some people get to the choppa; others get to the helo.

When the guys showed up with some stretchers and a few of the more battle-ready supers, I held out one of the headsets for them. “Here ya go. Let’s just get these guys inside to a nice, warm, difficult to penetrate infirmary where they can heal up for awhile.” I looked down to the soldiers, though they might not have liked being called such. Again, more military terminology stuff. “Now remember, you’re patients, not prisoners. Because we’re not at war with you or anybody. So even though you attacked us for some reason, we’ll patch you up to the best of our ability.”

Yeah, that’s the plan. Officially, we didn’t take anyone prisoner. We’re not hostile, here. Some guy just ordered a death squad in to kill certain people, apparently without adequate intelligence, and now they’re convalescing as patients. It’s simple, really. Just a failed death squad with me watching them sleep at all hours. With my knowledge of all kinds of ways to kill people, not that they know about that. They don’t know who I am. All they know is they were sent in to secure the school, somehow.

Mender had a pretty good idea what happened, though. “They were after me,” he said to the assembled heroes and myself. “If I were eliminated, this school would fall into disarray,” his digitally-crafted voice spoke. “You would have surrendered with a gun to my head.”

I opened my mouth but about three different people elbowed me in the stomach at the same time. I don’t see what the big deal is. I was just going to say, “Speak for yourselves.” Weird thing is, Venus wasn’t anywhere near me. She was standing off by Psychsaur, holding hands. Psychsaur shot me a look. Was that sheepish, I wondered? I mean, the scales and all made it harder to tell. With the reptile features coming into play, she’s got inhuman lips and a face that extends out a bit.

My line of thought was interrupted by a burst of thoughts into my head, most of which amounted to “Sorry,” in various ways that all talked over each other. I caught a wave of embarrassment from her, which oddly caused my own face to flush.

On the plus side, I totally got a sneak peek at some memories that flashed through her head. So that was fun. Irrelevant to the conversation at hand, but fun.

“Do we know why they attacked now as opposed to any other time?” I asked, leaning over the back of a chair in front of me.

“We have ways of determining that,” Mender said. “You are not included in that for a reason.”

I looked around for Good Doctor, but didn’t see him there.

Mender continued on, “I see no reason why you are included in this meeting at all.”

“Maybe because I took charge and got the prisoners… I mean, patients… out of their wreck and arranged for them to be brought in here. Not the first-”

I didn’t think I could be thrown out a door that fast without taking the door with it. It was all a blur. I don’t know if it was telekinesis, super speed, force fields, super strength, or some combination of it all. It’s impressive, actually. No matter how strong an individual villain, there’s something a little awesome about being so thoroughly smacked around by a combination of strong superpowers. Then you snap to attention in a prison cell with a lot of unexplained bruises in unusual places. Tonsils, for instance. We’ve all been there, whether it’s supervillainy or a trip to Mexico on a drunken bender.

So I didn’t get to find out more about these methods, but they probably involve the psychics of the group. And while they dealt with the soldiers and other wounded from the attack, the bunch in Central Park sent a detachment to guard the main entrance of the school. Considering the size of the school, it would have taken probably the entire bunch to encircle the campus, and they weren’t going to advance with the force they sent. Too few men for the job.

Curious about that, I checked the internet for various things. Reporters, news, all that. The legal problems associated with the initial deployment has held up reinforcements, especially now that this President is having some legal problems. And some scandals related to him and officials in his administration having unusually close ties to Russia. The whole thing’s a mess: Ukrainians mobsters, Russians, the President of the United States, domestic militia superheroes, and the Claw. The fuck is going on here?

To answer that question, I decided to kidnap someone who might have the answer. I knew her as Tricia Tijuana, my ex-fake-wife. She once helped me out of prison on behalf of a guy I know in the media who may or may not still like me. He was under alien control when he turned on me. The kidnapping went easy, too. Just a matter of rolling over in the morning and asking her, “Hey, you want a Pulitzer?” She was freaked out, naturally. She didn’t know who I was, but that’s not the first time I’ve put a bag over a woman’s head in bed. Like most kidnapping victims, she warmed up to me once I dragged her back to my place of residence and explained why she should want to be there. Don’t try it at home. I had lots of hurt teenagers there, too. Made it a lot easier.

So now the news gets a nice view of wounded soldiers being tended to by the dutiful nurses, right alongside the wounded refugees and heroic teenagers who were so brutally attacked by members of the military just like the ones now parked outside a school, threatening displaced refugees from the recent bombings.

It’s made such a wonderful narrative, and all the better when soldiers began to die in small groups in their movements around the city. On patrol, while responding to criminal activity, even when just hanging out trying to get lunch at Hibachi Yum Yum.

I had to avoid fancy knifework at that last one. The place is barely staying open as-is; it doesn’t need criminal suspicions on top of it.

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The Empyreal March 5

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A little sleep goes a long way, as does good nutrition. Good nutrition injected straight into my veins, just like the Psychopomp Project used to make. Well, it tried it for a bit. Back in the early days of it, before the guys running it really went off their rockers, they tried weaning us off food for a bit in the hopes it would make us more efficient. There were some failures, which then led to teaching us the basics of cooking, including which recipes made the best use of people. Just in case. As long as you have a corpse, you have food. Hell, as long as you don’t mind losing a limb or two, you still have food in desperate situations.

I may have deleted some of those recipes from my memory.

After a little rest and a long shower, it was time to get to work setting upon my enemies and scouring them from the face of the Earth. Which, admittedly, involves getting a video from my brain. Hitting my head against a desk in the library, sadly, didn’t help ideas for that come any quicker. I stopped when I realized I had enough other people around willing to slam my head into things that I didn’t need to resort to it myself lest they get in on the act. And that reminded me of the person who most liked bashing my head against things. Or at least the most prominent person to get away with it: Venus.

And she gave me ideas. Many fun ideas.

Problem was, where to find her? I looked all over that school. I failed to find her, but Good Doctor found me while I was checking the gym. He had normal clothes on, presumably happy to be out of his gear, but I noticed a belt of scalpels around his waist as he stepped in there and walked quite purposefully toward me.

“Hello there, fellow escapee,” I said, smiling. He popped me in the throat with his fist. I held a hand up toward him and put the other one to my throat. I bent over, not wanting to fight him. Just because he didn’t think he was a friend didn’t mean he stopped being one. He took advantage of the position with a kidney punch. Fucker would know how to hit there. And he kept hitting there, which hurt a hell of a lot. I let myself drop, hoping he’d just start kicking instead, at least until he kicked me there a few times.

He left me laying there, and probably with plenty more bruises ready to join the leftovers from my beating. I rolled over. “Gonna be pissing blood for a month now. You happy?”

He was on top of me in a flash, holding a scalpel to my throat. “You took away the only happy thing in my life, you bastard!” He raised the scalpel.

“Stand down!” yelled Venus. I recognized the voice.

Good Doctor heard it too and looked up, then back down to me. I could see the struggle written on his face. “Why?” he growled. “What excuse is there this time? What lies has he told to make you believe his continued existence is necessary?!”

I almost said something, but it occurred to me that pretty much anything I said might force his hand. Plus, I wasn’t sure if Venus had an answer for that. I was curious.

She might have been, too. I looked up and she paused briefly before continuing to walk. “You’re not the courts. You don’t have the right.”

“The right?” His eyes widened in disbelief. “I don’t have the right? He killed my daughter. I have every right. He doesn’t get to hide behind rights and courts after all he’s done.”

“That’s what he says to justify why he kills. I know it’s hard to hear, but you’re a smart man. He killed your daughter and you are compromised by emotion. ” She stood over me. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever looked up between her legs while she’s worn jeans before.

I looked back up to Doc’s face, and I could tell he was learning why I hated her so much. He wasn’t going to do it. I thought he’d slam the scalpel into the floor next to my face. Instead, he clenched his fist and lowered the scalpel to his belt where it slipped into place among a few of its brethren. Taking deep breaths, he stood up and backed away from me.

I just looked up to Venus, who held her hand out to help me up out of instinct, then pulled it back before the offer got all the way out there. I put my hands under my head. “Heya there, Venus. You know, you look good in casual clothes. Also, I need your help with something.”

“I don’t want to know, do I?” she asked, standing well away from my head.

Huh. She looked a lot better in jeans and a shirt than she did in skintight costumes. I could give or take the mask, but the body makes me want to go “Oh yeah, baby, I’m gonna disappoint you so hard.”

“Well, you would need to be closer than that,” I explained. “See, I have this video I took on my eye. Sadly, y’all disabled wifi and cellular connectivity, which means I can’t call it an eye-phone, nor can I upload it in any way myself. And since you teamed up with a supervillain to strip me of my powers, I can’t just connect to something else to get it out there. So I’m sitting on some really useful knowledge, some video that could really help the situation, with no way to get it out there. So I got to thinking maybe you would be able to connect to me and transfer some data.”

“This is some kind of trick,” Good Doctor said. Venus nodded her agreement with his assessment.

“Look,” I leaned up on my elbows. “I’m serious. I didn’t stay in there that long just to get my ass kicked. I don’t entirely know why I went in there, aside from a bad experience with a flashbang and a bunch of soldiers. But I have something useful. Something that could lead your pansy asses to a less violent means of victory. I got my ass kicked for this. An old woman with some serious balls got shot in the face for this, and not by me. Other supers died in that fucking explosion. Look past me and think of the sunk cost fallacy, people.”

They didn’t know what to say to that, possibly because I seemed to give a damn and possibly because my last sentence took the piss out of the whole rest of it. I rolled my eyes then and raised a scalpel I’d stolen off Doc’s belt to my temple. “Ok, so I’ll cut in there, find whatever hole or patch y’all left from when y’all went in the first time, and open the way.” I held a finger from that hand out to dig into my hair, looking for an irregular spot close to where I knew the brain-based hard drive to be. “Venus, you need to stick a finger in, but I’m probably not going to be able to guide you. Come to think of it, that’s a bit of a setback I haven’t thought about. Just look through this last week, particularly my time in captivity. Good stuff. You’ll love the part when I’m on the chair.”

I didn’t give her a chance to respond to all that before I dug the scalpel into my scalp in what I figured was the correct spot. I gritted my teeth. She rushed forward and grabbed my hand, yanking it away. I winced up at her. “Ow. Pull out, not to the side. That hurt.”

Laughter broke her shocked expression. I didn’t laugh with her, just pulled up a small flap of skin and hair. “If you’re doing acting like I’m Patton Oswalt or something, there’s the matter of the data I still need to get to so you can get to it.”

She didn’t let me take the scalpel to my own head again. “No. I don’t even know how to do that if you could get to it!”

I sighed and let her take the scalpel. “What the fuck have you been doing with those powers, huh?”

She stood up and held the scalpel out to Good Doctor who took it. Couldn’t make out much of his thoughts on the matter, but maybe he was glad at least one of his tools got a taste of my blood.

I stood up. “Dammit. The needle and thread’s going to itch like hell now, too.”

“Needle and thread?” asked Good Doctor.

Venus answered back. “He doesn’t get access to nanites, even though he’s just a human now.” I just shook my head, once again being reminded of my horrible and disfiguring medical condition: being human. I headed to the door, keeping a hand on my scalp. Wasting my damn time, that’s all that was.

“Doc, can you tell some moron not talk about me like I’m not even here? Nevermind, give me a few seconds.” I didn’t let the door hit me on my way out and walked to the infirmary for a little bit of self-stitching. They had a couple nurses there working on students, so I just handled myself. Though, I did expect more. They managed to bring in more specialized staff for myself, unless they also have healers. And in this case, it wouldn’t even matter.

Venus caught up after a couple minutes while I was putting my head back together. She stuck her head through the door. “Don’t close up just yet!.”

I sighed and shook the needle at her, the thread still running back to my scalp. “Why the fuck not?”

“What if we plug something in that you could download the information to it?”

“It’s not like I built in USB connections.”

“Well there has to be some way,” she said, exasperation filling her voice.

“Some way other than restoring just one capability to me. This city is dying while we sit around, you know.” I crossed my arms as I looked up at her.

She glared at me. “You don’t get to pull that. It was never that simple with you. Now I’m about to go and have a good time. If I hear you caused any trouble while I was gone, I’ll let the Good Doctor have his with with you and NOT how you want. I’ll tell him it would be more fun to leave you an armless and legless.”

“Geez, Boopsie, a little high strung?”

She messed with her dark hair with one hand. “I have a Valentine’s Date.”

I raised an eyebrow and let my eyes wander in the direction of the city.

She added, “In another state. If you mess up anything, you will be back in that cell. Maybe you’ll keep your legs.”

“T’would be but a flesh wound, m’lady. But fine. I’ll sit here. What am I going to do, email my brain to someone?” I waved her off. “Now go on with your life. Go ahead. I’m just the nemesis you don’t have anymore time for. Shoo, shoo.”

Well, Venus left to go get ready for her date. Which she went on. With Psychsaur. Bit of a surprise there. Psychsaur picked up my attractions, but I thought Venus was Catholic. They weren’t the only ones doing couple stuff, which just further rubbed in that I was likely to be left rubbing one out alone. I had options, but that wasn’t the main thing on my mind. No, before I grabbed a box of wine and a pair of hoses to drink it with, I had to build myself a small transdimensional receiver.

It’s one of those capable of picking up a signal I bounce out of another dimension. Venus gave me ideas, sure, but not just the ones Psychsaur got to share. Ideas like “how about I trick the heroes into fixing me a little?” And it didn’t quite work yet, but I think I know how to make it work. So I fixed a receiver and prepared a small section for broadcast into another dimension, at which time it will be bounced back to the receiver, ready to be attached to a secured and untraceable email pointing out that Master Academy is in possession of an extremely damaging video. Sure, the White House has filters and all sorts of ways to track people down, but I know full well just how secure they are and aren’t. It comes with being emperor and doing interesting things in the Lincoln bedroom with a pair of Korean twins and a Japanese schoolgirl. We got so wild, they could have renamed it the Kennedy bedroom or the Clinton office.

And then it was off to MY date. Because I can totally get one, and not just with hookers. I know it’s not polite to call them that, but the chances of them ending up dead with me are pretty high, and they’re hookers when they’re dead in the trunk of your car.

On that note, Happy Surviving Valentine’s Day.

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The Empyreal March 3

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“You’re pinning the blame for this new loyalty oath thing on me?” I asked. I hadn’t performed any major operations in the few days since that announcement, instead working on my armor some more. Since I couldn’t leave maintenance to the nanites or a machine designed to repair everything, I had to put more time into keeping it in working order. I’d been interrupted in the middle of a bit of necessary crotch maintenance. Totally letting it out some to accommodate me. Yep. Nothing to do with bad smells at all.

Venus stood in the library, holding an empty box. Minotaur stood back a ways, doing more watching than helping. An orange young man with six hands carried an empty box in each hand. “They’ve reviewed what you’ve been doing and it looks like everything you do is just making things worse.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ve done stuff, but they’ll use any excuse to do what they want. The doofus said he’d send in troops if there was another explosion. There hadn’t been any, but gosh if a bunch don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. All I did was sneak in and play dress-up with the lean, mean killing machines and he’s gone all House Un-American Committee on y’all. If it wasn’t me, it’d have been something else. I bet that’s why the army was situated in such a lousy position anyway.” I pointed at her with the objects in my hand; a screwdriver and the portion of my armor that’s more or less a codpiece.

“You still gave him the excuse, and got those heroes caught so they could be his exemplars of this new way of doing things.” She started grabbing my tools and scraps and started piling them into the box.

“Hey now, those are mine. I stole them fair and square,” I admonished her.

She didn’t stop. “We’re relocating you back underground. You don’t have to stay down there all the time, but we don’t want you out in the open. There’s going to be a tour of the grounds for some very important people.”

“I suppose I can understand that. Y’all wouldn’t want to show the proper authorities your little hidden prison anyway, especially with the Loyalist heroes’ little buddy held down there. You know, I don’t think my time beating up Ukrainians adversely affected anything.”

“Did it help?” She turned and looked at me with one skeptically-raised eyebrow. “Did it accomplish anything, or was it just an excuse for you to hurt people?”

“I mean, hurting people helps me. It’s also valuable training. Not to mention, it curtailed various Ukrainian mafiya operations around the city while they relocated and got set up again. Y’all were stopping muggers. I stopped the people who don’t make such obvious waves.” I winked at her.

She rolled her eyes at that, then looked over to Minotaur and Swiss Arm-y Guy. “Enjoying the view?”

Minotaur snorted. “Just tell me what to lift.”

She pointed off into the corner to my armor-makin’ machine. “That looks big enough. And you can get more of the little stuff,” she said that to the other one. Finally, she grabbed my helmet where it rested on a bust of Mark Twain and tossed it to me. “You’ll probably want to wear that down there.”

“Like it? A little different, but I’ve liked the idea of having multiple eyes on it, even if only in an aesthetic sense. A subtle way to get to people. And I’m not stuck with pink, gold, and white as my color scheme.” I spun my helmet around and set it on the table while I continued refreshing my crotch armor.

“I’m not stuck with those colors. Besides, I heard you like pink. Your ex mentioned it.”

“A master criminal such as myself is allowed the occasional indulgence,” I responded.

“Pink nails, pink shoes, a poofy pink dress, pink ribbons for your pigtails…”

“You should have seen me in the tight pink dress.” I bit my lip and let my eyes roll up. I looked damn good in that thing. I looked ‘guy checking you out accidentally walks into a sign’ good. Sadly, I hadn’t quite mastered ‘girl checking you out accidentally walks into a sign’ good before everything happened with the alien invasion and another sex change. There’s alw- crap, they won’t let me fiddle with nanites.

My occasional foray into pink notwithstanding, the relocation was cheap and easy as myself when I wear lots of pink. They didn’t restrict me, really, just wanted to keep me under wraps, though I think Venus’s talk was meant to be a subtle hint not to stir up even more trouble.

To be fair, I didn’t set out to do so this time. All I meant to do was buy a shitload of hot wings for the big night of watching great commercials and a short concert interspersed with a football game. I have nothing against a bunch of men in tight pants piling on each other to see who can touch the other groups’ ball. Hell, that could easily describe most superhuman conflicts right there. I just don’t happen to follow it.

All I did was set out to obtain some delicious hot wings. I got myself a big box of them, and was walking home. Just minding my own business, thinking of maybe picking up some pink nail polish, when I was accosted. Accosted, I say, by a trio of rogues intent on besmirching the good name of Empyreal City by engaging in street crime like common riffraff. Like Riff Raff, I had a hunch, though mine was that they didn’t know what they were getting into but were aware that the city’s superheroes were grounded. I could not allow such perfidy to stand, I say. And I said as much to them, until the gentlemen pulled a firearm on me.

Well, I didn’t have a weapon of my own to ready in hand, so their call of “Your money or your life,” was instead answered by myself grinning and going, “Do you accept payment in chicken instead?”

Sadly, I had to go back and get more chicken, but I don’t believe those street hoodlums will be causing me anymore trouble. Indeed, the one will be lucky to walk if he ever makes it off that fire hydrant, and his friend with the gun was last seen trying to hack up a box of chicken wings, box included. I impressed the third one so much, he accidentally ran into a sign while trying to run off. However, it left me replacing my wings and passing by the same area in time for cops, some soldiers, and one of those idiots with the loyalty oath to finally have responded. I just hoped to pass them by, walking on the other side of the street and behind some parallel parked cars. I didn’t take it as a good sign when one of them, presumably the one from the hydrant since he lay on that stretcher belly-down, pointed in my direction.

“You!” called out the super with the flamethrower. He pointed in my direction.

I looked around, confused, then pointed back behind me. “Oh, he must have gone that way. If you hurry, you can still catch him.”

He raised his flamethrower. “Stop and put your hands over your head.”

“One, don’t just point a weapon at someone,” I said as he approached. “Second, you might pick words more carefully.” I indeed raised my hand, throwing the boxes of chicken wings into the air right toward him. He raised his arm and shot a spurt of flame at them. Spicy.

I jumped up and slid over the car hood, almost singing my eyebrows as he lowered the stream of flame while firing. I stayed low to rush him, and even he wasn’t stupid enough to try and lower his aim to take me out. Not with a car there. Cars really don’t explode easily when shot with a gun, but flamethrowers are a different story. I reached inside my jacket to wrap my hand around the handle of my laser potato peeler. At last, its time has come!

I’m still not entirely sure where the flashbang effect came from. I don’t think I saw the actual grenade, but then everything lit up like a flashbang and my ears were ringing. I felt myself thump into the flamethrower guy, and tried slashing. Something hit me in the face and burned, but it was solid, so I figured I didn’t have to worry about losing my hair. There were a lot of arms and fists all of a sudden, take my face’s word for it. I stabbed and slashed, but something metal hit my hand and knocked it loose. My eyes and ears adjusted quickly to find myself being knocked on my ass by a squad of soldiers who, to be fair, were being much less lethal than you’d expect from soldiers. One of them did the barrel of his gun against my forehead and say “Stop.”

They had these big magnetic shackles for my legs and arms. Put a pair on and they were pulled together. And as much as I hated it, I’m not so suicidal as to try and when the gun barrel’s right there. So, after getting trussed up like a pig for a barbecue, they frisked me and it was off to the zoo!

I wish they’d at least left me the laser potato peeler before tossing me into one of the reptile enclosures. At least they remembered to take the big metal cuffs off.

But I’m cool with it, I think. There’s no need to fear, I am here. No, no, no, just think about this. I’ve been planning stuff, and things have been going to shit. So clearly, my mind is the problem. To exceed the limitations of my mind, I must lose my mind. I must stop planning. I must become one with the piss which I take from my enemies. Because I care about some people at that school. I care about stopping these assholes, solving the Ukrainian mystery, and eventually stopping the Claw.

The more fucks I have to give this situation the more fucked-up it becomes. And from that perspective, I’m in a great place. My enemies surround me. No prison has ever held me. And while they’ve upgraded the defenses of this makeshift, the look I got at them showed those walls, emplacements, and sensors would do a great job of helping keep people out. This zoo, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have too many more additions made to it. Certainly not enough, I think, to hold off a big escape with all these superpowered prisoners.

So what do I spy with my little laser eye, hidden fangs, blackened zirconium fingernails, and paralyzing scream? Opportunity.

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New Year’s Retribution 8

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This city has gone to hell in a handbasket. And don’t just take that from me! It’s all over the news.

I found out after tinkering with my gauntlets some more. It was partially about upgrading the energy sheathes and partially about making sure they were clean after where I stuck one. The day seemed unusually quiet around the library. Even that couple who uses the study room weren’t showing up, which was really rude of them. What if I’d been hosting a webcam show, only for my main attractions to no-show?

When I headed out to the refectory to grab something to eat, I came across the first real confirmation of something unusual: a bigass cake. For those picture a cake in the shape of a butt, sorry to disappoint. Though it’d be awesome if one of those had a stripper pop out of it, right between the cheeks. A black stripper.

That probably comes across as racist, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than finding a pale green stripper.

I didn’t know what the celebration was about, but that’s no excuse for skipping over cake. I even ignored an alert from my phone about the motion sensors. There hadn’t been any significant movement from visitors other than check-ups, so I felt confident in ignoring it for the time being. I ended up getting three pieces. Fighting uses a lot of energy, so I was going to get two anyway, but then I just felt like getting an extra one for another person. It wasn’t consideration or anything. I just knew I’d need another for another person. I kept it to the side until Psychsaur walked in and sat down next to me, taking her piece without a word.

I looked over at her and raised an eyebrow. She shrugged and took the extra fork I’d brought over and ate. I squinted and looked back at the cake and the line for it. She pulled out her phone and looked up a video, then handed it over.

The video was of a local news broadcast announcing a complete lack of major or super crimes the night before. Muggings, attempted murders, and so on, but nothing big was pulled off. I mean, attempted murder sounds bad, but they were stopped before it became a completed murder. Nobody robbed a bank or stole a shipment of computers or anything like that. Crime in Empyreal City had dropped to a record low as part of a trend since the chaos immediately after I was supposedly killed. Empyreal City always had its heroes. In addition to them, the city now had Master Academy, reformed villains, and even these newbies. The poor criminals just couldn’t keep up for very long, even with me adding in a little bit of hijinx.

Darn thing must have been on auto-play, though. It loaded up another video right after that of the new President threatening to send the military into Empyreal City if it doesn’t clean up all the carnage. Turns out that one was from after the announcement about low crime, too.

“I doubt he’s heard of Posse Comitatus,” Psychsaur said, reading my mind. Not practically reading my mind, just literally reading my mind. It was a bit weird with how easily we seemed to be thinking each other’s thoughts, especially because I couldn’t really feel her in my head anymore. And yeah, we both thought it was odd, though apparently she suspected it might happen. She’d been trying to avoid me because of it, but slipped in out of habit sometimes when she was close enough. She wasn’t used to having such a long range, either, but she could keep up with me much further than anyone else.

I didn’t put a sympathetic arm around her, but it’s the thought that counts. It did weird me out having some sort of weird two-way telepathic communication where we simply thought each other’s thoughts. I’d prefer hearing voices in my head. That one made her laugh, though she quickly stifled it. I’d noticed we were drawing looks, and the thought went through her mind as well.

It wasn’t just those kinds of thoughts passing between us. I realized that soon after when I looked through and found myself feeling like I could really go for some Chinese. Or maybe he was Japanese. Regardless, he was a bit more on the buff and overly-muscled side for my normal preferences. I shot Psychsaur a look, but she was staring at the ass of this girl in tight leggings. We agreed the trade went both ways there.

So it was a teensy bit weird, and oddly calming, to sit beside her. Just enjoying a snack and another person’s presence, and not in a romantic way. She was perfectly attractive, but I didn’t feel any urge whatsoever to do to her what I’d dreamed about a few times, even if it would have been a perfect time to bender her over a table and be all like “Oh yeah, baby, I’m about to disappoint you so HARD!”

Then Venus stormed in, an irate expression upon her brown face. Psychsaur, being such a perv, really liked what she looked like angry.

“Have you seen the news?” My nemesis asked in a huff.

I cocked my head. “I thought it was news you liked. Crime down, heroes helping build schools and so on… that kind of crap.”

She held up her phone, where a news show on the most-watched news network in America was saying, “Unlike the biased mainstream media, we’re showing you the facts, and the facts are that monkeys have been causing chaos and panic in Empyreal City.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Geez, they’re not even hiding the racism anymore, are they?”

Cut to a picture of a baboon on a motorcycle with a pirate hat on, then another few pictures of a baboon fighting someone’s excuse for a superhero. They even repurposed the photos I’d staged to make the heroes look bad, only now they claimed the newbies were putting down a riot. Any idiot with a working memory would know it’s a lie… which meant this channel’s viewers were buying this hook, line, and sinker.

I looked between Venus and the screen, then settled on Venus. “I mean, I think it’s awesome that Animal Planet revamped Law and Order. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Because,” she said loudly, then noticed plenty of people paying attention to the argument. She lowered her voice and leaned forward over the table. I maintained eye contact. Psychsaur looked down her shirt. “You know what, just keep on listening.”

“That is why the new President of the United States has declared in a press release today that, in addition to his inauguration clearly being the largest in U.S. History, he will send in the Feds if anything else happens in Empyreal City. This is a direct quote from him, he said, ‘Does the President care about Americans? Of course I do. I love Americans, especially Real Americans. Nobody loves Real America more than I do, but we cannot allow all these explosions and gang violence to continue in Empyreal City. If they don’t fix the carnage in their city, I will send in the Feds. It will be the biggest and quickest cleanup of crime in an American city in history. Nobody cleans up crime like I do. Nobody.’”

I rolled my eyes. “Put that away, Venus, you’re killing people’s appetites. Psychsaur over here keeps imagining having to call him the Commander in-” I held up a finger and took a moment to gag before continuing. “Not going to finish that sentence. Besides, I don’t know what anyone’s talking about with gang violence and explosions. I’m one person, and I’ve kept a firm hand on all my cocks. They don’t just explode all over everything, willy-nilly.”

A fireball erupted out of the corner of my eyes, off into the city, followed quickly by a half dozen more and a lot of rumbling. I also noticed a beeping from my phone, but that wasn’t so important at the moment. I held up my hands, “It wasn’t me this time.”

Venus grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt and started leading me to Mender. Psychsaur started to follow, then stopped and turned toward the students. “Everyone, stay calm and eat your cake. We’re going to assess and handle the situation.”

I couldn’t keep up with her so well once Venus and I got out of range, but I knew Psychsaur’s mind was racing. She didn’t seem that worried though, so we had that in common.

Venus and I didn’t have to go far to find Mender. We spotted him roll down from the next floor up, drift around that little middle landing of the stairs, then roll down the next flight. He looked like his wheels were being pulled against the floor, his descent was so controlled.

“Sir,” said Venus.

“What she said,” I said.

“What is going on?” he asked.

“Explosions in the city,” I answered. “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess car bombs, but a lot of them. It’s gotta be something big that they managed to get into place. Or something really, really big in the sewers. I know a few recipes, but I was saving them for my guest lecture in Chemistry.”

A voice spoke up from Mender’s computer. Psychsaur’s voice. “He’s remarkably calm, but he didn’t have anything to do with it. He’s got a lot of explosives experience, though.”

“Psycho Puss, stay on campus. Venus, with me,” Mender said. Venus nodded and away they went, leaving me to fend for myself in a harsh new world of exploding buildings.

“Anybody else feel like s’mores?” I asked no one in particular as I wandered off back to the library. I actually had a few students cowering in there with me, including Quincy, the skinny guy with the glasses and glass powers, and Chloe, the girl with pigtails, thick glasses and hair powers. The couple from the study room were out, hopefully after the guy had the decency to ask her, “Did the Earth move for you too?” after the explosions.

“Are you going to do anything?” asked Quincy while I walked over to turn on a giant TV I’d put in.

“I was going to put on Labyrinth, maybe, but if you’re going to whine about it…” I’m not a hero, and a bunch of people hurt in explosions doesn’t faze me. I’ve caused a lot of them myself. And while I could probably be a lot of use helping rescue people from the rubble, I just didn’t care that much. I slipped on my armor just in case. I felt itchy, and not in an addict’s way. More like a good time to be cautious.

I did put on the news for the students while slipping on my suit. The youngsters were old enough to be kept abreast of it. I thought it was on mute at first, but the people trying to talk were stunned into silence as they showed helicopter footage of several damaged buildings, with heroes from all over the city now rushing out to help. I even picked out Master Academy capes already out there, scrambling over the blast sites, including a familiar hospital. I whipped out my phone. One alert when the bombs went off, which makes sense. Both movement and that the bug was shutting down. Fifteen minutes prior, an alert came in of several individuals moving in and out of the mauled speedster’s room.

Huh. They’d tried to evacuate. I briefly wondered if they managed to get him out, or if he had something to do with this. One explosion could be some delusional asshole’s plan, like McVeigh in Oklahoma City. More than one stinks of a plot, and the smelliest of plots are the product of supervillains. That, or just a whole bunch more extremist Christian fundamentalists, like the militia guys.

The TV cut in on my investigation with an urgent message, though. “Alert! Breaking news. Preempting an announcement of a state of emergency, the President has ordered the United States Army deployed to Empyreal City.”

“Well, that’s a fucking beautiful sight,” I said. “Better buckle up, little people. We’re in for a bumpy ride. Something tells me things are about to get messy.”

Ukrainians, militia, new heroes, and a president who talks about sending in the military if any more explosions happen before any explosions happen. This is turning into a really-fucked up Twelve Days of Chinese New Year. No wonder it’s the year of the flaming cock now.

I looked at my little group, who certainly hadn’t steeled themselves. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t the first time something this bad has happened. Have you even seen last year? You got through that. I know that it just adds up and up. You feel like you’ve reached your limit as bad shit piles on you, and every little cut the world makes against you feels like you can’t take another. But you got through every cut before. You survived that same crap a thousand times. Don’t let just one be the end of you. Especially not when you’re all tougher than this.”

They hesitated. No breaking out into applause. Oh well. So I went on, “Now go get more students. I’ve been told to stay here, but there’s reason it just has to be us. We’re going to need food, water, blankets, tents, and all that. Get those gates open. A lot of people just lost their homes.”

Chloe asked, “What if the people who did all that,” here she motioned in the direction of the city, “get in here and do it too?”

“Then the baddest man on Earth will fuck them up,” I said. “It’s not courage if you only got it when times are good. Besides, there’s no damn excuse for a bunch of so-called heroes to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. Now, what the hell movies are popular with little kids who need their minds taken off giant explosions?”

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Season’s Thievings 9

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In the aftermath of messing about the campsite, I returned to the library. The armor performed pretty well, overall. I didn’t build it with disposable plates, but they got a little dented. Hey, that kind of weight is why an exoskeleton is a must. I’ve been working on that, too. Been a problem in between dealing with some of the students staying at the school for the holidays. They have all sorts of circumstances, like the Korean girl scared of all the stuff happening in North Korea, or the guy from Georgia who can’t go home due to discrimination. Not because of being a super, in that case, but because he’s gay and his boyfriend here is a Muslim. That domestic situation doesn’t get much worse unless he was dating an illegal Mexican black guy.

I’m not mentoring people, by the way. It’s just that since the library is my unofficial base of operations, I tend to find people wandering around there looking for books, or making out in the study rooms. Making out puts it mildly. I’d write all the specifics, but I’m pretty sure that’s technically illegal for y’all to read.

Anyway, they hang out and read stuff. I build stuff and put the books in place so they’ll stay out of my way. Word’s starting to get around that I hurt people a bit, which is both making them more polite and offending me slightly. I don’t just hurt people. That’s like saying Leonardo da Vinci likes watercolors. I paint a Sistine Chapel of pain, suffering, dead bodies, and a bit of bukkake. I got a little over-excited. I swear, it usually never happens. I’m the Jimi Hendrix of beating people to death with guitars. The Michael Jordan of bouncing my balls on their pained faces. The Charles Manson of… I got nothing. But people are returning their books and make sure to keep things clean.

For my part, I don’t try to intimidate them. I’m even trying to stay out of their way using an improvised system of pulleys and some grappling hooks I appropriated from the gym. The end result is that I’ve taken to hanging from a rope track, pulling myself around a as I stalk the shelves and do what I do. Rumors that I occasionally sing “Nana nana nana nana, Gexman!” are obviously the exaggeration of a bunch of students with too much time on their hands, and who shouldn’t have been eavesdropping on me anyway.

That’s the context behind when Venus walked in and caught me stocking a shelf with discs. She ahemmed, so I grabbed the rope above me and spun around. “What are you doing upside-down?” she asked.

I folded my arms across my chest against the pull of gravity. “That’s quite a question coming from someone walking on the ceiling.” And who has been out of town and not paying attention to me.

She pulled a bit of hair off the pretty brown skin of her face and rolled her eyes. “So that’s just one of your things. But what’s with the CDs?”

I reached behind me and pulled one out to show her. “I found your lack of educational material disturbing. I have amended some of this in order to retain my sanity. This one’s got Lazy Town on it. Pretty good villain in there, and he even has a song teaching people to be bad guys.” I handed it to her and pulled out another. “Here’s Weird Science. Very educational. There’s remotes that rewind and fast forward time, a supercomputer with an AI that wants to take control of people’s lives and make out with a pretty woman, changing people’s gender to teach them a lesson… really, it’s a must-have for the modern mad scientist.” I whipped another one out.

“And what does ‘Cats’ teach?” she asked. I glanced at the disc and saw that I’d pulled that out. Huh. That should not have been that close to the Ws.

“Makeup, flexibility, and that women really want the villain,” I said. Actually, I got that one for myself.

“Sure. Right. Well, as long as you’re not letting people check out any inappropriate material, I suppose that’s nice of you. Here.” She handed me back the discs, which I slipped into my utility belt to be sorted later. I needed something to hold things while I swing around upside down in the place. “You’ve really taken to the place, haven’t you?”

I narrowed my eyes at her.

She raised her hands defensively. “Sorry. I know, you’re the evil bad guy, and buying a kid’s show about sports and fitness doesn’t change that. I haven’t forgotten all you’ve done to me and those I care about. I just mean, it’s nice that you’re doing something with yourself that instead of something destructive. How have you been holding up?”

I pointed up. “Well, the trick is distributing the weight along different points and not just the legs, though that can be handy if you have too many hard landings.”

“You know that-”

I cut her off. “I know you don’t care about me insofar as you think you can reform me. Real frustrating to not know if all my thoughts and ways of behaving are my own. Also, really frelling frustrating not to be able to cuss. Sometimes, I feel like the movie ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ edited for cable. Just so you know, I wouldn’t go on a wild killing spree here even if I was allowed to, so there’s an astounding chance you’re right about the peculiar inconsistency of my ‘addiction’… and besides, I take that debt seriously. I hate taking things seriously. Do you know how hard it’s been, being serious? I’ve had to pull myself together for so long and it’s tiring. I want to go beat up moon Nazis or kill a superhero themed around pie. Or pi. Either works for me.”

Well, that’s a lot of words people probably glossed over. But seriously, I can see myself fighting Pi Man. Pi Man, with the strength of 3.14 men! Or the Pie-azon, who defeats evil with a little help from her blueberries. Sounds like the type to have a jealous boyfriend, though. I’ve heard you’re never supposed to rub another man’s rhubarb. Ah, that’d all be fun.

Instead, Venus folded her arms. “Too bad. You did the crime and now you’re doing the time. Easy time, too. Do you know how many prisoners in maximum security would kill to be in your place? Suck it up and stop whining. Now, if you can, I need to take you down to your cell or some other place out of sight.”

I held up my hands. “Geez, Boopsie, I didn’t know that’d finally set off all that unresolved sexual tension. There’s a study room nearby some of the students use for that. I’ve been waiting on something to make it easier to clean, actually…”

She shook her head. “Yeah, we got that package, and I don’t know how I feel about the condom dispenser, but that’s not what I meant. We’re having a party at the school. We’ve kept a lot of supers away from areas you were likely to be seen at, and they aren’t the important social areas anyway, but this place will be full of superheroes we don’t want to see you.”

I raised an eyebrow. From that angle, it was more like lowering one. “First you want to jump my bones, then you’re embarrassed to let anyone see me. You have a strange way about relationships.”

She grabbed me by the hair. “Do you really want to let Good Doctor find you after what you did to his daughter?”

I raised a finger and started to speak. This time, she didn’t let me speak. “With you being unable to fight back?”

I suppose she had a point. With that in mind, I had to move my armor machine, which was a pain. At least they didn’t give my room away to the captured militia member. I had a small hiccup at one point, though. I tried to move the x-ray I’d stolen from the infirmary down. Venus found out I was moving it when she caught me wheeling it on reinforced library carts.

She didn’t appear happy, especially in light of the infirmary being short their x-ray machine. “Is that what I think it is?”

I patted the machine. “Yep. My own personal microwave. This baby can heat a burrito like it’s nobody’s business. Which is good, because burritos typically end the digestive cycle as nobody’s business.”

“That looks an awful lot like an x-ray machine. I know, because the nurse wanted me to keep an eye out since theirs mysteriously went missing.”

I blinked, then put my hands behind my back and bowed my head a little. “Ok, you got me.You found me out. My secret is shamefully revealed to the world… I got the school a new x-ray machine. I heard about it going missing and figured I’d get y’all one for Christmas. Thanks a lot, Venus. You ruined the surprise. You ruined Christmas.” I forced myself to tear up and tried to blink it back.

“Pull the other one,” she said. When I reached for one of her boobs, she loudly added. “Leg!” Funny she slapped my hand away when I tried to touch her leg.

So they took the x-ray machine and consigned me to the fluorescent-lighted depths of the school for their Christmas Eve party. Lots of folks having a good time who want me dead. Some traumatized kid in the infirmary being nursed back to health during one of the worst holidays of his life. Another guy down under the school being restrained and probably honey-boarded. What, y’all thought water was the worst thing you could use in torture? I mean, I only did it for a second. It’s just that honey makes for really long seconds.

But I took a break like all of them. Sorta. Maaaaaaybe. I can say for certain that what I chose to do on Christmas Eve was definitely of my usual soundness of mind. I stopped by a place on the outskirts of the city where a family lived. Nice place. Got its own lawn and a little money to it. Well, a family doesn’t live there all the time, but from what I’ve been able to stalkingly pry out of the internet, he gets his kids over a lot more these days. The money helped.

They weren’t home when I got there. The guy about to bust in a side window with a rock noticed that, too. He didn’t see me until it was too late, though.

My entrance was more subtle, and the sack I carried was full before going in. As soon as I set foot, something stirred within the house. Something the burglar wouldn’t have liked to find. Not everyone appreciates an authentic magic moai statue. “Hey there, fella.” I dropped the sack and gave him a hug. “You still getting on ok?”

He nodded slowly. From my spying, he doesn’t seem as spry as he used to be. A bit less active. It’s the cracks, including one big one running through the center of his head. It probably works better to keep him with Carl, instead of out fighting more things that could destroy him. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m still here. Just don’t let people know,” I explained. “I don’t believe I ever found out whether you were Jewish, and it’s Hanukkah starting tonight. Kwanzaa’s almost here, too. Always Saturnalia if you’re a fan of the classics. Anyway, big guy, happy holidays from a supervillain bearing presents and epoxy. And just a little quick concrete.

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Season’s Thievings 8

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At last, it is time to send me into battle! Just not yet with my armor complete. The main body’s fine, and the helmet’s where it should be. Gloves, too. The boots aren’t anything too special. Nah, the main hold-up is the power source and exoskeleton. I have an idea on both, it’s just a matter of making one less powerful and the other more powerful.

Since I’m not going to be merged with a power core, it would be tougher to regulate that thing. The last thing I want to do is end up dying at all, let alone because my enemies could just stick their hand in and tell the power source for my armor to go blow itself up. I’ve solved the problem in the short term with a jury-rigged system using a supercapacitor and a motorcycle battery. In order to hide the obvious weak point of the battery, I put together a round armored covering. I’ve got my armor machine working on a cape to cover it up better, as well as a more lightweight covering, but I should be good with the weight for now.

That’s because of the exoskeleton. My version isn’t done just yet, but Master Academy had several spares laying around. I stole one of those and upgraded it a bit. Not enough to be wholly adequate for my future purposes, but it’s at least enough to get by. Just a big cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster here. I’m not sure if that’s just the armor or the armor with me in it, either. Eh, who am I kidding? I’m the guy killing people, robbing their graves, and stitching together a human centipede to bring back to life. Then I’d coat it with flame retardant and send it after the villagers’ children when they stormed the castle.

I’m not a nice person. And that’s terrible.

So on the day of my big return to action, I stood in my new armor, helmet off. The Emperor Gecko armor, I dubbed it. It just didn’t feel right. Before, the armor was a part of me. It wasn’t some high-tech, overly-complicated jet wannabe-with half the armor and double the weaknesses. But it was still a part of me. This is a dead shell I wear. I guess the name of the armor fits that assessment. Something, something boohoo angsty pants. I forgot what I was going to put there originally. It doesn’t feel right, but that’s how it goes. Time to lace up my corset, pull up my stockings, tighten my frilly panties, and face the music like a man.

Now, that last sentence might lead people to suspect I made quite a sight, but I didn’t have all that on under my armor, and I only had on the boots, pants, and top.

“So this is what you’ve been making in here,” said Venus. She was there. Leah, too. I’m guessing Psychsaur told them.

“As if you didn’t know already,” I said. “You guys going to keep this stupid collar and pair of ears on me, or what?” I briefly pointed to the ears that served as part of their tracking and alarm system. “I think I’ve proven by now that I do have to keep coming back now.” I didn’t mean to get angry over it, but hint of righteous indignation flared up inside over the idea that they’ve made me used to it by now.

She stepped over with something that looked like a curling iron in hand. “We might as well. You’re going out there for us now.” She lowered her eyes as she slipped a prong between my throat and the collar. She lowered her voice as well. “I don’t approve of using you, by the way.”

“Remind you a bit too much of using the copy of me? Whose idea was that, by the way?” I asked. When I felt the collar slip off, I breathed deep and rolled my neck around. I haven’t been free of that thing in some time.

“Victor took personal responsibility for that situation,” she answered.

That’s the problem with some people.They never want to give a straight answer because they’re horrible liars. The correct answer is the one that works best for you. Like if someone ever asks me if I raped Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I can honestly answer that one, “No,” but nonconsensual bestiality is no time to grow an honest streak if he guided my long wooden ride with a sack at the back of it. A boner, maybe, but not an honest streak.

“Lie some more,” I said and stepped back to grab my gloves. The fitted into place and sealed with a turn. “These are my friends. See how they glisten. See this one shine, how he smiles in the light, my friend! My faithful friend! Speak to me friend, whisper, I’ll listen. I know, I know you’ve been locked out of sight all these years, like me my friend. Well I’ve come home to find you waiting!”

I hopped up on a table and cut to the chase, holding one fist in the air. “At last my arm is complete again!” With my other hand, I reached down and adjusted a switch on my belt, manually powering up that gauntlet. This time, the glowing energy formed up and held itself two inches over a plate which protected the wiring and mechanisms of that allowed it to concentrate power. I jumped over and turned, bringing my hand down lightly on the table. The stored energy dispersed as kinetic energy, breaking through the table and scorching the surface.

Next was the helmet. I reached up and screwed something in a little tighter on my eye. Just a little replacement for my laser that I didn’t use in case some people got a bit scared. When I set my triangular-eyed helmet on my head, my laser eye flashed an activation signal. The system turned on and presented me with a slightly less complete view. The cameras were entirely on the helmet and couldn’t give me a view of what was immediately underneath my head. On the plus side, I’ll have bigger problems if the answer is anything other than “my body.” It also provides a way to control the gauntlet charge and allows me to adjust the exoskeleton’s output manually.

“Did anyone else just get chills?” Leah asked. Most of the other students around her nodded. It’s not every day the question is answered “What is black and blue and orange all over?”

Emperor Gecko, that’s what.

Venus stepped up and put her hands on my shoulders. She shouldn’t get much that way. The helmet and belt’s where all the action’s at. She looked where my eyes should be and said, “No matter what you do, you can be forgiven. You just have to ask. Maybe not by man, but by God.” She removed her hands and held up an earpiece for me to stay in communication.

My response to that was filtered through the helmet, which deepened the voice somewhat. “Never forgive. Never forget.”

At least I remembered to steal some of the kitchen knives ahead of time so I didn’t spoil my big departure with a side trip to the kitchens. Aside from that, I had a pair of holodiscs on my belt to get me through. I wanted chicken grenades, but I had enough on my plate with the rest of this project, along with all the other stuff I’ve done. I’m lucky I got a belt with holodiscs at all. I’d have even stuck some swords in the battery plate if I had any.

Besides, armor like this, I didn’t need much more than my fists and some rears to shove them up.

An hour later, I drove a truck up to the gap in the chain link fence that formed the closest to an entrance these tossers had. They had sandbags there, but well out of the way to let in much bigger vehicles than the small pickup truck I brought with me. Being a bunch of paranoids who didn’t know me, a half dozen of them surrounded the vehicle, pointing rifles and shouting at me to get out of the truck. Granted, I looked like a normal human being thanks to the disc on my belt projecting that image over me.

I’ve seen soldiers in a war zone who were more polite. They fired either a warning shot or a smoke grenade or something to warn people off they saw coming ahead of time. Part of that’s to let people know ahead of time not to come close, and part of that’s because they wanted to make sure nobody got close with a car rigged to blow up. Waiting until I pulled up and then surrounding me wasn’t as effective a solution for either of those problems. I could have been anybody. I could have been some crazy person coming to kill them all!

Oh right. I was. I kicked the door open, knocking one guy back and diverting the barrel of another couple of guns. The nearest one who could have had a shot fired, but I bent his barrel, then reached between his leg to give the other one a new turn as well. I picked him up by that and threw him at the one I knocked back, sending them both to the ground.

One of the two I’d screwed up the aim for shot at my chest. When nothing happened to me, I grabbed the rifle and jammed the butt against his throat, then reached for his finger. I broke it, then pushed it against the trigger. Turns out some naughty boy had an illegal automatic. That wouldn’t have been a pleasant shot with just the kick from a semi-auto. Karma like that’s part of why I do it, folks. Someone’s gotta handle the universe’s dirty business. And business is good.

The guy on the ground who didn’t get his body yanked around by his nuts struggled to try and stand until I punted his nose. My back armor stopped a lot of rifle fire, but plenty of it went past because more than one of these guys had an automatic weapon they didn’t know how to handle. They call it “spray and pray” because it takes divine intervention to consistently hit something when you let ‘er rip. I turned around and dipped low, teabagging the guy whose face I just remodeled before front flipping to land on the shoulders of the other one who I initially knocked around. He went down under my weight, and I quickly back flipped to land knee first into his crotch. He sang like the famous Appalachian Nutless Cock Swallow. I stood up and kicked him in the taint, sending him skidding and probably rupturing some colon in the process.

Another rushed up and tried to put one in what he thought was an ordinary human skull. Behind him, his friend clutched at his face and fell down. I didn’t even plan on that one. I turned and headbutted the gun, which kind of blew up in his face. His reflexes needed work. I grabbed the partially-dismantled gun from him and beat him over the head once, twice, three times a lady. The fourth shot went underhand. “Nut check!” Yep, he had ’em.

The last one, who was now trying to crawl away while holding his bleeding face, didn’t put up anymore of a fight, not even when I grabbed him for a bit of parley.

See, my little incident at the gate didn’t go unnoticed. Several of them were gathering up, including a guy with a light machine gun of some sort. But I figured I’d give them a shot, just to pay lip service to the people sending me on this errand.

I hefted the wounded guard up, supporting him anally via my fist. My helmet made sure I was heard properly over his groans of pain. “Attention donkey show enthusiasts and elephant show hopefuls: seeing as there are some people who care about this sort of thing, I am giving you this opportunity to walk away with an unbruised anus. Lay down your arms and surrender, and I promise you I will not be allowed to do to you what your dad used to do to you after getting drunk and making you wear a little dress. I warn you now that should you fail to do so, well, things will get messy. You’ll be missing fluids you didn’t even know your body had. What do you say?”

“You’ll take our guns when you pry them from our cold dead hands!” one of them called out, but I couldn’t see who. I was holding up my wee little puppet man. Then it got loud. Guns are like that, and these folks weren’t using silencers, not that those things work as well as the movies. I weathered the storm fairly well, between my armor and the unfortunate guard who seemed to go out of his way to attract all the bullets. Or maybe that was me waving him around.

“That could have gone better, but thank you for giving them a chance,” said Venus in my ear. “What are you going to do next, ‘make the chimichangas’ like that one movie?”

“Chimichangas aren’t my style, Boopsie.” I queued up some music for the impending spine bending. Hearing the fire die off as people ran out of ammo, I told her. “Since I’m going up against these types, how about some Blues?” Blues Saraceno specifically, “Pumpin’ Irony.”

I lept to it while they reloaded, dropping the hologram and bodies. This time, the exoskeleton was cranked up to break bones on simple punches, and not mine. Charged gauntlets pulped faces. I caught LMG guy before he could get anything reloaded in the middle of all this. “Hello, my name’s ‘The Broad Side of a Barn’. Didja miss me? Nice gun you have there. Some people claim those things are just replacement phalluses, but everyone knows a REAL phallic object has to be able to glide up an ass. Let’s put the matter to bed, shall we?”

Turns out his gun was compensating for something.

The initial fun was broken up when one of them ran out of a tent with an RPG and took aim at me. Well, tried to take aim. I don’t think he got a lot of practice in at the shooting range, because the only thing he hit was someone’s mud-splattered truck behind me. I jumped back up to my feet and pulled a knife that proved that if I ever find a god, it’ll probably be the one the Aztecs worshiped with sacrifices.

Turned out, that was the explosives tent, too. I took a minute to explore it and give people a chance to catch their breathes outside. Some of them fled, but a dozen survivors had pulled up someone’s homemade monster truck to use as cover, and because someone got the idea to mount another LMG on the back of it. As if they needed cover, as if I’d shoot back. Yeah right. I brought knives to this gun fight. I twirled a couple in my hands, getting used to the weight of the attached grenades. I pulled the pins and threw the kitchen knives, not having particularly good aim. But, as they say, close enough only counts with horse shoes and hand grenades. In this case, they landed close enough, given how many of them decided not to stand back up from those explosions.

“That was a bit extreme,” Venus said. I noticed movement in the air and turned with another knife in hand to throw at the drone. “That’s me!”

“So, you like to watch?” I asked in a sleazy tone.

In the background of her, I heard, “Remind me to never check a book out.”

She ignored that bit of commentary. “We were curious.”

“I don’t know why. Mender knew how this was going to end when he sent me,” I responded as I began to search over the place for explosives, information, and maybe even survivors. What I found, I like to think justified Mender’s decision. Inside one of those prefabricated sheds was boy tied to a metal cot wearing dirty pajamas. Not dirty as in “I wore these a week in a row to sleep in,” but dirty as in, “This guy has been forced to crap in these for a month.”

Another guy in camo stepped toward me from the right, a pistol in hand. I swung a knife with my right hand. He fired the gun, which zapped me against the wall of the shed with a burst of red lightning that left my ears ringing. I grabbed my head and shook my head a bit before focusing on the man, who stared down at the knife in his belly and tried to hold onto his guts.

By the time he looked back up, I had his arm in my hands. One twist and crack for his wrist, another the opposite direction for his elbow, and then a third one popped his arm out of his shoulder. He didn’t keep hold of that gun, which looked to me like a blocky sci-fi type of gun, a pair of red glowing lines running along the length of the barrel and stopping at a red cube sticking through the rear of the gun above the handle. I then pulled the knife out of him and tapped the paling figure on the nose with the blade. “It’s your lucky day. You just surrendered, whether you like it or not.”

The drone floated in and I heard Venus gasp. “I know him. He used to be a student before the purge.”

I cocked my head to the side and laughed at my prisoner. I put the knife up and put him out with brief pressure to his carotid artery. “Too bad for this guy then. I have a feeling it won’t be his lucky day. Y’all better send an ambulance to meet me, though. I’ve gotta get both these guys out of here in a stolen truck, and it’s not the best ride, medically speaking.

The former student didn’t react, either due to sedation or shock, as I untied him and carried him across one shoulder, along with the wounded prisoner on the other. I felt unusually concerned for their health, probably a result of Psychsaur’s mental invasion, otherwise I could have jumped them out of there. Instead, I tossed the former guard in the back and set the student up front with me for the drive to meet what turned out to be a van that Master Academy had converted for private medical use. They took over from there, though I noted both got a small application of medical nanites before the doors closed.

They let me keep the explosives I found, which I put to good use after examining my armor. I found no faults in it except that I lacked one of my most powerful weapons, the chicken grenade. And thanks to the stash I recovered from our friends on their little snipe hunt, I have plenty of materials to work with. Yippy-ki-yay, mothercluckers.

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Season’s Thievings 4

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As befits the holiday season, I slept soundly, with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. Specifically, a couple of dancers at this one strip club, Sugar and Plum. Sugar had the kind of figure that only exists when a man designs a woman, which could mean a lot of plastic surgery in her past. Plum’s not so hourglass-shaped. She tends to fall under that “thicker, but bigger boobs” way of appealing to men. I’d been spending more time away from Master Academy, for reasons ranging from “I just don’t like them,” to “they have a telepath.”

Speaking of which, that’s where this strangely dream, strange in its normalcy, took an odd turn. Because soon, the very person I had been avoiding showed up there. A feminine figure, not so endowed as the strippers, with scales over her skin and feathers where her hair should be. Her face was somewhat warped in structure, more elongated, with the nose not standing out so much from the mouth. Psychsaur just stood there for a moment and I wondered at how she wasn’t dancing on a pole like the rest. All of a sudden, a third pole was there and she walked over to it. As she began to dance, she glared at me and said, “Enough!”

I woke up with a jerk, almost losing my balance on top of one of the bookshelves. Below me, I saw Psychsaur standing with a murderous look in her eyes.

“Aunti Em!” I said to her. “I just had a dream. It wasn’t all nice, but most of it was beautiful. And you were there!”

She tapped her foot on the floor. “Yeah. I was.”

I shot a finger gun at her. “By the way, nice.”

“Shut up.”

“No, seriously. You might be a bit self-conscious about it, being a bit different from the norm, but the scales look really pretty, and it doesn’t really matter if the boobs aren’t that-”

“STOP TALKING ABOUT MY BODY!”

I turned over onto my belly on top of the shelf.“Fine then. But it’s not like we’ve talked long enough for me to talk about your mind. Perhaps we can change all that over coffee sometime?”

She held a hand out and an invisible force shoved me off the top of the bookshelf. Luckily, I landed on a paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged, making the book useful for once in its existence by softening the landing of my tailbone on the floor.

A bunch of books flew out and started swatting me from all angles. I caught one, Catcher in the Rye, but then Choke smacked me in the throat. “Why did they even buy you? You aren’t educational!” I yelled at it.

“You’re stealing something,” said an angry-sounding Psychsaur as she stepped to the other end of the stack.

“Not at the moment,” I answered.

“You’ve been avoiding me, so I read your mind while you slept.”

Sadly, I can’t bring myself to hole in a motel away from Master Academy. I think it’s the escape clause. But I did point out that, “Have you ever considered that most people avoid you so you can’t read their minds?”

She blinked and her eye went wide. I think I touched a nerve. I know she touched mine when I felt something squeeze my balls out of nowhere, the pressure ramping up until I was sure they should have exploded by now. But what’s having balls of steel for, if not resisting the ball-crushing might of someone with psychic abilities? With a painful twist, I was pulled back to my feet by them. “You went from being the woman of my stripperific dreams to touching my balls with your mind. I sense a bit of sexual tension.” I turned my head and coughed due to the pain.

She let go and I grabbed the shelf to steady myself. “Shut your mouth and keep it shut. You’re in the middle of a heist.”

I raised a finger to tell her this was technically incorrect, but didn’t say anything. When I realized I wasn’t speaking, I raised a different finger to express my opinion on the matter. Instead, I thought it all out, explaining rapidly. “Heistkeepsmeoccupied, Iwantthenanitestohealandgetstrongagainandbemycorrectspecies, pluswe’regoingtobebetrayedbytheguycommissioningussowe’regoingtostiffhim.”

“You can talk, just talk more slowly. Explain everything or I’ll make a woman of you,” she said.

I flashed an image of myself as a woman fooling around with Wildflower. “That’s sweet of you to offer, but someone already made a woman out of me.” I explained what has led up to the current situation, though. Soon, I was sit down in a room with her, Venus, and Victor Mender, repeating that story to them and telling them our plan.

They were surprised. “Johnny Butterfly, notorious crime boss, met with a random thief off the street who pulled one job and put him in a group with a bunch of other people to do this? That sounds ridiculous,” Venus concluded.

Mender’s synthesized voice spoke up. “He will betray you.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, probably. That’s why we’re going to betray him first. We have a plan to swap it out.”

They came to the conclusion they’d like to be a part of it. And I wasn’t allowed to have nanites.

On the day in question, things went beautifully. The disguises and fake identification worked perfectly, as did my fit about recognizing that large container full of fluid that, strangely, the RadioShack people didn’t have paperwork for. I stared right at the nearest guard, almost burning a hole through his glasses with my glare. “You lost the paperwork on this government property?”

Needless to say, they became incredibly amenable to helping us load the contents of the container up. They just no longer had the equipment on site to lift the entire thing out. The lot behind the store opened up to allow such large items to be moved in and out, but that required coordination. This was spur of the moment, and forced us to quickly change our plans as well. Mr. Blue Sky and Billy Jean had to run off and swap out the trailer on the semi from the normal covered type to one of the ones that can hold liquids. It’s the difference between hauling cheese and milk.

That took a bit longer than we’d have liked, especially because we took up so much space in the parking lot. When we finally had sucked as many nanites as we could from the container, we made it a point to leave. The longer we stayed, the longer we could be found out, and the longer we made Johnny Butterfly’s people wait at the drop point.

Oh, we were still heading there. I took over driving the semi. Billy insisted on driving this nice SUV. All black, but a few stains on the interior that made me curious just what Butterfly used it for before handing it over to us.

Billy and I pulled up to a warehouse. When we asked through Butterfly’s manager where it needed to go, he directed us to this address. And this address turned out to be more than just a warehouse. It was a bonded warehouse: a place where imported goods can be stored, repackaged, cleaned, adulterated, misplaced, mislabeled, fall off the back of a truck, and manipulated until a better time to pay duties on the goods inside. It has legitimate business uses, too.

It wasn’t much of a surprise to see one somehow owned by a criminal enterprise. I bet I even owned a few back with Double Cross. The surprising part was that the people at the gate weren’t expecting us. They made a call to the back and let us in, though. Told us to drive around right on in through the big door. There, one of the guards said he had been instructed to have us wait.

“Ok, I got ya. Let me just go let my colleague know that as well,” I told him, then exited the truck to go get in the SUV with Billy. To him, I said, “They want us to wait. You think this thing can crash the gate?”

He put it in gear. “Let’s find out.”

He wheeled us around and made for the door of the warehouse, leaving the semi truck and its large covered trailer to its fate. Before we could find out how good of a battering ram it made, we discovered it made a pretty decent moving target for small arms fire. Semi-automatic, but with enough volume to take out one tire. “You still got it?” I asked as we swerved. We no longer had our right front tire.

“Take more than that to stop us,” Billy said as he held us steady, heading for the gate. Then we heard a shotgun and lost even more control. The SUV swerved to the left suddenly, and flipped, with my side going on bottom. I looked to my right, saw the asphalt screeching by, and pushed the button to roll up my window. I did not want any of that.

When we came to a stop, I spat out pieces of a tooth and turned to check on Billy. “You still here?”

He said what I couldn’t due to censorship. I don’t even usually bother to slip into multiple languages, and that one about our unknown attacker and a goat whose parents weren’t married sounds fun to use myself someday.

“Sounds like you’re still here. Okily dokily. Now we just have to sneak out of here without them noticing, if possible,” I told him. He looked at me, his lip and nose bloody.

From outside, we heard a heavily accented voice. Ukrainian, actually. “We know you’re in there. Tell us who sent you and we will let you live. Was it the Butterfly?”

“Hornswoggling within hornswoggling,” I said. “Well, we were right about Butterfly then. But don’t worry. I got us a way out.” I still reached for my disposable phone and called to the others, as planned.

Sgt. Pepper picked up. “We heard gunshots.”

“Yeah, we’re stuck at the moment. This is a rival gang’s warehouse. Guy had a Ukrainian accent if that means anything. You get the tanker away?”

“Yeah, we got it. I’m waitin’ nearby. If you want me to go and save myself, just say the word.”

“Uh uh. You wait until we’re out of here,” I told him.

Billy spoke up. “Feelgood, they got assault rifles out there.”

“Pepper, did you know that the term ‘assault rifle’ was invented by the Nazis? They made this gun called the Sturmgewehr- hold on, they’re going full auto on us.” I had to cut it short because somebody had indeed opened up on us.

“How we gettin’ out of here, man? I don’t have a gun!” Billy panicked, trying to get himself untangled from his seat belt. “The car’s gonna explode!”

“Get a hold of yourself!” I wanted to slap him across the face, but couldn’t due to my constraints.

“What are you going to do then?!” he asked in a panic. I reached over and clicked to release his belt. He fell on top of me.

“Well, sadly, it’s not an option for me to insult one of them, hop out, and kill everyone armed with nothing but two handguns, a pair of swords, and maximum effort, but I’ll go one better. I’m going to put no effort in.”

“What are you even talkin’ man?”

“No effort!” I yelled.

From outside, I heard the Ukrainian yell. “Look, up in the sky!”

“It’s a drone!”

“It’s a plane!”

“It’s a distraction. Also a superhero, or at least one,” I told Billy.

“We’re gonna catch on fire. The car’s gonna explode!” He grabbed onto me, nails digging into my suit.

I just rolled my eyes. “Car’s don’t just explode most of the time, even when they’re shot. That’s not how it works. You can toss a grenade into one and it wouldn’t go blow up. The grenade would, but not the car.”

“They got grenades?!”

I shook my head. “You do not do well under pressure. They’re not even shooting at us. Now come on, move your rear. We gotta get the driver’s side doors open.

I had to shimmy past him to open the door, then sat straddling the side of the car above the door, reaching down to give Billy a hand up. Outside, we slid down and made a hasty exit for the gate and our waiting escape vehicle that’d be nearby while a number of Master Academy capes busied themselves fighting resistance and securing the warehouse. They didn’t pay much attention to me, except for one particularly scaly one I caught glaring at me. I blew her a kiss before we skedaddled.

Just as we got into the car, though, I held out my phone to Billy. “Here, press the call button.” I didn’t get this little idea until after the talk with Master Academy’s people.

He looked at it, looked at me, then looked at it again and pressed the button. Back in the warehouse, the semi and the trailer behind it blew. Billy freaked out when he heard it and realized what it was. “Jesus! You said cars didn’t just explode!”

“Nope, but trucks do, when you get the idea to stuff some C4 into them. Relax, that way no one can say for sure that we didn’t have the goods in it, and it could have been heroes or whoever was back there alike,” I smiled at him, and at Sgt. Pepper in the driver’s seat.

Sgt. Pepper chewed on a toothpick and told us, “Buckle your seatbelts,” before driving off.

Except when we went to meet Mary and Blue Sky in the parking lot of a defunct mall, we found no truck and trailer in sight. They were still there, of course, zip-tied in the back seat of the car.

“Heya,” said Blue Sky, ignoring a glaring Mary. “Turns out Butterfly planned to screw us.”

“He found us and took the tanker,” added Mary.

“He left a note, though,” said Billy, looking much calmer after a little drive. He pointed to an envelope underneath the windshield wiper.

After we got Mary and Blue loose, Pepper read the letter to us. “Dear team, if you’re reading this, congratulations. You have met my expectations. I know this looks bad, but I fully intend to honor my part of our deal. Please meet with me in the room this Friday if you wish to get your just rewards for such an excellent job. You can choose not to get paid if you want. Thank you for all of your hard work, J.”

We all looked at each other, and at the letter, contemplating the intelligence, or lack thereof, that would be involved in meeting that date.

Mary was the one who spoke up. “You know he’s going to betray us, right?”

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Season’s Thievings 2

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“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” These were the words of Johnny Butterfly, who deigned to speak with me personally. A most unusual way of doing business. “These are desperate times for many people. That desperation breeds opportunity. Let’s change the phrase around then: opportunistic times call for opportunistic people.”

“These must be unusual times to be giving us this speech like this,” said one of the others in the room. An older man, with grey hair and plenty of lines. “We’re here for work.”

“He wants to pay us to sit around and listen, that’s fine with me,” said a pot-bellied fellow in the grips of middle-age. He almost had a mullet the way his curly black hair hung down the back of his head. He smelled like he’d been drinking, though this was ten in the morning. A bit early for me to be up, let alone drunk.

Butterfly took it in stride. He sat, a thin man in a pinstripe suit, clean shaven, with hair just a little gelled up. Late twenties. His tie was deep purple purple, almost black. For all his boldness, that was the extent of his unusual visual affectations. It was more than enough, especially meeting us like this. Basement or not, secret passage to the neighboring buildings or not, it’s not normal for a crimeboss to meet with some random collection of independent contracting thieves in person.

I’m all for someone doing things in unusual ways, and that’s also why I’m paying attention. I think we all are, except for the drunk. It’s me, old guy, drunk guy, a Hispanic teen trying in vain to grow a mustache, and a husky black woman with her hair dyed bright red and pulled back in a ponytail. A regular bunch of reservoir dogs are we. And utterly expendable.

“This is an unusual meeting because this is an unusual job. I am not tasking my usual men for this because the situation is so unorthodox, but at the same time I am not paying in the usual way. I wanted you to believe this is serious, because it will sound like a joke.”

“What’s the punchline?” asked our dark-skinned double-minority. She counts for double for our affirmative criminal action. Actually, she almost balances out, the way crime works. Her being black, she’d normally draw far more heat than the rest of us. But she’s a woman. Part of that whole storyline about women being fragile things that can’t work and must stay in the kitchen while the men do manly things also says women are weaker than men and therefore cannot compete. Not as fast, strong, nor can they dare to best the mighty menfolk. It tends to mean that women don’t get picked up as often, and they get shorter sentences. When men say they want women in that damn kitchen, they damn well mean they want them there instead of prison.

That means the only person we can rely on dumping all the blame on is the Hispanic guy. And I hear this latest president-elect guy’s trying to get rid of them. It just isn’t right. If they get rid of all the Hispanic criminals, white people might start getting arrested instead!

“The punchline is that this city has the biggest hidden reserve of medical nanotechnology in black storage,” he said.

“Excuse me?” the black lady butted in.

Butterfly held up his hand. “It is a secret repository for sensitive materials being used as part of black projects for the military or the intelligence agencies. This one is a private facility. Privatization is the future, so they hired a private military company to maintain and guard a site for them. These honest capitalists love to make money on the side and someone lost the paperwork for a large shipment of medical nanotech purchased by the government and so secret that this was the only set of paperwork in existence. The person who knew all this and informed me of it has passed away, meaning the company does not even know what it has in storage.”

I raised a hand. Butterfly pointed over at me. “Yes?”

“Ok, so I’m getting something of an understanding here. You want us to break into a private black site hidden somewhere in this city, guarded by mercenaries, and somehow escape with the entire thing. Because I was told my part in this would be non-violent.” Oh how I regretted not being allowed to hurt people outside of name-calling. Sticks and stones break their bones, but words aren’t a very good response to a squad full of mercs going Rambo ape-titties on me. I can do amazing things with all sorts of everyday stuff and a human body, but it’s harder to talk someone to death. Not impossible, but I’m not a little kid.

“You’re right, that plan would never work,” he said. I wouldn’t say never, but I’d have to be myself again to make it work. “Instead, we need to find a way to alter the shipping information so that the container is transported. We quietly divert that shipment and everyone goes home a winner.” Butterfly finished and flashed a smile I could almost hear ding.

“Not everyone,” said the Hispanic youth, looking around at us. “Not the people expecting that shipment.”

The older fellow guffawed. “Cocky little guy, aren’t you?”

Butterfly showed us to one of his other properties through one of the basement tunnels. We came out in the back room of a bar. It looked like the sort of worn old room they’d use for private functions, with more than an ample table for our little party. “Everything you want will be provided for here. Maps, computers, equipment. Inform Lindon the manager and he will get it for you on my tab. After this, you have no more contact with me in any way, but you also do not discuss this with any of my men. Lindon is here to provide you space and equipment. I will have everything my people know complied and sent over in the morning. Until then, enjoy your new book club or anonymous group. Whatever you call yourselves to the public.”

He shot us another sharp smile that belonged in a dentist’s commercial and pulled the wall closed behind us, leaving us milling around there. “That’s not a bad idea about the anonymous. We could pretend we’re an AA group,” said the black woman.

“Yeah right,” said the drunk. “I am not quitting for this.”

“You think you would for the sake of… this,” responded the older guy, trying to beat around the bush.

The youngest man of our bunch still preferred being open about what he did to the bush. “This isn’t right. He’s going to set us up or something.”

“Watch too many movies, kid?” asked the lush.

“Kid,” the elderly crook raised a hand. “I’m not saying anyone’s setting anyone up, but even if someone was, I wouldn’t talk about it in the man’s own bar, in a room he has a secret door to, where we’re probably being listened to.”

“Retarded.” Our token woman shook her head, looking at the youth.

I just rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Our little Foot Fetish Support Group can call itself whatever we want, even meet where we want. But there’s nothing to worry about unless we’re successful. Let’s focus on that first. And figure out why what we can all do so we can make this happen.”

Right off the bat, though, I figured myself, the young guy, and the old one definitely knew our odds of an easy walk-away on this one. Two of us just weren’t dumb enough to talk about it in a room so full of ears, the walls might as well be made of corn. This situation stank, and not just because the last group in this room loved their lutefisk.

The folks back at Master Academy didn’t even ask where I’d been this time. They were busy, and had a way to track me. Besides, they’ve gotten used to my wandering about without causing too much trouble or exposing myself. I don’t think it’s stupidity so much as the problem with constant vigilance. People always lapse.

Instead, I was just heading to the cafeteria when Venus stepped out of a side room, dressed for working out. “Hey!” she said. “You’re just in time!”

“For what? Taco Tuesday?” Like Fried-Chicken Friday, Spaghetti Saturday, and Sundae Monday, it’s one of the special meal days staggered so that they aren’t every week.

She grabbed my arm and started walking me back down the hallway toward the gym. “Nope. I need a partner for a demonstration. You’re volunteering.

I turned and walked with her. “Ah, I was wondering if y’all taught Sex Ed.”

“Keep wondering. This is for Phys Ed.”

“Right. Instead of doggy style, we’ll go downward-facing dog style, right?”

“This is going to be fun.”

What turned out to be so fun was us walking into a gym with several students of all ages sitting around on the bench. Mats were laid out on the floor, and Psychsaur stood holding some gloves. I kicked off my shoes, then pulled off my Behemoth jacket and t-shirt, the latter of which had “Harder!” written on its back.

Venus smiled up at them. “I found someone who agreed to my demonstration. Maybe you’ve seen our guest here, Puss in Boots.”

“Remember to keep the pants on,” Psychsaur said, holding out some gloves.

I took them and slipped them on. “Remember to let me fight back.”

She rolled her eyes and stepped aside, a smirk across her scaley face.

Venus called out to me as she circled around to the opposite side of the mat. “You’re fit, right? I don’t have to handle you with baby gloves?”

I pointed to the scar on my chest. Just a scar. I’m not entirely familiar with the amount of time it takes to heal from everything they’d done to me, but a trip through the arcade machine did me some good in that regard. I doubt I’m quite as fit as when all the muscle would be repaired and maintained by nanites, but there’s no need to let Venus in on that one. “When it comes to me, we aren’t talking baby anything. But if you’re ever looking for baby gloves, I might know a guy who can get them nice and authentic. None of that faux-baby pleather.”

I pounded away at my chest, making sure I didn’t have anything loose on the inside. Body by arcade machine doesn’t normally mean good health, so it’s best to check that sort of thing before strenuous activity with my nemesis. I smiled at Venus as I did it, who returned one that had less good humor in it. “And there’s the dead baby joke. It’s going to feel good shutting you up again, even just like this.”

Based on the calls coming from the stands, some of the students clearly enjoyed out back and forth. I saw money pulled out for bets. I also saw Venus stretching. She noticed me watching. “Are you going to stare and get your butt kicked, or are you going to limber up too?”

“I think a part of me’s already lumber… I mean limber… but okily dokily.” I began a kata, which I knew she’d know was unusual for me. I even through in a couple of ridiculous spin kicks just to play around. When I saw she’d finished and stepped onto the mat, I stopped, got my feet under me, and attempted a backflip. I landed on my face and stumbled up and onto the mat, apparently still unbalanced.

I heard Venus approaching by her laughter and running. I whipped around and caught a leg that she tried to put through my back. I dropped her to the ground and got a couple of good punches in before she slid loose and rolled back. I kept throwing punches, hitting the mat as she evaded each time. Still not quite balanced, I brought both hands down where I hoped to catch the back of her head, but she got onto her knees. So I leaned toward her and put my weight on my forearms. I brought my bare feet up to kick at her face with the bottoms. That time I made contact, though the constant attacking left me in an awkward position. Probably something you’d see in yoga, actually.

We both had to take a moment, though. After the impact, I swung my feet forward and twisted around into a crouch. A few feet out of reach, I saw Venus rubbing her cheek. “That’s why you never underestimate an opponent, even one who doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing.”

I stood up and smiled at her. “If I don’t know what I’m doing, how are you going to figure it out?”

“Maybe I’ll brute force it,” she said. She moved closer and threw a couple punches toward my head to scout my reaction. Not too fast. She wanted me to dodge them. When she tried it a third time and I dodged, she brought her leg up and caught me in the side with her shin. I grabbed the leg with both hands, though. Not a good position for her to be in. So she just jumped up and caught me under the chin with her other foot while doing a backflip.

It’d been awhile since I tasted blood. Can’t say I prefer my own flavor. I like my bodily fluids either where they belong or where I put them. “Nobody makes me bleed my own blood,” I said as I got to my feet. I saw she hadn’t completed her little flip either. Rather than wait for either of us to get up, I threw my weight forward and straightened up by thrusting my knee upward about where her face was. She moved her head to the side just enough, grabbed my thigh, and lifted. I went down with her on top of me and an audience of eager schoolchildren. I still wished this as Sex Ed, but she grabbed my arm and shifted to try and put my in an armbar.

She tried to extend my arm, but I grabbed hold of it and got my feet under me. When I pulled up, she let go and stayed on the ground. I, meanwhile, shot right up and off balance. Then someone, presumably Venus, decided I needed to be back on the ground. She grabbed my ankles out from under me, sending me back to the ground but with a bit less air. Instead of my arm, she went for my leg, wrapping hers around my right leg and twisting it at the knee and ankle.

I just growled and kicked at her, trying to find a face or boob or anywhere painful to hit. “Tap out!” she called to me, followed quickly by, “Ugh!” since I found her face from the sound. She didn’t let go, though. I sat up to throw a fist into her face, but found she beat me to the punch.

Things got a bit fuzzy there for a few minutes until the nice doctor lady gave me something that made me feel real nice and started putting me through all kinds of tests. Not an MRI, but there was an x-ray machine and several needles involved. It’s like they had it all ready. When I got out of the school infirmary an hour later, Venus was even there to help give me a hand, and my clothes. “How was it?” she asked.

“I’m surprised at the rapidididity of the response,” I answered. “And why did she give me a colonoscopy?” I saw her offered arm and grudgingly took her up on the offer. The drugs were wearing off, and I’d acquired a limp. Not the sort of limp a little blue pill could fix, either.

“After all the fuss you gave the other doctors, we thought it would work better to do a work-up while you were otherwise preoccupied.” She sounded all nice and cheerful.

I’d have stopped, but at that point I wanted to get back to the library and find a nice pile of paperbacks to lay down on. “Did you just beat me up to make me go to the doctor?”

“Congratulations, your colon is clean,” she said.

“Oh? Got your foot out of there already, you unethical bastige?” So going to kill her. Gonna kill her dead.

“You can always ask for a rematch.”

I tried to take one right there, but my hand stopped in midair. She pushed it away and said, “Ask for one, with a please and a thank you.”

Screw it. Set-up or not, I’m gonna crime so hard, everything’s gonna be stolen. I’m gonna be walking around with three watches on my arm, and another two in my pocket, all stolen. Next time I see a baby with candy? Better give it over. And they better not ask me to be in some sort of school baseball team. Never mind the danger, it’s time to rip some people off like they’re Band-Aids.

The first step was finding a nice place in the library for all these lovely medical supplies I seem to have tripped over and found. I can sell the pain pills at least, but I’m not yet sure what I can use this X-ray for. Maybe reheating leftovers.

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No Quarter 4

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This is a really fucking long game, I think. I may have lost track of time, or maybe there’s some weird gaps. Like I’m reading some of my own stuff to stay caught up. Because I know I’m doing stuff, and time’s passing, but there’s no way the stuff I do has been filling all that time.

I do know I hate water levels in games in general, and this one wasn’t any better. One level only, there were spikes all around, and electric seaweed, and fish that could come at me from all sides. I think they were fish. At the very least, the smaller ones appeared to be belligerent mutated sea bass. No joke. Those things could take a man’s head off. They gave me some shiny white diving suit, almost like an astronaut outfit, that covered up everything.

The giant tentacles reaching from the darkened bottom of the screen also didn’t help matters. Every so often, there would be a gap in the ground to jump over. But you have to watch and make sure you jump at the right tme, when a tentacle wasn’t reaching out. That wasn’t necessarily easy with divers and mutated sea bass coming at me. I’m good enough that I trapped some of those enemies above the gaps. The tentacles reached up on time and grabbed them by the throats. It was fun to watch at first, but they all used the same animations for their enemy class.

So I made my way through the whole place, knocking the crap out of mutated sea bass with coral, throwing dumped barrels of waste at divers, punching big enemies who wore the old-fashioned suits with the helmets, and occasionally grabbing pirate anchors to bash in giant hermit crabs. In a fun break from reality, I even got caught at a wall after entering one wrecked pirate ship and broke through using a cannon.

The goal appeared to be this downed submarine that sat on the opposite end of a huge gap. Before I could figure out how to get across, a shriek echoed through the waters. The whole screen moved over so I had a room to move left/up to right/down, but not so much forward or back. A giant squid appeared, the top of its pointed head turned into an antenna. Wires sprouted from the base of that antenna and ran down to a monocle lens over one of its eyes.

“That motherfucker can go fuck its own mother,” I said as I watched its health bar fill up, getting tautological on its ass. I moved as far forward as I could and threw a punch. Too far away. It thrust forward toward, biting. I slid down and avoided it, then stepped back up to hit it while it recovered and bulled back. It stayed close, so I got a few more shots in, but it flapped its arms and knocked me down. It pulled back and began to raise an arm, the shadow appearing along the ridge I stood on.

The shadow followed where I moved, so I led it to the topmost corner and stepped back and forth until it stopped moving. When I stepped down, it didn’t follow, and the tentacle slammed into the ridge. Two things happened. The tentacle stayed there for a moment, the squid stunned. And the shaking of the ridge somehow uncovered a barrel of toxic waste. I punched the tentacle first while it stuck around. When it pulled back, I grabbed the barrel and tossed it at the squid.

It was a fairly standard battle like that. The more damage I did, the faster the squid got. The flesh of its tentacles dissolved after a certain amount of damage and revealed robotics underneath. Instead of just slamming down, they started to shoot a laser first. I still hadn’t figured out how to use my Panic Attack on my own, or whatever my Special was. I’ve come across little powerups that look like my pixelated head, but I can never use whatever they’re for.

So I’ve been relying on my own fighting style to get me through. It’s been painful at times, but I must have been doing ok. I killed the Cyber Squid, for instance. Beat it to death until it rose up and collapsed. Then I walked across its floating body to get to the downed sub. The game began tallying up my level score with its name for me, Kumiho, over that.

The next level was some base accessible by water and began with me jumping out of the submarine, once again in my usual attire. No shoes, short leather shorts, a black leather jacket, and my sensitive white fox ears sitting atop a head of white hair. A grey humanoid robot without a blank mannequin’s head stopped pushing a cart full of gems and approached, its arm transforming into a drill. Kick, kick, spin kick, and then a faceful of my sharp nails to its face.

“Gecko, before you go any further, we need to talk,” said a voice I’ve gotten damn tired of by now. Accompanying it was a feeling like something twisted in my gut and head.

I threw my hands up and yelled at the sky as I headed to the next screen. “What? What the hell could be so damn important that you’re interrupting me again?! You JUST talked to me a couple levels back!”

“That was a few days, Gecko.”

I blinked. A drill robot advanced on me backed up by this level’s heavy enemy, a robot on tank treads with a domed head and an arm that ended in a barrel. It pointed it at me from across the screen and fired a laser. Damn. They don’t normally give heavies a ranged attack due to balance issues. “No, it wasn’t. You were distracting me in the suburbia level.”

“Yeah. That was days ago.”

I jumped up, my legs wrapping around the regular robot’s chest below its armpits and took to bashing its blank face with my boobs. I guess you could call that a different sort of torture rack. “No, because after the suburbs, there’s the clown enemies at the boardwalk, including the clown dogs and their wet, red noses. Then I jumped into the water for the water level. Now I’m here. It doesn’t take days to do that.”

My agitation growing, I broke out the claws and began shredding a motherfucking heavy robot.

Venus let me finish before breaking in. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You don’t remember, but after this underground mining level, you show up in the middle of a basement science lab level, then there’s the skyscraper level.”

I folded my arms. “Sounds like someone’s psychic all of a sudden. Then what?”

“I don’t know. You didn’t get past the skyscraper level.”

A sensation I normally feel in my bowels before running to the bathroom passed from the base of my skull and through my lungs. “Explain.”

“You’ve run out of lives a few times when we didn’t have quarters handy, or when the group watching you got distracted. After the first time, we unplugged the game to bring it back here, but they didn’t wait for you to die before doing that. You’ve gotten to the skyscraper level twice but died. The last time is why you look like that, by the way.”

“Look like what?” I asked, looking myself over. “This is how I look. It’s why the damn game called me Kumiho in the first place.”

“I am going to chew out John so bad for that. So, you know how games have multiple characters you can select from? One of the guys watching you thought it would be fun to select one of the others for you to play as instead of yourself.”

I rubbed my forehead. It wasn’t being transformed into a woman that bothered me. I’ve done that to myself, though there’s a huge difference between doing it myself and having it done to me. Just like masturbation, in fact. “So I’ve died a few times. Several, I guess, because I ran out of lives, and I don’t remember it?”

“You’re down two extra lives so far this time, too.”

“How close are you to finding the puddle of monkey piss who did this to me, then?”

“There is good news there, and bad. The bad news is the machine that put you there is no longer functional one way or another because of testing.”

“Unless the good news is a blowjob from Ryan Reynolds, that’s going to be a hard one to counteract. And yes, I’m aware that now I don’t even have that part. Geez, what’s my third character, a dwarf? Or some sort of jokey bonus character?”

Venus ignored the last part of that. “We arranged for the hostess to escape under surveillance, and with a tracker on her. We think she’ll lead us to who we need. It’s better than waiting on you to finish.”

“Well excuse me, princess, but sometimes it takes a little more time for a woman to finish, especially if no one’s pushing the right buttons. I can’t seem to use my Panic Attack or my Special.”

“Oh, they use the Z button.”

“The fuck’s a Z button? I don’t have buttons. I got arms, legs, and any other body parts I want to use to beat wholesale ass.” That brought something to mind. I turned to stare at my butt. No tail, great. I didn’t have a tail in my Behemoth look, either, so at least the game was consistent like that. Not a bad ass, either, but that kind of thing is difficult to tell with this few pixels. “If I’m still in this body when I get out, want to help me find my G button?”

“No. Just, no. Ew, oh God no.”

“Glad to see you’re as tactful as ever, Venus.”

“I couldn’t help it. You’re wired into my thoughts like this.”

I shrugged and headed a screen over. Dirt fell from the ceiling and a pair of miners dropped down on me from above. I looked around for something to take out some frustration with and found a pick axe. The first one got it upside its head, then upside its crotch. The second, I kicked it into the air and let it fall on its back onto the blade. Then I grabbed its legs, put my foot between them, and pulled them off. When another pair popped up through holes in the floor, the pieces of that robot gave me a leg up on them.

After some cathartic disassembly of enemies, I asked Venus, “Still there?”

“Yes.”

“I’m thinking of a number. It’s an account number for a black marketeer. Normally, I don’t bother, because I’m a very distinct client, but they’re handy in case you need to send a minion to pick something up for you. It occurs to me now that the broken machine that Tronned me in here could be of use. You need to find a guy named Michelangelo. Should be either at the address I’m thinking of, or linked to it. No way you could operate in Empyreal City without some familiarity with his family, though I suppose he could have switched addresses by now. That account number is absolutely good at Michelangelo’s House of Negotiable Stuff. I’ve done a lot of business with them in the past, and I’m pretty good on credit. I suspect my reputation and curiosity over how you know it will get you in. He might have sold parts used in that machine, or bought something similar from the guy who made it. Normally, sharing info about other customers is taboo, but you’re heroes. Just try not to hurt him or arrest him, if possible. Negotiate. You put him in jail, he’ll just get out and be harder to find next time.”

“You don’t want him hurt?”

“He’s done right by me in the past, at least to my somewhat warped standards. Do right by him in return and he’ll give you trustworthy info. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game to beat.” I advanced to a new screen. A giant drill opened a hole in the wall behind me, then opened up. Robots spilled out and zeroed in on me.

“Why bother? It’s not solving anything and you’re just not beating it. There’s no reason you can’t rest somewhere.”

I smiled as punched a pile of rubble and a gemstone fell out. I grabbed it and tossed it at a nearby robot. I knew she’d hate the answer, but it made sense to me. “I choose to,” I told her. After a moment’s contemplation and taking a drill to the face, I added. “And even if I die again, at least I can get back to the body I started with. Who knows what the consequences will be if I end the game like this?”

“You’d be hot,” she said, quickly adding, “Ew.”

“Too late, I’m counting it!” I said. I didn’t get to celebrate it because I took another punch. I had a bunch of enemies on both sides now, due to how they can move back off screen to get behind me “Now, somebody hit my panic button!”

I felt myself freeze up, then start flipping and cartwheeling forward. Any limb not on the ground slashed out, knocking enemies away as I gained ground. It left me to the right side of the screen with all my enemies conveniently behind me. Eight of them. One of me. One extra life, and no matter what I do, the near future will almost certainly be a near disaster.

I guess the stakes don’t seem too high, but there are times in life when someone has to remember that, no matter how fucked-up things get, they must always remember to fight, even if the best they can do leads to nothing but breaking even. Those are the times when someone has to fight the most. The battles that try men’s souls. The spirit that- oh fuck it, I’m gonna rip those drills off these fuckers, take ’em behind the woodshed, and see how they enjoy a traditional game from the woods of the Appalachian mountains called “Squeal Like This’d Be Illegal If You Were Human,” but with fewer pigs.

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