“Before we go in there, I got somethin’ to say,” I said to a group of nearby Master Academy trainees and heros. Many heads turned toward me, though a few gazes remained transfixed on the building ablaze before us. Venus preemptively facepalmed. “It’s better to burn out, then fade away!” Most of the rest followed Venus’s lead.
“What do we call her?” asked one of the others. Ball Boy, it looked like. Back in action and black in eye.
“You don’t,” said Venus.
At the same time, I answered, “Whirligig.”
“Alright. No one goes it alone. We get everyone out. We got lucky we were all out.” Seriously. As part of my “heroic internship” they made me do some of the heavy lifting while shopping for decorations and party essentials as a sort of in-costume public appearance to make people feel safe. They even stuck me in a re-colored version of the Master Academy outfit modified for what I had been going for in my latest disguise. They gave it a cheap “circuit board” coloring in spots; otherwise it was grey. We happened to be passing by an apartment on our way back when someone ran out smelling of smoke and asked for help with a fire.
“Let’s get in there and be heroes,” Venus said. I cringed. Strange thing was, the others were generally a little slower getting into the burning building. You’d think they’d never gone into one before. I, on the other hand, have spent so much time in fires that I might as well carry marshmallows with me everywhere I go.
I didn’t know who they assigned to be my teammate, but they maybe should have known to climb. I turned my run into a handstand that allowed my hoverboard drones to catch up and slide into place on my feet. They flew me upside down to the top of the building. I don’t normally work to get keep people from being set on fire, so it was a little bit of a new situation. On the other hand, my extensive experience saving my own ass came in handy. It was just a matter of throwing a person over my shoulder and then saving my own ass.
The difficulty came when I got out one last time and had to catch a girl who tried to run in. “Easy there. Hold on. Take this one.” I tossed the person I was carrying, a rather rotund man in boxers, on top of the kid.
That stopped the pre-teen from heading in any further, for a moment. The guy was conscious, after all. He stood up, apologizing to her. I had to grab her to keep her from running in. “You’re not supposed to go in there right now.”
“My grandpa and grandma are in there still!” she shouted at me. She pointed up, around the 13th floor. Or maybe it was the 14th. They can go to the moon, but they’re still afraid of magical numbers. As if simply not calling it the 13th floor will stop whatever evil spirits magically attach to it. Booga booga booga booga!
I had missed the floor, and it looked like most of the Academy supers were busy. I jumped up, the mechanical extra arms gripping the wall and propelling me up. They reached into the window ahead of me, knocking out any remaining glass in the frame before I slid through. I was in a kitchen. I pulled in the drones behind me and let them split apart to search. This apartment didn’t have anything. I made my way down the hallway like that, splitting up into three groups, all the while trying to keep myself low. Without my armor’s seals, I was as vulnerable to asphyxiation as anyone else.
On the other hand, it was getting pretty damn hot in there. Shoving myself in a metal can wasn’t the best way to deal with that. It looked like I may not get to gramps and gam-gam before the smoke killed them. I’m a hell of a lot healthier than any old coot and his old cootchie, and I was starting to have trouble.
Per-fucking-usual for my luck, I found them on the rear of the building, where the building had some tiny shared backyard with a building behind it. The old man held his wife closed with clenching, wrinkled hands. The woman held her hands clasped in prayer. I could tell her husband was mouthing something about love and her that sounded less like a prayer and more like a goodbye.
“Up and at’em, molden oldies. A little less conversation, a little more action.” I brought in the drones and raised the mechanical arms. They all fired lasers that cut a big hole in the wall of the apartment so I could get clear access to the fire escape. Someone hadn’t kept things up to code, though. The weight of that wall and brick caused it to fall down. I thought it was only going to fall that one floor, but, nope, they all went down. “That’s inconvenient,” I said as I looked down at it.
The building shifted a bit. Something weakened from the rising heat and a support fell, taking one of my drones with it. “Real damn inconvenient,” I added. That one wasn’t responding. I wrapped the mechanical arms around the two now-standing old people and called out the drone I did have. It couldn’t hold all that weight on its own, but it could at least slow the fall. Probably would have worked until a window blew out two floors down and threw us across the yard. There was much screaming and gnashing of teeth from the old folks. It only lasted until their teeth plummeted, but they weren’t still in the mouths of their owners.
I caught myself, but it was an awkward affair. I had to jam my arm in between a pair of the vertical struts of the other building’s escape’s rail. It broke my arm and left me hanging there. The man slipped from my arm and I had to catch him on my foot. It was not a fun situation.
I reluctantly turned on my comms in time to hear someone ask after me. “Any word from Whirligig yet?”
“No. Keep your eye out. That should be all of them,” answered Venus.
“We got a girl here talking about her grandparents,” another voice piped in.
“Shit, what floor are they on?” the first voice asked.
That was as good a cue as any. “Whirligig here. I got ’em. I must regretfully ask for a tiny bit of assistance here.”
The heroes were nice enough not to laugh at the sight of me hanging by a broken arm jammed in a railing with a pair of geriatrics weighing me down. They had flyers take the old people, and a last one brought up a first aid kid. “Let’s see to that arm.”
I held up a hand and reached to my belt, pulling out a syringe. A broken syringe. “Well, fuck.”
“Let’s see to that,” said the medic.
I waved him off. “I don’t need you sitting around here laughing. Just go and deal with the old folks or something. They were coughing real bad when I got to them.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I shooed him away. “Go. Off with you.” I gave him the stink eye until he left. He’s lucky I didn’t use a laser eye instead. So while he went off, I was stuck pulling myself free with the help of my mechanical arms. I finally got up and over the railing so I could try and set the arm.
In my ear, I heard, “Good job. That’s everyone.” But, upon looking up, that turned out to not quite be accurate. I saw rodents staring back at me through the window. Hamsters, I think. Or gerbils.
“This day,” I muttered to myself. I brought up the drone as a stepping stone and jumped across and through the window, pulling my good arm up to without thinking. That was bad, because that’s the arm that caught the remnants of the window glass and got cut up pretty good. But, hey, at least I had my mechanical arms. Grab each of the furry little assholes in one, ride the drone down. Easy. I called the drone over, which worked pretty good until falling bricks knocked it down.
But at least I had the pockets on this uniform. Of course, that’s when the ceiling collapsed on me.
When the found me crawling out of there, I was wearing tatters, barely enough to cover all my pink bits and keep this operation Safe For Work with all the kids around. I focused on something past the heroes to keep from looking any of them in the eye. I didn’t hear too much of what they said. Something about getting me into the ambulance.
Then I heard the crying. “What about Butterscotch and Werewolf?” asked child’s voice.
“I’m sorry, honey,” said a consoling mother.
“Don’t lay me on my back,” I told the heroes. “Lay me on my front. Trust me. And close these damn doors.”
“What are you talking about? You need to lay where you can get air,” said Venus. When did she get over here?
I coughed a bit. “Trust me, I want to be on my belly for this next part. I think I saved Butterscotch and Werewolf. Damn well better be them. They’re nibbling on my colon.” There was some hacking. Ah yes, the famous black loogie. Haven’t seen one of those in awhile.
At least they were understanding about keeping the door closed so I didn’t have to see the reactions of everyone to the reappearance of the two gerbils.
Good news, they sprung for some nanites to help me recover more quickly from all the internal organ problems. It was a weight off my mind to know the kidney failure was going to be fixed, what with the giant splinter through it. Just wish they would have left me alone in my recovery.
It wasn’t so bad having Qiang snuggled up to me in the TV room, which is as far as I got after escaping the infirmary. But then that one super who played medic stopped by to check on me. Another one brought me a plate of food. “That was kickass,” that guy said. Teenager, had some muscles on him.
I noticed some other hanger-ons, too. A fat guy sitting in a corner, pretending to focus on a tablet instead of on me. “Fuck off,” I said, then laid my head down.
I woke up an hour later, according to my eye clock. Qiang was passed out beside me.
“Ugh, she was the worst,” said this one tiny guy with way too feathery hair. “She had this big mole thing.”
“What’s all this then?” I asked.
“Hey sleepyhead,” said a guy with three eyes on his head. “These jokers were talking about teachers they remember most. Sorry if we woke you. Nice hair, by the way.”
That got a snicker. Yeah, my hair would be a mess. I pulled my eye out real quick to make sure nobody had drawn on my face while I slept. Still clean. Popped it right back in and heard some “Ew”s from the crowd. I ignored them and checked to see how I was doing. Still soreness and internal bruising. They were rationining the nanites, stingy a-holes. I figured I should be able to get around on my own again, but I thought I might add something to the conversation. “The teacher I remember most was… actually, she wasn’t one of the ones from the program.”
Everyone shut up hearing me contribute. I noticed Psychsaur passing by and stop at the doorway. I tried to ignore her. “Eleseta,” I said, though it was with the Old Country’s accent. More like Old World at this point. It came out sounding more like “Elizabeth,” kinda. “If I had to make it sound like English, I guess Elisabeth. It all started when I was loaned out by the General to help this guy… something like a Senator. Not exactly. He was a big deal in the Pure Human Party, but he used members of this gang to help his goals. They were the Metalheads. They stayed so high all the time, they would replace body parts with crude cybernetics until they had almost nothing left. The worst ones couldn’t even feed themselves.”
“This is a weird teacher story,” said Triclops.
I held up a hand. “I’m getting there. I was sent in to find out why some of the Metalheads were cleaning up graffiti and helping people all of a sudden. They would beat up other gangs to return stolen goods. I found out there was an underground school going on. This was a bad part of the city and these guys were killers, so you don’t expect to find out some unarmed, unpowered woman with ovaries of steel is teaching them math or ethics. She was getting them real jobs, even. Imagine some big guy who looks like the front half of a car on metal legs serving you at a fast food place. The Senator wanted her caught, not killed. He was very specific on that. He wanted her broken as an example. Not killed. Alive, but…” I couldn’t really articulate it. “I caught her, no problem. She just wouldn’t stop talking.”
I stared off into space, remembering. She wasn’t mean, either. She was disappointed. She offered to help me. She saw, or thought she saw, someone in need of the same kind of help as those idiots with blenders for hands. “She insisted it was never too late. Irritated the hell out of me. Before the Senator’s people could do anything, Metalheads broker her out with the help of this other group. Not exactly mercenaries, but not a police force. They were an international agency to solve threats from extraordinary individuals. They got her out, but I was close after them. They were bringing in a stealth VTOL, but it was minutes away and they were just a small branch. The Peacekeepers and the Metalheads stood between me and her.”
Actually, I found her first. I could walk right past all of them without anyone finding me. I was more mission-oriented in those days. I was more precise. I could still remember the way she looked. Her beautiful defiance. That was the first time I ever thought of a human as beautiful. “She wouldn’t back down.” She kept saying that phrase over and over again. It rang in my ears like I was Grendel, seemed like. “Not even after what I did to everyone else in the building.”
I killed them all. I’d been more precise up to that point, but I had to show her. “She was wrong. There’s always someone like me.” Someone who will prove her wrong by murdering her students and allies around her. It’s not like I dragged them all over to her, but she heard plenty.
“So I had her there, cornered on the rooftop. No escape. And, that’s that.”
“Did you kill her?” asked Triclops.
I shook my head. “That wasn’t my mission. I shouldn’t have told this story. Not a good one.”
I got up, picking up Qiang. She hugged onto me as I started to walk away. Triclops called after me, “What happened?”
I stopped long enough to give an epilogue. I spoke proudly, “After that mission, I got a lot less precise. Unnecessary casualties. Enemies and allies both had a tendency to suffer collateral damage. That was the spark of my own fire, waiting to be stoked.” I walked out and kept my eyes straight, away from Psychsaur. I don’t know how much she could tell about me at that moment, but I didn’t want any of them to risk figuring it out for sure. Let them think I killed her if that makes them feel better.
I didn’t think I could go back there so easily when I started that story. When the VTOL plane landed on the rooftop, I just stood there. The pilot must have freaked when they lowered the ramp and Peacemakers trained their useless weapons on me. Elizabeth just stared into my eyes like my visor was clear. She turned and walked up the ramp. Just before it closed on me, she turned back. It looked like pity again, or maybe a deep sadness over everyone who died to get her away. Chances are I’m imagining things and romanticizing the past. But I made out the same sentence she’d told me when I first caught her, and then when I confronted her again. It had been at the bottom of every syllabus she’d passed around. Chances are it was on the new ones she had printed in the next city she showed up in, well away from the Senator and no longer disrupting his plans.
“It’s never too late.”
I need to kill someone.
I need a Christmas Miracle. Something that can make someone’s heart grow three sizes in a day. In ages past, when people weren’t yet jaded by CGI and fancy printed words, it was easy to pull off something special at Christmas. Take Ebenezer Scrooge, for example. Rich asshole gets fooled by four ghosts, none of them violent. I was with these people when they fought ghosts and vampires once. They’ve seen time travelers and speedsters, so they’re not that impressed at the notion of Santa’s trick with all the houses.
I had a couple of ideas, though. One is to try and make it seem that those same sorts of beings, the Companions of Kringle, are really showing up. Problem is, Eschaton isn’t here yet to be convinced. So, with a gag, I decided on Plan B.
I’ve been pretty good at having these other identities work for me in the past. I hope to revive Missile Patriot someday, and it was fun being the Hussar. The wings were nice. This time, I went with a pair of mechanical arms on an exoskeleton frame. It was a barebones frame, meant to basically provide a stable platform where the arms wouldn’t break off. I also fixed up some drones to work as support and transportation. I had plenty left over. The school had decided to clamp down on drone usage after what happened to Ball Boy. They couldn’t prove it was me, but I think even the heroes have to admit that it was entirely likely for someone to get injured in that scenario. And at least my heart seemed to be in the right place, or that’s the vibe I got from eavesdropping on people who thought they were alone in their rooms.
I stole the cutest shoes from that closet, too. Too bad it’s cold enough to freeze balls or I’d wear them. On the plus side, hey, no balls to freeze.
For the record, my heart isn’t in the right place. I felt I should clarify that, because I thought it’d be handy to move the thing and lessen the risk of being stabbed or shot in it. It’s also not in the right place metaphorically. Yes, I gave myself a drone flying skateboard and extendable mechanical arms underneath my real ones. I may have even appropriated a Master Academy trainee outfit and managed to put it on while swallowing vomit. But, when I went on patrol, it was with only the most nefarious of intentions in mind.
Turns out the winter versions of these things are really well-insulated. The material fit close, but it looked pretty good on me. Just trying to tell myself my comfort in the uniform was purely due to excellent tailoring and not to anything Psychsaur left behind in my brain. To have my brain corrupted like that, where someone else’s thoughts merged with and even replaced some of mine, altering me? I didn’t hold it in the second go ’round. First action out on hero patrol: puked on some woman’s wig.
“My hair!” she shouted from a short but growing distance behind me.
“It looks more real this way!” I called back. Fried pork loin, by the way. Don’t try to picture it.
I decided to head to a mall for maximum exposure, or as much maximum exposure as I cold get away with as a hero.
I landed in front of a mall entrance right next to a Salvation Army volunteer swinging their annoying bell and telling everyone “Merry Christmas” for donations. I set about trying to think of what a hero would do. So I grabbed the donation pot, hopped back on the hoverboard, and started flying away.
This was not taken to be very heroic when I got back and Venus met me at the door. She did not look happy at all. “Come,” she said. I decided to ignore the obvious joke. Plus, if I always make the obvious joke, it means I’m predictable.
She led me to an empty classroom. “Sit down,” she ordered, pointing to a desk. I went to comply, but she stopped me halfway down. “No, stand.” When I did, she just started pacing for a few minutes, chewing on her bottom lip and occasionally looking up at me. I remembered I was in their uniform, which just made me feel worse.
“First, put that damn thing down,” she said, pointing to the donation kettle I still held. I dropped it, causing a loud thud and a crack on the floor. She set her jaw at that. “We’ve done so much for you. We’ve taken care of you medically. We’ve given you a place to live at times. We hid you when the world wanted you dead. We’re willing to let your daughter go here. We’ve bent over backward for you and risked our lives and our reputation to do it. You’re here again asking for our help to protect someone you say you love, but you stole a uniform and commit crimes to make us look bad. I’ve held out hope for you, but I have to finally admit you may be helpless. I thought ‘You’ve been hurt and don’t want to trust again’. Now I think there has to be something so fundamentally broken in you that you can’t comprehend the danger you pose to society and your own daughter!”
I had ended up leaning on the desk, partially sitting on it. I couldn’t stay focused on her. Sure, she drew my attention with the way she was verbally tearing into me, but I kept checking out the rest of the room. Windows that could maybe be a good escape. I could probably reach the door before her.
“Look at me,” Venus said. I did, noticing all the hair out of place, the little bit of glitter in some of her eye makeup, even a hint of perfume. I think I interrupted a nice night for her. “What the fuck is wrong with you, you selfish son of a bitch?”
I folded my hands in my lap and raised my chin. “I was trying to do something nice and help out. I just… screwed up.”
“Yeah, you stole from a charity.”
“Not a charity, a church. A church with a bunch of really big, really expensive buildings, full of people who give themselves fake military ranks, and who abused a bunch of kids at one point in time. They used to refer people like you to conversion therapy clinics for what you and Psychsaur get up to, and keep lobbying to be allowed to discriminate. So that’s what happened when I tried to be good, for once, for the holidays. Maybe I don’t understand it and I shouldn’t have bothered with all this in the first place.” I hammed up the poutiness there at the end as I realized I could try to play this off. “I told you I wasn’t cut out for this hero shit.”
And then we tell my cyborg eyes to eject the saline solution. You never know when you’re going to need eyes that can squirt stuff at people. Instead of saline, it could be hot sauce or pepper spray. Power ranges from a gentle stream to a blast that can shoot a few feet away. I just had to turn on the waterworks a little bit.
I started pulling off the uniform. “I don’t deserve to wear this,” I said. I pulled the top part down.
“You didn’t wear a bra,” Venus said. She didn’t look away, though.
“Internal supports,” I said. “And enhanced spine. Good materials in there. Want to feel?” I jiggled them for her.
“No!” she said, quickly.
I slumped. “See, I’m not even good at looking pretty.” I lunged forward and hugged onto her, nestling my head between her own pair. “I’m just a big goof. I’m sorry I’m no good. I just want to make someone proud of me for once in my life!”
She pushed and pushed, but she couldn’t get either set of my arms loose. “Get off me, Gecko. Please. Just let go. I won’t hurt you, just let go.”
I didn’t, not yet. “She doesn’t deserve to be hurt for me. No one does. That’s why I end up pushing those I care for away. Once I actually like them, they’re targets and people can use them against me. Nobody should be martyred for me, but especially not her. So I thought, maybe I could improve a little bit.” I sniffled and pulled away, wiping at the tears.
Meanwhile, over on the island of Mu, I oversaw my drones piloted by my people spraying a chemical over a rural estate before one last one dropped a bomb that detonated all the fluid where it landed. The whole place was ablaze, almost certainly with people inside.
“Just be honest with us, Gecko,” she said. “And please don’t pretend you’re one of us. Master Academy. Maybe there’s a way for you to help where you don’t accidentally rob a charity.”
I snorted. “Good luck with that. Just let it drop, Venus. Maybe we can just find some way for Santa to end whatever protection I have. Let them take me in her stead.”
“I’m probably going to regret this, but let me help,” she said. “We can’t have you in that uniform, though.”
I dropped the bottoms. She held up her hands then. “Whoa! You can change wherever you’re staying. Just zip everything up before you leave the room.”
She waited, either to make sure I did or to take in the sight. Probably the former, given her strange lack of attraction to me, the most amazing person she’s ever met. I am like a god among men, mostly because a lot of people’s gods were total dicks.
As I stepped out the door, though, Venus happened to ask, “Where are you staying, anyway? Nobody actually invited you to live on campus…”
Yep, I get to pretend to be reforming. Then some people are going to be like “I don’t believe it. I know you’re really reforming. That’s how things make sense, and you’re too nice!” Meanwhile, the people helping to pacify Mu for my ambassador just burned down another house. So fair warning, let’s not read too much into this angle I’m playing. I get to reform as a Christmas miracle, and that’s only because one of the other Companion-type things I could go around impersonating is a Dutchman in black face. Next thing you know, I’m trying to give kids fried chicken for Christmas and the ghost of Martin King Luther, Jr. rises from the grave to deliver unto me a the Bitchslap of Ages, sending me back in time to the Middle Ages or something.
I wish I could say that was just a joke, but it’s a crazy world, and I’m the only sane person in it.
“Why aren’t we going out, baba?” asked Qiang. She’s been curious about being shut in so much, and finding excuses to keep her away from TV.
“Daddy’s a little tired right now,” I said. “Hey, why not play that Korean MMO some more?”
“I don’t want to. I’m not going up anymore,” she said, looking all pouty.
I’m trying to keep her away from Christmas. And I’m in the United States. Good fucking luck. Maybe if this was the 1600s or whenever they banned Christmas here as too un-Christian, but religion doesn’t factor into it a whole lot nowadays. This is the United States in 2017. God has no place here.
Our friend Catallus, he has a place here. That old Roman asshole and his poems. Odi et amo. I found myself tempering feelings about my daughter, and that came to mind. I’ve found myself unusually attached to her. Just like Moai. And Carl. Mix N’Max and that fucker Good Doctor, too. Good Doctor didn’t exactly help my mood, though an idea briefly crossed my mind. Those bastards, the Companions of Kringle, are using her to get to me. They can’t have me on their own, but they can steal her away if she believes in Christmas. She’s five years old, with Christmas shit everywhere.
They put a big tree in the lobby, for instance. Lots of fake presents underneath it. Mistletoe and decorations all around. I burned the tree down. Burned down the presents, too. And the lobby staff. They wished me happy holidays. Unlike those snowflakes who get triggered when people say anything other than “Merry Christmas,” I don’t need people around who can lead my daughter into holiday temptation.
Fuck, I can’t even give her presents, can I?
Listen, I’ll take a job to hurt a hero. Write up the contract, stick a quill up my ass, and make a deal. Though I’d prefer to inhume the guy. He owes me that much after that whole business when I held gladiatorial games to decide if I’d have to give up my rule of the Earth to an alien conqueror. He fought against me in the hopes I’d lose and then he and other heroes could defeat the alien, Cercopagis Lysis, easily enough. They’d done so before with team-ups, and I’d gone and gathered so many of them for the fight.
So I have no reason to refuse anything hurting Eschaton. Not even his powerset so much. Sure, the guy’s powerful, but everyone’s touchable. That they can be touched is a lesson that should be drilled into people since childho- you know, that sentence didn’t turn out like I intended. Anyway, it was the way they gave me the job that makes me want to block these CoKs. Kidnapping me, possibly saving me from being nuked, then threatening my kid if I don’t help them. It also shows poor business management skill on their end. Too much stick, not enough carrot.
That’s what she said. And by she, I mean me.
Back there in the room, with Qiang wanting to go outside, I sighed. Some choices are the hardest to make, and way too many of those involve loved ones. Life or death is easy. If you die, that’s it. Nothing to worry about since you can’t worry anymore. If you live, at least you know you have some degree of justification for doing whatever thing you did. But a loved one is involved? Or someone you care about, I mean. Can’t expect someone like me to love anyone. Better to say “care” than love. So if that kind of person is threatened, you can be made to do even worse stuff since it’s someone else’s life on the line. How could you live with yourself, you monster? There’s also a chance you’ll lose them anyway if they ever learn what you did, but that’s not the issue so much, especially when the task itself is difficult.
That’s why it’s probably a good idea to kill anyone you might end up friends with. Yep, just long glances at Qiang as she played around with her knife, chopping up some of the plastic plants left around the suite. She looked up and smiled at me. “What?” she asked.
“Just thinking about stuff I need to do.”
“What kind of stuff?” she asked.
I slid down to the floor and scooted over to her so I could put my arm around her. “I do a lot of things that other people don’t like me to do, you know?”
She nodded and turned to hug me. “You’re my daddy and I love you and you love me just like you loved mommy.”
Ugh. She is NOT making this easy on me. I hugged her tight against me too. “I think I need to do something I really don’t want to do. Now, don’t worry. It’ll all be ok, I promise…”
An hour later, the door opened to Master Academy. I’d been waiting out there this time instead of barging in or sneaking in. Venus pulled the door out enough and stood there in the middle, looking at me in my armor and the girl in my arms. “Gecko, what’s going on?”
“Daddy needs your help!” Qiang shouted at her. I winced inside my armor at that one. Yep, definitely something I didn’t want to do. That’s why I let her say it.
“Really? My help?” Venus pondered that, then moved aside to let us enter if we so wished. I let Qiang down. She ran on inside.
“No need to say it again. Ever,” I said.
She laughed at that. “You’re serious?”
“Honeybun, why don’t you go on in there and do stuff until we need you,” I said to Qiang. She smiled and ran past Venus to disappear down a hallway. I’m 99% sure the crashing noise I heard soon after that wasn’t her.
“I’m ok!” she yelled from inside the building. Well, I’m 99% sure she’s fine.
I stepped close to Venus. “Please.”
I saw her frown through her mask. “Come in and tell me about it.”
“Wow, look at that tree!” exclaimed Qiang from deeper in the house.
“Noooo!” I yelled and ran after her. I slid on tile and crashed into a janitor picking up a broken vase, knocking him and the pieces back down. I picked myself up off him and ran, waving back to him briefly, “I’m ok!” I found Qiang in the dining hall, looking at a giant Christmas tree standing in the middle. A number of presents were already piled up underneath it.
I dive tackled the tree. Slowly, with a scraping noise from the anchor at the bottom, it toppled. It crashed to a halt before hitting the floor as it caught on the awning for the kitchen area. I slid around to the underside of it and fell off, then quickly dodged to the side. It didn’t fall down on top of me, but it wanted to. Oh yes, it wanted to.
“What the hell are you doing?!” said Venus, storming into the room.
I held my hands out. “It’s fine, nothing to see here. The pine of unusual size has been dealt with. The invasion of the cafeteria is solved. Qiang, how about you go somewhere less colorful and decorated to hang out?”
She had the tip of one shoe on the ground and rolled her leg back and forth. “I want to stay here.”
“I know you want to, but I’d really prefer it if you went elsewhere.”
“No! I want to stay here with the tree!” She set her foot down with a little stomp.
I looked at her, then to Venus and all the students who happened to be eating in there at the time. Then I grabbed Qiang and picked her up in my arms. “Sweetie… I think it’s time for a very important lesson.”
That’s how I ended up sitting in an office with Qiang’s arms and ankles cuffed together, a blindfold and earplugs keeping her from seeing or hearing anything. She wiggled back and forth in the corner of Victor Mender’s office. It had been awhile since I had an audience with the head of the Master Academy, a disabled man stuck in a wheelchair without the use of anything below his head. I had Venus and several of her closest and strongest friends surrounding me. “I swear, it’s important to keep her in the dark.”
“I think we need to know what is going on before we have to inform someone of how you’re raising your child,” Mender’s computer said.
“Ok, so this is going to sound a little bit strange,” I started.
“We maintain a high tolerance for the unusual,” Mender’s voicebox said again. Behind me, a minotaur snorted his agreement.
“Ok, so it all started when I woke up to a snowman’s head in my bed and a card. I didn’t read the card. So I went to go spy on people from inside a bush, as you do, and that’s when cards started popping out of me like I fucked a Hallmark. I opened one, then I started to run off to go kick in the EAGLE’s nest. Next thing I know, I’m in Narnia. Only, instead of a satyr waiting to fuck my wee kiddy brain out, I find a couple of old guys and a masochistic hobo. Oh, and satyr with a pair of chains, so it wasn’t entirely inaccurate. They are the other spirits of the season, the foils to Santa Claus. The bad guys of Christmas.”
“The Grinch?” suggested someone behind me with a snicker.
“Don’t be ridiculous, the Grinch is fictional. So anyway, Belsnickel, Krampus, and Knecht Ruprecht tell me they can’t punish me directly because of that time I saved Santa Claus.”
I heard a flat “What?” from behind me but chose to keep going.
“So instead, they’re going to take my daughter. They didn’t say when, but I’m pretty when it’ll happen anyway.”
“When?” someone asked.
“Pearl Harbor Day,” I said.
“Really?” The voice asked.
“No, dumbass, Christmas Eve.” I raised a thumb up pointing back behind my high-backed chair. “Someone’s a few eggs short of some nog.”
“Excuse me,” said Mender’s voice box again. “You saved Santa Claus and your daughter is going to be kidnapped by the Krampus on Christmas Eve.”
“Essentially,” I said. It has perhaps been suggested from time to time and by multiple people in multiple places that I may, or perhaps may not, have what could be said by some to be a problem of one sort or another with brevity.
“What can we do to help?” asked Venus.
I smiled beneath my helmet. “Well, I have a few ideas, including, of course, starting with making sure she doesn’t believe in Christmas as Plan A and ending with overwhelming firepower in Plan M. I might need you to call in a favor for me.”
“If you want a favor,” Mender piped up again. “you will give them in return.”
I leaned forward. “Now we’re talking. Who do you need wiped out? Eliminated, even? Murderated?”
And that’s how I ended up tied up and hefted by a pulley to carry the start back up to the top of the newly-righted tree. “Don’t y’all have people who can fly for this?”
Venus called up to me with no small amount of satisfaction, Qiang watching beside her. “Quiet! If you complain this much putting a star on the tree, imagine how much you’ll whine shoveling snow!”
Our story so far: Psycho Gecko, our protagonist, visited Empyreal City to make peace with the villainous Spinetingler, who stubbornly refused to die no matter how many times Gecko ended up having to kill him. While successful, the newly-minted peace was rocked by a car bomb seemingly meant for Gecko, or at least one aimed right at the hotel where he and his daughter were staying. A bit pissed and protective, Gecko set out to find the perpetrator of this deed and bring them to injustice. Unfortunately, the heroes got there first and have temporarily foiled his quest for truth, injustice, and the American Way by locking the bomber up in a private, hidden prison without judicial proceedings. Now, Gecko seeks to infiltrate the lair of these heroes, find the bomber, and do things so unspeakable, he’d have to slip into third person to describe them. And it’s all thanks to his clever plan of… being invited.
Ok, so the last part kinda makes it seem a little less skillful on my part. And it bugs me, which might be part of the point. Because I know they have this bomber, Sam Bass, hidden under their base. And they have to know I know. And I know they know I know. Once again, I must perform a delicate balancing act by walking the line between the known and the known known. More accurately, I gotta throw myself into a potentially dangerous situation and make it work out. Not ideal. The best fight is one you’ve won before it ever started.
I didn’t like mixing work with family in this case, but I brought Qiang along. It was Thanksgiving dinner. Well, more like Thanksgiving cafeteria, if I remember the year before. The food hall had plenty of people chowing down on fried turkey the prior year. When I showed up this time, the place swarmed with considerably less activity. In the intervening year between my captivity and now, most of the anti-cape protesters gave up and went home. Qiang and I passed by some of them. They had chairs, tents, and portable heaters. Some of the kids from inside were bringing them food. Just little kids who happen to have powers for one reason or another.
People get born into some shit like that. Good to show the other side who it is they hate and think is such a danger. Their answer, or at least the one I overheard way back in the Psychopomp program, is that a mere child with that kind of power is even more reason to keep them locked up or neutralized. Of course, the guy who said that seemed to smile every time he riflebutted one of us in the back of the head. Anyone paying attention to me when I wax philosophical knows a person can say whatever they want to justify whatever horrible things they’re about to do. Also makes for a handy piece of bullshit to try and tempt someone to doing what you want.
“Do I have to wear my armor?” Qiang asked. She popped her helmet off as we walked through the gates.
I looked her over, wearing mine as well. I had to pad it a bit more to work with this body shape. Plenty of room in the crotch, but it’s tight in the chest, with problems in the arms and legs. I pulled my helmet off as well and shook out my hair. The bells on each of the three tails jingled as we approached. I smiled. I’d been here as a prisoner. A prisoner when I should have been a corpse, a well-kept prisoner, but a prisoner. I returned an emperor. Well, empress.
I figured we drew stares walking across the campus to the main building. I saw them firsthand as we entered. They weren’t as crowded with students as when I’d stayed there, but they had a fair number. And, unless I was mistaken, they had parents. Family members. As soon as I spotted some of those, I activated the hologram projectors on mine and Qiang’s armor. Tucked under her arm, her helmet became a purse while her armor appeared to be a pretty little dress. I pulled the same trick with my helmet. Nifty disguise, actually. Explains why I’d keep it with me all the time.
Qiang waved to a girl who caught her eye. She ran off toward her friend and the friend’s family, who I approached more leisurely. Had to fight a smile that decided to show up on my face for no reason, too.
“Who is your friend?” asked who I thought were the parents of the girl. A little older, but the woman had the same curly hair as the daughter, whose face sorta resembled the man’s.
“My name is Qiang!” she said in her formal English. Heavy accent, I should clarify.
The excitable girl in front of her turned to the man and woman there with her body, but kept facing Qiang. “These are my parents. Mom, Dad, this is Qiang. Qiang, this is my mom and dad.”
“And I’m Qiang’s parent,” I told them, stepping up behind them. “You may call me Gecko.”
They plastered some smiles on their faces like they’d just been told it was time to gang rape a cow and happiness was mandatory. The woman spoke up first. “You and your daughter have very different accents.”
I shrugged. “I do a lot of traveling.”
“Rhonda,” said the woman.
She gestured to her husband who said, “Leland. Your daughter seems to know our Kayla, doesn’t she? Are they classmates?”
I shook my head. “No, but they might be.”
Leland smiled and looked around. “I was skeptical, too. It’s hard to leave Kayla in the care of people you don’t know who walk around fighting supervillains, but they’ve taken excellent care of her and she knows so much more control than she used to have. Don’t worry about the price, either.” This prompted a minor facepalm from his wife. Leland didn’t notice and just continued, “They’re understanding.” Then he noticed Rhonda. “What?”
“Gecko, you don’t need to hear all that,” she said, eyeing me up and down. At first I thought I had some swingers here looking for a third wheel. Then I realized it was the quality of the dress and purse I appeared to have.
A bell rang and the school’s intercom crackled to life. “Dinner is now ready to be served, if all our guests would join us in the dining hall.” With a bit of polite murmuring, we all obliged.
“Daddy, can Kayla and I sit together?” Qiang asked, turning to me when we got near the dining hall door.
I smiled at her. “I don’t see why not.”
It was just as we entered the now-decorated dining hall that Kayla’s father asked me, “Ge-cko. Is that Thai?”
Truth is, it would have been perfect to sneak out when everyone was going in. With Venus not having picked me out and everyone’s attention on the crowd, it would have been easy. It also wouldn’t have gotten me food. A girl’s got needs, after all.
Unfortunately, Venus found me in the middle of eating. “There you are,” she said, as if surprised to find me mingling with those hairy lower life forms called homo sapiens. She set a hand on my shoulder, confirming that I wasn’t a hologram but that my dress was. “I wanted to tell you something in private, if I could.”
We stepped over to a corner to get as much privacy as we could in the place. “Feeding the poor now? I knew you heroes were nothing but pink Commie bastards,” I said with a grin.
Venus brushed it off. “I’m glad I found you before you went looking for the bomber.”
I feigned shock. “Whaaat? Can’t I just come and enjoy a nice dinner like every other mass murderer? But, since you brought him up, I would like to have a little chat with that guy. Got any ball gags around here? Maybe I should ask Psychsaur instead.”
Oh, a little blush. “You aren’t-” A vibration through the floor. “You felt that?”
I nodded. “I don’t suppose you left anything in there with the bomber, did you?”
She shook her head. “I heard our suspect may have a contingency to get out. There was talk of mercenaries.”
“Bad time to have guests over, looks like,” I said. I looked over and noticed a plate full of cranberry sauce jiggling
Now it was her time to grin. “We’re not that easy to attack here.” A glow lit up the windows, presumably a force field of some sort.
“Folks, we ask you to please be calm,” said Psychsaur. The lizardlike humanoid had feathers in place of hair and could do shit with her mind. Telekinesis and telepathy. This announcement was made with a microphone instead of all that. “Master Academy is reinforced and happy to give you a demonstration of how safe your children are with us here.”
Several of the adults and teens got up, leaving families behind. One of them even made a show of pulling open his long sleeve shirt.
“You’re welcome to play if you don’t hurt anyone too seriously,” Venus said with a wink. Maybe I’m onto something now that I have womanly charms. I mean boobs.
Before she walked out of earshot, I heard someone call out something about “Drillers”.
I’d heard of those guys. They’re kind of a gang, kind of a group of thugs for hire. They’re good with drills, able to bust through a lot of safes. A high-pitched sound brought me out of my thoughts for a moment, accompanied by a sizzling sound from the force field outside the dining hall. Oh yeah, they do sonic weapons, too. Real handy if they’re fighting people in their getaway tunnels. That’s part of why they don’t operate in big cities so much: they like to drill up from underground to get at their targets. They’re good at getting into secure places that way, but cities screw with that.
Venus trusted me enough to leave me there with children and families, but that also left things wide open for me to pay the special superhuman cells a visit. I walked on over to where I sat with Qiang to grab my purse.
The corner where I’d been talking with Venus exploded in dirt and other debris as a conical drill bit the size of a riding mower burst through the floor. A man in brown leather sat in a chair that swiveled to keep him parallel with the ground. He pulled his goggles off and blinked his eyes just before a half dozen of his closest friends jumped out of the hole.
I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find, which turned out to be a platter of cranberry sauce. I threw it, Captain America style, and bonked one of them in the head. The others all raised their sonic rifles. “Get down on the floor and stop fighting, or we’ll open fire on the civilians!”
“Dad!” called Qiang. She tossed me my purse, and I noticed her slipping her own on over her head, the hologram falling away to reveal her armor and helmet.
“Put the purse down!” said one of the Drillers as he stepped close.
“Whosever holds this purse,” I started, “if they be worthy, shall wield the power of Thor…. Thor ballth.” I swung the helmet underhand into his balls, then up and onto my own head. I let the projection fall away and reveal my armor.
The Drillers didn’t know what to make of all this until I grabbed a turkey leg off someone’s plate and jumped forward, bashing one of the mercenaries into the wall. It broke over the next one’s head, who fell like a sack of potatoes. The next closest had time to pull a handheld drill with a conical bit like the one that brought him there. I looked around for a suitable weapon of my own now that I didn’t have a leg to fight on. I settled for a dish of dressing.
I charged him. He charged me, yelling. Drill met dressing, and plowed on into it, throwing dressing into the both our faces. Except I had a helmet. I pulled out, spun to the side, and wanged him in the head with the casserole dish the dressing had been stuffed into.
I turned to deal with the other two who had gone out, but I saw them being dealt with. One little girl had one of the guys by the ear. A boy about to enter puberty grabbed onto another and the guy instantly fell asleep, the kid leaving behind a round mark where he’d touched him.
That just left the one riding the big drill. He took one look at the situation and told a walkie talkie, “Plan B failed. Plan C.” With a whir, the drill bit began glowing red and drilled downward, curving sharply away after it got down enough feet.
I let him go. My part in all this was done, except for seeing to the same guy I assumed they were after. I headed out the doors, finding most of the party happening elsewhere. They could change locks, but hallways, so I found my way to the access for the underground section I’d been kept in. I was right at the door when I felt explosions. When I got in, I found a trio of openings along the floor of the hallway, Drillers spilling out. I felt more tremors, but nothing else opened up near me.
If I had to guess, they figured out the underground stuff had to be where Bass was being kept. It would have been too reinforced to go in stealthy, so then they opted to draw people out and have him turned over as part of a hostage situation. Plan C must mean blowing open holes and just looking all over for him.
I was a deadly, beautiful blur of braining and brawling as I beat the bastards up, down, left, and below. I even picked one up and squeezed him until he squeaked like a toy rubber duck. It was more a matter of getting through the numbers, even as the lights cut off and the fire sprinklers in the hallway started spraying us all down. The dark didn’t seem to bother them either so long as they had their goggles on. It was the dying that offended their sensibilities. Or, as I found out when I started opening doors, it was because they’d also been burning through walls in the side rooms.
I don’t know who else they had in there, I just know I didn’t find anybody. No one. Zip. Zilcho. I actually had one of them in a head lock as I opened the last door in the hallway. Finding nothing, I shoved his head into the doorway and slammed the door on it until things cracked.
I was walking back to the stairs when the lights came back on and a group of heroes, Venus in the lead, came into view on the stairs. “What happened?” asked Venus.
“They got him, I think At least, every damn room down here’s empty and got a hole in it.”
“Jesus, someone’s paying a lot of money,” she said.
“Oh, they’ll pay something,” I said. “Get me some of the Drillers.”
Venus held up her hand. “No.”
The other two heroes with her, the same femullet and guy from the other day, flinched back.
“’No’ is an unacceptable answer,” I said. “How about you rethink it before this night gets even worse.”
She raised her chin up. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“My blown-up boxers say otherwise.”
“Psychsaur pulled it all out of his mind last night. We know who he works for and why he did what he did. Some Middle Eastern delegation was staying there. He didn’t know you were there. He just didn’t care about collateral damage, like your boxers. This whole thing is paranoia, revenge, and stupid bad luck. It’s just what happens when one guy decides a group has to die and doesn’t care who gets in his way. It sounds familiar to me.” She raised an eyebrow.
I cocked my head to the side. “Give me a name for the organization, then. Something to keep an eye out for in case they get in my way again. Then we can go back upstairs and eat some pie. You like pie, right Boopsie?”
She rolled her eyes at the innuendo. “EAGLE. All capital letters, but it’s not an abbreviation for anything. They’re one of the groups we have now in the not-so-United States. They’re almost impossible to find.”
I waved toward the holes in the floor. “We got tunnels, don’t we?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “We have people working on that. They loop around and dead end. By the time we reach the real exit, they’ll be long gone. Meanwhile, we have people to take care of, prisoners to secure, and a lot of people who need reassurance and a meal.” She unfolded her arms and held out a hand for me. “Come on. Let’s take care of you, too.”
“I don’t want to end it here,” I told her. “It can’t. This is stupid.”
“If you have someone you love to care for, it has to end here for now,” she told me.
Most of my part in taking care of the place was helping them with their food problems and thinking of a way to hunt down this EAGLE. Well, part of me thought of that. Another part thought that if this is just that dumb luck, she’s not entirely wrong about dropping it. A third was still pretty sure Rhonda and Leland were sizing me up, but they probably had a clue who I was by now. It didn’t stop them from sitting near me or letting our daughters chat away.
I didn’t sleep easy that night. Not over fear or regret. Some of it was residual anger. Some of it was being the middle spoon. Some of it was the cold. I woke up to find the covers stolen and Leland a bit cold natured, but that’s not what pulled me out of sleep. It’d be the alert from a little bit of malware I spread all over that damn school. Which reminds me, better make sure Kayla’s parents didn’t give me any meatspace malware.
Call it paranoia, or just being a villain, but I made sure to connect to computers and phones to leave a little something behind to keep an eye out for clues. Just certain phrases, like “EAGLE” and “Sam Bass” and “where they went” and “tracking”. When heard, microphones would activate and send me a recording of the conversation, with different priority levels based on how many of the phrases were used together.
Like an exchange between Psychsaur and Venus about how they knew the extraction was coming and planted a tracking device on Sam Bass just in case he was rescued and taken to an EAGLE base.
Well looky there. Now I get a chance to hunt down EAGLE and fry it. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.
The vacation with my daughter continues. As far as her nightmares go, they’ve eased off. It’s all about distraction. I’m good at distraction. It was nice to relax, too. Kick up my feet. Enjoy some TV, let the food build up a layer of fat. It made it easier to get ahead of things over in Ricca, too. Stamp a few things, for instance. Got some Directory guys consolidating powers. Might see the beginnings of some power-hungry assholery. I could nip it in the bud, make myself a target for any future regime changes… or maybe I’ll let them direct that energy against each other. I can swoop in at the end, put a stop to anything too bad. I’ll look good, too. A real savior of the people.
Of course, all that cut in on running down leads on our cop friend. Sam Bass, like the fish. Any resemblance to people in other dimensions is purely coincidental. There’s information on him, but some things a guy has to do on his own. Or a girl, in this case. I kept the boobage. Thinking of changing the fingernails though. Blackened zirconium is nice, but it gives me a Goth look, so I painted them. After the first attempt at ladybug nails, I gave up and just went pink.
That’s where I was when I got a knock on the door. Qiang looked up from her show as I stood up to go check it. I found pair of people out there who definitely weren’t room service, unless Qiang ordered a pair of people in civilian clothes with tights hidden underneath. It’s the neckline that gave it away.
First instinct? They looked young. Master Academy. I turned, figuring I’d pretend we weren’t in long enough to gauge what they’re after. Instead, I found Venus sticking her leg in the open hotel window. She held a finger to her lips to quiet Qiang, but the cat was out of the bag. I ran over and pushed Venus back out of the window. She swung from a cable attached further up the all, maybe the roof. She just kinda swung like that.
“Well, well… isn’t this magical?” I asked, sounding unimpressed.
Venus gave me the finger and caught the window when she got close again. I grabbed her hands and let her go, but she caught hold of my wrist. She held onto me. We shared a frustrated pair of expressions. “You here to get on my case?”
“Yup,” she said.
“This going to be a fight?” I asked.
“Not unless you make it one. I’m here to talk.”
I looked her over. She came in costume, but not her power armor. “…Fine.” I pulled her in the window. “Better let your friends know they don’t need to blow up the door.”
And that led to Qiang hogging the couch while a trio of heroes tried to make themselves comfortable. “Anyone want anything to drink?” I called from the kitchen.
“Soda if you have it,” Venus said.
I tossed the last six pack of soft drinks out the window. “Just ran out, I’m afraid.” I walked back over and tossed the three of them some cheap beer. The teen boy looked particularly happy at that, but Venus shot him a look that said she wasn’t in the mood for zero tolerance. I smiled at that and picked up Qiang so I could sit in her spot with her in my lap. “So, how’s everyone doing?”
“Did you kill a guy?” blurted out the girl with them. She was trying to pull off the sexy female mullet look that used to be popular about a decade ago, where all the hair is swept straight back over the top of the head. I rolled my eyes, and I’m pretty sure Venus did, too.
I nodded. “More than one.”
“Recently?” asked the boy. He had a few too many bags under his eyes. Sneaking out, I reckon.
“Oh, one just in the past few days. It gets a bit messier if you go back a week. Come to think of it, if that tripod still had the camera on it, it would have been like a deadly colonoscopy. I gotta remember that for next time…” I laughed at the image.
“What’s a colscopeepee?” asked Qiang.
I ran my fingers through her hair. “It’s the world’s grossest first-person shooter, dear.”
“Should we be talking with her here?” asked the girl with the femullet.
“Now you ask,” I said. “This is Qiang, my daughter. She’s led a more adventurous and dangerous life than y’all did at this age.”
She waved at them all happy. “Everything’s so good now!”
“Is this safe? He’s got his kid here, and I’m worried, you know,” said the guy, looking at Venus.
“You’re not going to hurt my kids, are you Gecko?” asked Venus with a sly smile on her face.
I leaned forward and gently rested my chin on top of Qiang’s head. “Are they yours?”
“Is she?” She asked right back.
I broke the awkward silence that ensued. “It’s safe to say we all have loved ones. Master Academy has helped me out, so I won’t go after its people barring attacks made against myself, my people, or my loved ones. You only gotta worry about me going momma grizzly if y’all try something here. Speaking of which, why the visit in the first place? A friendly reminder that you’re not going to make me leave, but I really need to leave?”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Venus said. “I’m working on a case but I’m given updates about everything we find out you do. It’s hard to justify leaving you alone when you’re murdering people.”
“I’m just trying to figure out who tried to kill me that day. I mean, the person who blew up the hotel, not the one who shot me with the rocket. That one’s no more of a threat.”
“That’s the case I’m working on. I’m trying to find the suspect behind the hotel, too. You’re distracting me and you’re stirring things up on the streets. I had an informant in the Wolfpack you put in the hospital with testicular torsion.”
I tried to look serious. “That sounds bad. Tell me, doctor, will he ever pee straight again?”
She gave me the ol’ death glare. It was slightly undermined by the teen boy holding in laughter. Venus turned and gave him the glare, causing him to put a lid on that reaction real quick. I chuckled at that and said, “Well, my way got me the ID of the guy who drove the bomb there.”
“Me too,” she said, shifting to cross her legs. “I didn’t kill anyone. It pays to play well with others.”
“Ugh, you didn’t even get to kill anyone?” Qiang squirmed around in my lap and eased out so she just had her head laying on my thigh. I looked down to her. “You ok, dearheart? Need anything?”
She giggled and rolled her head back and forth to indicate no.
“Can we talk without her here?” asked Venus.
“Fine fine…” I looked down at my kid. “Sweetie, I need you to go into the other room. Our guests are about to threaten me about something.”
“Ok!” she said, sliding down onto the floor before standing up and running off to her room.
“Don’t tell her that.” Venus said.
“Oh? Then what did you want to discuss?” I asked.
“I came here today to tell you to get out of town and leave this bombing alone or we will have to try and make you leave,” she said, trying to hold back a cringe on her face at the threat. “This isn’t about violence.”
“Of course not,” I said, smiling. I wanted to jump up and do a dance about telling her so. “After all, I didn’t take your subtle hint back at the infirmary, right? But more than that, what makes you think you can enforce this against me?”
The fellow piped in. “You have a kid right over there! Shouldn’t you be worried about fighting around her? She could get hurt.” Things got quiet again when he noticed me looking him over for easy access to arteries. “Venus, why is he looking at me like that?”
“You implied we might hurt his daughter. And I don’t know how much he takes offense to it, but he’s identifying as female right now,” she answered.
She was slowly leaning toward him when I turned and smiled at her. “I’d hate to think your school was teaching new heroes that sort of tactic. After all, threatening children,” I nodded toward the boy. “is the sort of thing I would do. Or our suspect in the bombing, since Qiang was staying with me as well. I’ll leave after he is dealt with.”
“I think we’re done here,” Venus said.
Her underlings were out the door first, but she hung back, closing it and turning to look at me. I’d been seeing them out, so I was right up close to her. “Hey, I just want to let you know, I really didn’t want this whole talk to go so badly. He was out of line, but he’s just a stupid kid.”
“Yeah, yeah… I’m trying to be forgiving of Master Academy and its people nowadays. Somewhat. You understand I have limits. She’s my daughter.”
“I completely understand,” she responded. “In fact, I had another reason for coming and it involves her. I don’t know what your plans are, but you really should bring her by for Thanksgiving dinner. I think it would be good. For both of you.”
I turned to look down at the hand she had been reaching out toward my arm. I looked back at her face, eyebrow raised. “I know you love, ahem, ‘Taco Tuesday,’ but I don’t have time to waste my time on your seduction games. Hands off the merchandise.”
She floundered for a moment, or at least her facial movements resembled a fish, before she said, “I’m going. Feel free to come by if you want to join us for Thanksgiving.”
As soon as they left, I headed back into my room to check on my armor while pulling up my information on Sam Bass. Satellite imagery, nearby cameras, anything that could give me a more current view. I had his last known apartment, one from before then, and his mother’s house. All three were swarming with cops and people in Master Academy field uniforms.
They actually had figured out who he was, looks like. It took some time to worm my way through police databases like a bunch of bad apples. None of them mentioned a suspect taken into custody. Bomb making materials, a few drugs, and Bass’s mother was caught with an unusual number of pain pills from various doctors. Granny’s an OG drug dealer. No, she might literally be one of the original gangsters, depending on age.
I think they took Bass for themselves for some reason. That means he’d be locked up in the special cells they build under their school.
Ya know, might do Qiang some good to have a Thanksgiving dinner with other powered children. And I need to figure out how much of this is a trap and how to stay out of it.
With my quest done, I had more time to spend with Qiang. Sadly, I had more time for my responsibilities as a ruler, as well. American holiday or not, people are still going to cause trouble in the Pacific. Nothing too big to worry about. Without me around to commit it, crime is down. The influx of new recruits allowed a lot more downtime, made the corrupt security guys realize I didn’t need them. It helped that they’ve had ample opportunity to realize I’m both a bad motherfucker and willing to kill them for stepping out of line.
I’m proud of being a bad motherfucker, by the by. It’s a hard title to obtain. It’s much easier to become a good necrophiliac than a bad motherfucker, for instance.
There have still been some incidents, but without me there to hold his hand, the Directory appointment over Internal Security has figured out his role. First he panicked, then he locked himself away for three days with as much whiskey as he could find, then he switched to bourbon and started bossing people around just right. Which, coincidentally, reminds me of what I drink if anyone ever asks me to do any creative writing. His panicked emails and voicemails gave way to drunken slobbering and then a certain resigned cynicism that’ll serve him well. This is no world for optimists.
Optimistic that things weren’t going to be so bad, I had a Dudebot sign off on some new laws and regulations, then decided to check in on the robotic double of myself over on Mu. By now, the new ambassador had arrived to relieve Citra, my wife. She expected the marriage to be political, I’m sure. She never expected me to have her appearance altered to make it look like I was marrying the princess of a nation of bronze age people on a mysterious island that appeared in the middle of the ocean.
I took over running the Dudebot there to walk her out to the newly-arrived delegation. It almost got awkward when the new ambassador-regent’s baggage dropped and some bondage gear dropped out. Those poor, innocent Bronze Citizens will learn soon enough what that mask was for.
“Welcome to the Bronze City, Regent Toyotomi,” I said, the robot body double giving him a handshake. The man smiled warmly for all to see, and sensors in the hand detected that he tried to squeeze it. The guy was younger, with a beard, and had a bit of fitness on him. It probably frustrated him to face a robotic grip that he couldn’t out-muscle, but otherwise I think the guy will fit in just fine. Calling up his file, he’d been the embarrassing son of one of the more important former government bureaucrats to stick with the island. The bureaucrat had become a big deal in our government. His son had stayed an apparent embarrassment.
I’m not fond of how little they thought of the post, but I think they got the right guy. Gregarious and competitive; using ambassadorial luggage for sex gear is a good sign, too. He’ll fit right in with people who think the height of entertainment is a play about a guy banging his own mother.
I may have impressed the Bronze Citizens with my incredible ability as a playwright with plays stolen from actual Greek poets these people have never heard of. I’d have used my own legitimate works, but I don’t think they’d care for my stage adaptation of Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. I also haven’t written it yet, which presents another obstacle. Need a lot more alcohol and free time.
With a last wave, it was time for Citra and my Dudebot to depart. Oh, and to snatch an arrow out of the air before it could hit Citra. Another almost got Toyotomi, a third bounced harmlessly off the robot’s armor.
“Well,” I told Toyotomi, “I suppose there might be a few problems with this new job you’ve been handed…”
And just like that, the Drone Squad got assigned to security duty. The humans and Deep One immigrants who have taken up service with the remote-controlled warmachines should be more than enough to handle the conspiracy brewing around the Bronze City. You can tell it’s a conspiracy because the guards never found the guy. I know, I know, people used to be fairly incompetent at catching criminals, but think about it, dear readers. Most people in this city don’t go around armed. A spear might not cost a lot of money or take much skill to make, but this was a bow. Not everyone carries a bow in a city. It’s hard to carry a bow inconspicuously. And what kind of bow in a Bronze Age society is going to be both good enough to attempt an assassination and cheap enough to dump somewhere to escape?
The kind of boy funded by someone with money. Makes me wish the old Riccan project to drop mind control drugs from planes worked out. Damn chemtrails just never got off the ground. It’d make this so much easier, and I’d rather not use nanites for this job. I’d rather not think about this place until I had a use for it beyond denying it to other people. Hmm… yeah, I have an idea after all. That’ll be for later, though. I just need to kidnap some people.
In other news, Queen Beetrice, who rules North Korea as part of my empire, has sent me a lot of formal invitations to dinner. Also, a jar of honey that she claims is North Korea’s biggest export. She’s even got a program here where she rents out the services of some of her Buzzkills. The bee people go out, do a little cross-pollinating, and collect money from private interests and state governments who are a little short on bees.
So that’s another idea I can work with. I need an evil plot to kill wild bees.
Yep, plots everywhere. It’s a world of possibilities. So what did I start on first?
I took Qiang around to find a Day of the Dead celebration. They had a sort of one here in the city. It was really more of an outreach thing, but she had fun. She nearly broke a tooth on a sugar skull, but she forgot about how much it hurt when she saw someone dressed as La Calavera Catrina.
Then things got awkward, because she went running off, yelling “Citra!”
Oh fuck all kinds of donkey. She ran up and hugged a confused Venus, babbling away in Riccan pidgen. She pointed back at me before I could change the hologram from my armor to resemble something less like myself.
Venus wasn’t in armor, I should say. She wasn’t even in costume. She was there in a dress, and not one meant to seduce or show things off. Just a green dress. The puzzlement dropped off her face when she saw me. Thismight be the longest I’ve kept a face since I was a kid, and the projection even included some of those nice little scars from when the Master Academy supers were doing brain surgery on me.
“Qiang!” I called out. Speaking in the Riccan pidgen, I told her, “That’s not Citra. That is someone else.”
“She looks just like how Citra looked!” Qiang said, turning and looking at me, then back up at Venus. “Did she change how she looked?”
“No, that is how she looked,” I said. I had hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward.
Venus’s stance had shifted. She’d gone on guard. I noticed her reach for her phone on her hip and start tapping on the keys. I didn’t make a move to stop her. “Hello Venus,” I said in English.
“Hello Gecko,” she responded. Her eyes flicked down to Qiang. “Who is this?”
“Hello, I am Qiang,” Qiang said, also switching to English. She gave a polite and respectful bow. “Do you know my dad?”
“Your DAD?!” Venus seemed rather surprised by the concept that I could have a kid. Sure, it didn’t happen in the conventional sense, but I’m allowed to have kids. Normally, I’d feel more like stressing that point toward Venus, but I didn’t want to deal with her right now. Not with Qiang around.
A few in the crowd around us had looked at hearing Venus’s dramatic response, but stopped paying us any mind. I stepped close as well, though I didn’t give a bow. “Yep. Venus, this is Qiang, who has already introduced herself like a good young lady. Qiang, this is Venus. We are… acquaintances.”
Qiang smiled. “Dad, what’s a acquaintance?”
I looked at Venus. She looked at me. She looked at Qiang. I looked at Qiang. “Well, hon, she’s not exactly a friend, but we know each other.”
“You don’t like each other?” she asked. “Why don’t you like my dad? Dad, why did Citra-”
I cut her off right there. Going back to the pidgen, I told her, “Do not talk about Citra in front of her.” Even if it was Citra’s own choice, I didn’t want to explain to Venus that a woman seeking my affection did so by making herself look like Venus. I probably also wouldn’t like explaining how Citra had access to nude photos of Venus’s entire body. I’m just going to have to close that line of inquiry now. State secrets.
Venus looked us over again, then crossed her arms. “Who is Citra? Why did your daughter run up to me saying that name? How do you have a daughter?”
Starting to regret not using that magic tree to wish her pregnant with my kid. Thinking of Venus with morning sickness is fun. Thinking of it swelling her boobs is better. Probably the best part would have been “accidentally” saying in front of everyone that she was carrying my baby.
Then again, seeing her kneel and ask Qiang if she needs help and if I kidnapped her, I considered the possibility that I might want her hanging from a wire that’s been run through her bowels, a light bulb shoved into her mouth to help her serve as a giant Christmas light.
“My daughter is just fine. She doesn’t need your help. We’re not causing you any trouble here, now are we?”
An explosion bwawoomed in the distance. Venus glared up at me. I held up a finger. “I had nothing to do with that, I think.”
“Right,” she said, pulling her phone off its little hip holder.
“If I’m lying,” I said. “May your puny excuse for a god strike me down where I stand!”
The skies rumbled. I pointed up at a nearby cloud. “You watch it, mister. Don’t make me come up there.” Instead, it parted to reveal a man in what I’d call a quadcopter suit. Four giant rotors on his back.
He fired a shotgun down into the crowd of celebrants while dropping a few racial slurs.
“Stand back, I got this,” said Venus, tearing the bottom portion of he dress away for better agility. Then she saw the guy drop his gun and pull out a rocket launcher.
I sighed and looked to Qiang, then pushed Venus aside. “Looks like I got this.” I dropped the hologram, began charging an energy sheath, and jumped.
As I hoped, the guy realized some big metal man was heading his way and adjusted his aim accordingly. It was a bit less likely to hit anyone I cared about. Or Venus. With my free hand, I whipped out a chicken grenade, pinched the head off, and threw it at what I hoped would work for the distance. I’m not known for my skills as a quarterback.
The quadcopter racist fired at me. I pulled my cape around my front as much as possible, raised the forearm encased in a glowing aura, and loudspinningwhiningnoiseowthatsmyasswhyistherehalfabodegaonmyass…
After a moment spent laying around and collecting myself, I went to shake my head clear and stand up, but my head was already shaking. I stopped it and tried to stand up. First attempt ended in me falling back on my ass and the calf of my right leg. Don’t worry, it’s still attached. Aside from a minor spot of flash-frying on my arm, it seems my armor held up. That doesn’t mean punching a rocket had no consequences. One of them showed up in that all the people around me were on mute and someone had left a high-pitched whine going.
The first to rush over were Qiang and Venus. Qiang actually managed to lift me, at which point the hologram on her armor failed. Venus seemed surprised, but also surprisingly-willing to help me up and try to look me over. Man, there was a lot of sugar skulls. I began to wonder why they made them in the first place, like how they got that idea and how hard they were to eat. And why were we moving so slow.
I pulled away from Venus and picked up Qiang. “Leave me alone, superhero. Always being mean and never liking me. You just want to think I’m nothing but trouble.” I was probably speaking really loudly. “Your help has a hell of a lot fine print than anything I ever do when I kill people! My daughter and I are going to our hotel!”
Despite having trouble with my balance, I fought through the killer headache I had to get out of there, though I didn’t feel well enough to jump or run off. That worked out possibly for the better as Qiang and I found ourselves soon staring at the smoking, flaming wreckage of our hotel, where someone had set off a car bomb at ground level. I turned to Venus, grabbed the shoulders traps of her dress, and used her bosom as a face pillow. “Why can’t I have nice things?!”
My memory gets a little blurry around that time, but I woke up in the regular infirmary of what my GSP assured me was the Master Academy. At least this time, I didn’t have brain surgery. Or a prison. Just a heavy kid sleeping on top of me still in her armor, and a crumpled note in her hand from Venus.
“Dear Psycho Gecko,
The doctor says you can leave after you are rested. I do not know what makes a man like you jump in front of a rocket for people, but it is a positive change for your life. Do not make me regret it.
P.S. Your daughter is welcome to attend. We will make a hero out of one of you yet. :)”
She says that, except now I’m planning to kidnap some people, steal some equipment, and murder the compatriots of whoever blew up my luggage. I’ll just do it out of another hotel.
But I’ll consider the offer for Qiang.
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?
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.
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.
“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.