“You did what?!” yelled Venus at me through the phone.
She interrupted me in the middle of proceeding over a bit of judicial housekeeping. One of my judges was taking kickbacks to imprison people. Unlike the Americans, we don’t give private prisons contracts that depend on them keeping a certain percentage of rooms occupied. This situation puzzled me as a result. Hu dropped me the details: he’d been taking bribes from gangs to give rivals longer sentences.
I pulled the guy aside for a chat, just the two of us, over drinks in one of the island’s many fine establishments of seductive delight. “I am honored by your presence, Empress,” he told me upon my approach to meet him at the entrance. “But I do not believe this is a respectable establishment.”
“Despite your profession, I wouldn’t judge the respectability of the workers herein if I were you.” I slipped my arm into his to guide him inside. I even paid the cover for him. I’m classy like that.
Inside, I guided us to a table next to the wall. A female Deep One with an epic rack sauntered over. “Get you something to drink, handsomelings?” she asked.
“Are those real?” I asked stopping myself short of groping the bouncy pair.
“Yeah. All natural. Touch if you want.” She jiggled them from side to side for me. “You know we mate with humans, don’tcha?”
I gave them a squeeze. “Filthy habit, laying down with those ugly humans.” I turned to the judge. “No offense.”
“Of course not, Empress,” he said, averting his gaze as I motorboated the amphibious fishwoman, raising a hand with a wad of cash from the judge’s wallet. She snatched it out of my hand and was happy to let me take as much time as I needed until I was pulled away by Venus’s call. I had to leave the judge getting a lap dance from a woman whose tattoos moved and changed.
That brings us back to Venus yelling “You did what?!” at me.
“What did I do?” I handed a bouncer some money and he ushered me through the door into the private rooms.
“You know what you did,” she responded.
“Yeah, I know what I did, but I don’t know if you know what I did. I’m not ‘fessing up to anything until it turns out you already know.”
“This is no time for jokes. You know what I mean,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “I swear to you, Venus, and you should know I wouldn’t lie about something like this… I never do only one thing you think is unforgivably wrong. If only you know where I stuck my face earlier, for instance. Let me know which horrible thing you’ve discovered and I’ll let you know what I think about it.”
“I know, I know, I let her live. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of being judge, jury, and executioner, it’s that many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Not many, but some. Maybe one in a billion if I’m being generous. Really, the ratio is heavily on the living people that deserve death side of the equation, but I didn’t indulge this time.”
“You raped her mind!”
I flopped down on a heart-shaped bed. “That’s being a little dramatic, isn’t it? How much of a mind could she possibly have?” She hung up at the worst possible moment. I’d just decided I liked the bed. They had really fluffy pillows.
Venus had kinda ruined the whole trip, so I headed back out, despondent, to find the judge enjoying the show and a beer. I slid into the seat next to him as the next girl came out. A cat screamed and the multicolor lights around the stage flickered. Rough, droning guitars began to play, a song I recognized as “It Took The Night To Believe”. A pale woman appeared on stage, her loose white dress not really working with the usual strip club aesthetic. She swayed and took a step forward, then the lights flashed off. When she reappeared, she was crab walking, showing off enough leg to see the garter for tips. Another flash, she was upright, her head twisted at an angle usually accompanied by a loud snapping sound and the cessation of life. The next flash left her spinning around the pole, arms twisted around and her mouth stretched unnaturally open. That’s when the dress came flying off, showing tattered lacy bra and panties.
I was in love, and soon short of cash. I even used some of my own money.
Sadly, this whole meeting was business, not pleasure. I dragged myself away after her dance and back to the judge. “I’m having fun, but you seem to be taking things a little too seriously. You gotta relax.”
He sighed. “It’s difficult to relax around one’s sovereign in a gentleman’s club.”
I shook my head and stood behind him, massaging his neck muscles. “Here, let me help you loosen up.”
“I’m not sure-” he started, until I slammed his head forward into the table, busting the bottle.
I grabbed his hair in one hand, the bottle of the broken bottle in another, and jammed the jagged glass into his neck. The blood sprayed into the air over a table dancing vampiress, as did the cash I threw out while yelling, “Make it rain!” The vamp ran her hands down her bloody breasts, mouth open wide in a hiss.
Venus got back to me about 6 AM locally, but I had the call routed through my brain. “Hello?”
“I’ve had time to cool off and get some sleep. We need to talk.”
“Sure, sure. Glad you don’t feel like yelling anymore.” It made it easier to keep from waking anyone on my bed up.
“You’re quiet. Are you breaking in somewhere?”
“No, I just don’t want to wake up the vampire.” Though, with her snoring…
“What are you doing with a vampire?”
I smirked. “Daisy chaining.”
“It’s like sixtynine, but I also had the fish woman and the onryo woman… I don’t think she’s really one, because I’m pretty sure those are ghosts, but I figured I’d ask her over breakfast. I make fantastic eggs, something you’d know if you were so lucky.”
She cleared her throat. “You’re trying to avoid the subject.”
“I’ve made my family safe from an enemy who is inexplicably good at finding me and who works for our enemy. Our enemy. She fooled you too. She’ll never be able to fool me again and it got us valuable information.”
“You don’t do that to people.”
“You don’t. I’m responsible for a nation. Millions of people rely on me for prosperity and safety. That means I know things they would hope never to find out about. When their lives are threatened, I eliminate the threats. When someone infects them with a disease that could kill them or take away their abilities, I’m the one who failed them. Turns out I have the perfect moral temperament for a world leader.”
She said, “You’ve gone full Nixon. You never go full Nixon.”
“This is morality, not legality. Remember how slavery used to be legal in your country? But seeing as I’m the Empress here, you don’t have any way to punish me anyway. All you can do is wake me up in the middle of some very lovely sleep and chastise me for invading Dame’s head.”
“It was despicable,” she said.
“Despicable and right aren’t necessarily incompatible. But, if it’s any consolation, tell her I’m sorry.”
“Wow. Oh my god, do you mean the nation of Ricca, is that what you mean?”
“No. I, Psycho Gecko, am sorry. I’ve gotten to know her more closely than anyone else. And whenever you remember she betrayed you too, and you get all pissed off, I want you to let her know that she may seek asylum here. There are advantages to being someone I know can’t act against me.” I felt the woman I was spooning with start to stir. Her dark hair twisted out of the way as her face looked back at me, almost completely turned around backwards. I pressed my lips to her for a kiss, my tongue dancing with what felt like a couple of tongues in her surprisingly roomy mouth.
Meanwhile, seeing as the call went through my brain, I just thought further responses to Venus that came out on her end as sound. “Geez this stripper’s hot.” As I said, my thoughts. “Anyway, I’m going to have to set up a formal meeting with you and Titan about our endgame. How’ve you been doing?”
“Surprised you’re thinking about how this all ends. Your tips were good. We found where they stored stolen artwork and other valuables in one. Another had a server farm we’re looking over. We took a few people into custody but we had to put them in the hidden cells. We can’t just beat up people guarding a building and insist the cops arrest them because of some conspiracy they’re tenuously connected to.”
“I have video evidence. And I ooooooh… sorry, real life stuff happening… and I followed that guy who was dead.” I squirmed as the Deep One stripper’s hands groped and fondled me fondly.
“The fact that you’re involved committing crimes in other countries makes it questionable. If that’s all we have, the cops will be useless.”
“Yeah, you might see if there’s a way to make them useful. Use some influence with politicians if you can to prep them for this going public. I’ll do what I can on my end, but Belgium’s of limited use as an ally in this regard.”
“You’re allies with Belgium?” she asked.
“We’re still in talks. Medical aid and technology exchange deal, but the Belgians are starting to waffle,” I told her.
“Anyone would if they had to put up with you using that joke as often as I’m sure you do.”
I started to answer, but instead I squealed like a stolen Ferrari in a getaway.
“You sound like you’re occupied with something else,” Venus said. “Let me go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up. Stay on the line. Hey, how husky can you talk?”
She hung up.
After eventually escaping my bedroom and fixing a lovely breakfast, I left the strippers pleasantly chatting with my wife, daughter, and ex-girlfriend who all showed up at the first sniff of food. I had a pretty damn important piece of info I needed to confirm with Max and Dr. Creeper over at the Science Institute in a conference call in my study.
“I’m sorry,” Max told me. “Without a vaccine, any cure is only a temporary reprieve from the disease.” He referred to the one that afflicted the brain with the condition that allowed superpowers of all sort to be disabled by the power collars.
Dr. Creeper’s faux-German accent came from the phone set between us. “Doctor Smith has failed to find a vaccination method. If subjects have a reaction, it is the severe one that risks death. Perhaps if ve could integrate the cure with the human body or nanites?”
“No can do on that,” Max said, shaking his head. “That’s now how it works.” He nodded to me, then over toward the minifridge. I nodded and he walked over to fetch us something to drink.
“You could just try!” Creeper said.
“Doc, if Max says he can’t do something with chemicals, that generally means it just can’t be done.” I waited a moment before remembering I could try to soften the blow. “But thanks for your zeal. The fact that you care so much is why I trust your people are doing their best.”
Max tapped me on the shoulder with a beer. Not my favorite, but it was a breakfast beer anyway. Seems like he’s been wanting me greased with alcohol a lot lately. I grabbed it and took a sip while he popped the top off his own. “Creeper, how are we on that shield generator project?”
“Ve vill be ready for a test soon. Do you anticipate needing it vithin the next veek?” he asked. Is it just me, or is he emphasizing his “w”s more than usual?
“Hopefully not. I just always like to have more weapons and gadgets in my arsenal. Never know when you’ll need to pull them out and surprise someone.” I said, whipping out a serrated rocket knife for emphasis to a man who couldn’t see anyway. Meanwhile, Max looked behind me, trying to find where it came from. “I want us prepared for the peace talks, because I’m going to make peace happen no matter who loses their head over it.”
Greetings again, dear readers. I come bearing news and fingering the bunghole, but that could be too much information for y’all. Maybe a little working the taint, I dunno. Regardless of what I do in the privacy of my own kitchen, it gets results. And so does Intel.
Hu got a hold of me. They traced back the shipment of collars. It’s a good new lead, and one Dame didn’t know about. This suggests Max may have been correct in criticizing me for not thinking and going a bit, shall we say, wonky there. But Hu trusts my judgment still. As an underling, he has no choice but to trust me or risk that judgment. He brought me the whole story one day while I was sitting in the Directory building, checking over some judicial appeals and other important documents they thought I should look at. Looks like the Vatican’s extradition request for that priest isn’t getting approved!
“We traced the collars to a ship called the Rangoon. In deference to your desire to better acclimate to current events and focus on your family, I took the liberty of authorizing the interception of the Rangoon.” Hu said. The captain proved more than generous with information once he learned we had no desire to uphold or be held to maritime law, and access to shitloads of valuables. Literal shitloads, including the finest in ancient golden chamber pots. Caught between the carrot and where we might stick it, the captain pointed us to an outpost he called the Flying Dutchman.
This Dutchman, unlike the mythological ship or its Disney version, turned out to be a semi-submersible oil platform off the coast of Mauritania. Hu spoke about it like he knew, but I’d never heard of it. “In fairness to your Imperial majesty,” Hu told me when I murmured something to that effect, “The best kept secret is that in the news of any African country other than South Africa.”
“So who runs the Dutchman?” I asked.
“That would be Colonel Duray, formerly attached to the United Nations Taskforce On International Stability. They were originally meant to travel around the world and bolster governments threatened by socialist revolutions during the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR, the task force was downgraded and repurposed to combat terrorism. It saw a resurgence following the United States’s last presidential election, when they began to shirk their UN and NATO duties. Last year, the United States attempted to completely defund and disband the task force after it was ordered to intervene in the U.S.A. Duray took the unit AWOL instead. Since then, they’ve functioned as a mercenary force called the Privateers. They stole from the United States and other nations with the justification of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who escalate conflicts, but have seen action as pirates.”
With that information to go off of, I knew where to search. This isn’t the first time my decision to stay in America upon coming to this world left me ignorant of world events. “Quite a story. If they were any closer, they could be frequent customers or enemies. We need to find out if they’re related to the Hares though. I wonder if the Psycho Flyers have the range for this…” I stood up, tossing papers aside.
Hu caught a bundle and handed them back to me. “Surely every action we take does not require you to attend to it personally. You are the will of our nation. Decide what must be done and we shall do it for you in your stead.”
I coaxed him in closer with a finger. “Cut the bullshit. What is this?”
“Empress, you are too important to run around after every single problem. You are a ruler now, not one of the soldiers to be risked and captured if need be. If word of your capture had gotten out, it would have threatened the new social order and risked plunging the island into anarchy. While I’m being frank, there are rumblings about your mental health as of late. You are scaring your people.”
I ground my teeth and took a seat, pondering. As much as I felt insulted over him calling me out over my sanity, it has always been my policy that underlings be allowed freedom to speak and criticize me. A supervillain who kills people for telling her things she doesn’t want to hear is a supervillain who is the last to know if security systems are shorting out or someone defected and snuck out through a secret tunnel. Plus, there’s a lot of minutia I don’t like to handle and it’s easier to delegate it if people think they’re allowed to have thoughts of their own.
I took a deep breath and released it before continuing. “It’s been a hell of a year. Any particular recommendations on where I should focus my attention on this matter from here on my throne?”
He bowed. “Respectfully, Empress, now may be the best time to increase the pressure on the Three Hares by allowing your allies to raid the locations you have learned about.”
At the time, Titan was the one most likely to be awake with how time zones work, so I called up Cape Diem first. I snapped my fingers for a Directory page to bring over a mirror and nanites. I was trying out skin tones and making some alterations. I called up Qiang and let her watch from my perspective as I changed up a few features.
“I like your eyes! Baba, can I have eyes like that?” she asked.
“Sure thing. You want them with this angle or…” I moved a few things as far as inner and outer angle. “Like this?”
“That’s neat. I want to look just like you!”
I smiled. “Fine, but only if I get to look like you too.” My nose shifted to a button nose like hers would probably turn out to be once she grew up.
“Hello, Gecko?” asked Titan’s voice from elsewhere in my head.
“One moment, gotta extricate myself from how I was passing the time,” I said, before swapping back to Qiang and telling her I needed to handle a very important call. Then, I could come back to Titan. “Heya. You sound a bit out of breath. Did I pull you away from something important?”
“No. I finished my business before I got here. Your friends are kidnapping refugees.”
“I’m not aware of my friends doing anything. Max has all the ingredients he could want right now.” To my knowledge, there haven’t been any additional attempts on my life. With Hu’s concerns, he might have intercepting people, or maybe Max has been looking out for me.
“The refugees were kidnapped by a cabal of low-level magical supervillains. They escaped, but I managed to recover the victims,” Titan informed me.
Huh. I bet that’s why I got that invitation for beer and bratwurst from those guys I don’t know. “Was this around Poland?”
“Yeah. You know what’s going on?” he asked
“Nah, just vague stuff I heard through the grapevine. I’m not really part of the normal villain social scene. They don’t like me. I invited myself along to Secret Santa one year and they all converted to Judaism on the spot.”
“Venus said you liked to tell pointless, unrelated jokes.”
“I wanted to talk to you about the Hares. I got a few spots for you to check on.” And a sudden urge to RSVP in the negative to that beer and brats invitation.
“Shouldn’t you get Venus on the line for this?”
“She’s probably asleep,” I told him.
“She’s a hero. She patrols. Hold on.” I heard beeps, then the sound of distant sirens.
“Hello?” came Venus’s voice.
“Venus, it’s Titan. I have Gecko on the line. Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah, I guess. The Question are long gone.”
I spoke up here. “The Question? I have questions.”
“Pro-government anti-government terrorists. I don’t understand it either. They wear masks with the letter Q and just blew up an NPR affiliate. They like riddles.”
“Huh. Never heard of them, but they sound fun. Listen, it’s about time I shared some of the love with y’all as far as the Hares, if y’all aren’t too busy.”
“Let us worry about that,” Titan said.
“I’m emailing a map along to y’all with relevant info I obtained from a high-value prisoner who grew up in the Hare conspiracy. The individual did not particularly enjoy the isolated lifestyle of the Hares, but I believe I’ve located more important sites than what we’ve run across before. I have important duties to attend to instead.”
“How are you doing after your capture?” asked Titan.
“I’ve been saner,” I said.
Venus spoke up, “I can recommend a good therapist.”
“They’d have to be bulletproof,” I said, laughing it off. I went ahead and sent the emails. “The encryption key is 12345. I know it’s the sort of thing a moron would use for their luggage, which is why it’s the last thing they’d expect from me.”
Titan sighed. “It’s one of the most widely used passwords. If that’s everything, are you sure you can’t give me a tip about the refugees in Poland?”
“Sorry guys, I should really see to these things around here. I’ve got to shampoo my hair and look over some judicial business… oh, I’m getting attacked by ninjas. Gotta run, buh-bye!”
I hung up on them and stood up. They had all they needed from me. I checked out the mirror. “What do y’all think? Like the new look?”
The trio of ninjas who had dropped into the Directory building took fighting stances. No stage pajamas here. They were in tight black outfits with balaclavas pulled over their faces, light armor vests and plates on their limbs. One held a couple of kunai, another wielded a metal claw, and the last had a handscythe with a chain attached to the bottom of its handle.
The Directors scattered, which made quite a sight since many of them had adopted the practice of wearing sashes in some attempt to out-bling each other.
The one with the scythe, a kusarigama as they like to call it, swung the chain at me, sending the weight on the end of the chain right at my face. I snatched the chain out of the air. That ninja pulled it back, scraping some skin off my hand. I took a step in that direction and that’s when the kunai came for my head. My head snapped back.
When I lowered it back toward them, I held the kunai in my mouth, the bladed end held deep in my throat. Claw guy came at me then. I grabbed the kunai and tosses the wet end at his face. He swiped it to the side with his claw. He brought it across again at my torso. I threw myself back on my throne, laser eye blaring to life and searing a letter Z through his torso, smooth as Zorro.
He fell, only for the kusarigama’s weighted chain to come swinging for my face. I got a hand up. It stopped a lot of the damage, but still left me stumbling and trying to spot the ninjas between all the circling birds. I raised my hand in time to block an overhead stab from the guy with the kunai. Better my palm than my eye hole.
“I got one of those, too,” I used one of my spare hands to whip out a thin trench knife and cut him from cock to Adam’s apple. Smoke appeared all around me, burning at my eyes. The kusarigama’s chain smacked the head of its dead, deceased compatriot to the side.
So there I was. Knife versus chain and scythe. I’d already killed two. I was an assassination target on the edge, willing and able to sate my rampant murderlust. I stepped forward and the chain forced me back. Again and again, the remaining ninja used it to keep me at bay, my knife sparking as the chain slid across it the last time.
I pushed a lever on the side of the knife and tossed it in the air in frustration. “Fine, I get it, I shouldn’t have brought a knife to a chain fight.” The rocket in the handled of the knife fired suddenly, more like a momentary explosion. Only momentary, as the blade lodged itself in the chest of the remaining ninja. He reached up to grab it, then refused to pull it out. Then he dropped his weapon and turned to run.
“This is what happens when you buy your ninjas American. Adios, cowboy. ” I reached under my dress and came out with another rocket knife, one in each hand, and switched them on, aiming. The ninja fell dead with four knives in his back. “Knife meeting ya. Man, I hate missing all the action.”
Venus was kind enough to offer me the hospitality of the Master Academy while I waited on my ride. After everything that happened, we all agreed I needed access to as many showers and fresh clothes as possible. Plus, and she didn’t actually state this, I think she was worried about all the laughing I’d been doing. Couldn’t help myself. It kinda had to do with the intersection of Gecko and Tripura. She was so nice, and she was me.
Too bad she had to kill. I just can’t catch a break, even when I don’t know hardly anything. But she killed to save an entire city, except for that part when she murdered someone for being a dick to her. The ratio of assholes to innocents makes it clear how much better a person she was. I could try and argue something about tabula rasa, but most people have really weird ideas about that. Like, they think being born with genetic preferences that can change over time somehow means the mind is born with knowledge. You know, because we should really call a baby’s inborn preference for cinnamon at birth “knowledge”.
Eh, this Earth will grow out of that at some point, maybe realize that a stream bed’s curves determine what path the water travels, but it’s not a stream without the fluid.
This sounds nice, but part of the reason I was tittering to myself so much is my ability to recall the name of that thingy on the table that salt falls out of. A mind is a terrible thing to lose, and now I’ve got mine back. And so many things are being reevaluated that it’s caused me the legitimate giggles, and some instances of laughing to spite the alternative.
It disturbed everyone around Master Academy West. They sat me in a common room with, like dark woods and a tv and books all around. If it was a social spot, it wasn’t after I got there. So I kept staring off into space, comparing memories, reconciling things, and catching up on the news. Like, seriously evolutionary psychologists? A paper about why the Jews are genetically predisposed to dominate the world? No wonder the brownshirts are marching.
In the middle of sitting down, arms around my legs, laughing my head off to myself in a dark room with the lights turned off, I noticed a guy arguing with Venus. “How long is she staying here?”
That snapped me out of my thousand-yard stare. “Hey, stop assuming my-”
“She’s a criminal, a murderer, a- a- I don’t even know what she’s committed so many crimes. And she’s transphobic,” said the teen boy to Venus.
“I’m not transphobic. There are very few people I hate more than I hate almost every one of you damn humans,” I said.
The guy actually responded. “I don’t hear you dropping the N-word or any other racial slurs.” He walked into the room, staring at me. A bit androgynous and chubby, with a wide nose that almost makes me think it’d been smooshed as a kid.
I grabbed him and pulled him onto my lap, cradling him with four arms. “It’s ok there. Shh, shh, shh. Let me tell you a little story.”
“Gecko, let him go,” Venus said. I held up a finger.
“Just a quick story and he goes free unharmed, deal?” I asked.
From my lap came the teen, “I’d rather just go if I have any say in this.”
I patted him on the head. “Hush, Venus is speaking for you.”
“You promise not to harm anyone? This is just a story?” she asked.
I nodded a bunch. “I wouldn’t dare hurt the snuggly little Master Academy students here.” I gave the student a shake. The wind picked up in the room and blew some curtains a bit too much to be the AC. “It’s just a brief story of an assassin who learned how to use medical nanomachines to perform reconstructive surgery to alter the assassin’s looks. Colors were easy, adjusting flesh and cartilage as well. Muscles, harder, bones harder still. So many things were changed… face, hair color, eye color, even skin color. And in all that time, nobody who knew the assassin’s identity questioned anything about the assassin’s personality over the fact that the assassin changed appearances so often.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Venus spoke up.
I blew her a raspberry, then continued. “Then one day the assassin grows a bodacious pair of boobs and starts wearing skirts. Suddenly, everybody starts wondering if they should call the assassin something different over THIS change. THIS change was unusual. This change caused them to worry about the assassin’s mental state more than usual.” I chuckled at that part. “The assassin just changes and doesn’t think much of it. The assassin thinks it’s stupid to assume anything off about a person just because they want to be a woman.”
I pushed the teen off my lap. “Story time’s over kid. Now get out of here.”
The tean dusted himself off and looked at me. “Inside, what do you feel you are?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I’m always just me, no matter what.” I closed my eyes and sat back, hoping they’d get out of my long, beautiful hair.
Venus ushered the teen out, then turned to me. “Maybe it would help you with all your self-loathing. That can be a sign, you know.”
I waved dismissively. “Not all that important right now. But thanks for the tampons and the brief tutorial.” I opened an eye just to wink at her.
“I know about your self-loathing. Do us all a favor and find a version of yourself that’s happier. And just because changing sex isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s a small thing for someone to be made whole on this Earth, you douchecanoe.” Venus crossed her arms as she looked at me.
“If you hate me so much, if the world’s better off without me, why save me?” I asked her, leaning forward, and maybe squeezing the gals a bit for better viewing. She’s not immune to boobs. Hell, these days, the power of boobs reaches far beyond men to all sorts of genders. “Not like anyone there knew what was happening. You could have let me die.”
“We have this talk a lot, but I refuse to go through life believing the best way to solve my problems is to kill everyone,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, “But isn’t saving me a way of condoning my actions, especially when I kill people like The Claw?”
She shook her head. “Your choices are your choices, but I’ll always hold out hope for you, and I’ll always be here if you want to change. It’s never too late.”
Ugh. It’s like she’s got a psychic around to figure out the best way to annoy me. Oh, right, she’s fucking the only surviving psychic to be in my head. I was more than happy when the Psycho Flyer arrived with an honor guard of soldiers in power armor. We made quite the sight, Psycho Gecko walking up a ramp flanked by Riccan soldiers while a force of Master Academy heroes stood guard.
One long, long, long ass trip later that involved a stopover in Mu for refueling, the Flyer passed right over the military base and landed between the Palace Residence and the Directory Legislature building. The Directors were quite curious to see what all the hub bub was about, and were surprised when the soldiers lined up and I stepped out in my armor. Not a copy, or a replica. Not a Dudebot. Me and my armor.
One of the Directors was pushed by his comrades to come meet me. “Empress, we weren’t aware you were away. We have been denied news and prevented from an audience.” He quickly bowed.
My bow wasn’t so deep, but then I’m the Empress. “It was necessary, unfortunately. If it’s any consolation, I’ve missed y’all too and I’ll be more than happy to provide more information after I meet with my family.”
I maintained a properly dignified dictator-walk until I reached the stairs to the Palace Residence. That was when Qiang got loose and came running down the steps to meet me. I pulled my daughter up in a four-armed hug and carried her up to the top of the stairs where I pulled in Citra, my (politically-motivated) wife. Then Mix N’Max, Silver Shark, everyone I could grab. Even that friend of Qiang’s, Kayla, and her parents who I’ve banged.
I got the 411 inside while snuggling Qiang. Max had a whole presentation lined up, starting with the slide, “Infiltrators, Detainment and Punishment, A Play In Three Parts”
“You may be wondering what we did with Dame, the woman you informed us was made to look like you,” Max said. “First step, identification.” The first slide after the start showed photos of the crowd all photoshopped to wear different clothes. Sam Hain, Max’s assistant, looked very pretty in Citra’s dress. Another slide showed a picture of me labeled “fake” either hugging or kissing.
“Second step, capture,” Max said. The next slide showed Sam’s head pasted to the body of a black lingerie model, perhaps to make it obvious this isn’t Sam’s body. Then a cage falls on the fake me. Then there’s a trapdoor, followed by a picture of an alligator, a school of piranhas, and a train.
“This movie sucks,” I said. “The pacing’s terrible, the acting’s subpar, and what’s with this sound design? Nobody knows how to hold a boom?” Max, ever-present grin on his face, flashed me the middle finger.
I held up one of my own toward him, then made a circle with some fingers and moved it up and down around the middle finger.
“Ahem,” said Holly, the preppier of Max’s assistants. “I worked really hard on this, and would appreciate if you paid attention.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the punishment stuff. More photoshopping, along with stills from movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Passion Of The Christ. “Bottom line,” I asked once we reached the end, “Where is she?”
Max sighed and clicked on to a last slide that said, “TL;DR, she’s in the military base.”
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. I hugged Qiang to myself, then set her down. “I’ll be back in a bit, sweetest of hearts. Mommy has to go see the bad lady.”
And I did. The men, human and Deep One alike, were happy to have me back. They showed me down to a special room, one that’d be hard to find for anyone not familiar with the holding cells. Recently, I’d been the one sitting in a darkened room, with a circle of light. She knelt in the circle, arms and legs held to the floor. She was covered by a thin white dress, barely more than a scrap. I could practically see through it.
I stepped up and pulled out a can of spray cheese. “Wakey, wakey, dearest Dame.”
She looked up wearing a copy of my face. She started to say something, but I filled her mouth with cheese so cheap. I had to find the can in a flop house by the dock where sailors passing helped themselves to a high while they were on the island. “I don’t know how much they’re feeding you. I assume some food’s involved. Wow, I know how to put together a body shape, don’t I?”
She fought to get through the cheese. Since she had nothing to say, I kept on going. “This whole game of spy versus spy and who is better at planning and counterplanning, it’s just needlessly complicated and annoying. Never knowing who to trust… it’s just no fun. So today, I make you a promise. If you cooperate, I won’t kill you. Won’t order you killed or anything like that.”
“Your guards beat the shit out of me every day,” she growled through cheese.
I patted her on the head. “And they’ll stop now because you’re going to be my own personal project.”
Her eyes fluttered and she shook her head. “Whaaaaa-why is everything… doing that?” She looked all around.
I knelt and stroked my lookalike’s hair. “It’s just the nanites, dear. I made sure you only go the best cheese.” I held up the can and shook it, smiling under my mask as if she could see it. Then I sighed. “Not quite so fun knowing what’s going to happen.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, kneeling forward, trying to rest her head on the floor.
I rubbed her head sat beside her, moving her head into my lap as the nanites set to work. “I don’t like where your mind’s at, so I’m changing it. Making a few alterations where I can. Looks like you’ve got that little disease that can inhibit superpowers too, even if you use a gadget for your fun. I had a lot of time on my flight to review everything we know about Unity, the same drug they used to make me thing I wasn’t me. Same drug I bet you were trying to steal from Ricca when they first captured you. Neural pathways to access long-term and short-term memory. Funny thing is, it’s entirely possible to start using these nanites to replace parts of a brain with a, what do you call it, cybernetic alternative. There may be a few hiccups, but that’s why I’m trying this trick on you instead of someone I care about.” Here I felt a little bit of Tripura tug at me. Dame started to scream until I forced her to stop via well-placed nanites.
I leaned in to whisper to Dame. “You know, I felt so normal and innocent there thanks to what your people did to me. Then I get my memory back. All of it. Poor Tripura… but that time gave me so many wonderful ideas about how to deal with you, them, and any other problems that come up. Losing my mind has been incredibly refreshing; I highly recommend it.”
I stood up. “Don’t worry about screaming. You got a mouth, but you won’t be able to. New process like this, I told it to take it’s time. A couple of days and I’m sure whatever you’re feeling will go away. Or you’ll suffer brain damage. Either way, I’ll be back later to pick your brain.” I stopped and waved my hands, jazz hands style. “I’m thinking something old school, maybe wrinkly, but cute and… ya know, pink’s a great color.”
I giggled at her shaking her head and waved it off. “Oh, don’t worry about your silly opinions. I’ll replace those later.”
I don’t know how much it fits my memories, but I have a rough idea of a lot of California being desert, especially to the southeast of Los Angeles. There were suburbs, that’s still a bit of a desert in its own way. And it was near one of those the clouds dipped to the ground.
I’d tried zooming in to figure out what that whole mess was since I got close enough for it to cover a lot of the sky for me. I know something like half the state’s on fire, but this stuff looked different. Things didn’t smell like someone was having a barbecue, either. Not even of people. Wow, I really know what that smells like. I want to say pork is involved?
I noticed something a lot weirder than that as I walked into this suburb, though. There was no movement among the carbon copy dwelling cutouts that made up the suburbs. Variations on a theme. The same style might have a bush in one spot and a tree in another. I thought there weren’t people at all, but then I noticed the dog. At first, it looked like just another part of the bush, until I saw the ear of corn. That seemed out of place, more so when I followed it down to the dog standing next to the bush, hidden under corn leaves. I took a closer look and found corn growing from a car, corn growing out the open window of a house. Even, it turned out, an ear peeking out from a baby carrier next to an affected woman standing in her driveway.
I really missed my environmentally sealed armor in that moment, even though I couldn’t remember it myself. Less than an hour later, I saw where a crowd of corn soldiers picked their way through the houses and cars. They’d walk up, grab a bunch of corn, and assemble it into a new soldier for their army.
I don’t really know how they noticed me. It’s not like they had eyes or noses, only ears. Regardless, they finally picked up on my presence. I waved at them. “Greetings. Take me to your leader.”
A sound went through them like a breeze through a corn field and they advanced on me. I held up my hands. “It’s ok, no need to grab me. I can get there myself. Just looking for this Centeotl guy.” I remembered the guy’s business card. It was a wrinkled, scorched mess, but I still had it and held it up for them. They stopped where they were upon “seeing” it and opened a path through the middle for me.
“About time I got some respect around here,” I said as I walked through.
From then on, I followed the road and a few corn soldiers to the big camp. The guards there didn’t just let me past when they saw their boss’s business card. These children of the corn escorted me along to where Centeotl stood. He wore dark brown slacks and no shoes. Shame, because while sneakers clash with slacks, they didn’t clash as much as the shirtless look and the body paint, and provide comfort for athletics. And his chest had thick lines of body paint at sharp angles, all in black. He sat sharpening a knife as I approached. Behind him sat a large, round pod of pale yellow material that spat a constant stream of something into the air, forming those ominous clouds.
“Heya, how are you Sam?” I asked.
He looked up at me. “Why did you come back?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know why she let me go exactly. Something about her getting a message that you were going to attack the city and her school.”
He studied my face, but I’ve recently become an expert on acting like I don’t know anything. It happened around the time I suddenly stopped knowing things.
“Who said that?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “No clue. We were walking along, my hands tied and all, when she started fighting the air. After a couple seconds, she looked at me and asked what was going on, how I was making holograms. She said it was a guy with a jean jacket and jeans and a bigass mohawk. Don’t know what she was talking about, but she held a conversation with whatever she heard. Then she just said ‘fuck it,’ and ditched me to get back there quicker.
“What is Barkiel interfering for?” Centeotl asked.
“Who?” I asked.
He pointed up to the sky. “One of the aliens you might know as visitors. He watches the world and tracks our interests. He agrees with me, as would anyone who has seen so much of humanity.”
“So he’s one of us, or at least on our side, but he’s acting against you. Is there… ok, so I haven’t spent much time around the visitors. What’s their deal? You know, is there any reason why they might want different things than the gods and their relatives?”
He waved me over to where a couple of corn soldiers dropped off a metal folding chair for me. I took a seat as he explained. “The gods of the east were already retreating from the world when the visitors crash landed. They heard of creators and gods of the forge, and sought them out to repair their ship. The world and the gods weren’t capable of fixing the vessel, so they were forced to send a message back to their people. They got an answer many years later, time enough for demigods to be born, grow old, and die. They were long-lived and their people would send someone to help, but they lived a great distance away in space and their people here were not important. I’ve had drinks with Barkiel and he said his government often ignores the needs of its people.”
He shifted looked at his knife. “Lookin’ sharp,” I commented.
He nodded and slid it into a sheath on his belt. “Their leader, Tetra, spoke with us and told us to be careful. Their government doesn’t care about their own people, but they are easily threatened by other species. If there were too many gods, if our powers spread inordinately, if our people advanced too fast, our planet could be treated as a threat.” Centeotl pointed at my shorts. “Are you hurt?”
I looked down at a drop of blood on the crotch of my short shorts and thought of how slowly I wished I could murder that guy who called himself Apollo and who claimed he reset my menstrual cycle. Because I’m not supposed to have a menstrual cycle.
I looked up and shrugged. “Just some maintenance I haven’t been able to get here lately.”
Centeotl screwed up his face. “Someone must have tampons you can take around here.” He waved to the houses around us.
I leaned back and crossed my legs over the other. “Yeah, sure, but this is interesting. I haven’t heard so many of these stories.”
“I’m not surprised. You must have been isolated for a long time to avoid the same fate as your pantheon.”
I let my face fall. “Um, can we not talk about that? It’s just wild. Sometimes, I wish I knew as little about it as the presidents and prime ministers.”
He chuckled. “The aliens warned us of computer records, but my favorite story is Operation Snow White. Scientology paid for itself when we discovered the United States had started to find evidence of our financial dealings. They were left with stories of aliens telling them to infiltrate the government, and we stole the documents they obtained about us and destroyed them.”
I clapped for him with all four hands. “Nice. Do you use cults often?”
“I don’t. Barkiel loves them. Did he tell you about that Applewhite man?”
I shook my head, but then the projection of the Denim Dude showed up between myself and Centeotl, standing where he could see each of us with just a turn of the head.
“Speak of the devil,” said Centeotl.
“Talking about me were you?” Denim Dude/Barkiel said, looking between us. “I’m so glad you two met.” He winked at me before turning his attention back to Centeotl.
“Tripura is returned to my custody. It’s a shame to come this far and back away, but I can’t justify an attack now,” Centeotl told him.
“Sure you can. She tricked Tripura and sent her back here to kill you,” Barkiel said, cocking his thumb my way.
I pretended to stretch, with two of my hands moving back behind me. Only the ones with all fingers, though. I pushed the safeties off.
“I hardly see how,” Centeotl said.
“Even if she wasn’t secretly Psycho Gecko in disguise, she still has a pair of guns with her,” Barkiel told him.
I pulled the 1911s and fired into him from the hips before raising one in both hand. I fired my eyes as well as the pistols. The recoil would have been worse for someone with standard human strength, especially one-handed and side by side where I can feel the pressure from each firearm firing. Between my strength and sitting feet from my target, that didn’t matter so much. I was looking him right in the eye with my laser eye, and that counts for something.
Centeotl slumped to the side, to the road, his body twitching. I looked down though to a pain in my chest where a sharpened knife stuck in me. I dropped the guns and reached for the knife, seeing how deep it was in. Deep enough to hurt like hell, turns out.
“Not too bad an assassination,” Barkiel said, looking at the corpse, then looked up to me. “You’ve got a problem there.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” I said. I grabbed the knife, counted to one, and pulled it out. I dropped it, not even caring, because it hurt just as damn much taking it out as it did going in, except with the extra feeling of my eye laser shooting into the wound at a lower power setting to fry the whole bloody mess.
I cut the laser as I started to cough, which caused more pain and some tearing from inside the wound. Then came more bleeding, more cauterizing, more pain. Then I tried standing. Want to guess what I felt then? It hurt like hell to breath, to stand, to walk. Barkiel’s presence didn’t help. “Good going, champ. You saved the day and stopped the corn army.”
I looked around to see the corn soldiers had indeed all crumbled. Then I took a moment to do what so few people do. I looked up and saw the clouds were still there. A glance at the big pod showed it had stopped, but I wondered how soon before it came down, or if it even had a real purpose it could still fulfill. Between that and the pain of walking, I figured it was as good a time as any to steal a car, even though I had to pull a stinky, sticky mess of a teen girl out from behind the wheel of the mini Cooper. Sure, I’d forgotten hotwiring a car, but that part’s unnecessary when someone leaves the key in the thing.
I didn’t bother paying attention to see if Barkiel had left or not. I was more concerned with getting the hell out of there, and he didn’t follow. All the corn made driving out of there difficult. Not easy to navigate a maize. Ha! I knew I had some corny puns left in me.
A funny thing happened on the way back, though. The sky fell. Before I’m accused of being a little cock, it was the clouds of whatever Centeotl had been pumping into the sky. I closed everything up as tight as could be and gunned it, now clear of all corn. But I wasn’t going to make it. I had to find shelter. So I gave the wheel a sharp turn, popped the tires as I jumped the front porch, and plowed through the front door. I continued on through a sofa and slid to a stop in the living room just as the opening of the Simpsons stopped playing on the flat screen hanging off the wall.
I sat there, waiting. And waiting. I reached for the door handle, hissing in pain, then remembered that somehow, for some reason, that stuff would fall just as soon as I opened the door and got out. It felt like a dumb enough action it would force laws of the universe to change in order to punish me. Twenty seconds after that, the stuff in the air fell with a dusty impact.Some got into the house, but the dust cloud dispersed before it got past the foyer.
The first cough didn’t hit until soon after I stopped the roads were no longer covered and I felt safe ditching that thing for that didn’t give off sparks when I drove. I had to stop at the next gas station and hack up blood to the confusion of everyone around. The coughing caused more pain, and I couldn’t stop myself putting a hand near my wound.
I felt a leaf poking out of it. It felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t breath in and something tickled my airway. It looked like I’d gone from being a plant in their organization to being a plant in a gas station parking lot. I opened the car door and tried to walk to a new car, but my foot caught on something. It caught on roots growing down through the concrete. I tripped over and fell there on all fours.
I heard the squealing of another car, then footsteps running closer. I looked up to see Venus there, reached up to her.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a protective case, like for glasses. When she opened it, she had a vial there surrounded by padding. She knelt and raised my chin up. “Even not being you, you ran off to kill someone anyway.”
I hacked out an “It’s what I do,” around bloody spittle. I felt things pushing inside me. Pushing around and pushing through.
“I know. I hoped to have a better you as long as possible. Forgive me, Gecko,” she said.
“Who I am, what I’ll be… why save me at all?” I asked. I felt an enormous pressure in my head and something start to grow and block my throat.
Venus tilted my head back and poured the nanites in. “It’s what I do.”
She held me as the nanites disassembled the mass growing inside me, as well as scar tissue and cauterized tissue. It killed the corn trying to grow out of my holes, and made me whole. And as I stayed there, I felt it all start flooding back. Every nightmare, every trauma, every time I had to sacrifice a part of myself to survive.
It was enough to break me once.
But with it came every success and accomplishment. Killing some of the biggest and baddest motherfuckers around. Every fond memory of friends and family. I can’t wait to see my daughter again. And every skill and resource I’ve been able to build up.
I’m not just the me who broke. I’m the me who shatters cities and makes buildings crumble. I’m the me who scares away people like Spinetingler and who destroys alien fleets. I’m the me who nearly killed a world.
And I’ll be enough to break the so-called “gods”.
Venus and I finally had ourselves a ride willing to take us into L.A. We just had to put up with the back of a pickup truck on account of my smell. I was so happy, I hugged Venus. No, wait, allow me to correct that. I have such a creepy little crush on her, I hugged Venus. For her part, she allowed it and didn’t even act all mean to me once we got into the back of the truck and sat down on a tarp to keep from being burned by the metal.
Knowing our salvation was close at hand, it was easier to let ourselves talk, but I didn’t want to make it all about me. Years worth of blogging to another dimension teaches me I’m not afraid to do so, but I figure I talk enough about me around her when I’m properly myself. So instead, I started mentioning meals I’m going to cook when I get back. Cooking is a wholly under-utilized skill, and one that I enjoy for its crossover. After all, I get to use a knife, cut meat, stab things, poke things, set things on fire, even force my meat into people’s mouthes and squirt fluids around.
This time, it was hot sauces, detailing way of doing it, followed by Venus telling me, “I don’t like cooking. I’d rather curl up in the library and work through A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
I wanted to ask if that’s what the kids are calling it these days but I held my tongue. “What’s your favorite part of it?”
“There are a lot of good parts. I could relate to parts of the first one, but the second one, The Reptile Room, reminds me so much of the academy taking me in. It’s nice to find a family.”
We were alerted to something going wrong, or at least not continuing to go right, when the truck rounded a bend and slowed down. “Aw hell!” We heard from the driver’s open window. When we scrambled up to take a look at the road. We’d reached an area with a little bit of tree and sign cover that shielded the presence of a checkpoint.
“Speak of the Fire-Starters. It’s ICE. I don’t suppose you have any ID on you?” Venus asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. Once again, good way to control people. Kinda reminds me of that Christian organization that kidnaps kids and takes them to the Dominican Republic.”
“That’s a hell of a thing to remember now,” Venus said. “Alright, let me do the talking.”
The guys up ahead looked like they were dressed for war more than for hunting down immigrants outside a city. They went from approaching the truck casually to rifles raised when Venus hopped over the edge of the pickup. Even with her hands raised, they maintained a pretty hostile stance.
“Hands over your head! Identify yourself!” called one who seemed to be in charge.
“I’m the superhero called Venus!” she answered back.
“Oh yeah? Superhero? Don’t you normally wear costumes?” asked a guy who stepped out with a skull bandana. More skull bandanas. Are skulls scary? How can they be? They’re so happy, always smiling.
The one closest called back, “She’s that one with no powers.”
“Unless you can kill a person with a twitch of your finger, I’m more super than you now,” said another.
“This is a situation where I couldn’t wear my costume. A lot of things didn’t go right, and this gentleman here was helping me get back to L.A.”
I heard a gun cock behind me and turned to see another ICE agent who decided to chamber a shotgun shell for some reason. He had it pointed in my direction, too. “Sarge, we got another back here!” To me, he added, “Get out.”
I crawled out, falling on my back in a landing most bogus. It took me a few seconds to stand up and straighten out my dress.
“She’s my sidekick,” Venus said.
“She ‘s got four arms,” said the one closest to Venus.
“She’s a dark one, isn’t she?” asked one of them further back. “Doing some human trafficking?”
“Oh, yeah, did y’all ever find those kids y’all sold off?” I asked. The one behind me poked me in the back of the head with the barrel of his shotgun, pushing me along until I was standing beside Venus.
“Get this other asshole out of the truck. I want to see them all lined up,” said the guy in charge. Another ran up as Venus and I moved over. The driver heard everything and was getting out anyway, but this other one yanked him out, then to his feet as the guy fell.
I had a bad feeling about us being lined up.
“Come on, I’m a hero. We should be good,” Venus said.
“Uh huh. You stay put and keep your mouth shut while our consultant gets here,” said the Sarge.
The driver, whose hands were raised anyway, raised one a little higher. “They were walking by the side of the road. I was just giving someone a ride.”
“I bet you were. We take human trafficking very seriously.”
Venus tried to distract. “He picked us up within the state. There’s no way this falls under your jurisdiction. Why are you here instead of checking at the border. Any border, state or federal.”
“This looks like a job for ICE man, Mary Jane,” said the Sarge.
Altogether, I counted up nine of these guys. No, wait. Ten if you count the swaggering guy in the red and silver costume and a red domino mask. The fingerless black gloves didn’t quite match up. The matte-finished 1911s in hip holsters seemed especially un-super, and subtle for a guy in a costume. I got a match, though. Manhunter. Works a lot with the government because of his tracking powers. Literal tracking powers. DEA files state he can see a path people travel, able to follow it back to where they came from, or to where they’ve gone. They even have a pretty good idea how much he likes to skim off drug traffickers. The DEA has an equation to figure up people’s skimming from decades of experience.
Venus gestured to him. “Manhunter? It’s Venus, remember? We worked together that time. Tell these guys we’re legit.”
“I remember Venus,” he said, spitting some chew onto the road. “Total bitch. Accused me of pocketing evidence from a jewel theft.”
“Is this woman the superhero y’all are talking about?” asked Sarge.
“I’m not sure. She had a mask on. Emotions were running high from her false accusations. Messes with my memories.”
“I know how that feels,” I said. “Both the emotions and the memory issues. It’s like we’re oddly in sync.” I stepped toward him, transitioning from my hands up to curling fingers through my hair. “Hi, my name’s Tripura.”
“Somebody get this dirty Indian bitch away from me before I throw up. God, wash your cootch.” I stepped back into line as a couple of the guys advanced.
“I’ll have you know the formal term is Native American,” I said.
“You don’t look native. You don’t even smell human.” Manhunter pulled out one of his pistols and twirled it around. “You smell like a dead dog by the side of the road.”
Some of the ICE agents checked around. I got a bad feeling about all this.
“That reminds me of something…” I said, then looked over to Venus. “Hey, you still have those ear plugs in?”
“Ear plugs?” she asked, then reached for her ears. She stuck her fingers in there as I opened my mouth.
What I’d remembered was that frequency I so liked. I learned it from my imprisonment in The Cube, where it was used to induce paralysis in the human body. I figured out how to make my own enhanced vocal cords make that noise, and allow my own enhanced ears to block it out. I released a scream at that frequency and watched them fall. All of them, including our driver and Venus.
I ended it with a cough. “Now that I’ve cleared my throat, I think you’ll agree our papers are in order. So I’ll leave you guys to sleep this off.” I grabbed Venus and our driver, helped them into the back, and slid behind the driver’s seat. I cranked it up, looked at the ICE guys laying there in the road, and smiled. “Speed bump.”
I suppose I should feel bad. Not as bad as Manhunter felt when I drove over his crotch. “Oh wait,” I said to myself and put the car in reverse. I got out, stepped down onto Manhunter and another ICE agent, and began rifling through their pants for wallets. “Your money and your life. Oh, wait, you’re the guys who stopped us. Anyway…” I took the 1911s off the guy. Just in case.
Venus wasn’t happy with my little speed bump, but I didn’t get much of a chance to talk it over with her before the driver politely screamed at us to get out and leave him alone before he gets arrested for helping us. He was nice enough to drops us off in a suburb of the city where Venus insisted on separate rooms. Which got real contradictory when she called out to me asking “What the hell are you doing over there?”
“Jealous? Mmm, if you cleaned me off in that shower, then was as soft as this bed, you could help me make these noises, too.”
We were both interrupted by a concierge stopping by to bring the clothes I ordered. Manhunter skimmed on a lot more than drugs. He even had some gold teeth in there.
Venus didn’t talk to me much after that. A lot of bad history there, and I think she’s realized that even though I’m not me, I’m still me. But in the night, someone else did. The projection of the Denim Dude, the alien member of the Three Hares who has been helping me along as part of his own agenda. One moment he wants me caught, another he wants me out.
I heard “Wake up, Gecko,” and found him leering over me with the projection that looked human. “Good. I thought you should know the others have found you. They know Venus has you now. Now that everyone’s asleep, I wanted to let you know Centeotl’s got a plan. He’s genocidal at the best of times. Now, he wants to clear out the City of Angels and your girlfriend’s sad excuse for an X-Men school.”
“Is he here?” I asked, then yawned.
“Not yet, sweetheart.”
I sat up. “No rest for the wicked then. Good news is, if he’s paying attention to a city, he won’t see me coming.”
“He’s not even sure you are an enemy,” Denim Dude said.
I smiled. “Good. I’ll take a confused mass killer over one who knows to try and kill me any day.”
When I stepped out of the door, Denim Dude whistled. “Short shorts aren’t very tactical, are they?” Not even a comment on the plaid shirt? It’s literally a target on my back, and front, and sides underneath the extra arm holes.
I checked the pair of 1911s and slid them into the back pockets, which I’d cut the bottoms out of to better act as holsters. “Depends on the tactics. A shame we’re back to walkin’, but these boots were made for that. Now, I think I’ll have words with Centoetl.” And a big shame after all this running, I’m heading back just because a few million people’s lives are at stake. But, at least for now, I’m not as much like my real self as Venus thinks.
“Would any of those words be ‘die motherfucker, die?’” he asked with a smile.
“Eventually. But…” I looked back to the door of Venus’s room, where she slept, then off to the bright lights of Los Angeles even in the pre-dawn dark. “Probably anyone who knows the real me won’t fucking believe I’m doing this. But this guy’s definitely got the power to kill a whole city if he attacks.” Plus that debt I have to the Master Academy, not that I’d let Denim Dude in on that.
“Better follow the yellow brick road then,” Denim Dude said. He swept his arm out into the distance, a lighted path appearing in my view.
“Guess I’m the manhunter now,” I said as I started walking, picking a nice tune to accompany my journey toward that growing cloud in the distance that spread out and covered the air from the end of the path ahead of me. He was coming straight on, from the southeast, and at least I wouldn’t run into that particular group of assholes from ICE. I took out the guns and tried spinning them, familiarizing myself with the weight, sights, and mechanisms. And I spoke along to the music this time, so as not to drive off my guide. “A bullet is on its way. Tell the whole world that I’m comin’ home. Someone’s gonna need a grave.”
“How big is this state?” I asked, stretching my arms from the passenger seat.
“We’re in California now,” Venus said. “I took the long way around. Straight on, it wouldn’t take days to get to L.A. from Arizona.”
“Oh, ok. You sure you don’t want me to drive?” I asked, looking her over.
“Did you remember how to yet?” she asked.
I shrugged. “My muscle memory works pretty well. I know it’s getting to you. We keep taking more and more rest breaks.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I wanted to throw the person off our trail. You said he wasn’t omniscient, right?”
“I’d say they’re still only human, but I don’t know that for sure. They definitely aren’t all-knowing. For all their abilities, they don’t seem to utilize them to the fullest extent. I don’t know how many there are, but there are civilians, and then there are the ones doing things. A lot of them just want to live their lives. But they aren’t unified.”
“What do you mean?”
I searched my memory. “I don’t know if it’d help to have my memory back. But… I didn’t get too good a look at the visitors. Aliens, that is. They might just have their own agenda. Or maybe it’s that one who spok eto me. I didn’t see any hint of that with the alien doctor I met, and I probed her. I probed her good. Somehow, at least one of the aliens is working at cross purposes to the others, even has his own robots. He wanted me captured for some reason, but he also wants his allies killed, AND he made sure to release me. That was his doing. He’s playing some sort of game here.”
“You hungry?” Venus asked.
I nodded to her. “Yeah, actually. Thanks. I’m not picky, so wherever.” I waved off at the exit sign that would advertise gas stations and restaurants in most places, but had a single sign here. “And that other guy, Sam Teotl…”
“Centeotl?” she asked.
I looked at her. “Not the name I was given, but what’s that mean to you?”
“It’s the name of an Aztec god of maize,” she informed me. She glanced over to my questioning face and added, “I took a class on Pre-Columbian American history and culture. We have to get certified to teach students if we lead academic classes, and I thought it would be nice to learn about my heritage.”
“Neat. And it could be handy to know who we’re dealing with. I think… yeah, Conner said they don’t really name people after the old god names anymore, but I know they gave me a god’s name when they picked me up. So maybe they drug really powerful supers and convince them they’re gods. But at the same time, it seems like some of them know of older gods. And the ones I’ve seen with old names are really powerful. They don’t match with any known superheroes or villains in my database. A guy who can make an army turn on itself or a guy who can heal or cause injury with nothing but willpower, those types not being heard of?”
“Empowerment happens at all stages of life. Someone would have noticed them, but they sound like they’re good at covering things up.”
I shook my head. “Everything I’ve read from past-me leads me to believe that’s not as effective as you’d think.”
“Most people don’t know about Aztec gods. Limpieza de sangre. Simon de Bolivar. Histories left untold because they don’t involve English-speaking white guys,” she said.
“That information’s still out there,” I told her. “Most people just don’t notice.”
She took one hand off the wheel to snap her fingers and point at me. “Yes, and nobody listens to the people who know it and try to tell people. You don’t have to convince everyone to hide information. You have to make it beneath their notice.” She put that hand back on the wheel to turn us off onto an exit.
She swerved when she glanced at me. “Thanks?”
I didn’t know what she was getting at, so I told her, “Thank you very much? Good point. I’m not 100% right now and I hadn’t thought about that. I can’t remember if old me did either.”
“Wow. Just wow,” she said, glancing between me and the road.
“And I’m sorry,” I told her. “I just can’t put this all together, and I don’t even know if it’s because I forgot something or what. He could just… ya know… turn the crazy off and on. He’d just make a nonsense leap and make it work or try things and figure it out based on how the other people reacted. And hate people. And kill them.”
I put my feet up on the seat and wrapped my arms around them. Venus made an effort not to look at me as she turned into a lone diner. “Are you…?”
“I’m fine. I got a lot of thoughts bouncing around an empty head.”
“You want to talk about them?” she asked.
“Only the ones that are useful. You hate him and he’s me, so let’s stay off him.” I stole a glance at her face but couldn’t quite figure it out, so instead I went through eye choices. With a blink, my cyborg eyes looked like normal brown ones. I’d have hidden my arms, but I still had on the same damn dress. I probably stank, which is why I recommended a booth back away from the door and anyone else. The fact that the guy sitting in the bar stool was a cop didn’t help matters. I still don’t trust them; Venus, on the other hand, parked right next to the guy’s cruiser. I know he noticed us, or at least the smell coming off me, but he didn’t seem to react before he paid for his coffee and left.
Dinner was crappy eggs. I don’t have much room for experience, but they gave me gas almost the moment I laid eyes on them. I shoveled them down instead of talking. I think Venus was hoping for me to open up. A heart to heart between us ladies. I kept my mouth shut, up until I noticed Venus focusing on something out the window. I whipped my head back to see what was going on. The cop was still there, joined by another state trooper. The first was sitting at his car. The second was standing at his window, talking. He shot a glance toward the car, then toward us after the first trooper said something.
“We must have an APB out on us,” Venus ssaid.
“Centeotl had a cop corral to himself. It slows us down more than we already were slowed.”
“If I went the direct route, he’d catch us faster. You can’t fly out of Phoenix either. Maybe we should have risked Las Vegas after all. What are you doing with that toast?” she asked.
I finished sliding the buttered toast into my dress. “Might need these for later. I’ve been reading, and I seem to like improvised weaponry. You go out and flirt with them a bit. I’ll sneak up behind them on my hands and knees. You push them over me, and then I’ll knock them out with the bread.”
“How?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I dunno. My understanding is that I rarely know what I’m doing.”
“How about you stay here, take the toast out of your armpits, and finish eating? I’ll talk to them. They’ll understand.” Venus laid enough money out to pay for the meal and a tip, took a final sip, and went out to have a chat with the cops. She grabbed the door and opened it.
A colossal shape of green and yellow things collapsed on the cops and their cars in the rough shape of a bird. It roared through a beak of corn and collapsed into piles. I reached across the table to grab Venus’s toast, eating one slice and shoving the other under my dress.
Outside, the corn began to reform into humanoid shapes. Corn men.
“Gecko, any ideas?” Venus asked.
“That’s a-maizing!” I said.
“Fuck!” Venus said. The sentiment was echoed by the host, waitress, cook, and another couple of customers in the place.
We had a good seven corn men outside, fairly bulky. I checked the sky, though. I mean, a corn bird flew here? I don’t know enough about corn, but it can’t be a good substitute for wings and feathers. The only body parts it’s any good at are the ears. No more corn droppings were coming from birds in the sky,
Why just send a bird? I dunno. Will I be able to pop ’em? Dunno. How will butter factor into it? So far, it’s better than my critical lack of deodorant.
“We need weapons,” Venus said, looking around. “Anyone got a gun or a knife?”
“Could always use your teeth,” I suggested. “Turn ’em into a corn meal.”
“Not the time or place!” she yelled as the corn men broke into sprints toward the diner. One came for the door and got checked hard by Venus pushing it out as it impacted. Another came behind it and reached in for her, but she took its arm off by pulling the door closed. She kicked the arm away, the limb falling apart into unmoving cobs.
A pair crashed through the window on the other side of the door, toward her. She had her hands full with the door.
“Goose!” I yelled and ran at her. She figured out my meaning and dropped down to allow me to jump over her, planting a foot right through the body of the closest corn man. Corn soldier? The plant man had a shot at me, but instead it reached past me for Venus. I reached into my shirt with a couple hands and brought out bread. Finding me an obstruction, it reached to push me away or otherwise move me, but I caught the end of its cob hands with the buttery side of the bread.
“What are you doing?” Venus called from where she pulled the head of a corn man off.
“Assault and buttering!” I yelled back. Ok, I can totally get why I harassed her. Her groans bring a smile to my face.
Despite that, the corn guy reached for me and its “hands” slipped right off me. “I need a weapon! Quick, before it gets me in the corn hole!” I called out.
I reached all around and felt something slip into my hand. Three different hands pulled back different objects. A plate I smashed over the corn assailant’s head. A napkin holder I bashed into its chest. And, most useful, a heavy cast iron frying pan that I used to hit a home run with the ears that made up its head.
“You good, Gecko?” Venus asked. She was beating another corn cob guy with a cheap metal chair.
“I’m good, Venus. I really creamed that corn!” When she groaned again, I added, “You sound sick.”
“Don’t say i-”
“Maybe you should take something for your digestion?”
“Maybe some Pepto?”
She didn’t say anything, just beat the crap out of the corn, until I added, “Or some corn’ll clear you out!”
“There it is!” she yelled, taking one last bash that left both the chair and the corn a big, mangled mess.
And there it was for me as well, as I had the other one coming at me. I’d just neglected it because I’d been able to butter it up and leave it mostly harmless. I looked around as it struggled to punch me, moving so it slipped right off. I saw something over the counter that looked useful and pointed to the cowering chef. “You! Open that and prepare to set it on high!”
He opened the door for me as I reached all four hands into the corn man, grabbed hold, and tossed him over the counter, head first into the toaster oven. The coils heated up and soon the corn man was convulsing, its head popping.
“Corn soldiers? More like corn puffs,” I said. The cook, whose name tag read Jesus, wept.
“They’re holding back. Maybe you got the leader,” said Venus as she slammed the door against one’s neck repeatedly, finally popping it off and kicking the separate cobs apart.
“I don’t think so. These are just the soldiers, and who knows when their leader, the Colonel,” I said, catching my breath. Suddenly, all the corn started rattling and began rolling out of there to the remaining corn people. Venus barred the door, but it piled up and rolled out the broken window. Except for the popped stuff in the oven. That stayed put.
The corn out there formed up into a truck-sized feline shape. Venus pointed out at it in the parking lot. “Is that a jaguar?”
I stepped over beside her and looked. “My system says it’s an Audi.”
“The monster thing, jackass!” Venus said.
“Oh! Wouldn’t know. Ok folks,” I turned back to the other inhabitants, who the cook was ushering into the kitchen. “Oh, you’re ahead of me. Look, I’m sure there’s a back way out, so I advise all y’all to go out that way. And run. I don’t know what’s about to happen, but it’s not going to be pleasant to stay here!”
They all ran for it out into the flat, dusty desert of the Sonoran Desert. “In some ways you’re too much the same, but it’s nice to see you’ve changed,” Venus said, offering a thumbs-up of encouragement. “Now how do we take out this thing?”
The jaguar roared, somehow. It stalked forward slowly.
I raised an eyebrow. “Well war… war never changes. How about we lure it inside and blow it up?”
“Works for me,” Venus said. She hopped the counter to start screwing with the grill, stove, and oven, pulling gas lines out. With a crash, the jaguar body checked the cop cruiser to the side to make more room as it came closer. That’s… awfully strong for a bunch of plants.
I grabbed a bunch of silverware and tossed it in the microwave. I put it on high for twenty minutes, then turned and gave the jaguar a pair of middle fingers.
The jaguar ignored me, instead breaking through the window on the other side of the diner, closer to Venus, and headed for her, eyes fixed. It pounced, crashing into the grill when Venus dove for the side.
I grabbed her and threw her outside the diner, then hopped the counter to head after her. “Run, motherfucker, run!”
We got halfway across the parking lot, the jaguar’s roar following, when the building went up, followed by a shitload of popping and explosions that threw us to the pavement as the cars parked right in front went up too. Things whirled by, barely missing us, and my ears had to deafen slightly to avoid damage. When I looked up, I saw that of the two cars that weren’t close enough to blow, one of which was the additional cop cruiser, they didn’t weather the debris so well. A bar stool meant to be fixed to the floor was sticking out of the hood of the cop car. The other one, the Audi, had its tires shredded and a piece of wood sticking out embedded in in the front console.
“Oh, that’s right,” I said to myself, my hearing coming back. “I could have just shot it with a laser when we got close enough. Sorry, Venus, I’ve been a bit forgetful lately.”
I looked over at Venus, who looked around, then yelled at me, “Did you say something?!”
With no cars left driveable, Venus and I had the unfortunate task of gathering up whatever water we could find in Watergate containers we could find, and hitchhike. Well, slightly less unfortunate for me, as I got to walk alongside her, humming “A Horse With No Name” as we walked along the interstate. And poor little Venus walked along with me, resisting the urge to smash a scorched pitcher full of water over my head.
After the first hour of me singing to myself in my cell, the deputies of Ruby, Arizona seemed to treat it like a bit of a game. They weren’t listening, so they just had to put up with the complaints, screams really, of the prisoners in adjacent cells. They wanted to keep us separate after the whole “shooting up the bar and street” incident, but they weren’t opposed to verbal sniping and other ways of making us wear each other down. I think they underestimate my capacity to sing despite people not liking the song.
I read that I was bad at it, but I didn’t quite understand that until I heard the grown men on either side of me break down and weep. Eventually, they fetched me for interrogation. They sat me down in a little room with the mirror they can see through, and tried to ask me questions.
“Help us out here,” asked the deputy who brought me in. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and sat her hat off to the side so she could act like she was talking to me as a person instead of as my captor. “We don’t have any ID on you. That name you gave us, Tripura? Not in our system. Your fringerprints fucked with our system. Eah pair of fingers gave different results. Since I don’t have a real name for you, should I call you Tupac, Elvis, George Carlin, Asa Akira, or Lee Harvey Oswald?”
I set my elbows on the table and looked her in the eye. She had pretty eyes. “What about the others?”
“We didn’t check your second pair of hands. One of them doesn’t have enough fingers. I don’t know a lot about supers, but you don’t get new fingerprints when you get superpowers.”
“Honey,” I said, wiggling my eyebrows, “You wouldn’t believe what a super can do when she’s got this many fingers to work with.” I raised the three unmaimed hands to show off some jazz hands.
“Put those away before I handcuff them under your ass,” she said. “It takes more to seduce me than a pretty face and extra digits.”
“Like what?” I asked, running a finger over the tabletop in a spiral and pretending to care what she said. Women, am I right?
“A penis,” she said. “I doubt you can pull that off.”
I smiled. “Wouldn’t be the first penis I pulled off. So what you’re saying is, you’re looking for a threesome?”
She coughed. “Whatever I’m looking for, I don’t want it from you. Who are you?”
Something felt familiar in my mind. “What do you want?” I asked, wondering if that was it. Wasn’t that in my blog somewhere?
“I want to know you are,” she asserted.
“I’m the excuse you give when you cannot follow the rules,” I said, something about that seeming right too.
“That’s nice, but how about a name?”
“Tripura Sundari. That’s who I am right now.”
“Right now? How about who you are when you’re at home?” she asked, fidgeting.
“Any time, really, not just at home. I know that I used to be a pretty bad person. But without those memories, am I even the same person? My capability isn’t the same, but neither are my feelings. I think I hate fewer people, but I care about fewer people too. As the dust-up in the street shows, some things are still instinctual and necessary. And what kind of a place is it that a woman can need to know how to kill people just for stopping in town?” I turned from my ponderings to glare at her. Maybe the hate isn’t there, but the capability still is. The sense of injustice.
“They claim you fired first,” she said.
I burst out laughing, then stopped when I saw she had a straight face. “Uh huh. Without any guns, I fired first.”
“You were witnessed with the bartender’s shotgun and the sheriff’s revolver,” she said.
“Any witnesses saying how I got those?” I asked, settling back in the chair and crossing my legs.
“You clawed out the bartender’s throat, took the shotgun, shot the sheriff, then came out shooting.”
“At a bunch of people with guns who just so happened to have their rifles and machine guns on them that I’m pretty sure the bartender called there because he didn’t like my skin tone. And rather than shoot at me, with all my camo and bulletproof vest on,” I spread my arms to show off the dress, “they shot at the bar, somehow putting chemicals on the bartender’s hands to make it look as if he fired his shotgun.”
“That’s a claim we can investigate, but we would like your cooperation. We don’t even know your name.”
I leaned forward all conspiratorially and waved her in close. She humored me… some. She wasn’t getting too close to me. So I closed the rest of the distance suddenly and grabbed her by the lapel, pulling her toward me. I scowled at her and narrowed my eyes as they stared into hers. “I’m Batman!”
That’s as far as it went, but they did help themselves to a bit of brutality despite me letting her go. That’s why, when deputies went to lead me out, I accidentally knocked my head on someone’s baton behind me. Part of me wanted to take it off him and show him how to find the anal G-spot.Which is difficult, because I now don’t remember where it is. He got a couple hits in before I caught it and tossed it to the side. I stared “Kill me, or don’t bother hitting me in the first place.”
When they walked me back down to the cells, I noticed the guys on my way were gone. “What happened to the others? Medical aid? Bleeding eyes?”
The deputy closed the cell door on me, then informed me, “They made bail. Enjoy your stay.”
Another day, another night in jail. I figured it’d be useful to stay here until Venus finally showed up. Any minute now, I’m sure. I can make bail any time I want if it comes down to it. There’s a lot I don’t remember, but I figured out my laser eye. I even got some practice in that night, carving a message into the ceiling of the cell. “Brooks was here.”
My patience was rewarded the next day when I was woken up at the ass crack of 8 AM, when no reasonable person’s eyes should be open. “Wake up! Your lawyer’s here. God knows how he found you.” Another deputy led me up there, though this guy didn’t resort to a cheap shot with his baton to motivate me. Just a couple pairs of handcuffs.
The lawyer wasn’t who I was expecting. I had photos and video of Venus. A lot of photos and videos. I’m fairly certain I photoshopped some of these, too. One with Venus posing naked on a beach. One with Venus touching her toes to her head, also nude. One with Venus in a gang bang. One with Venus and a woman with a scaley skin condit- oh, nevermind, that’s probably from spying on her. But they weren’t all explicit, like this one with Venus in a wedding dress standing next to a picture of my old armor under an arch with lots of white and yellow flowers woven into it.
Anyway, I had pictures of her, and pictures of a lot of others associated with Master Academy. I didn’t recognize the dark-skinned guy with the long black hair and the grey suit and bolo tie. The original academy is still in California, so maybe they sent someone from there? Still bugged me though. I annoy Venus to death, but it sounds like she’s the only hero trusted with me. Whoever he was, the guy had seen some sort of action. He had this scar down the right side of his face. All the way, like down from the side of his forehead, through his eyebrow, down his cheek, and then stopping at the jaw line. He smiled as he saw me. “Good to see you again, Ms. Sundari. It’s alright, I’ll clear this up in no time.” He looked to the deputy who fetched me. “Where may we have a private conversation?”
We were shown to a private room off to the side. A nicer looking room than they use for interrogation. The table and chairs here weren’t the bare minimum of functionality. Once the door closed, the man turned to me. “Ready to go, Sundari?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
He whipped out a business card for me that named him as “Sam Teotl, Attorney at Law” with some interesting calligraphy on it that formed an embossed image of a three rabbits chasing each other around in a circle in such a way that they all had two ears even though there were only three separate ears.
The Three Hares had found me first.
He reached down and tore my handcuff chains apart. “Damn humanity. My parents and grandparents sacrificed for them, and this is how they repay us. I envy you for being able to live completely apart from them.”
“What about them?” I asked, nodding toward the cops.
“No human is worth one of us,” he said.
I saw something else out there, though. A bald man with a goatee with a bulge or two from the inside of his jacket. He had another man with him, grey-haired and grey-stubbled, holding a briefcase. I’d have thought they were Master Academy too, but Master Academy heroes don’t carry guns. Unless it’s a hero with gadgets, I suppose. Then the one with the briefcase turned his had while they talked to the desk sergeant and I caught a glimpse of a Nordic rune.
If they’re Master Academy, then I think Venus really picked the wrong pair to send to pick me up. The desk sergeant, desk deputy, whatever their rank the office’s secretary, he pointed back to the room I was in and said something to the deputy who brought me to the Hare.
“We’re made,” I told him.
He cracked his knuckles. “Let me handle this.” He stepped out of the room, asking them, “Is something the matter, gentlemen?”
I followed after, which prompted these two to nod to each other. The bald one pulled out his gun and aimed it at me while the one with the briefcase popped it open and struggled to pull something out. The bald guy didn’t get a chance to fire before he dropped the gun and grasped at his throat. A bunch of leaves sprouted from his mouth, then his body shuddered as more grew from his eyes and ears.
His friend dropped his case and his sawed-off shotgun before Sam Teotl blew something that looked like dust at his face. The man gasped and began to swell up like an allergic reaction on steroids. He turned to me, “Let’s go.” I stepped past both the newly-growing corn plant and the swelling man. I heard a cop shout for us to “Freeze!” but I think Sam handled him. I know he was a few steps behind me when I got outside.
Where I saw a tanned beauty with dark hair getting out of a car. She was in civilian clothes, but I’d seen parts of her she’d only shown to Psychsaur. Venus looked at my arms and asked, “Gecko?”
“Boopsie! Quick, we need to get the fuck out of here.” I heard gunshots behind me as Sam continued having his way with the deputies. I ran over and threw myself into the passenger seat. I’d reached over and got the engine running again before Venus was even fully inside.
“What’s going on in there?” she asked.
“Drive first, questions about the Hare guy who just tried to recapture me later!” I yelled.
I swear I could see a man step out of the sheriff’s office and stare at the back of the car before we lost sight of that part of town. At my insistence, Venus got us the fuck out of there and didn’t stop until we were halfway to Phoenix, which was supposedly the fastest way back to California. She was a little less compliant when the first thing I did after we stopped was grab her and hug.
“Was it really that bad?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you after the nanites,” I said, releasing a laugh of relief.
She took my hand and looked at it. “Can it wait until we get to the Academy?”
“It’s not my hand I need help with,” I told her.
She looked me over. “What’s wrong?”
Oh fuck it. Memory-me better be more right about loving her than he is about hating and distrusting her. “You know what Unity is, right?”
She nodded. “The drug that keeps people from remembering anything. The Claw used it.”
“The Three Hares used it on me,” I told her. “Part of my brain is on hard drive in there, and I have access to my blog, so-”
She recoiled, mouth open before responding. “You keep a blog? Troubleshooter never found it.”
“Not the time, Venus. I’m off my game without my memories, and we have a god after us.”
Despite numerous objections from Dame, I took a little bit of time to prepare. I had my reasons though. It wasn’t about annoying Dame. Well, it wasn’t ONLY about annoying Dame. There were a few factors, but what I decided was most important this time was fun. Sometimes, in this wild and hate-filled world of ours, you just wanna have fun. I am the right gender for it momentarily. Or sex. I think I kinda screw the words up a bit when I’m probably mentally a man who was physically male and made myself phenotypically female.
I’m proud of the fact that there are no words to describe me sometimes. In fact, some of my favorite times are when the best people can attempt are screams.
So when I was finally ready, I called up Dame. I know she has some sort of permanent residence around the city, but nobody ever wants to give an evil mastermind their home address. The spycams gave me a heads-up as she tried to fly through the floor of my room. For those who don’t remember, she possesses a gadget that allows her to become incorporeal with certain strange interactions with electricity. And with me, considering my abilities.
She flew through the floor and settled onto her feet in the outer suite. I burst through the door in full regalia, “Nice to see you!”
“I’d say the same, but I hate you. What the fuck is this?” Dame asked, pointing to my costume.
I twirled the spear in my arms and slammed the butt into the floor. “Fucking awesome, that’s what the fuck.”
“Are you sure this is the time to play games?” she asked.
“Lady, these events represent a paradigm shift that may very well change everything we know about our ways of life. For the entirety of the rest of human existence, it’s likely powers can be shut down. Anyone who can slip a collar on a super can stop them. We might as well have as much fun as we can while we still can. People have expectations of me. Glorious expectations. It’s sometimes nice to live up to them.”
“Should I ask where you got that thing?” she asked.
I shrugged my head to the side. “They have some sort of vegan thing going on here. It’s like some sort of symbol of these guys who eat beef.”
The old cathedral was still in service, a few hundred years not being particularly old in Europe. It had just let out its service when the strains of music began playing all over the city around it. High above the rising music, a figure stood in a black cloak and hat, face covered by a pale, grinning mask.
I kicked him off for blocking my view and took his place. The light glinted off the scales of my armor, the dome of my horned helmet, and even the pointy cones on my boobs. My robotic horse stepped up behind me, nuzzling my shoulder. “That’s right, Bot Stallion.”
“Are you done posing yet?” asked Dame from behind us.
The horse let out a whinny at my command. “Bot Stallion says hello,” I called back to her. Then I swung onto its back and raised my spear. “Havoc!” I let loose the drones of war, which rose and followed as I rode the horse off the side of the building. The Ride of the Valkyries roared out, heralding my arrival.
Bot Stallion shot our grapple lines that hauled us back against the side of the building. It cantered down the side of the building and jumped off before we smashed into pavement. Someone’s car broke its fall while keeping us moving forward, this time at the doors of the cathedral. The rockets on the horse kicked in then and hurtled me even faster toward the main part of the building.
I’m sure it had a formal name, probably ending in -tory or -cristy or something. I know what to call the door at least, which soon began a career in teaching reptiles martial arts after I broke through it on my robot rocket horse.
A priest stood there with hands raised. “What in God’s name is going on here?”
“I am Psycho Gecko. Gods have no place here,” I told him. The drones formed a circle around me and began flying after each other, lasers aimed downward and cutting deeper with each pass.
“What do you want from us?” the priest asked, clasping his hands.
I raised my spear and looked to the roof, catching a glimpse of the Three Hares symbol in a place of prominence where worshipers could easily see it. Then I threw the spear in between laser beams to impale the priest. “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da-!”
The floor dropping out from under me cut me off as the drones finished with this layer. That put me in the basement, with Dame floating around. Her skintight black suit was a tough darker than the shadows, but it was the glittery, crystalline mask and bracelet that really stood out. “Nice to see you finally,” she told me.
I got down off the horse as the drones joined us. “I’d say the same, but I hate you.”
She pointed up. “Was that really necessary?”
“Yes,” I told her. “But I’d rather not talk about it here. If you’re so confident in your quiet shortcuts, my dear, feel free to get us an invitation.”
She nodded and pressed something on her bracelet. She turned translucent and dove into the floor of the basement. She surfaced again, muttering to herself, then went swimming through the floor, looking for something. For my part, I started checking all the candelabras and torch holders attached to the walls, the older the better. “You wanna give up yet? I got plenty of laser. Not like the world’s running out of light yet.”
“Shut up,” she said from out of the floor.
“Actually read an interesting line in a book. Not a bad book, just not entirely profound. But they had this phrase I thought was pretty good.”
“I think I got it,” she said. She disappeared down below. Soon, I heard a click. I looked around to where an old candelabra bent into a wall. A five foot section of the wall around it popped back as well. I poked my head in and found myself looking at a winding staircase. It was at that point I began to regret already using the Phantom of the Opera theme song in my adventures. But it saved Dame from the ill-effects of my singing, so there’s that. Instead, I hummed the Tales From the Crypt theme. A line of laser drones followed faithfully while Bot Stallion took up guard mode in case the heavy construction blocked my ability to reach out to it.
“You’re not even trying to be quiet, are you?” asked Dame at the base of the stairs.
“That implies I’m avoiding a fight. Instead, this might just be an empty air raid shelter,” I looked around, finding this corridor to be fairly narrow. “Though…”
“An air raid shelter with that staircase?” she asked after checking up where I’d come. “And this sort of entrance.”
“Why can’t you suggest there are people here to kill more often?” I smiled at her and winked before skipping through the corridor.
Poor Dame floated through walls to catch up, “That’s not what I said.”
“It isn’t?” I aske,d playing at a frown. “Strange. That’s what I heard. Perhaps you have a speaking problem.”
She glared at me. “I’m not arguing with you. It only encourages you.”
I skipped along until we rounded a corner and I found myself looking at a larger gathering room. There were cheap plastic tables all about, like it was used for a large meeting or conference. Two things really stood out above all that. First was the door on the opposite side of the room, like someone stuck a regular house door on the dark stone of a cathedral. The second was a man reading a magazine who tossed it aside when he saw us and scrambled to his feet.
“Who are you?” He asked, holding out a cupped hand. I felt pain ripple through my belly and up my chest. It was like pressure, and something squeezing me all over. I felt like wheezing. Then it reached my head and I felt nauseous. I threw up, then collapsed back against the wall.
Dame bent down by me, then looked back up at the man. By this time, he’d pulled out a composite bow and plucked it, firing a bolt of light at Dame. She whirled rapidly into the wall that the lightbolt tore a chunk out of.
The bowman turned back to the room. “Time’s up! Go, go, go!” Then he looked at me, eyes lighting up. He stepped closer. “Who are you and your friend?” He looked me over.
When I caught him staring at the cones over my boobs, I asked, “You like my knockers?” The right boob popped open and a boxing glove popped out, smacking him in the face. I lifted myself so that when the left one fired off, it caught him in the balls. He bent over in front of me, giving me enough opportunity to say, “My eyes are up here.”
He stood back up, teeth clenched in anger. I pointed behind him, where the drones had gotten into formation, flying around in another circle, this time with lasers aimed at him. I’ll give him credit, the man took more photonic bukkake to the chest than most could, but he cut and ran. Or disappeared into a flash of light. I was hoping for sliced and diced super salsa, but I’ll take light-based teleporting.
When he seemed busy not being present, I went ahead and reached under my scale mail skirt for a regen nanite fix. Whatever this fucker did to me, I had them log it for later inspection. That was the position I found myself in when I saw a group of kids come running out of a side hall. Like eight of them. Five teens, a young boy still in single digits, and a pair who looked like they were twelve. They saw me, eyes wide, and all except one of the older boys ran for the door. He looked to me and raised his hands as if to do something too.
The drones took aim at him and his friends. “Stand down,” I said. The dizziness was still there, but I had enough strength to drag myself to my feet with the help of a wall. “Whoever you little shits are, you’re coming with me.”
“Or what?” asked the teen.
Dame poked her head out of the wall next to him, “Yeah, or what?”
The boy fell over one of the plastic tables. He got his feet under him and ran after the others, who were doing something to the door. They hauled it open, revealing a sunny area with tree branches swaying in a breeze.
I smiled and began to walk toward them. “Come here, kiddies. Come to Gecko!” I stumbled against a table though, so it was time to inject myself with more nanites. “Run and I’ll shoot you full of photons.”
“No,” Dame said, floating out in front of the drones. She punched a couple of them, disrupting the electronics and shutting them off. The others she stood in front of. “Not children.”
I was interrupted by hacking up blood from my internal injuries, so I didn’t press the point. Not too much. Not with how I was able to bounce a signal through the portal. Sure, GPS showed me in London and Istanbul at once. But it was specifically a location not on Dame’s list. It must have been nobody’s business but the Turks’.
The door didn’t stay open long. They rushed through with whatever they had on them, at which point I could roll onto the table. “Whew. That hurt. Go double check if you can about where that door leads. Or gimme a minute and I’ll do it.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. When she opened the thing, it was just stone wall. “It’s a portal.”
“They must be doing neat things with stolen Cape Diem technology,” I said. “And nasty things with whatever they put in me. Come on, let’s get out of here and leave cleanup to the cleaners.”
On our way out, I passed a team of Deep One Riccan soldiers on their way in to tag and bag everything. I needed the drones to help move myself out, but I recovered before Bot Stallion got us back to my hotel.
“Now can we finally talk about what that was about?” asked Dame, slipping off her bejeweled mask and tossing it to the side as I began to lose the valkyrie getup.
“Hunting. I don’t know who these guys are, which is just amazing. I can’t find anything in all my numerous stolen top secret files about these Three Hares, so they have done a phenomenal job staying under the radar. But they’ll know we know where they are based on these raids.” I sent text massages to Titan and Venus then, informing them that the Three Hares site was indeed connected. They had Dame’s list, too. “Or that I know, since I’ll be the one hitting up everything. And if they start to panic and move things around, we’ll know thanks to some friends.”
“Stop beating around the bush,” she said.
“But that’s what I’m doing. Beating around the bush and seeing what flies off. Seeing where it flies to. If they stay still, we might miss them.”
She crossed her arms. “Are you feeling alright?”
I shrugged and read the diagnosis from my nanites. “Surprisingly lucid considering I just fought off brain cancer. And lung cancer. Liver and prostate too. That guy gave me tumors. Literal fucking cancer. I’ll have to thank the bastard who did that to me with a bit of chemo therapy just for him next time I see him.”
“Next time?” Dame asked.
“This isn’t over yet. I’m still hunting wabbits.”
Yeah, this compartmentalization thing is done. As of now, Master Academy, Cape Diem, and Ricca are sharing resources. Maybe there are more moles. Me, I’m a risktaker like that. But I don’t think we have too many risks left to worry about. That long list of cities infected with this disease, those were some of the most populous cities on Earth. And my city, but I think they targeted us special. That’s why we were first. Don’t I just feel special?
We had a lot of things to do, including a bit of brainstorming while we dealt with the collar situation. We’d brought back Psychsaur and Max. It was a big happy reunion, except we had to figure out what happened.
Max and Psychsaur were both taken unaware, the collars slipped around their necks. And then they just couldn’t do what they do. Funhouse carried them through the portals. Titan sent a team to India to see about this other portal, by the way. Master Academy’s people have formally arrested the teen who worked with Funhouse too, figuring out what he knows and how much he had to do with it. He was the next logical choice. Besides, they’re heroes. They won’t be too rough on the boy.
Funhouse had transportation and fuel waiting. He didn’t have to stop until he got to that base. Venus went over some of the files taken from the base, but no other doomsday plans came to mind, so I sent it over to Dr. Creeper to have the Institute check it out.
It wasn’t much of a debriefing. I think Max got a longer one from Holly and Sam. But it led into a couple more things that needed doing. Now that we’d confirmed the power loss was linked to the collars, we needed to experiment with them. That’s why we gathered in the Institute of Science’s medical wing. We’d be able to scan the brain and the whole rest of a person’s anatomy under the influence of the collar, figure out what was going on.
Because here’s the thing… there isn’t supposed to be a way to do this. People have figured out workaround to counteract individual powers, if possible. They work too differently. That’s why they have to do stuff like locking me in prisons with nothing I can join with and no way my brain can get a signal out. Like the fucking Cube. I don’t know what they had to do to lock Spinetingler in there, but I know what it took to break the place and set him free. Now imagine if someone gifted like he is could be stopped by a simple, stupid collar.
There was a guy once with some ideas on this whole thing. A mad scientist teen once had ideas about a previously-unknown force that manifests itself by providing superpowers to people in various circumstances. He actually sent in papers to some scientific journals focusing on superhumanity, even theorizing about devices that could transfer these powers. Nobody knows what happened to him. If anyone’s got a device like that, they haven’t used it where anyone’s been able to find out.
Understandably, no one was willing to step up and have their powers taken away.
“I just got them back,” Max said. He yawned. “My powers are conditional compared to others here.” The doctors and scientists of the medical wing, including Dr. Smith, gathered around to watch us figure it out.
“I’m too large,” Titan said. He had a point. The collars we took off our friends were sized more for standard human necks. There’s variation, and then there’s trying to fit it around a log.
Venus pointed to herself, then to me. “Our powers are biology.”
“There are other supers, though,” Psychsaur pleaded. She looked to the doctors. Several nodded.
I raised all four of my hands. “I think we want to hide some of this from the general public. I can find someone else, and it’ll take a little bit more time, but we can do it. But how about I go ahead and put one on with you? You won’t be alone, ok?” I held my hand out for her. She took it. With one hand, I handed her a collar. With a third and fourth, I slipped the other around my own neck and forced it closed.
Everything went dark. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear anything, and my connection to the internet, networks, everything. I felt back for something to lean on. My chest ached. And my lower arms didn’t respond. Or feel.
“What’s wrong?” asked Venus. Someone grabbed onto me and held on.
“I can’t see, I can’t feel stuff. My lower arms aren’t working. For fuck’s fucking sake, I’m the guinea pig.”
Hands grabbed me and led me along to a table. There were plenty of excited mutterings I couldn’t hear entirely well, but I could still call out. “While I’m under, I need y’all to confirm the outbreak. Find out how far it’s spread.”
There’s a reason “battery” refers to both relentless testing and a crime where someone attacks you. Except the latter doesn’t necessarily involve so many needles being stuck into a person’s body. Making it worse, MRIs were explicitly off the table so long as I’m the person on the table. Though I guess the collar was always going to stop that one. Too much metal in my body. And lucky me, all those parts were no longer working so well, which is especially troublesome for a guy like myself with so many organs replaced. Or, in some cases, moved. I remember gasping awake, able to see and hear and circulate blood.
I was laying on a table, surrounded by doctors. “How do you feel, Empress?” asked one.
“It was like I was walking down a corridor to a bright light. And there was a light pole, and a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and a White Witch who had this androgynous look going on, but it kinda worked for her. She had this big rivalry with a lion going on, but that ended in a hurry once I taught her people about explosives and gunpowder. Are the tests done?”
“We managed a third of what we hoped to do before you began to code,” answered the doctor who had spoken.
“Wonderful,” I said, resting my head back to look straight up. “Well, I guess you better get it on me again. I can take it. Just do be careful not to keep it on too long.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Venus. I turned to see her wave at me with a collar. She slipped it around her own neck and locked it into place.
“I said I got it,” I told her.
She smiled a small, toothless smile. “Yeah, but now we know it works on whatever we are, I can do it without. It won’t kill me.”
I glared at her a bit, seeing as she’d was once again doing something to help me, possibly even save my life if someone screws up. But while something about her recognizing my vulnerability and helping me irked me, arguing the matter ran up against a principle I value far more. That is, saving my own ass. She was right. It’d work on her too. It’d even give more of a range of data if they repeated those tests that they’d done on me. And she didn’t have her heart in the wrong place or lose access to memories and cognitive thought processes when powerless. I took a deep breath and shrugged. “If you’re really so eager to be powerless around me, who am I to say you aren’t?”
She rolled her eyes, then walked over. I pushed myself up partially, but she leaned down as if to speak. Then she looked to the doctors. I did as well. They quickly scattered, finding better was to spend their time. Reading charts, polishing beakers, checking equipment. One fellow put on a stethoscope he used to check his own heartbeat. Then we looked at each other again and she told me, “Thank you.”
I cringed back a little. “Why?”
“For what you did for Psychsaur. For what you would have done if I didn’t speak up just now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Doing what someone has to shouldn’t be that big a deal to celebrate,” I muttered.
She grinned this time as she stepped back. I squinted at her. “What now?”
“This is something you have to do?”
I sighed and rolled out of bed. “’Someone has too, but if it’s you, then I’m getting out of here before people get any more wrong ideas.” I turned to one of the doctors and patted him on the shoulder. Pointing back at Venus, who laid down on a separate table, I said to him, “Make sure she gets a big needle, ok?”
I stuck around to see what was going on with the collar. I figured the rest of the team would call if they needed my help, but I stuck around to see what the hell happened to me under the collar. The nanites and other equipment gave us an interesting view of the brain’s reaction to the collar. It must have sent some sort of signal, or perhaps it was a reaction to the metal. One minute, her body attempted to physically meld to technology. With the collar on, the bacteria reacted in certain portions of the brain and cut off signals moving to and from that portion. Instead of acting to stop her body’s reaction at the point where it was acting, it was able to stop it at the brain.
The bacteria worked with the collars to stop people being able to do anything outside conventional human power. No homo machina powers. No extra arms, or telekinesis, or mad scientist brain… whatever. We need a greater range of test subjects to be sure, and preferably not homo machina, but this doesn’t look good.
That wasn’t the only stop on the road to fucked-up ville. After Venus’s tests, we went to find Dr. Smith, Titan, Psychsaur, and Max in the lobby command center. They had a full-on globe going on, with a shitload of red dots all over. “I was under the impression my proprietary nanites weren’t widely respected these days. It appears I’ve made too many assumptions.”
Titan spoke up, “That is the official story, but there are a number of reproductions of varying qualities. Some just reprogrammed your existing nanites to function differently. You don’t want to get a bad batch by some basement programmer who forgot to check the code.”
“Plus, a lot of people just still use your stuff,” Psychsaur said. “Look at Russia.”
“FIFA,” Titan said. “Everyone’s cheating.”
Max just slurped on a sports drink and poured in an energy drink.
“It has to be incomplete though,” I said. “But this is a lot, all over the world.”
“Everyone with nanites in them tests positive for the disease, everywhere,” Dr. Smith said.
“More bad news,” I said, waving my wrist toward the hologram projector. The globe moved to the side and images of mine and Venus’s brains came up, showing the bacteria’s suppression. “We figured out what the disease does. It makes the collars work. Someone figured out how to shut off our powers, and they spread half the method to the entire world before we figured out what was happening.”
The trail had fits of stopping and starting, but never for long. Never long enough for the guy who took Psychsaur and Max to sleep. They’d zipped over to India from the portal, but didn’t stop there. They managed to get from there into Pakistan in amazingly little time. When I showed it to Titan, shortly after he and Venus joined me on Ricca, he informed me Cape Diem didn’t have a base there. “They stole our portals. Maybe they built something to hack into our network. Either way, this is unacceptable.”
We’d set up at the residence. It wasn’t considered neutral ground the same way the Cape Diem compound was, but it was a hell of a lot more private and better protected, even with that new hole in the wall of the living room. Everything had mostly turned out ok from that event. Our assailant, the blonde multiplier, hadn’t gone after Qiang at all, and neither did she charge him with a knife or anything. I think I’m raising a girl smarter than I am, but it doesn’t make anyone feel any better about a home being partially blown up.
It was easier for us to coordinate and control information Each of our organizations’ are looking into the attack in their own way, chasing leads, studying bodies and wreckage. Well, the bodies are on my end. It’s a bit inefficient, but cross-organizational cooperation’s going to have to wait.
“They didn’t take anyone for you?” I asked Titan for confirmation.
He shook his head. “No. He killed someone. Hurt others.”
“He took knowledge from you, but he took our friends,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Venus said. “You said Max made a cure?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s just not enough, and it can’t be replicated.”
Venus paced around the office, looking at the monitors of our setup. “Psychsaur found him. Her powers let her do that. He avoided her until he was ready to do this.”
I looked between them. “I thought Psychsaur was supposed to cover Cape Diem first?”
Titan nodded to Venus, “She convinced me otherwise. It’s a good thing, too.”
“How’s that?” Venus asked.
Titan scratched his chin. “If she was at Cape Diem when this happened, the mole at Master Academy wouldn’t have been exposed.”
“Do we know who he is?” I asked. “Because on my end, he was just Funhouse the Clown, aka Ricardo Milhouse.”
Venus said, “He told us he found out his little brother had superpowers and was fighting crime at night. He was concerned and wanted him trained. He told us his name was Rick Houser. He brought a kid in. God, we had to lock up a teen to find out how deep he’s into this.”
“Richard Milford Holmes,” said Titan, tapping away at the computer and bringing up some of the Cape Diem files. “Twenty-eight. No powers, but a lot of enthusiasm to join us. He’s shown an eagerness to do the shit work even when offered duties more in line with what we expect. A lot of people join up to do something grand to help the world. It’s a good attitude, there’s a lot of more ugly work to it than people want. Except him. He was staying under the radar the entire time. Ten months.” He glared down at the table. Venus patted his arm.
“He hasn’t stopped at all until now,” I pointed out, bringing up the map where they’d finally been stopped. “So maybe he’s where he needs to go, or it’s a trap. A trap would be a bad idea for them.”
“Unless they take our powers with that collar,” Titan reminded us.
That was when Venus walked over to stand beside me. “What powers? This is all training and equipment.”
Venus and I had to take a moment to suit up, each of us in bulky armor. Hers was her current generation of power armor with the face taken up mostly by a golden chrome visor. Mine was based on the suit I’d stolen from her future version, but with additional armor plating and strength-enhancing pseudomuscles added to resemble my heavy armor. I was just as agile as ever, in armor far more durable. After all, nobody said the added armor plates couldn’t be the same material as the less-bulky version.
Titan remained his giant blue and orange self, with a pair of wings sticking out the back of his Cape Diem uniform.
On our way out, I gave Qiang a hug, smiled at Silver Shark checking on a burn along her arm, and politely squeezed by Sam and Holly trying to bar our way. “’Scuse me, gotta go save Mix N’Max, just the three of us, no additional help involved.” I picked up Sam with both sets of arms and set her to the side. I turned to find Holly taking her place, so I skipped around her.
“We’re coming!” Sam called after me as I pushed through the doors. Titan and Venus followed, with Max’s assistants coming after.
“You two aren’t villains,” I called back as we walked to a Psycho Flyer parked in front of the palace.
“You don’t know what he means to us!” called Holly.
“Do you trust them?” Titan asked me.
“They’re loyal to Max above all else. They’d never see him harmed or kidnapped in any way,” I answered. “But I doubt they have anything to bring to the table on this other than potential hostages if things go wrong.” I stopped to look at the assistants. “Leave this to us.”
“We are not useless,” Sam said. She pulled out a glass bottle with a simple oval label and “The Cure” written in Max’s handwriting. “Take us or we destroy it.”
I looked up the ramp of the flyer where Titan and Venus had stopped. They looked to me, eyebrows raised. Well, I assume Venus’s were raised under the helmet. I pointed to Sam and Holly. “Nothing about them threatening the cure?”
“It’s your aircraft,” Titan pointed out.
“I’m not saving your asses if you get in trouble,” I said, turning and walking up the ramp. I heard them clatter along after me.
They probably would have regretted it if they knew the flight was so long. I had the flyer loaded up for it, though. Toilets, toiletries, an in-flight meal, and a selection of movies to watch.
“Air Force One, Airplane!, Sully… what are you trying to tell us here, Gecko?” asked Holly as she stepped up into the cockpit.
I created a pair of holographic sunglasses in my lower right arm. “I think my meaning should be quite…” I lifted the hologram into place where my eyes would be through my helmet. “…plane to see.”
“Oh god, I’m going to be sick,” Holly called out from the back of the flyer.
“It wasn’t that bad!” I called back.
Sam winced and looked back. “I better get to her. Flying can be iffy for her.”
I shrugged as she left. “It was y ‘all’s decision to come.”
When we got to where we were going, the nanites indicated that Max and Psychsaur were still there. And where we were going turned out to be a small, decrepit Buddhist temple on top of a hill. I invited Venus and Titan into the cockpit to look down on it. “That’s a pretty cunning way to hide a lair,” I told them. “Anyone who breaks in looks like their sacrilegious. On the plus side, we have plenty of room if there are any religious artifacts left. Gold, sufficiently old stonework, even bones will do.”
“We’re here for your friends, not bones,” rumbled Titan. “I guess you better get in there since you’re the quietest somehow.”
“Okily dokily.” I stood up from the controls and the flyer dropped for like half a second. In the back, Holly vomited. I hope paper bags were involved.
“You fucking psycho!”
The reactions I get. I held up my hands. “It’s fine. I got it remotely anyway. Just decided that if y’all are going to ask the guy flying the thing to get off it, shit might happen.”
“You could land,” Venus growled.
“I’d rather not risk being stranded in Pakistan. Nobody should.”
I landed harder than is preferred for stealth, but at least I was invisible. When I got to the door to the place, I found was in better shape than its appearance would lead people to believe. A quick scan through multiple spectrums didn’t reveal anything. No lasers, no wires, any of that.
I called down a quartet of drones from the trapdoor of the Psycho Flyer. They assembled on their way down, forming a platform big and strong enough to hold me in the heavier armor. I hopped on top as it passed through the doorway. I wasn’t going to get caught by pressure plates this time.
I had a line open to the Flyer cockpit, Venus, and Titan, so it wasn’t long before I heard Venus ask, “Found anything yet?”
“Lots of wood and tiles. Not even any valuables. Not one piece of art, either, except this little thing.” I spotted this decoration built into the base of the altar. Three rabbits, two running one way in a circle, the third another. But that was because the third one was broken, flipped around. There weren’t even any other doors anywhere. No way down to a hidden basement. So I flipped the third rabbit around and clicked it into place.
Behind me, tiles slid out of place along the floor, revealing a circular stairwell down that had to be hell to get hostages down. It also had no room for flying. “I got a way down. Go ahead and get down here. I don’t see anything up top. Y’all should be able to hop or fly to the stairs.”
I headed down and found my way through a rusty metal door, and from there to a circular room with a floor made up of rounded stones. There, I saw a quartet of dead Funhouse. No sign of Max or Psychsaur. But there were two other corridors from there. It was easier to figure out where to go when I heard retching. It’s been a vomit kind of day. “Funhouse was dead when I got here. I think I hear someone. Going to see if I find our peeps.”
I snuck my way on down the corridor when I heard Titan and Venus behind me, coughing. “What’s that smell?” Titan asked.
“They’re discolored,” Venus said from back there, too.
I found Max and Psychsaur locked in a pair of old time cells. Stone walls, a barred door, and a whole lot of hacking going on. I dropped the hologram. “Hey guys. Here I come to save the day.”
“Gas,” Max hacked up. “They killed him.”
Psychsaur added, “It got here.”
I pulled out a couple of syringes. “Venus, got a couple patients here. Some sort of poisoning. If y’all are still alive, I’m guessing it’s dispersed and stuff.” Metal bars and all, it wasn’t even a matter of hacking. I tore the lock off Max’s cell. The alarm started up then.
“I got activity down this corridor!” Titan called out. Then, the world blew the fuck up. But we didn’t go with it. There was a booming roar that tried to kill my eardrums. It got hot as fuck. Wasn’t as bright as I expected. After everything settled to mere shaking, I popped open Psychsaur’s cell, too, and grabbed them up. It’s a lot easier carrying people with extra arms.
I found Venus in the middle chamber, where a pedestal now stood in the center. Titan barred access to the other corridor almost completely. He stepped away slowly, grimacing “Any bomb you can walk away from is a good bomb.”
“You good?” I asked.
He nodded. “I’ve taken bigger.”
I nodded toward Venus. “That’s what she said.”
“She is busy downloading files off this computer while it self-deletes,” Venus said, a USB from her suit plugged into something on the pedestal.
All in all, a successful rescue. We got our friends. We got the collars off without damaging them overly much. And we got some files to sift through about what we’re dealing with, starting with the final message left in the system from a voice that sounded like dozens overlaid on one another.
“We had greater plans for you. You were to observe and report only. You are one piece of a vast apparatus. Our plan could never be stopped by one man with a cure. Ricca was the first, followed by Moscow, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Empyreal City. All within the first week. Thank you for listening obediently while the gas circulates. Your obedience is no longer required. You are no longer a piece in our apparatus.”